Endangered Archives

EAP835: Jaffna Protestant digital archive project

Professor Valentine Daniel, Columbia University in the City of New York
2015 award - Pilot project
£10,012 for 12 months

Archival partner: Noolaham Foundation

Project Overview

The Tamil Protestant community of the Jaffna Peninsula has left an indelible mark on Sri Lanka’s modern history. During the island’s British period (1796‐1948), the encounter between Jaffna’s Tamil literati and Protestant missionaries from England and the United States produced a deluge of printed material. Enabled by the establishment of the peninsula’s first printing presses, remarkable amounts of Jaffna‐based Tamil printed material circulated through the region, from myriad Protestant religious tracts, and the island’s first Tamil‐language newspaper, to important Saivite publications that helped catalyse the so‐called Hindu Revival. By 1840, the American Ceylon Mission press was working two shifts of pressmen, morning and night, and had printed more than 500,000 evangelical tracts over seventeen years.

The Tamil‐language materials produced by, and circulating around, the Jaffna Protestant community of the nineteenth century ranged from translations of American tracts and regionally produced polemical essays on Saivism, to Tamil epic literature, minor poetry, ethical treatises, pedagogical works, and devotional literature. Polemical mid‐nineteenth‐century Christian‐Saivite exchanges make up a large percentage of this material. Arumuga Navalar (1822‐1876), one of the most important catalysts for the Saivite Revival, was inspired to import a printing press into Jaffna in 1849 largely to respond to the mounting challenges Protestants levelled against Saivism. Though by the mid‐nineteenth century most new work was being printed and widely distributed, examples of Saivite and Christian writing on ola (palm leaves) still circulated. These sources contribute to how we understand ritual, textual, and embodied Christianity in Sri Lanka and South India, and detail the intermixing of Tamil Christian and Hindu communities, their variegated relationships with Protestant missionaries, as well as the role British power played in the exchange. Though many of Navalar’s Saivite texts were reprinted into the twentieth century, the Christian materials remain rare and it is unclear how many still exist. While some printed materials have made their way into library collections around the world, nineteenth‐century Jaffna Tamil Protestant journals, letters, and other manuscript materials are almost unknown.

The most significant challenge to the preservation of these works has been Sri Lanka’s civil war. A considerable amount of printed and manuscript materials were held in private collections lost to war‐related displacement, migration, and the widespread destruction of family homes. During the war, one of Jaffna’s Anglican churches, St. John the Baptist, was shelled, destroying its collection of historical documents stored in the church’s attic. Jaffna’s Tamil Protestant archive was also scarred by the 1981 razing of the Jaffna Public Library. At the time, the library was one of the largest in Asia, containing tens of thousands of volumes including irreplaceable ola manuscripts. Today, the rare documents that have survived face serious preservation challenges, from a lack of infrastructure to securely house fragile materials, to reduced awareness of the significance of historical materials, and environmental damage from mould, insects, and rodents.

The documents that remain are a valuable cultural resource that should be adequately collected and catalogued. As a reference point, John Murdoch’s 1865 Classified Catalogue of Tamil Printed Books with Introductory Notices provides a range of Tamil Protestant printed materials and could be used in conjunction with Dr Bernard Bate’s description of archival materials held by the American Ceylon Mission to produce a list of materials against which known copies can be matched.

This pilot project will survey print and manuscript materials of the Tamil Protestant community of Jaffna from 1796 to 1948, as well as create a database and sample digital archive of available texts. This pilot project is meant to inform a future full EAP application with the goal of digitising a larger body of rare and critically endangered materials, enabling both scholars and the community itself access to these valuable artefacts of Jaffna’s past.

To conduct the survey, and also strengthen local archive maintenance and digitisation capabilities, this project will conduct a three-month internship program with university students in Jaffna. After an initial month of training in historical methods, digitisation, and preservation techniques, interns will be led on a church presentation and door-to-door materials search programme. In addition to publicising our search efforts, the program will distribute information on low-cost, layperson-friendly preservation techniques. After the conclusion of the three-month internship program, a select number of representative materials will be digitised and a preliminary catalogue created of Jaffna Tamil Protestant materials. The pilot project will conclude with the digital publication of this preliminary catalogue.

The Noolaham Foundation, a Sri Lanka-based online archive organisation, will take on the role of the project’s Archival Partner. Noolaham will provide access to digitisation experience and equipment it received from a previous EAP project in Pondicherry, India. Noolaham will also host the digital archival material on its website, enabling greater community access to the materials.

Project Outcome