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02 April 2020

How the Armenian Community Prepared for the Centenary of the Armenian College & Philanthropic Academy in 1921

Image: © Liz Chater
As thoughts are beginning to turn to Kolkata’s Armenian College & Philanthropic Academy’s bicentennial celebrations in April 2021, it is interesting to see how the local Armenian community prepared for the centenary 100 years ago in 1921.

With ideas of new premises and a new location for the Armenian College, 1919 was an interesting and potentially exciting time for local Armenian merchant and businessman, Carr Lazarus Phillips. He had a dream of opening an Armenian school in the hills of India; closing the  Armenian College, and selling it off to pay for the new one. We know, of course, that didn’t happen and the school is still situated in the original location in Kolkata. Less fanciful dreams have become a reality, but I wonder how close Carr Phillips got to fulfilling his?

A letter to the Editor of the “Englishman” in November 1919 gave some useful background information:

"Sir, There are few people in Calcutta who know, or care to remember, that in the premises of the Armenian College, Calcutta was born in 1811 the great novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, and to this day a tablet testifying this event is placed by the gate of the building.

Image: © Liz Chater
The premises are, however not only on this account historic there are other associations that gather round so old and well established an institution.  Few people realise that there is fast approaching the centenary of the College, and it might be of some profit to review briefly the past.

Zatoor Mooradian*,(sic) an Armenian merchant, born at Julfa, Ispahan, came to India settling down to business in Calcutta. He met with success and when he came to adjust his final accounts, in for love of Armenia and her sons he left by his will the sum of Rs 8,000 with which to found an Armenian educational establishment. That was in the year 1797. He died in 1799. 

Image: © Liz Chater
Things moved very slowly in those days and in 1821 i.e. 22 years after his death the school was still unbuilt, when another Armenian merchant of Saidabad, residing in Calcutta and also a native of Julfa, Ispahan, remembered that the amount of Rs 8,000 already bequeathed was lying idle.

Image: © Liz Chater
The name of that worthy gentleman was Munazakan Vardan** (sic). In that same year 1821, he gathered together a few friends and compatriots and that meeting was one of the most important in its far reaching effects ever held in the history of our community in India. He explained the crying need there was for an institution where Armenian boys could be educated in Armenian and English.

Munazakan Vardan (sic) appealed for further co-operation, and we have it on record that the little band of patriots, subscribed the sum of Rs 50,000 on the spot, Munzakan Vardan(sic) himself heading the list with Rs 3,000. Among the list of donors, which is still preserved, maybe found the name of Bishop Heber that saintly personage that ruled over the ecclesiastical affairs of Bengal in the years gone by.

The institution this day possesses in invested funds a sum of over 6 lakhs of rupees this money having been subscribed by our own people.  The college has at present on its roll over 150 pupils. Since its foundation the institution has had a very chequered career. The desire of its founders was that it should be a seminary for the learning of Armenian, together with instruction in other languages. For a while, in common with other European schools in Bengal the institution adopted the old Entrance course of the Calcutta University, which is equivalent to the modern matriculation standard. In the early[18] ‘80s, during the Principalship of Mr. Herbert A. Stark B.A. (now a distinguished officer in the Government Educational Service) it was raised to the status of a College, and from it appeared pupils for the then First Arts Examination of the Calcutta University. Later on owing to the wants of funds for the maintenance of a good college staff, the college abandoned the University course, and reverted to the Entrance Examination, but from that time henceforward the institution was commonly known as the Armenian College. Formerly it was known as the Armenian Philanthropic Academy.

Image: © Liz Chater

It may not be out of place to state here that although the present state of the Armenian College is far from bright, it will soon be restored to its pristine glory by Mr. C.L. Phillips, who in conjunction with Messrs. Stephen and Galstaun and other rich Armenians, has drawn out an elaborate scheme for its amelioration. It has been the dream of Mr. Phillips’s life to build an up-to-date college with a number of hostels attached to it at one of the hill stations wherein the youths of the Armenian community as well as those of the Anglo-Indians in India may receive a thorough up-to-date collegiate education in science, literature and arts. His contribution alone towards this great scheme will be Rs 20 lakhs and as has been said, he has other affluent Armenians to support him in his great project.  It is intended to endow the college as well with Rs 50 lakhs and it must appeal to all as a scheme well planned and thought out by the genius of Mr. Phillips.

The present premises of the college in Free School Street will of course be disposed of and the sale proceeds along with its present endowed funds will amount to over 10 lakhs which will be solely utilized for building the college and the several hostels that will be attached to the Institution besides fittingly furnishing them.  I am sure all those interested in the welfare of this old and historic institution will be glad to see the fruition of a great scheme destined to come about in the near future.

Then there will be in India an Armenian College worthy of the name, and worthy of the Armenians who have for centuries past kept burning the torch of civilization in Asia."

However, delving a little further, it can be found that as early as 1892 there were plans afoot for the Armenian Bishop of Calcutta to have a summer palace in Darjeeling. A welcome refuge from the sweltering summer heat of the city. The land had been donated by the generous owner of the Windsor Tea Estate. The palace required the remaining Armenian community of Calcutta to supply the outstanding funds, not something they were keen on, and the project never got off the ground.

Newspapers continue to reveal further developments

28 October 1920

Armenian College Centenary
Revision of Educational Programme

History of the Institution

In connection with the Centenary Anniversary of the founding of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, Calcutta, which will occur on April 2, 1921, Messrs M. Mackertich and A.M. Arathoon manager of the college, have addressed a circular letter to the old boys of the college and to the Armenian community in general. We represent the more important paragraphs, and suggest that application be made to the Principal for copies of the letter.

Messrs. Mackertich and Arathoon urge that the commemoration of so great and significant an event should be not merely “external and transient, but also internal and permanent.” They add that “the development of our loved Fatherland on the lines of a progressive and enlightened Republic, must necessarily lay an increased demand upon the educational resources and national assets of the College; and as the years immediately before us will be years of national reconstruction, the scope and character of the Armenian College must continually be enlarged to enable it to keep pace with the march of events in Armenia herself.” They then refer to the necessity for the accommodation of a much larger number of pupils to whom must be given a higher and more diversified education than has hitherto been within its financial possibilities.

It is proposed also to have a review of the past in the form of a centenary Report, which will recount the history of the Academy, during its hundred years, and which will be a record of the valuable work which it has been done for the intellectual, social, spiritual and national life of the Armenian community. The intention is to compile a list of Old Boys, and to print the portraits of those who have distinguished themselves. They therefore ask old pupils by the 15th of next December to send them particulars regarding themselves and others.

Messrs. Mackertich and Arathoon also appear for funds. Donations should be paid into the Bank of Bengal, Park Street Branch, Calcutta, to the credit of the Centenary Celebration Fund of the College, or to any of the members of the College, or to either of the managers.

Mr. Herbert A. Stark, B.A., M.R.A.S., one of the best known and most experienced educationists in Bengal, who has been appointed Principal of the College has proposed a scheme of studies and a policy for that institution. Briefly it is this:

1.    For all pupils there should be a sound and liberal all-round education with an industrial and commercial bias.

2.    At the age of eleven or twelve, talented boys should be placed as boarders in the best European schools, at the expense of the Armenian College, with a view to their ultimately proceeding to a local Professional College or to the Arts Degrees of the Calcutta University.

3.    Those of them who should themselves to be specially brilliant, should be sent to England at the age of seventeen or eighteen years on scholarships provided by the College, there to take their Degrees at a British University, or to enter one or another of the learned professions – law, engineering, medicine etc. Possibly some of them may eventually take Holy Orders in the Armenian Church. In any case, some may be induced to take the Oxford or Cambridge Diploma in Teaching, and join the staff of the Armenian College. Thus may we work for the time when our national institution will be manned solely by thoroughly able and proficient members of our own community.

4.    The bulk of the pupils of the school at the close of their general studies, should be apprenticed for three years or so, during the busy season, for instruction in tea, jute, shellac, mining, hides, trains etc. In the slack season they should return to College for specialised studies correlated to the industry they are learning.

Thus, for example, during the tea season the group learning tea would be on a tea garden. During the slack season they would come back to College - subject to a good report on their application, progress and character from the Manager of the garden – and be taught those theoretical subjects which are of importance to the tea planter e.g., scientific agriculture, manuring, draining, insect pests, blight, the tea markets of the world, etc., the groups learning other industries would be similarly death with. 

Finally, the programme for celebration was revealed for the Armenian College centenary on 3 February 1921

Arrangements for the celebration of the Centenary Anniversary of the Armenian College, which falls on the 2nd April, are well in hand, and include the following items:

On March 28th there will be an evening garden fete at Galstaun Park. It will be open to the public. It will provide the usual attractions, and also al fresco teas and dancing on the lawns.

On April 2nd there will be a breakfast for the present scholars of the college and a banquet for old boys. During the day there will be athletic sports on the college playing fields.

Sunday, April 3rd, will be observed by Divine Service at the Holy Church of Nazareth, when special prayers will be said for the Founders of the College and its deceased benefactors. In the afternoon there will be a solemn procession of priests, choir, pupils, old boys, friends, the managing committee, the Members of the College, and visitors.

The celebrations will terminate on April 5th with a grand Centenary Fancy Dress Ball (evening dress optional).

The following are the Office Bearers to the Celebration Committee: President, Mr. J.C. Galstaun, O.B.E., Vice-President, Mr. M. Mackertich; Treasurer, Mr. A. Stephen; Secretary, Mr. H. A. Stark, M.L.C., the Principal of the College. Old Boys desirous of attending the Old Boys’ Dinner are invited to communicate with the Secretary.

The bicentennial celebrations may not have a garden fete at Galstaun Park, nor perhaps a fancy dress ball, but it will surely still be an occasion to remember, celebrate and toast to the next 200 years of Armenian education in Kolkata. I know there are many people who are looking forward to the upcoming events in 2021.

Image: © Liz Chater

* He was more commonly known as Chater Moratcan, a renowned Calcutta Jeweller of distinction. His fortune went to this family, causing the inevitable squabbling and in-fighting. I'll write another blog piece on this in due course.

** Although Manatsakan Vardon raised over Rs 3,000 in aid of the formation of the Armenian College in Calcutta, unlike several other community members, he left no further contributions in favour of the Armenian College in his will.

© Liz Chater 2020