Bethune Society, Calcutta, 1851

Medical College Hospital Calcutta-1835x-inscribed-W.H.CA Vendis-CompanySchool

বেথুন সোসাইটি, কলকাতা, ১৮৫১


Eliot Drinkwater Bethune

The Bethune Society, a literary association named after Eliot Drinkwater Bethune, was established in Calcutta jointly by some liberal Europeans and enlightened natives in December 1851. The Society was set up for the consideration and discussion of questions connected with literature and science ‘with the object of promoting the spirit of inquiry and knowledge among the Bengalis on the one hand, and establishing racial harmony between the Europeans and the natives on the other’ [See Sirajul Islam]. It was Dr FJ Mouat, the Secretary to the Medical College and of the Council of Education who actually initiated and brought about this noble institution of non-political and non-theocratic character to carry on the name of the Hon’ble Mr. Bethune, Legislative Member of the Supreme Council and President of the Government of Education, then lately deceased, and to commemorate his great services and boundless liberality in promoting the cause of the Native Female Education.

Mouat_frederic johnx

Frederic John Mouat

In contemporary society, he was well known for his liberal views and acts. Bethune drafted a bill making the Europeans and Indians equal in the eye of law. In the first meeting held on 11 December 1851 in the Medical College Theatre, Mouat explained how a society ‘not so serious as the Asiatic Society and nor so light-hearted as many others around’ was necessary for serving the rising middle class of the country. He also proposed to bear personally the entire operational cost of the Society for one year.
The first Council of the Society was formed with the FJ Mouat (President), Ramgopal Ghosh and Rev. James Long (Vice-President), Peary Chand Mitra (General Secretary), and the Major GT Marshall, Rev Krishnamohan Banerjee and Debendranath Tagore as founder members. There had been quite a large number of learned dignitaries enrolled themselves as honorable members of the Society, namely, Dr Spunger, Dr Goodeve Chackerbutty, L Chat Esq, Baboo Ramgopal Ghose, Radhanath Sikdar, Ram Chandra Bose, Kylas Chandra Bose, Huro Mohan Chatterjea, Jagadisnath Roy, Nabin Chandra Mittra, Peary Mohun Sircar, Russick Lal Sein, Prassunna Kumar Mitra, Gopal Chandra Dutt, Hurry Chandra Dutt, Dukhina Ranjan Mookerjee. Begun with only 21 members, the Society’s membership rose to 250 in 1860.


Peary Chand Mittra

The Bethune Society lasted for forty years. The Society, for the impressive contributions it made all these years toward the intellectual improvement of the society at large deserves a special place in the social as well as educational history of the country. The Hall of the Medical College in which the Society used to hold its meetings resounded time and again with the eloquence of learned men like Dr Mouat, Dr Duff, Collonel Goodwyn, Dr Rever, Gr Chevers, Rev. Dall, Goodeve Chackerbutty, Rev K M Banerjee, Rev Lal Behari Day, Koylas Chunder Bose,Grish Chunder Ghose, Kissory Chand Mittra, Peary Churn Sircar, Prossunno Coomar Surbadhicary, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Ramchandra Mitra, Haramohan Chattopadhyaya, Radhanath Sikdar, Raja Pratapchandra Singha, Nabin Kristo Bose, Rajendralala Mitra, Dr Mahendra Lal Sircar”.


Ramgopal Ghosh

On the invitation of the Bethune Society, young Rabindranath, made his first public reading on the subject of Music at the Medical College Hall, the evening before he started on the voyage to England in 1878. The event was presided by Reverend K. M. Banerji. [See Tagore. Reminiscence] The lectures delivered were subsequently published as articles in Society’s Transactions, or separately in book form [ see B.S. Selections]. Due to their inherent values the Society publications are referred to even today in studies on indigenous arts and sciences. ‘In those days H E the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal and the highest officials did not hesitate to attend the meeting of the Society without special invitation to listen to the lectures of the eminent speakers’ [see Manmathanath].
Though short lived, the Bethune Society was successful in achieving its objects: it could help develop scientific outlook among many Bengalis and promote understanding and toleration between the Indians and the Europeans. [Sirajul Islam]

The painting featured at the top depicts the front view of the Medical College Hospital, Calcutta where the meetings of the Bethune Society were held. This is a Company school of painting inscribed ‘W.H.CA Vendis’ at lower right, dated c1835. Courtesy: Christie’s

Calcutta School-Book Society, Calcutta, 1817

কলকাতা স্কুল-বুক সোসাইটি, ১৮১৭

The thriving desire among the Bengali communities for learning English and western sciences marked the beginning of the 19th century Bengal with the establishment of Fort William College in 1800 by Marquis Wellesley. For Bengali Hindus, in particular, the urge for English education was so desperate that they went to establish institutions at their own cost. It was largely because of the fact that English was the language of the Rulers, and their language brought many occupational and professional advantages. This trend of thoughts led to the founding of the Hindu College and the Oriental Seminary in early part of 19th century. Further move toward educational progress was taken place with the establishment of a School Book Society in Calcutta in 1817. [See Salauddin Ahmed]

The want of elementary books in Bengali and Hindustani languages had for some time been experienced at Fort William College. An establishment of an independent Institution to take charge of such business was being considered in the light of existing trend of thoughts. Presumably, some enthusiast within the circle of Fort William College, like a David Hare, might have actually initiated the idea and helped in forming an association for careful inquiry and deliberation on the subject.
The association set up for this purpose led to a more extended meeting in the month of May 1817, at the College of Fort William, when some preliminary rules were framed for the Institution, proposed to be established under the name of the Calcutta Book Society. A provisional Committee was appointed, with Sir Cecil Beadon, Esq as its President, and eight Members, namely D. Elliott, W Gordon Young, W. N Leer, J Wanger, H Woodrow, Kalikrishna Bahadur, Kashiprasad Ghosh, and Ramgopal Ghosh. The Bank of Bengal was the Treasurer. The Committee was formed: to take measure for making its purpose known to public; to procure it pecuniary support of all classes of the community; and to gather ‘the aid of labours and advice of learned men’. On receiving the report of the Provisional Committee, the School Book Society was finally organized and ‘instituted’ on the 4th July of 1817 with a set of operative statements of objectives, such as,
That the Institution was to be denominated ‘The Calcutta School-Book Society’;
That the Society was to manage preparation, publication, and cheap or gratuitous supply of works useful to Schools and Seminaries of learning;
That the Society was not to furnish religious books but free to supply of moral tracts non-interfering with religious sentiments of anyone;
That the Society was to furnish books of school instructions in English and Asiatic languages; and more.
The remaining objectives defined the constitution of the Society, delineated the rights and privileges of its members, ‘who may be of whatever nation, subscribing any sum annually to the funds of the Society’, and allowed formation of School-Book Associations auxiliary to the Society for the benefit of obtaining school books worth full amount of their annual subscriptions at cost price. [See Provisional Committee Report]

‘The Calcutta School-Book Society, in fact, was the first institution of its kind, which was sponsored by a number of public spirited individuals belonging to different religious denominations and situations.’ Thus the first managing committee of the Society for the year 1817-18 included orthodox Hindus like Pundit Mrityunjay Vidyalankar, Radhakanta Deb, Ramkamal Sen and Tarinicharan Mitra. The Muslim members of the Committee were Maulvi Aminullah, Maulvi Karam Hussain, Maulvi Abdul Wahid and Maulvi Abdul Hamid. The missionaries and churchmen were represented by William Carey and the Rev. J. Parson and the Rev. T. Tomason; while among the officials were W.B. Bayley, who was elected President of the Society, Sir Edward Hyde East and J H Harrington. The two Indian secretaries of the Society were Tarinicharan Mitra and Maulvi Abdul Wahid. The Society was patronized and subscribed to by the Governor-General Lord Hastings and his wife and many English officials and businessmen and also by a considerable number of Hindu and Muslim zamindars and merchants. Even the orthodox Hindu and Muslim communities were so much enthused over the prospect of English education that they unhesitatingly joined hands with the Christian missionaries and Britishers in developing the Society. [See Charles Lushington]

Shortly, it became clear that the objectives of the Society could not be advanced proficiently unless a sufficient number of schools was there to utilize Society’s publications. Hence the Calcutta School Society came into existence in September 1818 to set up elementary schools and support those already existed. [See puronokolkata]
The Second Annual General Meeting of the Calcutta School Book Society was held on September 21, 1819 at the Town Hall, Calcutta with the Honourable Chief Justice W.B. Bayley as the Chairman. It was reported that last year an amount of Rs. 5290 as donation and Rs 2935 as subscription were collected by the Society. During its initial four years, the Society produced and distributed as many as 126446 copies useful works in different languages without financial support of the Government. However, an annual Government Grant of Rs.7000 was made available from 1821 onward. On the motion of Rev. Dr. Carey it was ‘Resolved unanimously, that the special thanks of this meeting be presented to the Native gentlemen, whether in or out of the Committee, for their seasonable and zealous exertions in the various departments of the Society’s undertakings, without whose valuable cooperation the numerous works described in report could never have been accomplished.’
In July 1830, the Society obtained permission to reprint books published by the London Society for Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. The same year, Calcutta Christian Observer openly admired the Society as a ‘truly valuable Institution’ while reviewing its 10th Annual Report, and reported that the copies issued from the depository within the given period, 1832-33, amounted to 26,380. Of these no fewer than 14,792 were books in the English language. They also noted with some pleasure the decrease in the demand for books in the Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian languages, being the spoken language of no one. [See Calcutta Christian Observer. V.3]
The Society gained its importance on two grounds: Preparation of School Books, and Procurement of School Books. “The elementary Class-Books in English which are used in the Government Schools were for the most part compiled under the direction of the Calcutta School Book Society. They consist of a series of English Headers, and of Treatises on Arithmetic, Geography and History. It does not appear that any difficulty whatever was experienced by the Society in procuring books. The Branch Depositories of the Calcutta School Book Society in every part of the country supplied all the ordinary Class-Books; and such other books as were required could easily be procured in Calcutta or direct from England”.
In regard to Vernacular Class Books, James Kerr reported, “The preparation of classbooks in the Vernacular languages, was one of the first objects that engaged the attention of the friends of Native Education. Long before the re-organization of the Educational Committee in 1835, the Calcutta School Book Society had commenced its useful labours, and had published and brought into circulation many thousands of class books. The Society still exists, and has only relaxed in its efforts, because a large number of books, all those are most useful for the purpose of a good elementary education, have now been prepared.” [See James Kerr]

Much later, the Calcutta School-Book Society and the Vernacular Literature Society was amalgamated on the 22nd April. The stock of books of the Vernacular Literature Society was taken over next October. The current address of the Society was no.9 Government Place East. The Society’s Depository was removed from Lower Circular Road to 12 Lal Bazar next month.
As it was amply verified, by the old records and reviews available today, that the Calcutta School-Book-Society admirably served the purpose for which it was started.

The above colored acquaint painted by James Baillie Fraser in 1826 depicts the Town Hall of Calcutta, erected in 1813, where most of the meetings of the Calcutta School-Book Society took place.

Bethune School, Laying of Foundation Stone, Cornwallis Square, Calcutta, 1850

বেথুন স্কুল ভিত্তি প্রস্থর স্থাপন, কর্ণওয়ালিস স্কোয়ার, কলকাতা ১৮৫০
Bethune set up his Hindu Female School, a secular native female school, in 1849. He did it with the support of such people as Dakshina Ranjan Mukherjee, Ramgopal Ghosh, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, and Madan Mohan Tarkalankar. The School was built first on a piece of land donated by Dakshina Ranjan at Mirzapur in Calcutta. It was renamed as Bethune School on 7 May 1849 which started functioning with twenty-one girls on its roll. Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar was the Secretary of the Managing Committee and also one of its chief patrons. Bethune donated all his movable and immovable property to the school. After the death of John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune on 12 August 1851, the school was shifted to a new building on the West of Cornwallis Square, where its foundation stone was laid on 6 November 1850. As soon as the school was established the orthodox society reacted sharply against the development. The school went through a rough time until it was amalgamated with Banga Mahila Vidyalaya, initially established as Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya by Annette Akroyd, and some Brahmo gentlemen, including Dwarkanath Ganguly. A number of bright students joined the institution – Kadambini Bose, Sarala Das, Abala Das, and Subarnaprabha Basu, all of whom were prominent figures later. Bethune School was an eye-opener for the Bengali upper middleclass and led to the opening of other such schools. In 1894, out of 138 students in Bethune School, 70 were Hindus, 55 Brahmos and 13 Christians. It was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that prejudice against women’s education had almost gone. See more
This is a pen and ink representation of the event of laying foundation stone of the school building sketched by some unknown contemporary artist. Source: Bethune School and College Centenary Volume 1949