Aims and objectives
This pilot project aims to undertake a survey of the manuscripts of the Bishop’s House in Jaffna, Sri Lanka and sort them out depending on the type of the manuscripts, their language and content. The rare and vulnerable ones will be prioritised for digitisation, approximately 7,000 pages. Most of the manuscripts are written in French, others in Tamil and a few in English. They consist of personal memoirs, chronicles, account books, correspondence, and newspaper clippings ranging from 1850 to the 1930s. These manuscripts bear testimony to the historical, social and cultural history of the people of Jaffna and of Christian missions in Sri Lanka.
These manuscripts are becoming more and more vulnerable to human and natural disasters and merit urgent digitisation for posterity. Jaffna, in the northern part Sri Lanka, inhabited by the Tamil ethnic minority since the independence of Sri Lanka (1948) has been subject to serious ethnic, cultural and political conflicts. One of the most tragic events was the burning of the Jaffna Public library along with its 97,000 volumes of books and manuscripts on 1 June 1981. The Jaffna public library was considered one of the biggest in Asia.
This collection of manuscripts has escaped the bombings and shelling of past decades. They have been stored in wooden cupboards in a reinforced room of the Bishop’s House adjoining the Cathedral, in a strategically sensitive district of the Jaffna City. They are, however, highly vulnerable due to their age and their current condition of poor storage, insect infestations, occasional human mishandling, humidity and other natural and environmental disasters. Some of them are in such a fragile state that they are unable to be handled.
The bulk of the handwritten documents amounts to approximately 40,000 pages written in French, Tamil and English. These manuscripts and documents are part of the collections of the Catholic mission in Sri Lanka and cover a wider geographical area including the Jaffna peninsula, Mannar, Puttalam and the Vanni regions. The majority of the manuscripts are in French. This makes the collection a rare and unique heritage and should shed new insights on the contribution of the French missions in this region. They contain a variety of information about the Diocese and the parish and the parishioners. They cover two periods: the second half of the 19th century with the commencement of the Missions; and the period before, during, and after the First World War, a period that is also of great historical importance because of its implications in the colonies. They pertain to two broad domains of the history of Christianity and Christian missions in Sri Lanka, and also the cultural history of ethnic minorities in general and with special reference to the Tamils.
Most of the documents describe events related to the religious and cultural contexts of the northern part of Sri Lanka under the British rule. However, they are not religious texts but testimonies of daily life and difficulties and local administration. The registers contain notes and reports about family affairs, village urban management, organisation of educational networks, relations between Hindu and Catholic neighbourhoods, etc. The correspondence contains letters and notes between Priests and Bishops, and Bishops and their superior order in Colombo and in France. They deal with Hindu manners and customs, and relations between Catholics and Muslims. The documents will shed more insight on how the Catholic Church carried out the proselytisation in this region known for its strong attachment to Hinduism and how they organised their administration and governance of the profane life around the Parish.
The digital preservation of these manuscripts will be a valuable and essential resource to many different user communities looking for a wider insight on the social history of the northern part of Sri Lanka under British rule.
The project digitised 58 files, creating a total of 16,944 digital images instead of the 7,000 that were originally planned. The files mostly consist of manuscripts dated from between 1850 and 1930. The project digitised a diverse collection of records such as memoirs of missionaries or codices; records detailing day to day life; observations on economic and social conditions; personal letters; account books giving detailed explanations of the income and expenses related to the missions, churches and cathedral, and daily accounts of the expenditures on different chapters like school, orphanage, and charity; catalogues of letters sent by missionaries; sermons and commentaries.
The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:
Dr Murugaiyan took part in "Historical Records of Jaffna Bishop's House 1750-1950" organised by L'Association Sri Lankaise Des Anciens Étudiants En France (ASLAEF) on the 4 July 2021. A recording of the presentation is available online.