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Alexander Bubb

May 20th, 2024

The ‘Imperial Press’ in Majuli and a Story of Northeast India

1 comment | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Alexander Bubb

May 20th, 2024

The ‘Imperial Press’ in Majuli and a Story of Northeast India

1 comment | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

A colonial era printing machine in the museum in Majuli — the world’s largest river island — in India is the subject of this post by Alexander Bubb, who saw it on his visit to the museum earlier this year. How did it get there, what role did it play in Assam’s identity, and the anti-colonial nationalist struggle in northeastern India?

 

It must weigh at least half a ton, I thought, contemplating the bulky cast iron object before me, and reflecting, moreover, that I was on an island, in the middle of the Brahmaputra River, separated from the rest of Assam by several kilometres of often turbulent water. Any heavy machinery that arrives on Majuli comes by river even today but when this machine (Photo 1) was delivered in the 19th century it probably enjoyed an extended voyage, passing Guwahati (then Gauhati) on its way upstream from the coastal port where it was originally unloaded. Its point of origin, embossed across its front, appears clearly:

 

Photo 1: The Imperial Press in Majuli Museum, 2023 © Alexander Bubb; please do not use without permission.

 

IMPERIAL PRESS

1869

B GARRETT                MAIDSTONE

BENJN. WINSTONE

100 Shoe Lane

LONDON

ENGLAND

 

For a printing press, it is a surprisingly ornamental object. The lettering is gilded (recently re-gilded), and the central arch that supports the piston is fashioned after an architectural façade, with two fluted classical columns rising up on either side to support a central beam adorned with fussy motifs of acanthus and laurel. The names refer to the various English firms connected with the manufacture of the press. It was produced at Garrett’s foundry in Maidstone (in Kent, England) in 1869, but ran on ink supplied by Benjamin Winstone. Before Maidstone, its forbears had been assembled in London by Garrett & Cope, and before that by Cope & Sherwin, who had first developed the model 40 years earlier.

‘Imperial Press’ refers not to a publisher or manufacturer, but to the machine itself. It was designed to be light and compact, easy to use and maintain. The Mechanics’ Magazine of 26 September 1829 describes the ‘Imperial’ as

neat and elegant in its appearance, peculiarly simple in its construction, and possess[ing] in perfection the qualities of working with ease and accuracy of impression.

If we can judge its chief competitor — the ‘Albion Press’ — by its decidedly parochial moniker, the ‘Imperial Press’ was also better suited for shipment to customers overseas. The same article notes:

When we add to these various recommendations, the great compactness of this machine, and the small space which it will occupy in an office, or on board ship when packed up for exportation, it can be no exaggeration to affirm, that no press has yet appeared so well calculated to promote, both at home and abroad, the art of printing, and those inestimable benefits, of which types and presses are the parent source.

This, then, was progress in a box: a device for replication, itself replicated by the thousand at Garrett’s foundry in Maidstone; dispatched from there across the empire, to Christchurch, Penang, Galle, Mombasa or Port of Spain, each machine destined to confer the ‘inestimable benefits’ of modernity on its constituent public. At least one had reached Hobart by 1841, as we can see from an advertisement in the Colonial Times: ‘FOR SALE—Type, Imperial Royal Press, Paper, and all other material requisite for a Newspaper Office, lately arrived from England.’

In India, where they soon became relatively commonplace, it is possible that the metal type used to print vernacular scripts was more valuable than the press itself (which is why in Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh has his character Ah Fatt attempt to burgle Serampore College for its moveable type). In his survey of sources for the history of Dhaka (then Dacca), Muntassir Mamoon touches on Bengal’s vibrant print culture, and notes that the machines ‘enjoying popularity’ in neighbouring Kolkata (then Calcutta) in the mid-19th century were ‘the Chile or Columbian Press, the Imperial Press and the Albion Press’. Every printer in the city who used one, whether he set his type in English, Bengali, Armenian or Chinese, will have taken an oilcloth at the end of a day’s work and wiped down the same fluted columns, laurel and acanthus leaves, and on his way home he may have observed the same motifs on the buildings about him, imparting classical Roman dignity to the rather sordid and mercenary activities of the English East India Company.

Which brings us back to Upper Assam, a territory annexed by the Company for the benefit of tea planters, but to which (thanks to the Charter Act of 1813) they were also obliged to admit missionaries. In 1837, the same year that the first British tea garden opened, American Baptists brought the first printing press up the Brahmaputra. ‘The arrival of that machine’, writes Samrat Choudhury in his recent history of northeast India, ‘would have a fateful and decisive impact on the future political history of Assam.’ Installed at Sivasagar, the machine was used to print Orunodoi, the first newspaper in Assamese language. The British administration had decided to adopt Bengali as the language of justice and education in the region, a decision opposed by Nathan Brown (Orunodoi’s missionary Editor) and the Assamese writers whom he published, such as Anandaram Dhekial Phukan.

In 1871 Duttadev Goswami, the Xatradhikar/abbot of Auniati Satra (the largest Vaishnav monastery on Majuli Island) which had been a repository of Assamese culture for centuries, decided that the Satra should also lend its voice to the language campaign in the modern medium of print journalism. Its own newspaper, Asam Bilasini, was produced on this machine, and the campaign to have Assamese adopted as the medium of local education and the courts was duly won two years later.

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This is how the press came to take pride of place in Auniati Satra’s small and beautiful museum, housed in an octagonal building standing between the main prayer hall and the monastic library. Known affectionately as Dharmaprakash Yantra (‘Machine of Holy Light’), it is associated not only with the Satra’s effort to create a public forum for news and debate unburdened by the proselyte agenda of the Baptist church but also venerated for its role in the freedom struggle, Asam Bilasini enjoying the historical distinction of having been banned twice by the British authorities.

An article in the Telegraph (Kolkata) — ‘History Returns to Shrine of Glory’, 6 March 2015 — portrays this as a straightforward narrative of liberal awakening and anti-colonial resistance. In reality the legacy of this machine and its counterpart in Sivasagar was more complex than the ‘inestimable benefits’, so to speak, celebrated in the article. The Vaishnav satras of Upper Assam represent an inclusive and syncretic religious tradition now in retreat across much of India — a tradition that encouraged the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to plan a thwarted visit to one of them in January, on the same day that the Ram temple was being consecrated in Ayodhya. On the other hand, the Assamese linguistic nationalism sponsored by Asam Bilasini  (which gave rise to the earliest ethno-cultural organisations in the region like the Assam Sahitya Sabha (1872) and the Axomiya Bhaxa Unnati Xadhini Xobha (1888)) laid the foundations for the divisive identity politics that characterises the state today. Between them, the first two printing presses in Upper Assam projected visions of both modernity and antiquity that continue to resonate in the state’s politics today, and invoked communities — Christian, Assamese, Vaishnav, Adivasi, Muslim — that are all interacting intensely with the party machinery presently at work across its varied constituencies.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please click here for our Comments Policy.

This blogpost may not be reposted by anyone without prior written consent of LSE South Asia Centre; please e-mail southasia@lse.ac.uk for permission.

Banner image © Bikash Debnath, The Brahmaputra River, 2022, Unsplash.

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About the author

Alexander Bubb

Dr Alexander Bubb is Associate Professor of English at the University of Roehampton, and Visiting Fellow in the Department of International History, LSE. He is author, most recently, of 'Asian Classics on the Victorian Bookshelf: Flights of Translation' (2023).

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