Feature Article

Percival was not an apostate - Prof. Hoole

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 14 July 2009, 22:54 GMT]
“The late Rev. Dr. Kingsley Muthiah (former President of the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka) has told me of cowardly verbal claims that Percival turned apostate to undermine his efforts but this is the first time I have seen it being openly stated”, writes Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole responding to a statement appeared in a TamilNet feature that Percival deviated from evangelism and concentrated on education and accusing the article for adding another dimension to anti-Christian diatribes. Prof. Hoole says Jaffna Tamils have made an icon of Navalar as the translator of the Bible and as father of prose, but earliest Tamil prose may be traced to catechisms of the Roman Catholics.

Prof. Hoole’s responses and TamilNet observations follow:

The Editor

Dear Sir,

Graves of Peter Percival, R B Foote, discovered at Yercaud: Corrections on Peter Percival and Arumuka Navalar

Ratnajeevan Hoole
Ratnajeevan Hoole
I was quite pleased to see your article without making the common pitfall of many Jaffna Vellalas who claim that Navalar wrote the Bible. But your 2nd lead shows some of the same lapses. The link you provide to T.S. Subramaniam’s “The trail of two British innovators in India” (Hindu July 8, 2009) indeed incorrectly states that the first Tamil Bible was translated by Peter Percival.

Navalar was not, as you have stated, a member of the missionary committee of six who were, besides chairman Percival, the American missionaries Levi Spaulding, H. R. Hoisington, Samuel Hutchings, Daniel Poor and Miron Winslow. With six people already identified, there is no further room for a sixth person on this committee. Some scholars while conceding that he was indeed an assistant, state that he was the chief assistant. This again is at odds with the fact that the translation project was from the end of 1845 to 1850 and that Navalar had left Percival’s services in 1847, according to Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam, because of the admission of a low-caste boy to Jaffna Central College. I have a family copy of Peter Percival’s committee’s translation of 1850 because my ancestor, the Rev. Elijah Hoole of Point Pedro, along with Arumuka Navalar of Jaffna, was a Pandit Assistant who rendered the translation by the committee of six missionaries into better Tamil. Elijah Hoole’s role is evident from the Church Missionary Society Archives at University of Birmingham. When he applied to be a CMS clergyman, St. John’s Principal Robert Pargiter attests to the work Hoole had done on the translation project and Hoole himself describes his conversion.

Bible translation is a complex technical, academic exercise that requires learning and training. Navalar and Hoole were unlettered and their role was as assistants and not on the committee of scholars who had to know Hebrew and Greek to do any proper translation. The title page of my copy of that translation reads: “Translated out of the original tongues and with former translations diligently compared and revised." This makes clear that it was not the first translation and that the authors themselves do not make that claim. The first full Tamil translation, ignoring earlier translations of individual books in the New Testament, is known as the Tranquebar version of 1723 by Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (and Benjamin Schultze who completed it upon the former’s demise) and gives us some of the earliest Tamil prose prior to the missions introducing dots over letters, punctuation and spaces between words to make Tamil more readable. Your readers may be interested in seeing how Tamil looked then from the picture of the first page of the Tranquebar version provided:


The 1850 Percival version (called the Tentative Union version because it was made with the tentative permission of the British and Foreign Bible Society for experimental use to see how it turns out) had spaces, dots, punctuations and all.

The fiction about the first translation and exaggerations about Navalar have their origins in the 1960s (from the Jaffna Cooperative movement according to Prof. K. Sivathamby in a personal communication) and wide currency among the Jaffna Vellalas who refer to “the Navalar Bible” which in fact was disowned after 50 years’ use even in Jaffna because of its excessive use of Sanskrit. It is interesting that we Jaffna Tamils even teach through our school texts that Navalar is the father of Tamil prose. In fact he was trained at the Wesleyan School under Percival who used as a reader the book “Instructions to Catechists” by Constantino Giuseppe Beschi, S.J. (1680 - 1747) which he considered the best specimen of Tamil prose at the time. The earliest Tamil prose may be traced to the 17th century catechisms of the Roman Catholics.

Although several later sources join you in claiming that Percival came to Jaffna in 1826, this is unlikely. Percival went to Jaffna as recorded in his own book in 1834 from Bengal (having gone there in 1825 or 26 thereby leading to the misunderstanding) and took over the Wesleyan school in Jaffna later, perhaps after doing pioneering work in Point Pedro. This makes it necessary to reopen the histories of Hartley, Vembadi, Point Pedro Girls’ etc. Percival actually retired from the Wesleyan Mission in Jaffna in 1851 or 52 at the end of his Bible translation project before moving first to Canterbury where, now as a High Church Anglican swept by the then raging Catholic Movement, he taught at St. Augustine’s before going to Madras at the end of Aug. 1854 where he was employed by the university from its founding in 1856 [Editor's note: 1857]. As Registrar (besides Professor), he must have facilitated his former associate C.W. Thamotharampillai working as his Assistant Editor on the Thinavarthamaani and Daniel Carroll (a.k.a Carroll Viswanathapillai) both of Batticotta [Editor's note: Batticotta Seminary that became Jaffna College later] being examined for the first Madras BA examination without taking classes.

Your article has other problems as well. Percival was not “Doctor” when he came to Jaffna, that title in those days referring to what is today the higher doctorate that is earned after several years of scholarship. Nor was he an authority on the Telugu language when he was in Jaffna as implied in your article. But he was already an expert on Bengali when he came to Jaffna and he examined Bengali Bible translations in doing his Tamil opus.

Further, why was the Hartley Centenary Miscellany in 1953 if the school “was started in 1817 as Wesleyan English School and acquired its present name in 1834” as you state? [Editor's note: TamilNet references were to Central College]

The article is also adding another dimension to anti-Christian diatribes by claiming on behalf of a correspondent hiding behind anonymity that Percival “deviated from evangelism” and that this “contributed to the quality of education in Jaffna.” This is patently false. Percival was on fire for making the Bible known in what he considered the best Tamil and worked 6 hours a day from the end of 1845 to 1850 to this end.

If Percival was really off evangelism at Central College, why did he join the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel around 1852, a vibrant evangelical movement? What is true is that he moved away from Methodism to a Protestant version of evangelical Catholicism that claimed “not to throw the baby out with the bath water” as the Reformation had done. And Central College’s contributions to education were minuscule compared to the 64 schools that the Americans operated there. In these circumstances to claim that Central College made such a huge difference to education in Jaffna is by itself an exaggeration. The late Rev. Dr. Kingsley Muthiah (former President of the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka) has told me of cowardly verbal claims that Percival turned apostate to undermine his efforts but this is the first time I have seen it being openly stated. I venture that those who did not understand the difference between Methodism and the Anglo-Catholic Movement, wanting to believe what they want to believe, would have constructed his conversion to the Oxford Movement (which overtook many people including Robert Pargiter who went from the Methodist Church to the Anglican Church and J. Rowley Smythe of the Ceylon Civil Service in Jaffna who converted fully to the Roman Catholic Church) as moving out of Christianity.

Moreover, you make too much of the epitaph “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” The epitaph seems a poor rendering of St. Paul’s Second Letter to St. Timothy, 4.7 which is commonly read out at Christian funeral services and you may wish to check if the original reads as “a good fight” or “the good fight.” Like with Percival, your anonymous correspondent seems to want to make the case without any evidence that Foote also was weak in his faith. When will we Christians be left alone?

Thank you for correcting these. But alas, Navalar being an icon in Jaffna, these untruths about the first Tamil Bible “written by Navalar,” the father of Tamil prose, will continue to be in circulation despite repeated corrections by scholars.

Professor S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Note from the TamilNet Editorial Board:

The responses of Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole to the TamilNet feature, 8th July, ‘Graves of Peter Percival, R B Foote, discovered at Yercaud’, no doubt point to the need for reappraisal of chronology, facts and views. As he points out, the Percival translation was not the first Tamil translation of the Bible and the credit goes to the 18th century Danish missionaries of Tharangkampaadi. The chronology of Percival in Jaffna, cited by contemporary school records of Jaffna may also need scrutiny. We thank Prof. Hoole for the responses and along with our own observations that follow, leave the study to scholars and researchers:

  1. None of the authentic and original biographers of Arumuka Navalar like Kanakaraththina Upaaththiyaayar, or Tha. Kailaasapillai, has claimed that “Navalar wrote the Bible”. All of them have only said that Navalar in his early life was recognized for his Tamil scholarship by Percival and was recruited by him to teach Tamil at his school and to assist him in the Bible translation. There can be no second word that careless or exaggerated secondary writings and casual references later, contributing to the creation of myths, have to be corrected of factual error. But a blanket accusation of caste connotation is unscholarly, as the original biographers, who were Jaffna Vellalas themselves, did not contribute to the myth. Moreover, the phrase 'Jaffna Vellalas' doesn’t exclude Christians of this caste, who were largely not prepared to lose the identity, and both myths and counter myths of the Saiva- Christian (especially Protestant) competition were largely a binary process originating within the same caste.

  2. Attributing the admission of a ‘low-caste’ boy as the reason for Navalar leaving Central College seems to be indiscrete without authentic evidence. Citing Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam is once again secondary. The attribution goes against the spirit of Navalar’s own writings in Pirapanthath-thiraddu, where with evidence he condemns the duplicity of some Christian schools accusing Saivism of caste discrimination on one hand and practising the same on the other hand by dropping low-caste students from their schools, in order to gain acceptance among the higher-castes.

  3. No authentic or academic writer on Navalar has ever said that he was the ‘father of Tamil prose’. He was only referred to in the original writings as “Vachana-nadai kaivantha vallaa’lar”, meaning ‘the one who is an expert in the style of prose’.

  4. It is again another myth to say: “The earliest Tamil prose may be traced to the 17th century catechisms of the Roman Catholics.” No one has fathered the Tamil prose. The logic is that prose precedes verse. The earliest available written examples of Tamil prose can be seen in the Tamil Brahmi inscriptions dating from pre-Christian centuries. The subsequent inscriptions, numbering hundreds of thousands and often lengthy in content, show the continuity and development of Tamil prose over two thousand years. Meanwhile, how could one ignore the array of commentators of classical literature, who had come out with Tamil prose of literary style in the last one thousand years.

  5. The statement “Percival deviated from evangelism” comes from Mr A Theva Rajan, who researched on Percival more than half a century ago, and is clearly cited to him in the feature that appeared on TamilNet. Reactions to “a correspondent hiding behind anonymity,” arise from careless reading. It is true that the American Missionaries, who introduced a non-colonial model of education at the height of colonialism, made a difference in Jaffna, but could this downplay the differences made by enlightened minds in the other Churches and religions that were working in parallel?

  6. Isn’t it true that Geologists and Palaeontologists, especially those who unearthed stone tools and fossils, fought with the Churches, including the Protestant Churches, in mid 19th century, while retaining their faith in a modified way? Anything wrong in seeking meanings in the ‘choice’ of the phrase found in the epitaph of the grave of Foote?

  7. For the sake of humanity, no human institution can be “left alone” from academic perusal.



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