Preservation of the manuscripts of the Jaffna Bishop's house (EAP981)

Aims and objectives

This major project is the outcome of the pilot project EAP700 implemented in 2015-2016. The present major project aims to complete the digitisation of the remaining rare documents kept under the guardianship of the Jaffna Bishop’s House.

The pilot project enabled the digitisation of many memoirs among the French manuscripts. The major project will be devoted to the digitisation of the remaining French documents and also those recently identified in English, Latin, Tamil, Sinhalese and Portuguese. The objective is to make them accessible to all user communities. The records are unique sources bearing testimony to the history of the people of Jaffna and to the history of the Christian missions in the pre independent Sri Lanka. They are very important to understand the influence of the European-Portuguese, Dutch and British-colonial powers. These manuscripts and documents were handwritten by grass-root actors or first-hand witnesses.

These manuscripts contain a variety of information about the Diocese and the parishioners. They cover a wider geographical area including the Jaffna peninsula, Mannar, Puttalam, the Vanni, Anuradhapura. They are in six languages (French for a large majority, English, Latin, Tamil, Sinhalese and Portuguese). This makes the collection a rare and unique heritage. Most of the documents describe events related to the religious and cultural contexts of the northern part of Sri Lanka under the colonial period. It is important to note that they are not of religious propaganda. The registers contain notes and reports about family affairs, village management, organisation of educational networks, relation between Hindu and Catholic neighbourhoods, with the State, etc. The correspondence contain letters and notes between Priests and Bishops and Bishops and their superior order in Colombo and in France. The documents shed more insight on how the Catholic Church carried out its institutional development in this region which is otherwise known for its strong attachment to Hinduism, and how it was organised, the administration and governance of the profane life around the Parish. These documents are definitely a unique and rare source material on the history and the works of the Christian missions in the northern part of Sri Lanka.

These documents might be of great interest to researchers interested particularly in the study of the social, anthropological, religious, economic and intellectual changes that took place during the colonial period in the peninsular Jaffna. In addition to the academic importance, these manuscripts are part of a cultural and historical heritage of a national minority community, the Tamils. The unfortunate burning of the Jaffna public library in 1981, one of the biggest libraries in Asia, is far from forgotten by the Tamil minorities of Sri Lanka. The missionary documents, kept in the Bishop’s House of the Jaffna City, have escaped narrowly the severe bombings and shelling of past decades. They are highly vulnerable due to their recent history, poor storage condition, worms, human mishandling, humidity and other environmental disasters. Some of them are in such a fragile state that no user would dare touch it in order to consult it. Considering the prevailing precarious conditions of preservation, it is urgent to take adequate measures to digitising these documents otherwise this precious historical source would be lost forever. Digital preservation of such rare documentation would be of immense help to all user communities interested in the history and the works of Christian missions in Sri Lanka and in the cultural history of the Tamil ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka in general.

Outcomes

We have digitised diverse types of manuscripts and documents, handwritten bound registers like personal memoirs, chronicles, account books, correspondence, registers of marriage, baptism, birth and death, newspaper clippings, pastoral letters, biographies of the local bishops, some religious books.

They cover a period between 1775 and 1948. Chronologically we can consider that these documents fall under three phases:

1. Between 1775 and 1850 (oldest records of Baptism in Tamil and Portuguese

2. Between 1850 and 1930 (the main period of OMI - The Oblates of Mary Immaculate

3. Between 1930 and 1948 (pre-independent period when the clergy was deliberately indigenised).

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