Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of India from 1773 to 1785 had a respectful view of India and wanted the Englishmen to learn the language and culture and blend in. Hastings founded the Calcutta Madrassah for training Muslims in Islamic Law and Jonathan Duncan founded the Sanskrit College in Benares for the preservation and cultivation of the Hindu laws, literature and religion. In the College of Fort William in Calcutta, the employees of the East India Company had to learn Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, six Indian vernaculars, Hindu, Muslim and English law before being appointed as judges, officials and administrators. The college had the patronage of Orientalists like Sir William Jones, best known for his observation that Sanskrit bore resemblance to Latin and Greek.Sir Alexander Johnston, an Orientalist who had mastered Tamil, Telugu and Hindustani and had learned Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist customs had high regard for India and Indians. He told the Parliament that India had been governed for two thousand years by the natives and they were as competent as Europeans. He asserted that Hindus had made the same progress in logic and metaphysics by 1500 BC, possessed laws superior to the Greek, had knowledge of the numerical system and devised astronomical tables of great worth by 3000 BC. The Orientalists were sure that a social change was required in India and that change would come when Indian rediscovered the roots of their civilization.
The Anglicists consisting of Halt Mackenzie and Charles Trevelyan (Thomas Macaulay’s brother-in-law) argued that the aim of the British should not be to teach Hindu learning, but useful learning and that Hindu and Muslim literature contained only a small portion of any utility. The Orientalists countered that the metaphysical sciences found in Sanskrit and Arabic were worthy of being studied, but the real progress was only in studying European languages.
While this debate was going on between the Anglicists and Orientalists was going on, economic, political and religious reasons worked in favor of the Anglicists. In 1827, William Bentinck, whose previous avatar as the Governor of Madras came to an end with the mutiny in Vellore, was sent as the Governor General of India. This time his mission was to turn around the loss making British East India company and one idea was to use more Indians in judicial and administrative posts, reducing the burden on the English establishment. Thus arose a need for a large number of Indians who could speak and understand English. Bentinck also wanted to cut down on the translation of English books into vernacular since it was more cost effective to supply English books.
While economic and political reasons were factors for introducing English education in India by the British, less mentioned is the fact that most of the Anglicists were also Evangelicals who thought that the arrival of English language would cause the death of Hinduism.
The first signs of dissent came in 1792 from Charles Grant, a British politician and Evangelical, who proposed English education instead of Indian vernaculars mainly as a way to undermine what he called the Hindu fabric of error. Introduction of English, he reasoned, would show Hindus how absurd their religion was and dispel many of their myths. The spread of English arts, science and philosophy, along with the spread of Christianity, according to Mr. Grant, would enable the Indian people to rise to the level of human beings.
Initially the East India Company maintained a policy of religious neutrality even denying permission to missionaries to work in the country. When the charter of the East India Company came for renewal before the Parliament in 1813, the Evangelicals, including Zachary Macaulay, father of Thomas Macaulay, had become influential as to add a provision allowing missionaries to enter the country legally, as well as provide public funding for Indian education. The wording of this Charter Act of 1813 would be subject to intense scrutiny by Thomas Macaulay during his time in India.
Trevelyan, Macaulay’s brother-in-law, was sure that English education would bring the end of the idolatrous religion of India since Hinduism was not a religion which would bear examination. All that was needed, according to him, was to prove that the world did not rest on the back of a tortoise or is it composed of concentric circles of wine, cake and milk and the religion would be gone. The enlightened natives would need a religion and they would go for Christianity.
It is not that Orientalists were any better. Sir William Jones who discovered the relationship between Sanskrit and European languages believed that Bible was history, Indians were descended from Noah’s son Ham and Vedas were not written before the Biblical flood.
It is in 1832 that Macaulay makes his first appearance, as a member of the Select Committee in Britain which looked into the affairs of the East India Company. The Committee had concluded that the cultivation of English was needed for placing natives in positions of trust as well for operating on their habits and character. Meanwhile in India, the fight between the Orientalists, who believed in educating Europeans in the language of the East and Anglicists who believed in educating the Asians in sciences of the West became more than just a linguistic battle.
The debate took political overtones with Trevelyan using the term “liberal” for his cause thus depicting the Orientalists as conservative. Trevelyan concluded that the most effective way of communicating knowledge to Indian youth was by teaching them English literature and when that was not possible, by providing translations in native languages, but not through Oriental studies. In 1830, there was not much by means of popular elementary education and both the Anglicists and Orientalists agreed that vernaculars were the best for education at lower levels. Though they agreed on the vernaculars, their disagreement was on the use and value of classical Indian languages.
It was not as if Trevelyan did not know much about India’s past. In one of his tracts he noted that Hindus were literate at a time when the British were barbarians and after many years of foreign rule and anarchy, they remained literate. His fight was against the Orientalists who according to him did nothing for the enlightenment of the Asians. In fact the fight was not an either-or fight between English and Oriental languages, but over priorities. The Orientalists recognized the need for European science and literature, but thought their first duty was to revive and extend the literature of the country, while the Anglicists were for direct instruction in English.
Even before Macaulay set foot in India, the British were battling with ideas for the extension of British rule for at least a century, and to introduce Christianity while maintaining “religious neutrality”. The means for achieving all those, through English, had almost been won by the Anglicists under the leadership of Charles Trevelyan even though Orientalists occupied all important positions in the field of education.
So invigorated was he by his pending victory that Trevelyan was willing to spend rest of his life for the moral and intellectual regeneration of the people of India. He wanted to establish an education system comprehensive enough to expand to every village in the country which would change the face of India in quarter century. He claimed that Hinduism and Mohammedanism would be shaken to the core and “our language, our learning and our religion would be established in India”.
In the 1820s and 1830s there was an interest among wealthy Bengali Hindus to learn English, European literature and science and for that purpose they established a Hindu college. Their aim was not to reject the Hindu heritage, but to learn from the West without bias. This venture had the support of conservative Hindus and reformers like Ram Mohan Roy. These reformers hoped that English would instruct Indians in mathematics, natural philosophy and useful sciences instead of Vedantic speculation and their efforts were used by Trevelyan and Macaulay for their campaign.