by Antoine Claudet, photogravure, 1860s

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I think and write in English, and not in my native, Tamil. This simple fact that has profound implications for how I relate to the world, is directly tied to a document signed almost two centuries ago between Hindus and a British administrator in the erstwhile Madras Presidency in the year 1839.

In the well-known history of how the English language came to dominate the Indian sub-continent, the name Thomas Babington Macaulay jumps to prominence. He was the head of a group of Englishmen, referred to as the Anglicists, who believed that the Indian population needed to be regenerated through English education.

In 1835, Macaulay wrote his famous “Minute on Education” in which he said, “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Lord Bentinck, then Governor-General of India, with the stroke of a pen endorsed Macaulay’s recommendations, and ended support of Sanskrit and Arabic in favor of English education. There was widespread rioting and agitation in the streets of Calcutta to protest the change. Since that landmark ruling, historians have generally accepted these events as the origin of English in India.

This reading of history is however, incomplete. In the Madras Presidency, English was not forced on its inhabitants. Rather, it was introduced at the behest of the local population in an unlikely partnership between its Hindu natives and its British ruler. The story of this collusion of interests bears fascinating reading.

By the turn of the 19th century, the city of Madras, with a population of over 250,000, was transforming itself into a bustling commercial center. Contributing to this rise was an upwardly mobile Indian mercantile class that saw clear benefits in knowing English. They realized that knowledge of English opened the doors to plum government positions and gave them the ability to negotiate directly with the British on their own terms, all of which formed the basis for a new identity. Encouraged by the then Advocate General of Madras, George Norton, the leaders of the Hindu community formed the Hindu Literary Society in 1830. Gajalu Lakshmanarasu Chetty, Narayanaswamy Naidu and C. Srinivasa Pillay, a close friend of George Norton, were among its founding members.

For the progressive Hindus of Madras, who wanted their children to have an English education, the only option was to send them to schools run by Christian missionaries. One such missionary was Alexander Duff who felt that converts (to Christianity) from “respectable families” could lead a new line of self-perpetuating congregations in India. His associate missionary, John Anderson, opened the Scottish Free Church School in Black Town, Madras, in 1837. The purpose of the school was to impart a distinctively European type of English education, with a focus on Christianity. The school was so popular that it outgrew its premises three times within the first decade (the school later became the Madras Christian College). Unfortunately for many Hindus, their children were also exposed to Christian propaganda. Given below is a case in point.

A fourteen-year-old Brahmin girl attending this school declared herself a Christian and sought asylum before the Supreme Court of Madras. The girl’s family convinced the court to serve a writ of habeas corpus claiming that John Anderson had detained her by force. On the day of the trial, thousands of Hindus gathered outside the courthouse to witness the unfolding drama. Pandemonium broke out when Anderson and the girl entered a packed chamber. Amidst screams of outrage an overwrought relative tried to seize the girl. Sir Edward Gambier, the presiding judge, had to decide whether the girl had reached “years of discretion” and consequently ordered two European doctors to examine the girl. The doctors declared that she had indeed reached her years of discretion, and Gambier awarded custody to Anderson. To the Hindus the ultimate disgrace had occurred—the defilement of a high-caste girl by European men.

The leaders of the Hindu Literary Society were alarmed by this growing missionary influence. They realized that the desire for English language education among elite Hindus was so great that families were prepared to take the chance of sending their children to missionary schools despite the risk of religious conversion.

At this time, John Elphinstone arrived in India as Governor of Madras in 1839. He was anxious to make education a central theme of his administration, and George Norton was his close ally and assistant.

The Hindu Literary Society members wanted to convince Elphinstone that the government should offer English language education in a secular institution. On November 11, 1839, they submitted a petition to him with over 70,000 signatures. At the time, this petition easily had the most number of signatures from Indians to the British government.

They appealed to Elphinstone “for the establishment of an improved system of national education in the Presidency.” While its sister Presidencies had collegiate institutions (Hindu College in Calcutta and Elphinstone College in Bombay), Madras had none. But the petitioners made clear that religious neutrality in education was a priority. “Any scheme for National Education interfering with the religious faith or sentiment of the people may prove abortive,” they warned.

The original petition is now housed in the Asia Pacific and Africa Collections of the British Library in London, and I saw the petition under the watchful eyes of the librarian. I saw the numerous signatures of petitioners written in Tamil, Telugu, English and Devanagari. With each signature, the petitioners were stating their personal dreams of wanting English language education for their children within a secular environment.

The magnitude and importance of the petition were not lost on Elphinstone. The Elphinstone Papers at the British Library revealed a letter, written in 1840, in which he wrote that the address “which was last year presented to me, more numerously signed than I believe any similar document ever was in India,” was proof that this was not a document to be taken lightly. The petitioners’ demand was consistent with his goals for education—western education and non-interference with their religion.

This led to the establishment of the Madras High School that allowed Hindus to pursue English language education without the threat of religious conversion. One of its students, Madhava Row, when he later became the Dewan of Travancore, wrote to Elphinstone that, “it will be very gratifying to your Lordship to learn that graduates of the Madras High School have all been more or less very successful in life” and “the education has brought inestimable benefits … few of which would otherwise have fallen to my lot.”

On Elphinstone’s recommendation, the Madras University Board was formed in May 1840 with George Norton as its President and several leading Madras natives on its board.

Madras University would go on to become one of India’s leading educational institutions and I was a personal beneficiary of this University where I obtained my bachelor’s degree.

An extraordinary petition, lost in the corners of the British library, provided an alternative explanation for the ascendance of English. Debunking the myth of colonialist imposition, it showed that a significant portion of British India clamored for the language. A petition signed in 1839 in the Madras Presidency has a direct relation to the words and thoughts I have used to write this article. A remarkable petition and story indeed!

Prabhu Palani earned a master’s degree in Liberal Arts from Stanford University in 2009.  His thesis, “English and Empire: The Case of the Madras Presidency,” explored the origins of the English language in India.  He is a member of the North American Conference of British Historians.