The Serampore Mission Press was perhaps the most important, impressive and influential printing house in India during the first half of the 19th century. It was founded in January 1800 by the English Protestant missionaries William Carey (1761- 1834), who was astoundingly gifted at learning Asian languages, and William Ward (1769–1823), an incredibly skilled master of printing technology. They were soon joined by Joshua Marshman (1768 – 1837), a missionary was as gifted a translator as Carey.
The Serampore Press’s objective was to publish religious and educational works in vernacular Asian languages to aid missionary activities and the general knowledge and literacy of the public. As the British East India Company, which then ruled most of India, strongly discouraged (although did not ban) missionary activities, Carey decided to set up the press in Serampore, a small Danish colonial enclave in Bengal, just north of Calcutta. The Danes were heartily in favour of Protestant missionary activities and their publishing endeavours. Notably, during the early 18th century, they had supported the German missionary Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg’s groundbreaking Tamil language press in their colony of Tranquebar (today Tharangambadi, Tamil Nadu).
Carey, Marshman and Ward, and their carefully recruited employees, were incredibly driven and productive. Cary and Marshman headed up the translation teams, while Ward custom cut the typefaces for the characters of dozens of languages. While their translations of Christian texts and European textbooks were often far from perfect, they were stellar considering the time and resources available for such herculean tasks, and were generally much better than anything that had been attempted before.
It is estimated that between 1800 and 1832, the Serampore Press produced 212,000 units of books in almost 50 languages (38 of which had been translated by Carey, Marchman and his associates). Their first Bible, in Bengali, was issued in 1804, with editions soon following in Ooriya, Hindustani and Sanskrit. In total, the press produced 117 different editions of the Bible in all their chosen languages, using the custom typefaces made by the Ward and his team (who from 1809 had the benefit of thier own small steam-powered paper mill).
In 1818, Carey founded Serampore College, a post-secondary educational institution that still operates to this day. Sadly, the Serampore Press was closed n 1837, due to the deaths of Carey and Marshman (in 1834 and 1837 respectively) and a lack of funds, with its employees and equipment being rolled up into the operations of the Calcutta Baptist Mission Press.
The Serampore Press had a major and enduring legacy, as, in many cases its works were the first major books printed in certain languages, and so played a key role in establishing how these languages would be henceforth written and published. The press’s products also did much to encourage literacy in countless communities, as well as helping Europeans in Asia to learn local languages. The Serampore Press’s works’ cultural importance, the elegance of Ward’s fonts, and their great rarity has ensured that they are today amongst the most desirable of all Indian colonial imprints.
Early Bible Translations and Printing in Telugu
Telugu (archaically referred to in English as ‘Telinga’ and ‘Teloogoo’) is the most widely spoken member of the Dravidian language family, spoken by over 100 million people, centered in what is today the southern Indian states of Telangana (containing Hyderabad) and Andhra Pradesh.
Benjamin Schultze (1689-1760), a Germany missionary who was a former acolyte of Ziebenbalg in Tranquebar, was responsible for making the first translation of the Bible into Telugu, completing the New Testament in 1727 and the Old Testament in 1732. However, regrettably, these works were never published.
The first printed text in the Telugu language was in the form of a short advertisement in the April 1, 1802 edition of The Government Gazette of Madras, which was composed in a very poorly made typeface.
In 1805, the Serampore Mission Press turned its attention to translating the Bible into Telugu, completing the manuscripts for both the New and Old Testaments by 1809. Tragically, however, in 1812, a massive fire consumed much the press’s premises, destroying the only copy of the Telugu biblical manuscript, along with countless other works, plus, 1,200 reams of paper. While, fortunately, the printing press survived, the damage was awesome, amounting to over 70,000 Rupees, not the mention the incalculable loss of intellectual capital. However, in the wake of the conflagration, the Serampore team rebuilt with amazing speed. They remade their Telugu translations, producing William Carey’s A Grammar of the Telinga Language (Serampore, 1814).
Finally, late in 1818, they published the compete New Testament in Telugu. Regrettably though, they were beaten to the punch for issuing the first printed New Testament in Telegu by the endeavour backed by the London Missionary Society based in Visakhapatnam, led by Edward Pritchett, which published The New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, translated from the original Greek into Teloogoo, 2 vols. (Madras: William Urquhart, at the Commercial Press, 1818). While debate ensured as to which edition was the better translation, the Serampore New Testament, which employed Ward’s Telugu fonts, was printed in a dramatically more elegant manner, and proved to be the more influential, being widely read and copied for many years.
The Present Work in Focus
Late in 1821, the Serampore Mission Press issued the first Old Testament printed in Telugu, containing all five books the Pentateuch, employing Ward’s elegant, sharp typeface. Critically, like many houses publishing Bibles in colonial environments, the Serampore Press released ‘offprints’ of some of the books of the Bible, as they became available, before the complete work was finished. Sometimes they also continued to release such off-prints even after the complete testament was published, as theses sections were standalone coherent works in and of themselves. Complete Bibles were very expensive and bulky, and so it was often desirable to have just one book for the purposes of religious instruction and language studies. When combined with the Serampore edition of the New Testament, it bore the English language title page The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments: translated from the originals into the Telinga language.
In the present instance, we have an example of the complete ‘Book of Numbers’, seemingly an offprint of the Serampore Old Testament (1821). While technically just a fragment of work, with it pagination running from pages 111 to 202 (so 112 pp.), its form, being untrimmed and unopened, bearing a period manuscript English translation of the title, “Numbers in Telloogoo”, plus, featuring the manuscript inscription “For the Socy of Inquiry Madison U. / S.S. Day Missionary Aug. 1848”, suggests the it is indeed an offprint, issued by the Serampore Press ‘as is’.
All products of the Serampore Mission Press are today very to extremely rare, as many were issued in only limited print runs, while the survival rate of early 19th century Indian imprints is very low. We can trace complete examples of the Serampore Old Testament held by only around half a dozen libraries. The survival rate of offprints from colonial India is especially low.
A Fine Provenance
The “S.S. Day Missionary” of the inscription by the title refers to Samuel Stearns Day (1808–1871), a prominent Canadian-American Baptist missionary who served for many years in the Telugu-speaking regions of Southern India. A native of Ontario, Canada, in 1831, he enrolled at seminary school at Hamilton College (today Colgate University) in in Upstate New York, whereupon he was ordained. He joined the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society (ABFMS) and in 1835 travelled to serve in India, where he was initially posted to Visakhapatnam (in today’s Andhra Pradesh), in a Telugu-speaking region. He quickly mastered the Telugu language and was subsequently posted to Srikakulam (Chicacole), Madras, and Nellore, whereupon, in 1840, he joined the ‘Bible Society’, a project sponsored by the London Missionary Society to create an improved translation of the Gospel of Matthew. In 1845, Day returned to America for a respite, before redeploying to India, where he was based in Nellore from 1849 to 1853. Retiring Stateside, he then toured the U.S. raising funds for the missionary cause.
The rest of Day’s inscription reveals that he gifted the present work to “the Socy of Inquiry Madison U.” in “Aug. 1848”. The Society of Inquiry was a literary club formed at Madison University (formerly Hamilton College, today’s Colgate University). As such the full inscription means that during Day’s sabbatical in New York state, between his two tours of duty in India, he gave this offprint of the Book of Numbers to his old society at his alma mater.
References: Cf. [re: complete Serampore Telugu Old Testament (1821):] British Library: General Reference Collection Or.71.c.10.; TU Darmstadt, Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek: V 908 Bd. 1; Princeton University Library: *OKT (Bible. N.T. Harauti. Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments); OCLC: 1264785558, 1120754260: DARLOW & MOULE, Historical catalogue of the printed editions of Holy Scripture in the library of the British and Foreign Bible Society (London: 1903-11), no. 9188; Lionel D. BARNETT, A Catalogue of the Telugu Books in the Library of the British Museum (London, 1912), p. 34.