Road to Macaulay: The Renewal of Charter and Debate on Education

In 1813, when the Company’s charter came up for renewal, Company territories in India were already a vast empire and its supremacy, over all the regional rivals as well as the Mughal Emperor, had been decidedly established. The mercantile interests in England were a spent force and the combined demands of British and Indian merchants to abolish the Company’s monopoly and open the India trade were too powerful to be ignored again. The expansion of British manufacture made the demands for a reversal of trade flow - treating India as a market for the British products - the ascendant force against the quaint monopolist interests in Indian salt, tea and fabric. The Company Court duly resisted, but, unlike in 1793, it had to give up its monopoly (except for that on tea and China trade), setting in motion an economic transformation of India, opening its markets to the full force of competition from British textiles and other manufactured products. This economic change set off a new phase of institution building and put Missionaries and merchants at the helm of educational expansion.  

The 1813 Charter Act found its place in history of education as Wilberforce’s persuasive oratory achieved what eluded the evangelicals in 1793: The Missionary clause that removed restrictions on the operations of the Missionaries inside the company territory.

Even more significantly, however, the Clause 43 of the Act directed

That out of any surplus which may remain of the rents, revenues, and profits, arising from the said territorial acquisitions, after defraying the expenses of the military, civil, and commercial establishments, and paying the interest of the debt, in manner hereinafter provided, a sum not less than one lack of rupees in each year shall be set apart and applied to the revival and and improvement of literature, and the encouragement of learned natives of India, and for introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences among inhabitants of the British territories in India..

This clause had impact on Indian education conversations in more than one way. This was later interpreted as one of the first attempts at public education, predating the comparable initiatives in England. Education in England, at the time, was Church prerogative, and the Clause 43 set the precedent of secular interference in education, a revolution that would be eventually imported back to the mother country. This clause also set off a quarter century worth of debate on interpretation of the ‘revival and improvement’ and definition of ‘sciences’, the meaning of which would be contested not just by the Orientalists and the Anglicists, but also just as fiercely by the Evangelical and bureaucratic interests.
To clarify these ambiguities, the Court of Directors wrote to the Governor General, on 3rd June 1814, about the meaning and significance of the Clause 43 of the Charter Act:

The clause presents two distinct propositions for consideration: First, the encouragement of the learned natives of India and the revival and improvement of literature; secondly, the promotion of a knowledge of the sciences amongst the inhabitants of that country.

Neither of these objects is, we apprehend, to be obtained through the medium of public colleges, if established under the rules, and upon a plan similar to those that have been founded at our universities, because the natives of caste and of reputation will not submit to the subordination and discipline of a college; and we doubt whether it would be practicable to devise any specific plan which would promise the successful accomplishment of the objects under consideration.

We are inclined to think that the mode by which the learned Hindoos might be disposed to concur with us in prosecuting these objects would be by our leaving them to the practice of an usage, long established amongst them, of giving instructions at their own houses, and by encouraging them in the exercise and cultivation of their talents by the stimulus of honorary marks of distinction, and in some instances, by grants of pecuniary assistance.

The Court of Directors also clarified what the clause 43 might mean in terms of curricular coverage:

We are informed that there are in the Sanscrit language many excellent systems of ethics, with codes of laws and compendiums of the duties related to every class of the people, the study of which might be useful to those natives who may be destined for the judicial department of government. There are also many tracts of merit, we are told, on the virtues of plants and drugs, and on the application of them in medicine, the knowledge of which might prove desirable to the European practitioner, and there are treatises on Astronomy and Mathematics including Geometry and Algebra, which, though they may not add new lights to European science, might be made to form links of communication between the natives and the gentlemen in our service who are attached to the observatory and to the department of Engineers, and by such intercourse the natives might gradually be led to adopt the modern improvements in those and other sciences.  

This document reasserted the countervailing conservatism of the Company Court, preferring to preserve the policy of patronage of the learned classes, an approach favoured by its Calcutta bureaucracy on grounds of practicality. But there were prominent dissenting voices, like that of Lord Moira, the Governor General, who favoured the amounts to be spent on people out of the reach existing educational provisions. Also, indicating a break with past reservations about education inciting Indians seek freedom from Company rule, Sir Charles Metcalfe wrote in his despatch of 4th September 1815:

My opinion is that the more blessings we confer on them, the better hold we shall have on their affections and in consequence the greater strength and duration to our empire.

In practice, however, despite the Act’s provisions, due to Anglo-Maratha and Nepalese wars, no money would be spent in education until 1818 and a General Committee of Public Instruction, for educational policy-making, wouldn’t be formed until 1823.

But, while the government took several years to create the machinery of educational policy-making, and followed the conservative policy of accommodating the learned natives and patronising existing institutions, the newly emboldened missionaries and newly enriched merchants took the lead in establishing European style colleges, offering instructions in English and vernacular. A group of Calcutta merchants, which included Indian reformer Raja Rammohan Roy, the Scottish rationalist and watch-maker David Hare, established ‘Mahavidyalaya’ (later, Hindu College), a college of Liberal learning in 1816, without any governmental support. Its original curriculum included English and Bengali, and also instructions in History, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Chemistry and other sciences.

Serampore College was founded by the Baptists in 1818 under the Presidency of William Carey, a distinguished scholar who was associated with the Fort William College, aiming to promote both Oriental and European knowledge using English as well as Bengali. Serampore College also became the first degree granting institution in South Asia (though this power was never exercised). The college sought to teach ‘All the sciences now possessed by the natives themselves’ and also offered instructions in Sanskrit for its pure philological value. However, with the increase of popularity of English and sciences instruction, the curriculum abandoned some of its traditional Indian content and incorporated Chemistry and other sciences within a decade. Bishop’s College in Howrah, across the Ganges river from Calcutta,  was conceived in 1818 and opened for students in 1824, was an Anglican theological institution which attracted only Christian students for much of the initial years of its existence. The buildings of this college was modelled after Oxford and offered an exclusively European and classical curriculum. Unlike the Serampore College, Bishop’s College debarred the students on religious grounds and had attracted only a few students during the early years of its existence.

Defying the predictions of the Court that the European style colleges wouldn’t be accepted by caste Hindus, these early institutions drew the sons of merchants and those of the new landlords. Therefore, no caste Hindus opposed Ram Mohan’s plans for the English style college, though Ram Mohan himself was intensely disliked for his opposition to Sanskrit scripture and reformist ideas.

As the private agency seized the initiative in setting up colleges and looked to confer degrees, the very ideas that the Court of Directors thought to be inadvisable in 1814, the conception of knowledge was also changing rapidly. The medieval framework of knowledge, based on Liberal arts, philosophy, medicine and theology, which underpinned much of the Indian educational policy thinking since Hastings’ time and much of Asiatic Society’s work was being superseded by Nineteenth Century ideas of knowledge, that of primacy of science, engineering and social sciences. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, with utilitarian philosopher James Mill sitting on its board was founded in England in 1823, and it had deep interest in the educational activities in India. This new approach to knowledge and learning was outlined in a new despatch on education from the Court, apparently drafted by Mill,  on the 18th February 1824

The great end should not have been to teach Hindu learning or Mohammedan teaching, but useful learning. No doubt, in teaching useful learning to the Hindus and or Mohammedans, Hindu media or Mohammedian media as far as they were found the most effectual, would have been proper to be employed, and Hindu and Mohammedan prejudices would have needed to needed to be consulted.. In professing, on the other hand, to establish seminaries for the purpose of teaching mere Hindu or mere Mohammedan literature, you bound yourself to teach you a great deal of what was frivolous, not a little of what was purely mischievous, and a small remainder, indeed, in which the utility was in any way concerned.

Arguing the case of revival of Sanskrit learning in the period leading to 1813 Charter Act, Lord Minto, in his minutes on 6th March 1811 proposed establishment of two Sanskrit colleges, in traditional Indian centres of learning of Nadia and Tirhut, to arrest ‘the decay’ of Indian science and literature. However, the newly constituted General Committee of Public Instruction, for reasons of practical convenience, decided in 1823 to merge the two proposed colleges into a new Sanskrit College to be founded in Calcutta. Unlike Benares, Calcutta was no centre of Sanskrit learning, being a British trading port and administrative centre: The Calcutta Sanskrit College was meant ‘import’ the scholarship from Nadia and Tirhut to create a new centre of learning.

The plans for the new college set off strong reaction among the Indians, who did not consider a Sanskrit College patronised by the Company legitimate or necessary and preferred more opportunities of education in English, as the success of private institutions in the City proved. The plans for the college made Rammohan write to Lord Amherst, the Governor-General,  on 11th December 1823, arguing on behalf of the ‘rising classes’. He thanked providence ‘for inspiring the most generous and enlightened nations of the West with the glorious ambition of planting in Asia the arts and sciences of Modern Europe.’ His argument against Sanskrit learning was that it was not needed - India already had abundance of provisions and did not need a new English style college - and that it was irrelevant to the pursuit of practical life. Displaying an acute awareness of the changing conceptions of knowledge, he pleaded

If it had been intended to keep the British nation in ignorance of real knowledge, the Baconian philosophy would not have been allowed to displace the system of the schoolmen, which was the best calculated to perpetuate ignorance. In the same manner the Sanskrit system of education would be the best calculated to keep the country in darkness, if such had been the policy of British legislature. But as the improvement of the native population is the object of the government, it will consequently promote a more liberal and enlightened system of instruction; embracing mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, with other useful sciences, which may be accomplished with the sum proposed by employing a few gentlemen of talents and learning educated in Europe, and providing a college furnished with the necessary books, instruments, and other apparatus.  

Rammohan’s letter was forwarded by the Governor General to the General Committee, but the committee ignored it and went ahead with founding of the Sanskrit College. As later events would show, Rammohan, like the other private individuals and missionaries engaged in education, was far more attuned to the public demand than the Committee. The caste Hindus of Calcutta, while expressing happiness with the government’s patronage of Sanskrit, sent their children to the private institutions offering lessons in English, which expanded rapidly, both within Calcutta and in nearby areas. The caste Hindus might not have entertained any sympathies for Rammohan’s aspiration to promote ‘Baconian philosophy’ - as the expulsion of Henry Derozio from Hindu College in 1831 for his radical teaching would show - but the community was keen to take the economic opportunities afforded by English education.

The Indians approached the new educational provisions not for the sake of knowledge, but rather for the opportunities it affords. Lal Behari Dey wrote about his father who brought him to Calcutta in 1834 and to Alexander Duff’s General Assembly, thus:

A knowledge of English education, he said, was necessary to enable a man to earn a competence in life. People ignorant of English no doubt got berths, but berths to which only paltry salaries were attached. He (the father) felt his want of English every day, and was therefore resolved to remedy that defect in the education of his son. He did not wish to give me what is called high education - that he considered to be useless; for, in his opinion, real wisdom was not to be found within the range of English literature, it being confined to the Sanskrit alone, which is the language of the gods. But for secular purposes, for gaining a decent livelihood, a knowledge of the English language was absolutely necessary, as that was the language of the rulers of the land.  

The Hindu society in Calcutta was clearly drawing lines between Higher and Secular learning, reserving the latter for instrumentalist purposes. The General Committee, with its ‘Orientalist’ leanings, was unsuccessfully, and more crucially, unprofitably, attempting to translate English scientific treatises to Sanskrit and Arabic, while the Hindu children in Calcutta (and other prominent communities, such as the Parsis, in Mumbai) were flocking to learn English. Much of these early attempts at ‘Indianising’ education would be abandoned within a decade, but the two principles that the Committee developed in these early years - that of ‘downward filtration’ and ‘engraftment’ - would have a longer afterlife.

The principle of ‘downward filtration’ was based on the assumption that the administration would seek to educate only the pupils from good families and in the main towns, rather than attempting mass education. This newly educated populace would then be expected, through private enterprise and initiative, spread the education among the masses. This was consistent with the conservative patriarchal conception of the society, as well as a continuation of the legacy of Clive and Hastings, administration founded on the co-operation with the local elites. This approach was also a result of bureaucratic pragmatism based on the enormity of task at hand, a principle that would be taken over by the enthusiastic Anglicist educators a decade later.

The principle of ‘engraftment’ was a corollary of ‘downward filtration’ and would serve as a general principle for directing educational funding upto the time of Wood’s Despatch. Instead of trying to establish colleges like the Calcutta Sanskrit College, or, aiding private enterprise as Wood’s Despatch would seek to do, the Committee developed a policy to ‘engraft’ colleges where secondary schools had already been opened and successfully operating. The reason for this was mainly pragmatic: This meant the government colleges had the supply of pupils and pupils could access education after finishing school.


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