Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Trautmann on Francis Whyte Ellis

I have written recently about the Ellis inscription. My interest in Ellis was kindled by a speech by Prof Thomas Trautmann (University of Michigan) at Roja Muthiah Library in Madras. I was blown away that this true discoverer of the Dravidian languages and a man of several astounding accomplishments was practically forgotten, with credit going to Robert Caldwell, until the recent re-discovery by Trautmann.

In August 2013 I was invited by Mr Shankar of Madras Midtown Rotary Club to give them a talk on Ellis. Mr Narasiah forwarded this email biography of Ellis by none other than Trautmann himself, to help me prepare for this lecture. I had read his books Languages and Nations and The Aryan Debate, and I strongly recommend them. I wrote to Prof Trautmann who is "delighted that my talk encouraged your interest," and with his permission, publish this brief biography of FW Ellis.

Ellis,  Francis Whyte  (1777-1819), orientalist, grew up in Compton, Bedfordshire, and was schooled at The Academy, Burlington Street, London.

He became a writer in the East India Company's service at Madras in 1796. He was promoted to the offices of assistant under-secretary, deputy secretary, and secretary to the board of revenue in 1798, 1801, and 1802 respectively. In 1806 he was appointed judge in Tanjore, but was transferred the same year to the zillah (district) of Masulipatam, when he offended the raja, having incarcerated one of his servants for extorting rents by force. In 1809 he became collector of land customs in the Madras presidency, and in 1810 collector of Madras. 
College of Fort St George - DPI Campus, Egmore

He was largely responsible for planning the college of Fort St George to teach the languages of south India to the junior civil servants posted to Madras, and was senior member of the board of superintendence from its inception in 1812 until his death. He was a leading light of the Madras Literary Society, also begun in 1812. He died unmarried at Ramnad, Madras, of accidental poisoning on 10 March 1819 while on sick leave. His mother, Elizabeth Hubbard, was the main beneficiary of the will he made on his deathbed.
Ellis was a brilliant scholar of the south Indian languages, especially  Tamil, and vowed not to publish before the age of forty; because of his untimely death, he published little in his lifetime. Moreover, his private papers were all lost or destroyed; it was said they ended up in the kitchen of the collector of Madura, and were used by his cook 'to  kindle his fire and singe fowls'.
Ellis's most important accomplishment was the discovery of the  Dravidian language family, a proof of which appeared in 1816, forty years before Robert Caldwell's A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages (1856), which consolidated Ellis's finding, and forty years after Sir William Jones proposed the concept of the Indo-European language family.
The proof appears in an introduction to A. D. Campbell's A Grammar of the Teloogoo Language, published by the college of Fort St George for the use of its students. In it Ellis demonstrated that the Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada languages, although containing abundant loanwords from Sanskrit, are not descended from it, as are the languages of north India, but constitute a separate language family. He showed that the three languages have many cognate words that have no roots in Sanskrit, comprising a common core vocabulary of related words. 
He further asserted, correctly, that the south Indian languages now called Malayalam, Tulu, and Codagu, and Malto (a tribal language in north India) belong to the same family, but that Marathi and Sinhalese, though influenced by it, belong to the Sanskritic language family.The published proof began as a separate Dissertation on Telugu printed for the use of students, and Ellis intended to do the same for Malayalam and Tamil. The Dissertation on Malayalam was published after his death (1878), but the 'Dissertation on Tamil' probably was never printed, because his plans for it grew ever larger, judging from manuscript remains that include a very long treatise on Tamil prosody. 
Towards the end of his life the college press was printing his translation of the Tirukkural of Tiruvalluvar (c.1819), a Tamil classic, but he did not finish it. His contributions to the study of Tamil, had he lived, would have been considerable. 
Madras Literary Society, DPI Campus, Egmore
Two other works are of special importance. A treatise on mirasi (freehold) rights was written when he was collector of Madras and in collaboration with his sheristadar (chief clerk), B. Sancaraya, to explain the system of land tenure prevailing there through ancient legends and historical inscriptions, in response to a request for information from the board of revenue. It is notable for its attack upon the belief that oriental despotism (the ownership of all land by the sovereign) was the original constitution of India, arguing that private property in land was ancient in this region. It was first published by the government of Madras in 1818. 
Second, he wrote a long article dealing with the purported Veda called the Ezour Vedam , which had become famous in Europe through Voltaire, who, relying on its authenticity and antiquity, had used it as evidence that deism was the original and universal religion of mankind, against the claims of Christianity. Ellis's article, published in the Asiatic Researches in 1822, proved that the Ezour Vedam had been composed by Jesuit missionaries in India. 
Here is Mr Narasiah's article on Trautmann's lecture

Prof Trautmann adds:
You may know that recently Manu Francis found in a library in France the Tamil composition of Ellis, a treatise on the smallpox vaccination in the form of a colloquy between Shakti and Dhanvantari.  I had found Ellis' English translation of his own composition, and published it in my "Languages and Nations" book.  I could not have been more pleased that this Tamil original has now been found, which is what I hoped when I published the translation.

The introduction of vaccination in the Madras Presidency is another remarkable contribution of Ellis, and deserves to be commemorated.


  1. how sad that he died so young.

  2. Any more info about vaccination of Ellis ! It will of interest to know about his interepatation of 'Mariyamman ' !!

  3. injamaven : Kathie, yes, a terrible loss. But thousands of people died young those days, of diseases or injuries that are curable by medicines avaliable at very low costs now.

    Ellis had planned to actively take publish his research after he turned forty. He did not expect to die at 41.

  4. Mohan - I will write about vaccination and Ellis later. Please read the link to the Manu Francis discovery

  5. Very informative. In fact, Konkani that's similar to Marathi has a lot of sanskrit words that are a little unusual and unseen even in Kannada.

    Your line on his contribution towards vaccination in Madras Presidency took me briefly to your lecture on vaccination I had watched in the initial times of corona and took me there once again now. It connects beautifully. Chennai pattanathu Elleesan and his Aaraam aa vara viLakkam - the conversation between Dhanvantari and Shakti on the sixth Panchagavyam, which I had thought was a very novel idea then.

    Also, happened to see in that talk about how Smallpox and typhoid-infected blankets were used as bio-weapons on native Indians. That hadn't registered so well with me earlier as it is now when we're living through those times. And the vaccine resistance of those times continues now too, not necessarily for wrong reasons.

    How beautifully your stories are helping me see different times on the same canvas as you unfold each character from history.