Login with Google

The English Language as Original Sin

September 11, 2022 Authored by: Joseph Dibona

Historians have generally endorsed the assumption that Western institutions, introduced by the British, have had a positive effect on India’s progress. A judiciary dedicated to justice regardless of status, a school system that rewards merit and medical practice that prolongs life are all examples of such benefits that seem to defy debate. Developmental theorists as late as the 1960’s viewed the shortcomings of the Third World as “improvable” over a period of time. With the proper mix of resources and outside help and assuming the necessary “modern Values” could be spread through the population, things were bound to get better. The values necessary for this improvement varied from theorist to theorist but everyone seemed to agree on the importance of saving, achievement, planning, individuality and secularism. It was widely assumed that these qualities were largely absent in traditional society. This is understandable given the lack of interest or knowledge of the indigenous culture so often characteristic of colonial regimes. William Adam’s Reports on Indigenous Education for example are one small instance of that culture and the values it embodied. The student in a Persian school working 6 hours per day to perfect his calligraphy is nothing if not the epitome of deferred gratification, planning and individual effort. Nor would it be easy to argue that without the award of certificates or diplomas, objective criteria of excellence would be less in evidence than in schools where a degree was used. If we look at the schools of Sanskrit learning, we see a system in which Brahmin priests were rewarded directly on the basis of their accomplishments.

If as we argue there is no objective distinction that can be made for the nature of traditional versus modern society, the prevalence of such notions must stem from another source. From the vantage point of Adam’s Reports, we can look at one of the many innovations brought to South Asia by the British i.e., the English language and compare its function with the vernaculars.

In India the advantages of an English education are widely accepted by the Urban population which sends their own children to such institutions whenever possible. Opposed to this are the millions of children in rural areas who have no other recourse but to use the local schools employing the regional language. The virtues of English and its historical contribution to Indian progress are almost always cited by the English educated Indian elite and almost never by those ignorant of the language. The suggestion that the English language itself has been a barrier to economic and social progress is likely to be dismissed as malicious by those benefiting most from English education. The fact that Japan has been able to modernize without benefit of a Western language or Israel could resurrect Hebrew for contemporary purposes, notwithstanding, there remains resistance to the suggestion that the adoption of English continues to serve as a barrier to social and economic progress in South Asia.

This is partially due to the method by which English came to occupy its prestigious position in South Asian Society. There is also some confusion concerning the role of the British government in the support of Indian languages. The famous orientalist controversy settled by T.B. Macaulay in 1835 is interpreted to indicate that the British government only reluctantly endorsed the use of English and that the famous enthusiasts of indigenous institutions such as William Jones, Wilson, Colebrook and H.T. Prinsep, truly represented the attitude of the British government before that time. What this ignores is the only marginal importance of government as opposed to trade at this time while it is true the government only reluctantly endorsed the use of English in India before the 1830’s, there is ample evidence that the English language was extensively used, required and rewarded before this time. The East India Company was a commercial enterprise designed to show a profit in its dealings with India.

It was in these early contacts with natives that the main thrust of colonial enterprises was being felt rather than in the Minutes and Resolutions of government bureaucracy. The English language was being fostered before Macaulay by missionary and private efforts, having little to do with official intent. The Indian historian Amitabha Mukherjee says,

“The English rulers did not go all out for English education before 1835. Long before that there was a keen demand for English education in the country and the urge came mostly from the Bengalese themselves. They received invaluable help from some able and earnest Christian missionaries and broadminded English philanthropists and reformers. It is noteworthy indeed that all the early educational institutions in Bengal owe their origin to the enterprise of private individuals or non-official instructions. The Government came into the picture much later.

But the key to the earliest acceptance of English were those who were most closely involved with the English East India Company in its capacity as a commercial firm. Job Charnock in the 17th century was the Company’s first agent in Bengal. He was forced by Mughal military pressure to establish a settlement in what was to become Calcutta. He chose a place well-protected from the Marathas and inhabited by a prosperous caste of weavers necessary for the Company’s trade. The sea captains who came to Bengal to trade used agents called dobhasias, two language natives, who served as intermediaries and interpreters. Opportunities soon emerged for those who knew and understood English. With the rise in the Company’s fortunes, came an increase in demand for English.

As trade expanded it was the leading Hindu families who became associated with the British trading firms. Raja Ram Mohan Roy was the principal native assistant to the Collector of Rung pore. Dwarkanath Tagore was a partner in the firm of Carr, Tagore and Co., and his cousin Prosunno Coomar Tagore was both a powerful landholder and a lawyer. Ram Komul Sen was a dewan of the Bank of Bengal. Russomoy Dutt was a broker to Messrs. Crittenden Mackillop & Co., and afterwards judge fo the Small Cause Court. Ram Gopal Ghose was member of the firm of Messers Kelsall, Ghose and Co. “These were the principal English speaking native gentlemen, and the most active in the education of their countrymen.”

In 1774 the Supreme Court was installed in Calcutta and required a whole new set of interpreters, clerks, copyists and agents. To learn English without schools called for the ingenuity of those who knew, if not a great deal of English at least a smattering. These first “teachers” turned out to be Eurasians, Armenians and English adventurers living in Calcutta like Sherborne who taught Dwarkanath Tagore the English alphabet. Martin Bowl, another early teacher, taught the founder of the wealthy Seal family.

Aratoon Petros had a school for 50 or 60 students of English. The goal of the majority was to be a copyist or bookkeeper and for this good penmanship rather than keen understanding of the new language was the chief interest of the students. Those who were most successful came from the middle and by now urban classes. As they concentrated on trade and fostering their relations with the expanding colonial power, they were cut off more and more from their own culture and drawn to a greater acceptance of the Western mind and literature.

By the time the Hindu College was established by David Hare in 1817, many young men were fully ready to accept the English curriculum as the learning of the future. In the report of the Committee of Public Instruction for 1837, it could already be said.

“… any young man of moderate abilities might easily make of himself master in a year of the reigns of Henry VIII, Charles I and James II… the class were examined individually with much minuteness and tried by difficult passages in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Bacon’s Essays.

When Macaulay made his famous remarks about the goals of British policy in education saying, “We want a class of persons Indian in blood and color but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect,” there were few Indians to challenge such arrogance. Indeed, there were many who agreed that “a single shelf of good European literature was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

Beside Hare the capitalist, others most closely associated with the new English school erroneously called a Hindu College, were the great enthusiasts of English study – Ram Mohan Roy and Chief Justice Sir Hyde East.

Before the middle of the 19th century Alexander Duff, a missionary, came to Calcutta to open his own completely English college and was so successful that he was imitated all over India. unlike the Serampore missionaries who at least tried to use Bengali, Duff went all the way in English and established a totally Westernized curriculum.

It was this combination of business and government which successfully established English as the dominant idiom of the elite of Bengal and eventually of India. Calcutta as the political, military and commercial capital of India drew the riches of the country to itself and exported its bounty to the benefit of stockholders in London. What Sir Arthur Lewis was to say of development many years later is evident also at this early period of colonial penetration of India. Growth is inevitably a process of unequal distribution in which the hinterland is robbed to enrich the enclaves of power. Resources flow to the expanding enclaves but there is a failure of horizontal spread to the traditional sector.

The spread of British influence into the interior sections of the country brought serious deterioration in the conditions faced by the populance. This in turn resulted in their inability to support many indigenous institutions of which indigenous education was but one. An Englishman’s eyewitness report of 1833 sounds strongly modern in its simple demand for justice and equity:

“… a native would find some difficulty in discovering satisfactory proof that the enrichment of the Black Man had attracted a fair a portion of attention as the profits of the White Man. A native would ask – what has become fo the Cloth Trade to England and Europe? Why is the importation of English cloth encouraged to the detriment and ruin of the Native weaver? Why is Thread and Twist permitted to be imported without a protecting Duty, whereby every cottage in the country may be distressed and injured by losing the support derived from the spinning wheel? What good to the body of the people is contemplated by substituting Machinery for Manual Labor in a country where labor is already too cheap; and that machinery also purchased from a foreign land at a cost which is equal to the charges of manual labor during many years?”

Not only competing British imports brought a change in the prosperity of the average farmer but the addition of cash crops had the same adverse result. This might have been otherwise but the profit from this new practice was so monopolized by the British aided by a few Zamindars, that the peasant’s condition was further depressed. The 1860 Indigo Commission found an enormous amount of coercion involved in the planting of that important crop – coercion because it was so un-remunerative for the cultivator that he had to be forced to work. Here too according to Sankara Sen Gupta, the planters aided by the Zamindars forced the peasants into virtual bondage. From the beginning of the 19th century to about midcentury the production of indigo in Bengal rose from 24,000 to 86,000 maunds. The company profit in the 1820’s averaged 349,040 pounds sterling.

There were other measures the Colonial Government took that hastened the demise of indigenous institutions. One of these was the withdrawal of support for vernacular schools. There were throughout India at the time lands that had been reserved for the support of scholars and teachers. These were normally permitted to continue by the British if their original intention was fulfilled. But in Adam’s Report there are instances. There were other measures the Colonial Government took that hastened the demise of indigenous institutions. One of these was the withdrawal of support for vernacular schools. There were throughout India at the time lands that had been reserved for the support of scholars and teachers. These were normally permitted to continue by the British if their original intention was fulfilled. But in Adam’s Report there are instances where this practice was under attack. In one case detailed in Rajshahi district, an estate was valued at Rs. 8000 and used for support of a Madrasa at Kusbeh Bagh. The collector had appraised the value of the endowment at 30,000 rupees per annum and Adam himself guesses that the institution “had no organization or discipline and that the course of instruction was exceedingly meagre.” Despite the reluctance of government to interfere with these institutions there were always ways that such regulation could be circumvented. If, for example the original intention of the grant – in this case from Shah Jahan some 200 years earlier – was not being met, the British Government could interfere.

Such lands provided the source of additional government revenue and there was every temptation, to find ways to tax them. In testimony given to the Hunter Commission on Punjab in 1882. C.W. Leitner reports:

“Money had to be got out of the Punjab by fair means if possible but it had to be got. No way was so effective as the resumption of rent-free lands. Most of the endowments of indigenous schools were gradually destroyed…”

The author includes long descriptions of schools which were originally endowed by Ranjit Singh and taken away by the elimination of the support they previously enjoyed. If in 1849 there was one indigenous school for each 2000 inhabitants in the most backward areas, by 1882 there was only one government or aided school for each 10,000 inhabitants. Nothing was done for indigenous education except to injure or destroy it.

This process merely continued what had been taking place all during the 19th century. Lord Minto in his famous Minute of March 6, 1811 pointed out that Higher Sanskritic education was gradually decying in Bengal because of the breakup of great zamindars and consequent withdrawal of the patronage which they formally enjoyed.

It is not entirely true that the colonial government ignored vernacular education but it was transformed in government hands into something very different from what Adam describes as the indigenous system of schooling. As early as 1815 Lord Moira speaking of the village teacher said the first rudiments of learning were only available from them.

These men teach the first rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic for a trifling stipend which is within reach of any man’s means and the instruction which they are capable of imparting suffices for the village Zamindar, the village accountant and the village shopkeeper.

But when the Calcutta School Society sought to support vernacular schools they did so in a manner that was very different from what existed in the countryside and was so much a part of the traditional culture of the country. The Calcutta School Society used books produced by the Calcutta School Book Society. These were essentially Western texts in Indian languages intended to bolster the image of European enterprise. The set of Bengali texts in reading were prepared by Lt. J. Stewart. A set of arithmetic tables were compiled by Rev. Robert May. Goldsmith’s abridged History of England was translated into Bengali and Joyce’s Scientific Dialogues on natural science were widely distributed.

Not only were the materials themselves different from what Adam found but the intention of the schools aimed at a culture distinct from what was there originally. In the Central Provinces by the time of the 1882 Commission report the vernacular schools aided or supported by tax revenue had undergone considerable change. Gone were the Hindu holidays like Pratipada (Ist. Of the lunar month), Ashtami (8th of the lunar month), Chaturdashi, Purnmashi – these were disallowed and Sunday substituted in their place. The grant-in aid rules of classes specified age and in place of each boy reading a different text there was group learning.

Morality became a conscious aim of the teaching process with boys being drilled in the virtue of truthfulness, honesty, self-control, submission to authority, good temper, kindness and gentleness. For this type of vernacular education, the Indian middle classes were reluctant to pay since they already saw the advantage of English. For the poor who had always been excluded from the schools any fees were already an intolerable burden. However well intended, English support for the vernacular school was doomed.

Moreover, despite the shallowness of official support for vernacular schools, they suffered more from the invidious comparison with English instruction. For example, when boys did well in Calcutta vernacular schools managed by the Calcutta School Society in the 1830’s they were rewarded by being transferred to the English School. Whatever their protestations to the contrary the Committee of Public Instruction was reprimanded by the Secretary to the Government of India in their report of 1837 when he said,

I deny that there is any efficient cultivation of vernacular study, the majority of the committee having consistently ordered the separate vernacular classes to be abolished and that a little vernacular only shall be taught as an adjunct to instruction in the rudiments of English reading.

From the early 19th century, not only was vernacular education neglected but English was positively favored largely because of the opportunities for employment that existed. The official policy of employment for those knowledgeable in the English language served as a powerful impetus to English and served at the same time as the means for the elimination of indigenous schools. If in 1827 Captain James Paton had to entice scholars with sweetmeats and money to his school in Saugar, this quickly changed. The lavishness of the expenditure for English schools similarly served as an added inducement to the normally poor and drab surroundings of indigenous instruction. In 1835 at Bauleah in Rajshahi, Adam describes an English school in which the teacher’s salary was Rs. 80 per month. Her bungalow cost Rs. 800 to construct and the school was valued at Rs. 1200. This was at a time when a teacher in the indigenous school would consider Rs. 25 a munificent salary.

The results of this shift from vernaculars to the language of the colonial rulers brought many other unexpected results. The alienation of educated Indians from the land is one theme that runs through discussions of Indian education; the other consequence that is really an aspect of the same condition is the erosion of traditional culture. As the vitality of rural institutions diminished, it is easy to see how the urban bureaucratic life would become more attractive. As early as 1860 the Woods Dispatch recognized the problem in calling for support for vernacular schools so Indians could “become useful members of society instead of making them ambitious only for the Clerkship.” The evidence of the demise of indigenous culture is closely associated with the elimination of indigenous schools. As traditional schools disappeared so too did the folklore, and history that gave the rural community its stability and appeal. This process took place all over the subcontinent. Leitner writers of the Punjab.

“It is only where the influence of a government school has extended that these signs of a national intellectual life are disappearing.”

The minstrel praising the exploits of Ranjit Singh or the glories of the Dharma Raj were gone. Boys began to turn against their parents as Derozio, the young Bengal rebel’s students had defied their parents by eating meat and renouncing caste. This in the name of becoming more “rational” and more Western.

Hand-in-hand we see where the English influence spread there the people suffered. Adam said of one Bihar district.

“Tirhoot, for instance, is not only one of the most ancient seats of Hindu learning but at the present day it is still more distinguished as a locality where European settlers are more numerous and wealthy than in most other districts and yet there the ignorance and degradation of the people are most profound, unrelieved by a single European institution formed to enlighten their minds or improve their conditions.

The reason for this unhappy state of affairs was not what Adam conceived to be the Colonialists’ duty to educate his subjects but rather the pursuit of profit. Every Englishman lives and toils, Adam said, “to amass a fortune; no passion is so strong or so pervading.” Needless to say under these circumstances, indigenous schools would probably not excite great concern.

But the increasing wretchedness of the peasants brought about peasant rebels like Titu Mia, who fought against both the native Zamindar of Gobardanga, Kaliprassan Mukhopdhyay and the Manager of the Mollahati Factory, Mr. Davis. Titu Mia lost his life during a battle at Narelbaria in 1839. Another rebel was Dudu Mia of Faridpur. The alliance between foreign urban elites and native landed gentry in Bengal led the zamindars to support the British in their exploitation of peasants. They also agreed with them in the organization of the schools along Western lines. As a result, there were no powerful voices who resisted the demise of vernacular schools any notice being taken of the fact at all. Were it not for Adam’s reports there would probably be no accepted record of what existed as traditional education in the first place. Unlike Sati, thugee, female infanticide, slavery and widow remarriage, indigenous education was never legislated against or overtly attacked. It was instead allowed to die a slow and painless death. The virtues of English as a source of jobs or as “a window on the West” or as a vehicle for female education seemed so patently obvious as to defy argument. The fact that achievement replaced inherited caste and privilege was considered such a boon that on one could try to seriously argue the merit of a traditional structure that had outlived its usefulness. This is where the discourse is best joined. From a more current vantage it is clear that a larger share of the tradition culture could be preserved while at the same time developing a military, scientific and industrial capability. Local languages are also a potentially more democratic medium of instruction capable of being studied by larger numbers than English – always an elinte language. This would have avoided much of the distress and injustice that has accompanied English education. The issue of using vernaculars does not address the issue of content. If the education using indigenous languages simply means translating Western books into Hindi or Marathi, we have some improvement but not the resurrection of indigenous culture that is needed for a national revival. To do this must involve the calling back of that original content that seemed so “quaint” in the 19th century – the pride of history that formed a part of the ancient curriculum, the herbal medicines, the traditional ways of writing, counting, praying. This may appear extreme but only from the perspective of those who have no regard for traditional values or assume that only in Western institutions do those progressive values reside which alone can bring progress and change. David Kopf approaches this when he discusses the Brahmos as a progressive component of Bengal society.

The early 19th century Brahmos were middle-class Hindus who in their devotion to hard work, achievement, entrepreneurship and the elimination of social injustice, were inspired by Indians rather than Clive, Hastings or Bentinck. There was a traditional set of values in Indian society that could have duplicated the ideological development of Japan or Israel without the unfortunate consequences of English.


  1. Basu, Ananthnath: Reports on the state of Education in Bengal 1835 and 1838. (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1941)
  2. Mukherjee, Amitabha: Reform and Regeneration in Bengal 1774-1823. (Calcutta Rabindra Bharati University 1968. P. 14).
  3. George Smith, The Life of Alexander Duff, (New York: A.C. Armstrong & Son, 1879), Vol. I, P. 89.
  4. Ibid. p. 94.
  5. Ibid. p. 96.
  6. India Committee of Public Instructions; Report of the Several Committee of Public Instructions of Fort William in Bengal for the year 1837 (Calcutta: William Rushton and Cr. 1839), p. 7
  7. B.C. Bhatt and J.C. Aggarwal, Educational Documents in India 1813-1868, (New Delhi: Arya Book Depot, 1969), p. 2-3.
  8. David Kopf, British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization 1773-1835, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), p. 261.
  9. W.A. Lewis, “Development and Distribution,” in A. Cairocross and P. Mohinder eds., Employment, Income Distribution and Development Strategy, (London; Macmillian, 1976), p. 26-42.
  10. H. Newman, Esq., East India Questions, Facts and Observations Intended to Convey the Opinions of the Native Population of the Territory of Bengal Respecting the Past and Future (London: James Ridgway, Piccadilly, 1833, p. 17-18).
  11. Sankar Sen Gupta. Ed. Nil Durpan or the Indigo Planting Mirror Mitra, (Calcutta: Indian Publications, 1972), p. Ixxviii.
  12. Basu, op. cit., p. 164.
  13. G.W. Leitner, History of Indigenous Education in the Punjab Since annexation and in 1882, (Calcutta: Printed by the Superintendent of Government, Printing 1883), p, 146-148.
  14. Ibid. p. 3,4.
  15. H. Sharp ed. Selections from Educational Records Part I, 1781-1839, (Calcutta 1920), p. 19-21.
  16. Ibid, p. 24, 25.
  17. Mukherjee, op. cit. 36.
  18. Education Commission, Report of the Central Provinces Provincial Committee, (Calcutta: Printed at the Superintendent of Government Printing, 1884), p. 37.
  19. Ibid. p. 82-84.
  20. Long’s Introduction in Basu, p. 493.
  21. Mukherjee, op. cit., p. 36.
  22. India 1839, p. 62.
  23. Basu, op. cit., p. 184.
  24. G.W. Leitner, op. cit., p. 2.
  25. Kopf, 1969, p. 255.
  26. Basu, p. 312.
  27. Gupta, op. cit., p. LX.
  28. David Kopf, The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 334.

Center for Indic Studies is now on Telegram. For regular updates on Indic Varta, Indic Talks and Indic Courses at CIS, please subscribe to our telegram channel !