William Carey: More a visionary reformer 

than a missionary

Rev. Martin Adhikary


THE life of William Carey cannot be described within a limited space. He has rightly been called the 'Patriarch of Modern Missionary Movement'. With deepest commitment to value people and trust in God, he turned as not only one of the greatest Christian missionaries but also a great reformer of the modern era. He was a versatile genius and a great institution himself. His life is an example of how, with genuine and selfless love for the cause of the oppressed people, one can do great work. Carey was born on August 17, 1761 to Elizabeth and Edmund Carey in the obscure village Paulerspury in the English county of Northamtonshire, the county wherefrom the leader of American Independence from the British, George Washington, also came. Edmund Carey was first a weaver, and later on, the teacher at the local component of the Church of England.

From the very beginning of his work in the then India, Carey faced great opposition from the East India Company, which did not allow him to travel on their ship. So he had to travel on a Danish ship. While in Calcutta and several other places he continued to be bothered and teased by the Company staff since his work would undermine their colonial interests. Hardships followed in Carey's life during his early days in India. Financial crisis topped the list. He was even compelled to take up job in the indigo plantations at places like Maldah, Madnabati to support his family and work. Carey should not be misunderstood for working for the East India Company.

His life and work started to have seminal impact when he settled in 1800 with his missionary colleagues Joshua and Hannah Marshman, William Ward, Fountain at Serampore -- which was a Danish settlement. It is at Serampore where Danish Crown and his colleagues did great deal of works in the field of education, socio-cultural development for the ordinary people. The foundation of the Serampore College is one of the greatest milestones. This institution came to be known as the first university in modern Asia.

Carey lived here till he breathed his last on 9th June, 1938.

Though the primary purpose of the Serampore missionaries was evangelistic, they recognised the fact that education for the local people was of supreme importance. On June 1, 1800 the first school for Bengali boys was opened. By 1818, they were able to start 100 schools with about 10,000 Bengali boys. He first introduced modern primary education at the grassroots in India. He was also the initiator of education for women. A Society was formed with the leadership of Hannah Marshman with the objective of spreading education among the females. In 1821 a girls' school was opened at Serampore, and by the year 1828, there were 31 such schools with about 510 girls. All these efforts culminated in the foundation of the Serampore College in 1818.

Carey's contributions in translations, printing and journalism are also of great importance. He translated some of the Indian epics including Ramayana from Sanskrit into English. Carey got an old printing press with which he printed the complete New Testament in Bangla in February 1801. By the year 1834 when he died the entire Bible had been issued in 6 complete translations and the New Testament in 23 languages. Other pioneering works of Carey and his colleagues in Indian languages include his works on grammar, dictionaries, storybooks and the Kathopokathan in Bangla. They first published the periodicals the Dig Darshana and the Samachar Darpon in 1818. The third one The Friend of India that appeared came to be eventually merged with the Statesman of India in 1875. Carey was appointed first as lecturer in Bengali at Fort William College, Calcutta, and later as Professor in Bengali, Sanskrit and Marathi languages.

When Carey came to India towards the end of the 18th century there were many oppressive bizarre and outlandish practices here in the name of religion. They included the Sati, infanticide (throwing first born children in the rivers, and killing them under Chariots on Ratha Jatra), Banfora (self immolation), burning alive of leprosy patients, ontorjoli (keeping the lower part of the body of a dying person under water until one dies), Charok puja, etc. Only in Bengal on an average 7-8 hundred widows were burnt on the funeral pyres of their husbands annually. One day Carey saw such a widow-burning event: several people were beating a young widow and thus grabbing her to the pyre of her husband. Carey's whole person was terribly shakened and saddened at that event. He ran to those people and cried out against what they were after. He appealed to them to spare the woman's life. Who would listen to him, or to the helpless cry of the woman? Apart from all the atrocities attached to the event there was the deadening noise of the drums so that none would hear her cry! Carey shouted to those merciless people, "I will testify against you for this kind of things and barbarism on the Day of Judgement." It must be mentioned, however, that before Carey there were voices raised against this horrible practice both by great Indian reformers like Iswar Chandra Vidyasagor, and expatriate people like Francis Bernie, Job Charnock, Hallwell, etc. The Scottish missionary Alexander Duff was first to recommend to the British Government for the abolition of Sati. It should also be mentioned that some local leaders like Rani Bhabani in Natore, Rajshahi had forbidden the practice in her Zemindery.

It was a Sunday, December 5th 1829. Carey was already in his clerical gown ready to leave his residence for the Church. The doorbell range. The message that the caller brought him was of utmost importance to him and it was from no less a person than the Governor General Lord William Bentinck himself. It was a request from Lord Bentinck to translate his Edict abolishing Sati throughout the British Empire. Immediately Carey gave the responsibility of conducting the Church Worship to one of his colleagues and sat down to translate the historic Edict in Bengali since he thought any delay in circulating the same in the local language may cause the unwanted death of women on their husbands funeral pyres.

Many of the above-mentioned evil practices were stopped by government enactments in those days as a result of movements in which Carey took most active part. He was, in all these, joined and encouraged by both the British and the national reformers and missionary colleagues like Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Alexander Duff, Joshua and Hannah Marshman, William Ward, Claudius Buchanon, Woodney and many others.

Instead of doing works to stop the evil practices for the overall development of the people of India the East India Company officers were indifferent to them because they knew it well that primitive state of things would favour sustaining their interest of exploiting the local people. Most of the East India Company officials were not intentional in correcting the social ills and were not in favour of advancing education among common people. Carey was advised by many of them not to do much against those issues because that might hurt the vested interest of the high society which, in turn, might go against the interests of the colonial power. But with reforming and progressive-minded leaders, both local and expatriate, Carey tried to do whatever he could to correct many such ills.

The Permanent Settlement of Lord Cornwalice in 1792 gave much privilege to the European traders to become rich landlords. As a result exploitation and oppression of the ordinary people ensured in a greater degree. Too many people became helpless. Carey and his colleagues also protested against such exploitation. For the financial benefit of the people Carey also founded a Savings Bank at Serampore in 1819.

Carey was a great linguist and translator. He could read, write and speak in at least 36 Indian languages including Bangla. In 1824 the government of India appointed him as Bengali translator. We owe Carey a great deal for his contribution towards the development of Bangla language. Carey gave a good shape to our Bangla prose and helped develop it to be a popular language. "Carey was the pioneer of the revival of interest in the vernaculars" so said Rabindranath Tagore. Carey himself said of Bangla as "one of the most expressive and elegant languages of the East."

Carey did not confine himself only in lip service to his faith. He did a great deal of work for the promotion of human values and dignity and quality of life of the down-trodden and weak people, who were economically, socially as well as spiritually oppressed both by the colonials as well as by the rich powerful peoples. His was a holistic view of human progress and development.

A great champion of human rights and justice Carey ever since his childhood days, spoke for justice for all people. When he was only eleven years old he stopped taking sugar. Because he had heard that the sugar that they used in England was produced by the Negro slaves in America who were so were deprived of most of their basic human rights. Carey dedicated his whole life for the service to the helpless and weak people in India. He left England for Calcutta on 13th June, 1793 arriving there 11th November of the same year never to return to his home country. He lived and labored and loved. He did his best for the cause of improving the quality of life of people, whom he dearly loved. He said, "I am wedded to India.... I am doing what I can."

Source : The Daily Star, Dhaka, June 16, 2001

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