The William Carey Library in Serampore, near Kolkata

Sankar Ray

Tucked away on the bank of the Hooghly river at Serampore near Kolkata is the Carey Library, named after the illustrious Christian missionary Rev William Carey. Perhaps the oldest Indian library, it was a part of Serampore College. Carey Library still caresses about 16,000 rare volumes which are of special interest to historians, linguistics scholars and other branches of humanities abroad too. The library was set up immediately after the formation of Serampore Mission, which came into being on January 10, 1800.

A British by birth at Pauler’s Perry, in Northamptonshire, Carey arrived in Calcutta on November 11, 1793. He shifted to Serampore under Danish domination to insulate his missionary activities – educational in the main – during early 19th century. Veteran communist journalist Pabitra Kumar Sarkar wrote, “Carey, founder of the Baptist Missionary Society in England basically to spread education, came to India where he, along with Joshua Marshman and Hanna Marchman, set up the Serampore Mission, the first such body named after a town. A library building was constructed at an estimated expenditure of Rs 25,000 with over 5,000 titles. English, French and Latin aside, he was well-versed in 44 Asian languages.”

Serampore was under Danish colonial occupation prior to the advent of British colonialism in this subcontinent. In fact, Frederick the Sixth, the King of Denmark, presented a charter to the college on February 23, 1827, with the University status. It was the first college in India to receive this status. However, this was for theological studies to start with. In fact, the college was authorised to award degrees in Arts and Theology. Apart from Carey, Joshua Marshman and his son John Clark comprised the first Council. The college, the prospectus issued stated, was “for the instruction of Asiatic Christian and other Youth in Eastern Literature and European Science.” However, it was open to all irrespective of caste or creed.

Almost a century later, the charter was endorsed officially under the Bengal Govt Act IV of 1918.

With the retreat of Danish hold in India following the military triumph of the English East India Company, the Serampore College and the Carey Library were taken over by British colonial authorities. On February 22, 1845, Serampore College’s ownership automatically passed into the British Government following the sale of Danish assets in India to Great Britain. In 1856, the Baptist Missionary Society in England took over the management of the college. Next year, it got affiliated to the University of Calcutta.

Carey however died a decade before Serampore was taken over by the British colonialists on June 9, 1834.

According to the present research adviser to the William Carey Library, Sunil Chattopadhyay, a library scientist, “Every ship that anchored at the Calcutta Port had a packing box full of books for Rev Carey. Besides those, there used to be some plants and seeds as he was a botanist too. He was the founder of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India, which was born in 1820.”

Chattopadhyay laments that between 1945 and 1946, the library-house was occupied by the colonial army. “Very valuable books, documents etc were damaged.” Though the World War II ended in August 1945, inexplicably enough, the armed forces continued to occupy the library long after that.

Among rare books, still kept for readers, one can find the first book in English on the life of Chinese philosopher Confucius, published in 1809; Plata Asiatica, a primer on botany written and published by Carey in 1831; Roxberg’s Flora Indica; first edition of Old Testament, published in 1516 from Milan; Historicum Indicarum by G.P. Mackay; the first book on Indian history, published in 1593. There are 89 rare Sanskrit texts (handwritten), and several other similar texts – 34 in Bengali and 15 in other languages.

Another nugget of information is that Carey was the publisher of the world’s first Hindi newspaper – Digdarshan ahead of Udanta Martanda, a weekly, which was published from Calcutta in 1826.

“Carey commissioned the services of pundits in Hindi, brought by him from Delhi, to publish it. But it was shifted to Shimla at the Baptist Mission’s establishment. But unfortunately, a copy of the first issue was gutted in 1853,” according to Sarkar, based on his conversation with Chattopadhyay. Chattopadhyay thinks Carey may have published a single copy of Digdarshan.

Joshua Marshman, head of Serampore Printing Press, being a translator on the payroll of British government, donated the books he received from the Viceroy Lord Bentinck.

The late Katharine Smith Diehl, a well-known archivist and librarian associated with the Library of Congress, USA, prepared a list of the rare books and documents at Carey Library and entered this information in the Dictionary of American Library Biographies.

Among notable visitors to Carey Library were the famous Nobel laureates in Physics, Niels Bjerrum Bohr, a Danish by birth, and C.V. Raman; some of India’s early theoretical physicists such as S.N. Bose, and Meghnad Saha, and H.C. Mookerjee, former Governor of West Bengal and head of English, University of Calcutta in the 1930s. The name Carey is now recognised as a true lover of Indian people.

A devoted Christian, he was committed to do philanthropic activities. For him, this mission was his bounden duty “to attempt something towards spreading the Gospel in the heathen world”, braving obstacles to his mission.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 11, 2008)
XThese are links to The Hindu Business Line suggested by Outbrain, which may or may not be relevant to the other content on this page. You can read Outbrain's privacy and cookie policy here.