Print History: Jesuit Historians and Printing in Sixteenth Century India

The history of printing in sixteenth century India was hazy until Jesuit historians began methodically excavating the archives of the Society of Jesus from the 1850s. Many historians and bibliographers helped shape the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle which is still being assembled

31 Jan 2023 | By Murali Ranganathan

Rachol Seminary, Goa, where one of the early printing presses was located

In 1956, Anant Kakba Priolkar (1895–1973), a historian who wrote mainly in Marathi, began compiling a history of printing in India to commemorate the quatercentenary of the arrival of print on Indian shores. By then, it was well known that the first printing press arrived in India under the auspices of the Society of Jesus at Goa in September 1556. The first known imprint from this press appeared in November of that year. Priolkar, a native of Goa whose early education was in Portuguese, was well equipped to tackle this subject as most of the source material and related research were in that language. He relied on a wide variety of sources—primary and secondary—which had been exhumed and edited in the previous hundred years by numerous historians, bibliographers, annalists, biographers and archivists. Many of these researchers were ordained members of the Society of Jesus and had ready access to the extensive archives and libraries maintained by that organisation.

The Society of Jesus, a global Christian missionary organisation founded in 1540, worked closely with Portuguese colonial authorities across the world. Its members, admitted “after a solemn vow of perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience,” were charged with disseminating the Christian religion to the farthest corners of the world. Its efforts in India and the rest of Asia were led by Francis Xavier, one of the founding Jesuits who arrived in Goa in 1542. From the very start, the Jesuits instituted a system to maintain an extensive correspondence with their members who worked in far-flung locations. They also wrote histories, travel accounts, annual reports, observations on contemporary political events and also dabbled in geography, botany and many other subjects. All these papers eventually found their way into the Jesuit archives across Europe. The Jesuits also harnessed the printing press to publish Christian tracts, mission histories, biographies and missionary annals. For over two centuries, the Jesuits were at the vanguard of the Portuguese colonial apparatus and wherever they went, a printing press followed soon after. However, the Society of Jesus was suppressed in 1759 in Portugal and its colonies for political, economic and theological reasons. In 1773, a papal bull ordered its suppression across most of Europe. When the Society was restored in 1814, it began to modernise and reorganise extensively to make itself relevant in the nineteenth century.

By the 1850s, the Society of Jesus had regained much of its lost glory and power. The Society began to sponsor projects, conducted by the Jesuits themselves, which would excavate their extensive archives, exhume sources which had long been forgotten, and explicate and publish them in a manner which would not only redound to the credit of the Society but also address the concerns of a contemporary European audience. While this was a project with a global footprint, many of these projects had a connection with India because of its primacy in the Jesuit sphere. Numerous Jesuits contributed to these long-term projects but a few names stand out, especially when refracted through the prism of Indian print history.

Carlos Sommervogel, Bibliographer
The tradition of compiling bibliographies of books published under the auspices of the Society of Jesus was well ingrained in the Jesuit methodology of handling texts. The first bibliography appeared as early as 1602; it was revised twice in the seventeenth century and published as Bibliotheca Scriptorum Societatis Jesu. After the restoration of the Society, the first efforts in publishing a Jesuit bibliography were made by Augustin de Backer (1809–1873). His bibliography, La bibliothèque des écrivains de la Compagnie de Jésus, appeared in seven volumes during 1853–1861. Even as these volumes were being published, Carlos Sommervogel, a young sub-librarian in a Paris library began noting the errors he encountered in them as also any omissions in the listing of books and authors. By the time he had made a thorough study of the book, his notes of errata and addenda extended to eight hundred pages which de Backer used to in the second edition of La bibliothèque (published (1869–76), where Sommervogel was designated co-author.

Carlos Sommervogel (1834–1902), entered the Jesuit order as a teenager, and completed his studies in Jesuit institutions. He worked as a teacher and a librarian before completing his theological studies and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1866. After de Backer’s death, Sommervogel took over his responsibilities and decided to completely rework the bibliography according to modern principles. This became his lifetime’s work and his magnum opus, Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, extending to over 9000 pages appeared during 1890–1900. The nine volumes of the bibliography were followed by a tenth index volume. The entries are arranged by author, with biographical notes in all the main languages used by the Society. A thorough perusal of the bibliography yielded the names of numerous books printed in Goa between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, many for the first time, and information about their authors. The Sommervogel bibliography continues to remain the standard reference on Jesuit authors and books, and is quoted extensively even in the twenty-first century as the primary source for biographical and bibliographical information on Jesuits. 

Cecilio Gómez Rodeles, Archivist
In 1874, the first volume of Cartas de San Ignacio de Loyola: fundador de la Compañía de Jesus [Letters of Saint Ignatius of Loyola: founder of the Society of Jesus] was published in Madrid. The book involved a thorough combing of Jesuit and church archives across Europe. By the time the last volume of this book appeared in 1889, it was obvious that the Jesuit archives contained a lot more which needed to be in the public domain. In 1888, Cecilio Gómez Rodeles (1842–1913), an established Jesuit author, was transferred to Madrid to examine the Society’s archives. He formulated a plan to publish the archival material in a systematic manner. Gómez Rodeles was designated the first director of this publication project. From the very start, it was obvious that the project—Monumenta Histórica Societatis Jesu—was going to be monumental.

The first publication of the series appeared in 1894; a punishing publication schedule ensured that one volume appeared every few months. In twenty years, by 1913, over forty volumes had been published, including Monumenta Ignatiana (11 volumes) and Monumenta Xaveriana (2 volumes). Besides overseeing the entire project and editing many of its volumes, Gómez Rodeles also wrote numerous articles using the materials from the Monumenta Historica series. Two long articles about old Jesuit printing presses appeared in the Spanish magazine, Razon y Fe, in 1909 and 1912. The first was about printing presses in Europe, America and the Philippines while the second dealt with mission presses in the Orient and was titled ‘Imprentas de los antiguos Jesuitas en las Misiones de Levante durante los siglos XVI al XVIII’ [Old Jesuit Printing Presses in the Levantine Missions during the 16th to 18th centuries].

This article by Gómez Rodeles, though riddled with errors and misunderstandings, is a benchmark in the annals of Indian print history. It is in this article that Gómez Rodeles, using letters related to Ethiopia, accurately dates the arrival of print in India to the year 1556. The sections of the article which dealt with early printing in India were translated from Spanish into English and published in Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1913). It was expertly annotated by Henri Hosten who pointed out many inconsistencies in the article and questioned many of the assertions made by Gómez Rodeles. Hosten noted that the essay “raises several important and difficult questions which I shall discuss at length in a separate article.”

Cecilio Gómez Rodeles (1844–1913), Archivist

Henri Hosten, Historian
Unlike his Jesuit colleagues who made direct or tangential contributions to Indian print history, Henri Hosten was based in India for three decades. Hosten (1873–1935), a Belgian who reached India via Sri Lanka in 1900, worked as a teacher in Jesuit institutions. He was deeply interested in Mughal India and its interactions with the Society of Jesus. His numerous articles and translations of contemporary accounts were published in the leading scholarly journals of the day such as Bengal Past and Present and Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

Hosten’s knowledge of sixteenth century Jesuit history sources related to India was second to none and he was therefore well-positioned to critique research on the advent of print in India. His engagement with this subject deepened after he annotated Gomez Rodeles’ 1913 article, promising in his final footnote to investigate this area in greater detail. He eventually wrote a book on Indian print in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The book remains unpublished; perhaps Hosten’s attention was diverted to more important subjects. (He considered his research on the apostle Thomas and his connection with India to be far more important than any aspect of Jesuit history.) Graham Shaw (1984), who examined Hosten’s typewritten manuscript on print history, opines that, “For the date when it was written (probably completed in the early 1920s), the work is a remarkable achievement, especially in view of the fact that many early Indo-Portuguese imprints had not then been ‘rediscovered’ and much first-hand evidence was not available in any accessible form such as the series Documenta Indica.” Shaw goes on to add that, “Father Hosten deserves recognition as the first to attempt a full-length treatment of early Indo-Portuguese printing and, although some aspects of the subject have been better researched since his death, his work remains the best available account and as such justifies publication even now.”

Georg Schurhammer, Biographer
While his authoritative multi-volume biography of Francis Xavier is considered to be his magnum opus, Georg Schurhammer (1882-1971) was a prolific writer who tackled many other aspects of Jesuit history, including print history. He was one of the founders of the Jesuit Historical Research Institute at Rome in 1932. Like many of his colleagues, Schurhammer had a strong command over many languages besides Latin. His original writings—collected in four large volumes—are in German, Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and English.  

Schurhammer spent his early Jesuit career in India. Crediting Francis Xavier with his recovery from a serious illness, he vowed to write a biography of the saint using contemporary sources. This led him to spend long years in Jesuit archives across the world excavating material relating to the sixteenth century. The strong connection between missionary activities and printing inevitably led to exploring the subject of print history. He wrote numerous articles connected to early Indian print. Schurhammer was particularly interested in printing in Indian scripts, a topic which had a confusing narrative, more so, because physical print specimens had not been discovered until the 1920s. His article ‘The first printing in Indic Characters’ (1952), examines Tamil imprints printed in 1578 and 1579 at Quilon and Cochin respectively in great detail for the first time and addresses many of the issues which vexed his predecessors.

Georg Schurhammer (1882-1971), Biographer

Josef Wicki, Annalist
While other projects under the Monumenta Historica series of the Society of Jesus provided material for the early history of print in India, for example, Rerum Aethiopicarum Scriptores Occidentales Inediti (fifteen volumes published 1903–1917) edited by Camillo Beccari, perhaps the most directly relevant series is Documenta Indica, eighteen volumes appearing at regular intervals for four decades beginning in 1948. They were edited by Josef Wicki (1904–1993), who was later assisted by another Jesuit scholar, John Gomes.

Born in Switzerland, Wicki was fluent in many languages including German, Italian, Spanish and English. As a doctorate in theology, he must have been well versed in Latin. He joined the Monumenta Historica team in 1935 and initially assisted in other projects, for example, working with Schurhammer on a critical edition of Francis Xavier’s letters.

The eighteen volumes of Documenta Indica, each averaging nearly thousand pages long, span the period from 1540 to 1594. Wicki sought to collate and annotate all the available letters and reports related to the Society of Jesus in India existing either in print or manuscript. They include the original letters written in Portugal concerning the despatch of the first printing press in 1556 and many other documents connected to this press and its printers. All the collected material was arranged chronologically, in the form of annals. By 1956, the four hundredth anniversary of print in India, only the first four volumes of Documenta Indica (relating to the period up to 1560) had been published. The material related to Indian print which appeared in the subsequent fourteen volumes is yet to be incorporated into historical narratives.

Commemorating the quatercentenary
As Goa was the entrepôt for print in India, and still a Portuguese possession in 1956, there was considerable interest in commemorating the quatercentenary of print in India. The Instituto Vasco da Gama, the premier institute of historical research in Goa, organised a conference on 18 October 1956. Schurhammer and Wicki contributed essays on newly discovered sixteenth century Indian imprints to a special volume of its journal, Boletim do Instituto Vasco da Gama, dedicated to the quatercentenary.

In the rest of India, there was not much enthusiasm for this anniversary even though there had been calls to celebrate the arrival of print, a medium which had made a deep impact on all aspects of Indian society. Priolkar, the director of the Marathi Samshodhan Mandal in Bombay with a deep interest in print history, was perhaps the only person to actually make an effort in this direction. In 1958, Priolkar published The Printing Press in India. The first book in English to examine early printing in Goa and elsewhere in India, it soon became a classic. It could not have been written but for the research done by Jesuit historians like Schurhammer and Wicki.

After the few articles which appeared during the quatercentenary, very little efforts have been made in India to excavate, assimilate and incorporate new material into the narrative history of early print. The archives in Europe continue to yield important material and in the last few years, research articles on sixteenth century printing in India have sporadically appeared in the Spanish and Portuguese languages. A new and updated history of early print in India will soon have to be written.

The contribution of each individual Jesuit researcher to the study of early print in India may not have been substantial. None of them wrote a book on the subject. Their interest in print was merely an extension of their interest in the Jesuit history and personalities. However, these contributions have proved to be seminal in understanding the establishment and growth of print in India in the sixteenth century. 

Documenta Indica, edited by Josef Wicki 


  • Boletim do Instituto Vasco da Gama 73.Numero comemorative de IV Centenario da Imprensa em Goa. Bastora, Goa: Tipografia Rangel, 1956.
  • Gómez Rodeles, Cecilio. ‘Earliest Jesuit Printing in India.’ Translated from Spanish by L. Cardon and edited by H. Hosten. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 9 (1913, but published in 1918): 149–168.
  • Schurhammer, Georg and G. W. Cottrell, Jr. ‘The first printing in Indic characters.’ Harvard Library Bulletin VI (2), Spring 1952: 147-160.
  • Shaw, Graham. ‘A brief note on the Hosten collection at Vidyajyoti College, Delhi, and his unpublished history of early Indo-Portuguese printing.’ South Asia Library Group Newsletter 24 (1984): 5-7.