A couple of months ago Matthias spoke about the excitement of hunting in the archive. As he said, the sense of anticipation when you don’t know exactly what a box or folder in front of you might contain is sharp but you also hold yourself back, warning yourself against disappointment. But then, once in a while, you hold your breath as you spot that one piece of paper that makes all the hours spent rummaging through piles of yellowing documents worthwhile….
This is what happened unexpectedly just a few weeks ago. After having spent some days familiarizing myself with the way the National Library of Scotland catalogues its nineteenth-century manuscripts and compiling a list of Scottish missionaries who had worked in Tamil-speaking parts of South India, I thought it might be time to give the archives a try. I had just returned to Edinburgh after travelling away to a conference in the summer and was still feeling jetlagged as I walked up to the majestic buildings of the library on King George IV Bridge. Questioning the wisdom of starting on a fresh archive when tired and lacking energy, I steeled myself against disappointment. I hadn’t previously found particular mention of any conversion accounts in the catalogue, just papers relating to ‘Madras,’ which, as a search category, is a rather broad term (useful in some ways but dangerously time-consuming if you have just a few hours in the archive). But I compelled myself to go—after all I had to start at some point—disciplining my wandering attention, still lagging behind in climes sunnier than Edinburgh.
I ordered two boxes simply titled ‘Madras’ (MS 7532). In the half hour wait for the boxes, I continued to look for any mention of the Scottish missionaries based in Madras between 1800-1900, hoping that I would encounter a John Anderson, whose name I had repeatedly come across in mid-nineteenth century journal articles in the British Library in connection with the conversion of Tamil boys who had been attending the Free Church of Scotland School in Madras. Nothing! So when I finally received the box marked ‘Madras,’ as you can imagine, I had little expectation of finding anything relevant to the project. The large box seemed to contain hand-written letters by Scottish missionaries to their headquarters in Edinburgh. Glancing through these to identify names, dates and subject, I soon found my first John Anderson letter. In an irregular hand, he talks of his arrival in Madras and the training he’s received so far. Mildly interesting, I moved on.
A couple of letters later, I spotted the name ‘Ramanoojooloo,’ by whom I had earlier found a published letter in the bilingual Jaffna journal Morning Star [BL SMS 236]. What was interesting about some short pieces on him titled “Ramanoojooloo—Return of an Apostate” (1848) was that he had apparently declared his change in belief, “went back” and later “returned” to the Christian faith but from all accounts he was viewed with some skepticism by the different religious groups observing. Interesting, I thought, and read Anderson’s letter more closely. Yes, it was the same man, the dates and details matched—so finally I had a short account by a convert as well as a description by the missionary who was primarily involved with his conversion. Excited, I went up to the desk and asked for permission to photograph the letter, filled out the forms and returned to take pictures of the two letters. Who could ask for more in the first hour of the hunt?! Not daring to expect more, I turned over a few more papers and discovered letter after letter by Anderson and a few young converts to Christianity, either writing to him or to each other at different stages of their conversion journey. My hands were now trembling with excitement and I could barely hold my camera steady…!