On 8th January 1838, the Mary Ann weighed anchor off Madras. On board was a young man filled “with a compound of anxiety, wonder and hope”. He had been preparing for a missionary career in India from four years previously when he joined the Congregational Church of Glasgow. In 1834 he had enlisted and made an offer of service to the London Missionary Society (LMS) which in turn had sponsored his education at the University of Glasgow. His missionary training had taken place simultaneously and he had boarded the Mary Ann on August 30th 1837. When he did so, he would not have realised that this was the first step of a career that would last for half a century in one of the hottest parts of India – Tirunelveli. The young man, then 24 years of age, was Robert Caldwell.
In Madras Caldwell worked on the evangelisation of the lowest castes, the untouchables. He also spent his time learning Tamil. Later he was transferred to the English speaking churches in the city as there was a shortage of priests there. This, he felt was drawing him away from what he felt was his true calling and in 1841 he submitted his resignation to the LMS and decided to join the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), one of the Church of England missions. In July that year he was admitted to the order of deacon at the St Stephen’s Church, Ootacamund and set off on foot a couple of months later to Idayangudi in Tirunelveli, which would be his headquarters for the remaining part of his life. He was fascinated by the name of the place, for it meant the dwelling of a shepherd and felt “that it was a very appropriate name for the residence of a Missionary Pastor and very suggestive of the duties which I had come there to discharge”. The state of the congregation, largely comprising Shanars was wretched in the extreme. Though Christianity was not new to Tirunelveli, having come to the place in 1771 or thereabouts, real success by way of conversions had been experienced only from the 1790s. This had resulted in clashes between the converts and Hindu revivalists leading to a tense atmosphere.
Arriving in such a scenario, Caldwell saw that his first task was to spread education among the masses and also create some sense of order in the village, which apart from the church buildings, was a complete mess. He concentrated on education for the children of the lower castes and the sarcastic remarks of School Inspectors on the futility of teaching to such children notwithstanding achieved success. He revived the boys’ schools and opened a school for girls as well. Caldwell also ensured retention of student interest by luring them on occasion with money and pori kadalai mixed with jaggery. Three days a week he travelled to the neighbouring villages and set up a church building in each of them. Once there were three converts in a village, he set them up as a separate congregation. He came into close contacts with the villages and by 1844, the original 300 members of his parish had expanded to 2000. A severe challenge to the stability of his congregation came about that year when there was an outbreak of cholera. In the past such epidemics resulted in mass reversals to the original faith. This time, Caldwell, by keeping up his regular visits, ensured that his flock remained intact. It was also in 1841 that he married Eliza, the daughter the Rev. Charles Mault of the LMS, Travancore and in her he found the ideal wife. Immediately after the marriage, she began a boarding school for girls, an unthinkable concept for the times. She introduced lace making as a vocation for women which ensured that they had a steady income.
Though from 1844 Caldwell did not achieve the kind of success in conversions as he had seen earlier, he focused his attentions on consolidating the faithful. Believing that any congregation ought to be self sufficient, he encouraged them to form the Church Building Society to which each member was to contribute the equivalent of one day’s labour. The Tinnevelly Tract Society was established to ensure availability of bibles in the entire district. A Poor Fund was set up to help the poor among Christians. By 1851, the efforts of Caldwell had borne fruit. There was a surge in conversions with once as many as 64 baptisms in a single day. The SPG in its summary of missions in South India in 1851 singled out Idayangudi for the progress it had made.
Caldwell was keen that locals take on the task of building churches in their villages. He hoped that “the Churches of India may at length rival, as the heathen temples do already, the Churches of Europe”. The crowning glory of his work was the construction of the Holy Trinity Church of Idayangudi for which he was the fund-raiser, architect and manager. Begun in 1847, it was completed in 1880 when over 8000 people attended the dedication ceremony. By then it had attained the status of a mother church for over 40 churches. Basing his ideas on the panchayat system in Indian villages, Caldwell established Christian Municipalities which followed Christian laws, governed by a Nyaya Sabha on the lines of the panchayats. He also developed a chain of native agents comprising missionaries, pastors, lay-helpers, catechists and schoolmasters who helped European missionaries in their work. These were trained to carry out routine activities and they were also asked to mingle with the locals in a way that European missionaries could not and thereby encourage greater adherence to Christianity.
Caldwell’s greatest successes in conversion were in the Shanar community. As he turned his attention to other castes, he was faced with two problems. The first concerned the tendency among the converts to carry their caste prejudices with them into Christianity, in which of course there was no place for such ideas. He took several steps such as organising common feasts and counselling and as a final extreme, suspension from communion and dismissal from mission employment. All these had limited impact for caste ideas had taken firm root by then among the Christians. His moves however had the positive impact of the Shanars banding together in their villages which became symbols of resistance against oppression from higher castes. Ironically, Caldwell’s monograph The Tinnevelly Shanars, which portrayed the community as a backward one, resulted in vehement protests from Shanars themselves. This resulted in a schism of sorts with the emergence of Sattampillai who broke away and formed the Hindu Christian Church of Lord Jesus in 1857. Sattampillai fashioned his own version of the history of the Shanars and protests over Caldwell’s monograph were to become a regular feature for very many years. It also heralded the tradition of various communities and castes creating their own romantic versions of their histories, a trend that still continues.
In 1877, Caldwell was made Coadjutor Bishop of Madras with his jurisdiction being the SPG churches in Tirunelveli. His attempts to convert Hindus of the higher castes became stronger after this, though it must be said that he had been systematically working on this from earlier times. To him as to other missionaries on similar work, higher caste converts were prize catches. It is ironic that Caldwell, who held the Brahmins responsible for most evils of caste should aspire to convert them the most and when he eventually succeeded in 1870 in converting a Hindu couple he wrote that he felt “such a thrill pass through (his) old heart that he had to put some force on (his) feelings to go through with the service”. His efforts in conversion of higher castes met with very limited success and though he considered that the “conversion of India to Christ is one of the greatest works to which the Church and the nation of England are called” he did not succeed in realising his dream to the fullest.
Caldwell today is however remembered more for his writings than for his missionary activities and his achievements here are really astounding. He viewed India with its multiple languages as the best place to study comparative philology. In this he was carrying forward a tradition of several European missionaries and several English officers who had made a serious study of Indian languages. Tamil had received great attention from them, and even in the immediate vicinity of where Caldwell functioned, there were at least three scholars- the well-known GU Pope of Sawyerpuram, John Thomas of Meganapuram and Edward Sargent of Suviseshapuram. Caldwell enjoyed a relationship of mutual respect and admiration with all three and this undoubtedly helped in his work. At least three decades earlier, the establishment of the College of Fort St. George (1812) had spurred an interest among civil servants on matters oriental and this saw the establishment of what was called the Madras School of Orientalism with FW Ellis (1777-1819) and AD Campbell (1798-1857) and later CP Brown (1794-1884) being important figures associated with it. The College funded research into Indian languages and it was Campbell’s works, a Telugu grammar published in 1816 and a Telugu English dictionary in 1821 that first posited the thesis that Telugu, Tamil and other South Indian languages were not of Sanskrit origin but belonged to a unique Dravidian family. In his preface to the Telugu grammar, Ellis offered substantial evidence on this. Caldwell, who had interacted with CP Brown during his voyage out to India in 1837, was to follow this school of thought.
He began his work on South Indian languages in 1853 when he went to England on a furlough, which lasted for four years giving him an opportunity to recoup his health and also share his experiences with congregations in England. In 1856, while still in England, Caldwell completed the Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Languages, a ground breaking philological work on the history and structure of Dravidian languages. In the words of Thomas Trautmann, “the real significance of what Caldwell accomplished was not the first conception of the Dravidian family but the consolidation of the proof”. It was for the first time that the term Dravidian was used, albeit for philological reasons, to describe the region of South India and its languages. Later this was to become a political identity that still holds sway. Caldwell argued that Tamil in particular, “was the most cultivated of the all Dravidian idioms. (It) can dispense with Sanskrit if need be and not only stand alone but flourish without its aid.” In addition, the work dealt with a number of ethnological issues. It criticised Brahmin domination over religion and social customs and questioned the “undeserving prominence” gained by Brahmins in the socio-cultural order of Tamil speaking regions. The Brahmin according to Caldwell may have imparted a “few higher forms of civilisation” but these had been “more than counterbalanced by the fossilising caste rules, the practical pantheistic philosophy and the cumbersome routine of inane ceremonies”. He blamed Brahmins for introducing idol worship and also for their negative contribution to Tamil. He dismissed them by saying that few Brahmins “have written anything (in Tamil) worthy of preservation. The highest rank of Tamil literature which has been reached by a Brahmin is that of a commentator.” It is ironic that even as this work was being written, U Ve Swaminatha Iyer was born in Utthamadanapuram.
Caldwell’s work was received with great acclaim. The University of Madras which was set up the next year approved the work as a text book for higher examinations. Caldwell’s alma mater, the University of Glasgow bestowed its LLD on him for the work. He also became a Fellow of the University of Madras and delivered its convocation address in 1879. His reputation as a philologist soared all over Europe.
While in England, Caldwell wrote a series of articles for the Colonial Church Chronicle and Missionary Journal. This was to inform the English of the work done by the Missions in Tirunelveli and dispel the commonly held notion that missionary work in India was not of much benefit to anyone. These articles were compiled and published as Lectures on the Tinnevelly Missions in 1857. In these he propounded the theory that Hinduism was the culmination of an evolution from a series of cults, beliefs and rituals under the aegis of Brahmins and for the benefit of Brahmins. He argued that Hinduism was never a monolithic religion as it was made out to be.
In 1881, Caldwell published his Political and General History of the District of Tinnevelly in The Madras Presidency, from the Earliest Period to its Cession to the English Governmeny in AD 1801. He spent years researching this book and his efforts were rewarded when the publishing of the work was undertaken by the Madras Government which also, unasked for, gave him an honorarium of Rs 1000. The work, governed by Utilitarian and Evangelical thinking, held the British Government to be the best thing that happened to areas such as Tirunelveli. He disagreed with the early Orientalist view that idealised India’s past. The work is significant in that it documented the history of a region that had not received much attention earlier. In the same year Caldwell also published his History of the Tinnevelly Mission. Throughout his life, he was to continue writing. His monograph on the Shanars is already dealt with. He also worked on translating the bible into Tamil and in creating a Prayer Book in Tamil. In collaboration with Sargent he revised the Tamil Hymn Book and rearranged it for use in the Anglican service. A number of booklets and pamphlets to encourage Christianity were brought out by him.
In 1882, Caldwell shifted the seat of his episcopate from Idayangudi to Tuticorin as the latter town had all the “establishments and institutions as should make it a strong, influential centre”. He then focused more on education, upgrading the Anglo Vernacular School, setting up a school suitable for Hindus and along with Eliza setting up infrastructure to encourage education among women. The College department of the Tirunelveli SPG was shifted from Sawyerpuram to Tuticorin and this was the seed of a new college for higher education in the latter town. In 1883 this was named the Caldwell College.
Caldwell’s last years were however his toughest with frequent arguments and disagreements with the Madras Diocesan Committee of the SPG. His friend Sargent passed away leaving him alone. There was friction in his own entourage, and one among these, the Rev Margoschis was to prove a major irritant. A much younger missionary, the latter came from England full of the new Oxford Movement ideas and with much greater energy. The MDC generally sided with Margoschis and several of Caldwell’s recommendations especially his desire for independence of the Tirunelveli Church were successfully negated. The Rev Sharrock, a Caldwell protégé, came in for targeted attacks and was finally dismissed from the MDC on grounds of ill-treating his subordinates. There were moves to cripple the Caldwell College by taking away its grants and scholarships, all of which Caldwell managed to stave off. But the MDC finally succeeded, with Margoschis in the years after Caldwell’s death, in closing the college in 1893. The efforts of Eliza in setting up further educational institutions were not encouraged and in 1890 Caldwell offered to step down citing his old age and requesting that he be paid a pension for his remaining years. The condition of a pension roused the SPG’s ire and this was the subject of much debate with the SPG London finally sanctioning it a year later. Caldwell retired to Kodaikanal in 1891 and passed away there the same year on 28th August. His body was brought back to Idayangudi and laid to rest in the church he built. Eliza joined him in eternal rest in 1899.
The life of Caldwell has been researched extensively and written as a book “Robert Caldwell: A Scholar-Missionary in Colonial South India” by Y Vincent Kumaradoss. It makes for fascinating reading and is a detailed account of a man who came to South India on missionary work and stayed on to make an impact on its political consciousness and in the spread of education. Caldwell is remembered today with a statue on the Marina Beach.