First Printing Press at Nagercoil and Dawn of the Literates

in Society / Cover Story

The installation of the First Printing press in Nagercoil on April 1, 1921 is a bookmark in the annals of Travancore/Kanyakumari History. Here we take you back in time to trace the times before it and the impact of it on the generations after it.

March 2018. Nagercoil. From Valluvar to Aaviaar & from Ponneelan to David Davidar, Kanyakumari Disrtict has produced some of the brightest gems of Tamil & English literature. In all probability, Kanyakumari District would be 100% literate by the time the 2021 census is released. Now in the Q1 of 2018, we already might have achieved the magic number. It took us 200 years to crawl our way back to the destined 100%literacy, which before now might have been a probability during the Sangam Age.

Who or what got us there? How could we do it again, when other districts are far behind is a research worth many thousand pages, in which we will not indulge now? Awarded researches, on the Educational Achievements of Kanyakumari District, point to one time period & event - the advent of the Missionaries that triggered the start of mass education in Travancore, which was converted to a promise with missionary zeal, that we now have reasons to “feel proud as a district with the highest density of literates in India.”

Travancore in the 19 th Century:-

Before the British & Dane Missionaries arrived, education in nineteenth century Travancore was imparted through Sabha Matts under Brahmin Gurus for Brahmin children, Ezhuthu pallis under Ezhuthachans, which accounted for educating the Nairs, and Kalaris under Kurup or Gurukkal for physical training. Some of the wealthy individuals tutored their children at home, with the tutor visiting them.

But the scope of this system of education was limited to the children of the Royals, temple workers, courtesans and to those from other higher castes. Even within the higher castes, not all, but a hand full of Royal women had access to Education.

Among the commoners, those that were denied education were in majority, most of them, slaves good only to work in the fields and labour for their masters. Their lives were spent in servitude & sacrifice only to satisfy the whims & fancies of the high caste masters. Education was a taboo for them as they were not required to “think,” which their masters did for them. All they were permitted to do was to obey. Such was the scene when the missionaries set foot in Travancore, made possible by the London Missionary Service (LMS) in 1803.

The advent of Printing Press as a Mission Asset:-

Towards the end of the 18 th century, most of the foreign missions in India started installing printing press in all the major mission fields they occupied, for their own needs & for the “propagation of the good seed.” The English East India Company introduced the printing press in Bombay as early as 1674. In a few years time, the Madras Presidency had started printing too. But the first Printing Press established in Travancore came to Nagercoil Mission only in 1820 and in Rev. Mead’s own words, “to be utilized as a valuable appendage to missionary work of London Mission Society.”

William Tobias Ringletaube, the first Protestant (LMS) Missionary to South Travancore was followed by Rev. Charles Mead, who was a total contrast to the outgoing mild mannered & often sickly, Rev. Ringletaube. As soon as he took over charge of the Nagercoil Mission, Mead started a commercial school in Nagercoil in 1820. Here, a handful of students from the lowest levels of the society were trained in the processes of printing, book binding, leather making, paper making, weaving, silk worm rearing etc so that they could buy their way to freedom by learning a new trade, that was much in demand during those times. The first trained local students were Mr. Samathanam, Isac, Christian and Yesudian.

Mead realized that education & awareness was the need of the hour, and so, a Printing Press to propagate his ideas became an immediate necessity for the furtherance of the mission. Hence, Mead informed the Home Board of the L.M.S about the urgent need for a press in South Travancore. The Home Board accordingly sought ways and means to procure a printing press with the help of the "Religious Tract Society" of London in 1820.

In the meanwhile, Mead's visit to Tanjore enabled him to get a press and types for both English and Tamil from the Tranquebar Mission. His search for a space to house the Printing Machine & the people got nowhere, so he set up the press in his own house at Nagercoil with the help of trained printer and binder David Aathiappan from Tranquebar, who was deputed to the Nagercoil Mission on request. The Press became fully operational in a few months time. David Aathiappan, was later appointed as Trainer at the Vocational Training School which imparted a course in Printing and Book Binding.

The Religious Tract Society of London was much impressed with the progress of Mead's Printing Press at Nagercoil and came forward with a grant of 20f worth of paper every year free of cost, which was doubled in due course. Beside this, Mead got exemption from the Travancore Government for importing paper free of import levies. The first book printed in the Nagercoil Mission Press was titles "Atmabodham or the Souls Instructor." The rest, as they say, is History. According to Mead, “the press was a valuable but necessary appendage to a missionary establishment.” This was the first and the largest printing press in Travancore of that time.

The Nagercoil Press on its Mission:-

In 1836, Swati Tirunal brought into effect, a new code of regulation for the State and it was printed at the Kottayam Mission Press, set up by Rev. Bailis, three years after the Nagercoil Mission. In 1838, the Travancore Government set up the first Govt, Printing Press under Samathanam Maistry who was from among the first batch of students trained in the Nagercoil Mission Press. Yesudian, another from the first batch was appointed as supervisor of the L.M.S press, Nagercoil.

The Nagercoil Mission printed religious books as well as lessons for the Tamil Schools they had just constituted. Pamphlets published early on by the Nagercoil Mission Press elaborating the advantage of female education exhorted the higher caste parents to send their girl children to schools. Remember, while the Nagercoil Mission had started printing on paper by 1821, the Govt. of Travancore was still issuing its notices through the age old way of writing on Palm leaf.

In 1828 when the mission was divided into Nagercoil and Neyyoor mission stations Mead started another press at Neyyoor. But later it was amalgamated with the Nagercoil press when Mead left the Mission. Throughout their stay in Nagercoil, the Nagercoil Mission Press was supervised by the European missionaries. Missionaries who headed the Nagercoil Press starts with Mead followed by Charles Mault, Rev. John Joll Dennis, John Owen, White House, Duthie, Parkar and Estaff.

Rev. John Joll Dennis, an expert Printer served as manager from 1856 to 1864. He turned the press into a highly profitable venture in Travancore. Books were bound with leather or cloth. Continuous stream of in-house & sourced orders followed keeping the printers busy. Monthly magazines like "Desopakari", "Mission School Magazine", "Missionary Cleaner" and "Christian Messenger" were printed here.

The annual report of the missionaries in South Travancore was printed in English. Another magazine, South Travancore Suvisesha Thuthikai, brought out in 1863 was also printed in this press. New Testament, Stories, Tamil first book, Elementary Geography and religious tracts were printed in the Mission Press Nagercoil.

Expansion of the Press reach & Accomplishment of Mission:-

The work of editing monthly magazines and quarterlies was happily shouldered by the Missionaries and their wives. The Press workers gladly undertook the work with great zest. John Joll Dennis handed over charge of the Press to Rev. Duthie in 1864. Rev. Baylis, who was instrumental in setting up the first Printing Press in Kotayam in 1824, was with the Nagercoil Mission from the beginning of July to the end of December 1871.

Swathi Thirunal’s brother Uthradam Thirunal is who known to have shown great interest in the Govt. Press, appointed Rev. C. Mead as Superintendent of Government Press in 1863, and through his efforts the stock of printing machine and types received considerable additions.

In 1877 Samuel, Evangelist of the Nagercoil Home Church, was appointed as the First Native writer of the press. When he quit the Mission to take a job in the State Irrigation Department, Jebagnanam became the Native Writer. In 1884 the Mission employed thirteen new men in the press while Jebagnanam continued as writer. The publications covered all of Travancore and was widely circulated throughout Tamil Country. The Nagercoil Mission Press made 3 million impressions in the year 1899.

Rev. Estaff was the last European missionary to serve as manager of the press. After him Indians came to administer the press, of whom Charles M. Ambrose was the first native manager. He took charge from Eastaff in 1949. After him V. Rajaiah, Joshen Thomas L.P.T., V.D. Sahayam and Joseph Cabriel acted as managers of the press.

There were, at the beginning of 1905, 28 private presses in Travancore and their a few in Nagercoil too:-

   1. Cantonment … Keralodayam Press.
   2. Do. … Western Star Press.
   3. Puttanchanta … Malabar Mail Press.
   4. Do. … Shunmukavilasam Press.
   5. Attakulangara … Saraswathivilasam Press.
   6. Chalai … Subodhini Press.
   7. Palavangadi … Bhaskara Press.
   8. Tampanur … Lakshmi Vilasam.
   9. Seevali Mukku … Akshara Vilasam.
   10. Kunnikuzhi … Prabhakaram.
   11. Tampanur … Subhashini Press.
   12. Mannanam … St. Joseph’s Press.
   13. Kottayam … Church Mission Press.
   14. Do. … Cananaya Pradipika
   15. The Malankara Edavaga

Patrika Syrian Seminary. In Govindapuram Kara … Mar Thomas Press.

   16. Kottayam … Malayala Manorama Press.
   17. Do. … Malabar Daily News.
   18. Alleppy …
   19. Do. … Santa Cruz.
   20. Pallithotem … Chenthar Press.
   21. Paravur … Saraswathivilasam Press.
   22. Do. … Kerala Booshanam Press.
   23. Eravipuram … Varnaprakasam Press.
   24. Nagercoil … London Mission Press.
   25. Devasagaya Street,

Nagercoil … Victoria Press.

   26. Kuruntheru … Agastiar Vilasam.
   27. Nagercoil … Nanchinesan.
   28. Muvattupuzha … Keraleeya Ranjini Press.

The Travancore Times and the Sambavar Nesan were published at Nagercoil. The Malayala Manorama, The Malayali, The Parasuraman, The Western Star, TheNazrani Deepika and the Kerala Taraka were the most important among the early papers in Travancore.

As Mead set up the press in his own Bunglow, the Nagercoil Mission Press functioned in the old Scott Christian College Campus (now WCC Campus) and later it was shifted to the present location on 16.06.1967. The L.M.S. press is now called the Diocesan Press, Nagercoil.

The Mission, 100 years later

In 1921 the Mission Press Nagercoil celebrated its Centenary under the management of Rev. Parker. The Christian missionaries initiated the dispersal of Western knowledge, first for the women Royals of Travancore and then to all others, including the slaves. As the Royals of Travancore understood that education would be mutually profitable for all in realizing the idea of modern State, it provided land & funds to the to the missionaries to promote education in South Travancore.

The printing press paved way for education to penetrate into the lowest strata of society in South Travancore as early as 1820 bringing with it the potential to raise the lowest of slaves to a higher level in the society, which they had been denied for centuries. Education was the key to freedom and liberation from their own wretchedness; a break from the curse of slavery imposed on them. Education gave the lowest of slaves a chance to dream again, to set foot in offices of administration, to find better jobs even if it meant working for their slave masters and even expect to be paid for it. By and large this missionary enterprise made education a common man's affair and shook off caste monopoly. From then, to the 100% Literates (on paper!), haven’t we come a long, long way!

More about Rev. Charles Mead – the Father of the Printed Word in KK

Beyond his role as the Missionary, he also exhibited qualities of an able educator, tireless builder, economist beyond his time and social reformer of the highest order. Mead, who turned out to be a dynamic, multi-dimensional leader of the masses. He exhibited unlimited élan for the endeavors he undertook and had them accomplished in all perfection. Nothing seemed too difficult for him; a character manifest by his blind faith in Christ & his vision of equality.

He also started a bazaar school, an industrial school and was the architect of Nagercoil Seminary of the L.M.S. Swati Thirunal Maharaja, the then king of Travancore, after visiting the Nagercoil Seminary of the L.M.S., invited John Roberts, the Head Master of the Seminary, to start an English School at Trivandrum. It later came to be known as ‘Raja’s Free School’. This school developed into a college and V.Nagam Aiya, the historian, civil servant and chronicler of Travancore, was the first graduate from this college. The Prinitng Press at Nagercoil was one of Rev. Mead’s biggest contribution to the community he loved and served. But for most of us, he is not even part of our memory. Perhaps, we all lack in Local History, because it wasn’t part of our syllabic educational upbringing and has remained partially written and drastically forgotten. After all, we have no time to look back now!

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