Print and missionary networks in early 19th-century South and South-East Asia
In my recent investigations of the history of printing and publishing in colonial Bengal, I have been increasingly persuaded that a new methodology needs to be deployed in order to compose a narrative of what may provisionally be called the ‘missionary nation’. As is well known, the Baptist missionaries took the lead in printing in the Bengali language in the early 19th century, from their mission post in Danish-controlled Serampore. But the Mission Press soon grew to supply a market which extended from Afghanistan in the west to Sumatra and Java in the east, in the process ramifying over much of south and south-east Asia. According to an oft-quoted statistic, between 1800 and 1832, the Mission Press printed 212,000 different items of print in as many as 40 languages, for most of which they cast font themselves. It is not possible to accommodate such a history within the parameters of the nation-state, nor can it be configured in terms of the colonial project. Missionary enterprise in south Asia often went against the grain of the colonizing impulse: in the case of Bengal, for instance, the East India Company expressly forbade missionaries from proselytizing on Company-controlled territory.
How, then, may one compose the print network set up by the missionaries? How was it sustained? Who were the personnel who participated in this network? How may their movement, individually and severally, across oceans and state borders, be measured? The proposed project seeks to engage these questions by considering the cases of two Baptist societies—one in Serampore and one in Calcutta—in the first half of the 19th century.
Abhijit Gupta is a Visiting Fellow at CRASSH, Lent 2013.
He has been Associate Professor of English at Jadavpur University since 2005. He was awarded his PhD from the University of Cambridge in1996. His publications include New Word Order: Essays in Transnational History of the Book, Ed., with Swapan Chakravorty (Calcutta: Worldview, 2011) and Moveable Type: Book History in India , Ed., with Swapan Chakravorty (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2008).