Ellis and the East India company college

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes
Representative image
Representative image

CHENNAI: College Road in Nungambakkam is host to a series of great institutions that Madras can be proud of. Rain and temperature recordings of the city have been made in the meteorological station here for over two centuries. Women’s Christian College has a history of royal exiles and even Japanese prisoners were locked in classrooms during the World War. The Madras Literary Society library has a set of books in Latin that are older than Madras (400 years). But central to the development of the area was the East India Company College which functioned here between 1812 and 1854.

The original East India Company College was at Hertfordshire, 19 miles north of London, founded in 1806 to train ‘writers’ (administrators) for the Company. Youngsters nominated by the Company to writerships in its overseas civil service studied here.

The college’s counterpart for the training of officers for acclimatisation to local languages and culture was in Nungambakkam after which the College Road was named. The knowledge ecosystem for which Chennai is known today originated in this college. East India Company was engaged in expanding its control over India colonising existing kingdoms and there was a need for accustoming the officers to local cultures.

Francis Whyte Ellis landed in Madras when British supremacy was being established. He was a factor in the fort, the lowest possible job then. In 12 years, he became the collector of Madras.

Ellis was smitten with local culture and languages, and even wore Indian dresses and adopted a local name Chennapattanathu Elleesan for his writings. He was an extremely gifted linguist who read eight Asian languages. Ellis mastered Tamil and wrote poetry in the medieval style. It was Ellis who proposed a college in Madras and was singlehandedly responsible for the prominence of the college.

Unlike the colleges that followed with European professors and Indian students, this college had the inverse. Ellis got together the faculty of the college — Indian teachers, Tamil pundits, Telegu experts and Urdu munshis were teaching British and Scottish officers. Ellis made sure he appointed teachers from non- Brahminical castes as well, mainly Pandaram and Vellala communities, who were well-versed in Tamil religious texts. He believed education should be broad-based and beyond class differences.

There was an Indian headmaster who supervised the teachers to lecture and discourse on language and arranged for the printing of books. Students studied for two years and had a term exam. Students, who cleared the exams, got promotions and increments in salaries and got their diplomas from the Governor himself. A year after starting college, he got a printing press. The first thesauruses in the subcontinent were printed here.

Ellis was obsessed with the poet-saint Thiruvalluvar. He had a die block for coins made in the mint with the first interpretation of how the saint might have looked — with a top knot and a long beard. Ellis took the initiative to translate and print the Tirukkural for the first time. Being a Collector, he also engraved Tirukkural couplets on the stone and inserted them into the walls of the 27 wells he dug all over the city.

More than tutoring or translating, the college Ellis founded created a synergy. The college put together people from several classes, the main purpose was the transfer of knowledge from the locals to the students. What they hadn’t expected was an outstanding exchange of ideas among Indian and European scholars. The interaction of the academic atmosphere led to lasting discoveries in oriental ethos.

Chennapattanathu Elleesan’s other great achievement which gathered interest is the acceptance of vaccination in Madras over two centuries ago. Ellis was convinced that vaccination was the only prevention of smallpox epidemics. Ellis knew the local practices and beliefs. He committed a ‘pious fraud’ — he composed the ‘Legend of the Cow Pox’ in the form of a Tamil purana, where Parvathi and Dhanvantri-the God of healing discuss vaccination. Parvathi told Dhanvantri that the vaccine inoculum which came from a cow was the sixth gavya (holy things) from the cow. Of course, Ellis did not claim he was the poet. He lied that he had discovered this as an ancient text on palm leaves. This fraud with good intention got some legitimacy for vaccination in the presidency.

Ellis died when he turned 40 contracting a stomach infection while on a tour in Ramnad. The college was closed in 1852, five years before the company itself wound up and the campus was taken over by the Directorate of Public Instruction.

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