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Book History 5 (2002) 239-262

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Book Production in British India, 1850-1900

Robert Darnton


The history of books as a field of study has spread across many disciplines, from bibliography to comparative literature, history, graphic arts, and sociology; but it has not expanded far beyond the Western world. Multivolume national histories of the book have been published or are now being prepared in France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Britain (with separate histories in Scotland and Wales), Ireland, Canada, the United States, and two Western outposts in the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand, but not in Egypt, China, or India.

Why not India? It has a rich literature that extends further back in time than that of any European country, and books have been printed on its soil since 1556, nearly a century before Stephen Day cranked out the Bay Psalm Book in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gifted scholars have studied aspects of publishing and the book trade in India, but no one has been able to get an overview of the subject, not for any lack of talent or resources but because we have not yet acquired basic information about book production. We haven't the foggiest idea of how many books appeared in print at any point in Indian history or of how they were distributed according to [End Page 239] genre, language, and region. Statistics do not tell a story by themselves, of course, but they can open the way to various narratives by revealing patterns. When book history began to establish itself in Western Europe, it relied heavily on quantification. The sources were always imperfect: the papers of the Stationers' Company and library catalogues in the case of Britain; the registers for permission to publish and the dépôt légal in France; the catalogues of the Frankfurt and Leipzig book fairs in Germany. But however flawed or distorted, the statistics provided enough material for book historians to construct a general picture of literary culture, something comparable to the early maps of the New World, which showed the contours of the continents, even though they did not correspond very well to the actual landscape.

Does a comparable source exist for India? Not for the centuries before 1556, when the Portuguese set up the first printing press on the subcontinent. Nor for the following three hundred years, when printing remained confined for the most part to missionary enclaves, imperialist administrations, and occasional newspapers. But by 1858, when the British Raj began to reconstitute itself as a modern, bureaucratic state, book publishing had become an important industry, and the Indian Civil Service (ICS) began to keep track of it. The paper trail in the archives of the ICS begins with occasional "returns" about the output of books; then leads through quarterly "catalogues," which registered new publications; and finally takes the form of annual "reports," which quantified and analyzed book production in each province. To be sure, state-generated material of this kind has a built-in bias. It often reveals more about the British than the "natives" they observed. But for all their tendentiousness, the papers of the ICS make it possible to catch a first glimpse of the overall outlines of literary culture under the British Raj.

The best example of an early return or general account of publishing and the book trade was written in 1859 by James Long, a missionary and man of letters who, as a founder of the Vernacular Literature Society in Calcutta, promoted Bengali literature. With the backing of the lieutenant governor and the director of public instruction in Bengal, Long attempted to survey everything printed in Bengali between April 1857 and April 1858—that is, to produce a general picture of vernacular literature during the year of the sepoy "mutiny," or revolt, of 1857. His return belonged to a general attempt by the British to understand the country that they had conquered and that had just risen against them by compiling data—fundamental "facts," as they put it, on everything from rainfall and wheat yields to human beings and books. Long was a bookman. He inspected...


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