The Serampore Mission Press was established in Serampore on January 10, 1800 by William Carey, William Ward, and other British Baptist missionaries as an auxiliary of the Serampore Mission. In August that year, a Bengali translation of the Gospel according to St Matthew was published by the press. The press produced 212,000 books between 1800 and 1832. The British government, highly suspicious of missionaries, discouraged any missionary work in their territory. Serampore, in Bengal, being a Danish colony, provided refuge to Carey and company.
The press published religious Christian tracts, Indian literary works, translations of the Bible in twenty five Indian vernaculars and other South Asian languages, but the major contribution of the press was printing vernacular textbooks. The press printed books on grammar, dictionaries, history, legends and moral tales for the Fort William College and the Calcutta School Book Society.
The press also started to publish the first Bengali newspaper and magazine from 1818. It published books in almost forty five languages. It was formally closed down in 1837 when the Mission ran into heavy debts, according to Nikhil Sarkar in "Printing and the Spirit of Calcutta", the press merged with the Baptist Mission Press.
Gangakishore Bhattacharya, considered as the first-ever Bengali printer, publisher, bookseller and newspaper editor began his career as a compositor at the Mission Press. After beginning his life as a compositor, he set up his own Bangal Gezeti Press in 1818, which was also responsible for printing the first illustrated book in Bengal, the Annadamangal in 1816.
Printing in Bengal had started in Hoogly where the press of the bookseller Andrews used Bengali types. N. B. Halhed’s A Grammar Of the Bengal Language was published from this press in 1778. Sir Charles Wilkins had mastered the art of cutting types and he also taught Panchanan Karmakar. The printing press was in the immediate charge of Ward, who left detailed accounts of its day-to-day running. Between 1800 and 1834, the press printed Bible translations in almost 50 languages, 38 of which were translated at Serampore by Carey and his associates. There were altogether 117 printings, of which 25 were in Bengali. The press supplied Bibles to almost all significant Baptist missions in the region, from Indonesia in the east to Afghanistan in the west. From a memoir of 1813, it may be seen that a Malay Bible in roman characters was in preparation, while a five-volume reprint of the entire Bible in Arabic was being undertaken for the lieutenant-governor of Java.The memoir of 1816 claims that a Chinese Pentateuch was in the press and that ‘the new moveable metal type, after many experiments, are a complete success’. The 1820 memoir records the printing of the New Testament in Pushtoo, and also the setting up of a paper factory.
William Carey arrived in Calcutta on 11 November 1793. His early attempts to set up a mission on the soil of British India failed, as the company was hostile towards missionary activity. Eventually, Carey was permitted to set up his mission in Danish-controlled Serampore—then known as Fredericksnagar—where he was joined by two other Baptists, William Ward and Joshua Marshman. In the meantime, Carey had acquired a wooden hand press, gifted by George Udny, the indigo planter who had supported Carey and his family. He wanted to print the New Testament in Bengali and therefore purchased ink, paper and Bengali fonts from the type cutting foundry of Panchanan Karmakar in Calcutta. Panchanan Karmakar, the goldsmith trained in type making by Wilkins, was ‘borrowed’ by Carey from Colebrooke and then put under virtual house arrest in Serampore. With the help of Panchanan and his son-in-law Manohar, a type foundry was set up in March 1800. In the first ten years of its life, the foundry produced type in at least thirteen languages. The press was set up in Mudnabatty where Carey had settled, but he could not begin the printing because he did not have an expert printer.
The then Governor General of India, Lord Wellesley, did not object to any printing presses being set up outside British occupied land but was strictly against any in English territory. Rev. Mr. Brown informed that Lord Wellesley would enforce censorship on any publication done on English territory outside Calcutta. The British government threatened to arrest missionaries who would trespass on the East India Company’s territory. The Danish Government of Serampore assured Ward that they would provide protection for the missionaries. In 1798 Carey suggested that the missionaries could establish the Mission's headquarters in Serampore.
In 1799 William Ward and Joshua Marshman came to Calcutta. In the face of rigid resistance from the Company, Ward and Carey decided to establish the Mission and printing press in Serampore. Carey’s press and other printing paraphernalia were transported to Serampore. Ward was a printer and therefore work on the printing of the Bengali Bible was immediately started in March 1800. Ward also doubled up as the type setter during the early days. In spite of the high rents in Serampore, the missionaries were able to purchase a suitable premise.
To appease Lord Wellesley, Rev. Brown had to assure him of the purely evangelical intentions of the press since they had refused to publish a pamphlet that criticized the English government. Rev. Brown also convinced Wellesley that the Bengali Bible published by the press would be useful for the students of the about to be opened Fort William College. Thus began a fruitful and long association between the Serampore Press and the Fort William College.
William Carey was appointed as the professor of Sanskrit in the College and after that he published a number of books in Bengali from the press.
The press initially started work with some fonts that Carey had purchased from Punchanon. In 1803 Carey decided to publish a Sanskrit Grammar in Dev Nagree type which required 700 separate punches. Carey therefore employed Punchanon and then an assistant Monohar. The two later established a type foundry in Serampore. Monohar created beautiful scripts of Bengali, Nagree, Persian and Arabic. Types were designed and cut for all the languages in which books were published. In fact, movable metal types for Chinese were also developed which were more economical than the traditional wooden block types.
In 1809 a treadmill that was run by a steam engine was set up in Serampore to produce paper.
The first published work of the Serampore Mission Press was the Bengali New Testament. On March 18, 1800, the first proof sheets of the translation were printed. In August, the gospel of Matthew was completed as Mangal Samachar.The bulk of publication consisted of Bibles but, even more significant than the Bibles were the Bengali translations of the two great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. These were published during 1802-3, and marked the first ever appearance of the epics in printed form, in any language. The press also published dictionaries, grammars, dialogues or colloquies, Sanskrit phrasebooks, philosophy, Hindu mythological tales, tracts, and the first ever newspaper in Bengali, the Samachar Durpun or the “Mirror of News”. The first number of this biweekly, bilingual (Bengali and English) paper was published in May, 1818. According to a calculation made by the missionaries themselves, a total of 2,12,000 items of print in 40 languages were issued by the press from 1800-32. Along with the mission’s own publications, the press also executed orders by the *Fort William College. During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the College played a crucial role in producing grammars and lexicons in all the major Indian languages, a task carried out both by Indian and European scholars. Altogether 38 such works were produced in Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu, Braj, Bengali, Marathi, Oriya, Panjabi, Telugu and Kannada The last sheets of the work were published on the 7th of February 1801. The printing of the volume was completed within nine months.
At the beginning of 1804, the missionaries decided to publish translations of the Bible in Bengali, Hindoostanee, Mahratta, Telinga, Kurnata, Ooriya and Tamul. Between 1800 and 1834, the press printed Bible translations in almost 50 languages, 38 of which were translated at Serampore by Carey and his associates . There were altogether 117 printings, of which 25 were in Bengali. By 1804 the Bible had been printed in Bengalee, Ooriya, Hindoostanee and Sanskrit. A type font for the Burman language was being developed. Translations in Telinga, Kurnata, Mahratta, Seek and Persian were at various stages. In 1811 the translation of the New Testament in Cashmere was started. By 1818, the Assamese New Testament had been printed. By March 1816, the printing of St. Mathew was finished or nearly so in Kunkuna, Mooltanee, Sindhee, Bikaneer, Nepalee, Ooduypore, Marwar, Juypore, Khasee and Burman. By 1817 the entire Bible had been printed in Armenian. The New Testament in Pushtoo or Affghan and Gujuratee was completed by 1820. By 1821, the New Testament had been printed in Bhugulkhund and Kanoje. In 1826 the Magadh, Oojuyeenee, Jumboo and Bhutneer New Testament were printed. By this time the Bruj, Sreenugur, Palpa and Munipore New Testaments had also been printed. The New Testament was also printed in Bagheli, Bhatneri, Bhotan, Dogri, Garhwali, Javanese, Kumauni, Lahnda, Magahi, Malay, Malvi, Mewari, Siamese and Singhalese.
Mr.Buchanan, the vice-provost of the Serampore College suggested Carey that he should take up the translation of the Bible to Chinese after learning the language from Mr. Lasser. Carey appointed Mr. Marshman to this task and he was engaged in the Chinese translation for fourteen long years. Finally in April 1822 the printing of the Chinese Bible was completed using moveable metallic types.
The translations were ridden with heavy criticisms from the very beginning. Various societies including the Baptist Society and Bible Society questioned the accuracy of the translations. The missionaries themselves accepted that their work was flawed and whole heartedly accepted constructive criticism while renouncing detractors.
Ram Bosoo under the persuasion of Carey wrote the History of King Pritapadityu and was published in July, 1801. This is the first prose work printed in Bengali. Towards the end of 1804 Hetopudes, the first Sanskrit work to be printed was published. In 1806 the original Sanskrit Ramayana with a prose translation and explanatory notes compiled by Carey and Mr Marshman was published.
Historical books in Sanskrit, Hindi, Maratha and Ooriya were nearly printed by 1812. Assamese and Kasmiri historical books were published in 1832. A Grammar of the Bengali Language compiled by Carey was first published in 1801. Carey’s Bengali dictionary in three volumes was first published in 1825. Other texts published in Bengali are The Butrisha-Singhasun in 1802, Bengali translations from the original Sanskrit of The Moogdhubodha and The Hitopudesha, Raja Vuli in 1838, The Gooroodukhina in 1818 and a Bengali translation of a collection of Sanskrit phrases titled Kubita Rutnakar. In 1826 A Dictionary and Grammar of the Bhotanta or Bhutan Language was published. A Comparative Vocabulary of the Burman, Malayau and Thai Languages was published in 1810 in Malay, Siamese and Burmese. The original Chinese text with a translation of The Works of Confucius was published in 1809. A geographical treatise called Goladhya was published. The second edition of Sankhya Pruvuchuna Bhashya in Sanskrit was published in 1821.
The Serampore missionaries decided to publish the Bengali newspaper Samachar Durpun to study the pulse of the public authorities. They started with ‘Dik-darshan’, a monthly magazine which received approbation. There was a bilingual (English-Bengali) and a Bengali edition.
Initially the missionaries faced problems to raise money for printing. In 1795, Carey wrote to the Mission in England that the printing of 10,000 copies of the translated New Testament would cost Rs 43, 750, a sum that was beyond his means. In June 1800, the printing work of the Bengali Bible had to be restricted because of the shortage of funds. The missionaries sought to raise money by selling copies of the Bengali Bible for 2 gold mohurs each to the Englishmen in Calcutta. They raised Rs 1500 from this enterprise. From 1804, the Society in England raised Rs 10,000 every year in England to fund the printing of the Bible in seven Indian vernaculars. Once the books became popular, the press started earning enough money to cover costs and leave some profit. This money was entirely devoted for furthering the work of the Mission.
On 11 March 1812, a devastating fire caused mass destruction in the printing office. Important documents, account papers, manuscripts, 14 types in Eastern languages, a bulk of types sent from England, 12 hundred reams of paper and other essential raw materials were gutted. The manuscripts of the translation of the Ramayana were also destroyed and the project was never resumed. The manuscripts of the Polyglot Dictionary and the blue print of the Telinga Grammar were also destroyed. Luckily the presses themselves were unharmed. It is estimated that property worth Rs 70,000 was lost.
Though the press was formally closed down in 1837, publications from the press continued to flow till later on. At the close of 1845, the King of Denmark surrendered Serampore to the British Government. The spearheads associated with the conception and execution of the Mission Press had all died by 1854. Due to lack of men to take initiative, gradually the press was bereft of financial as well as expert guidance. All printing activities came to a standstill by 1855.After 1857 the British government was reluctant to encourage missionary education.There was a feeling that any strong attack on local customs,practice and beliefs or religious ideas might enrage "native" opinion.