In 1836, when German missionaries landed in Mangaluru, a port town in the then Canara province, they intended to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to Kannada-speaking natives in the state.
However, in an unexpected quirk of fate, Rev. Hermann Friedrich Moegling fell in love with the Kannada language. To the extent he deviated from the original mission, and devoted all his time and passion to the study of Kannada literature and culture.
Seven years later, he had not only mastered the language, but also launched the first vernacular newspaper in the language – Mangalura Samachara.
At a time when news was still pretty much spread only via word of mouth, the newspaper propelled 19th-century Karnataka into the world of journalism.
Mangalura Samachara was lithographed in 1843 at the Basel Mission Printing Press using stone slabs, which are still preserved at the printing press in Balmatta, Mangaluru.
In the very first issue of his newspaper, Moegling wrote, “It is to prevent the spread of rumours and untruthful things, and also to make available genuine information to the people at large, we have brought out this paper duly priced.”
Archived copy of the first edition of the Mangalura Samachara printed in 1843
Mangalura Samachara was not used as a vehicle for propaganda even though that was the initial aim of the missionaries. Under the editorship of Moegling, the Basel Mission Press published the newspaper to educate readers on local and international issues.
The newspaper gave detailed accounts of the struggles in the Gwalior, Kabul, Lahore and Sindh frontiers against the British and other external forces. Moegling, writing in the newspaper, even mentioned that the nation would one day be brought under the control of the East India Company.
In 1844, Moegling decided to shift the printing of the newspaper to Bellary to accommodate more news items and reach out to a wider audience. The newspaper was renamed Kannada Samachara.
Monotype printer used in the 1800s at Basel Mission Press
According to reports compiled by the Basel Mission in the 1800s, there was no contact between Mysore Kannadigas and North Karnataka at the time. In the last issue to be printed from Mangaluru, Moegling conceived the idea of an integrated Karnataka or ‘Samagra Karnataka’.
Moegling’s love for the language did not make him popular among his superiors. His literary and cultural ventures strained his relationship with the home committee in Germany. This is evident in the obituary that appeared in the Basel Mission Report upon his death in 1882, which read, “Not always his superiors were happy with his work in Mangalore or Coorg.”
As a result of this tense relationship, Moegling was transferred to different parts of the state during his stay in southern India – at times even to remote locations. However, this did little to deter Moegling.
Instead, this encouraged him to delve deeper into Kannada literature and culture for he was meeting more people now.
He not only edited Mangalura Samachara, but also documented folk literature and collected manuscripts that he would later edit and print. Between 1836 and 1860, he produced several books, including Basava Purana, a volume of poems written by Lingayat poet Basavanna, Kanakadasara Bhaktisaara, poems written by Kanaka Dasa, Dasara Padagalu, a collection of 170 Haridasa songs, and Lakshmisha’s Jaimini Bharata, a version of the Mahabharata – many of these works are now recognised as classics in Kannada literature.
He compiled and published a list of Kannada proverbs, Kannada Gadegalu, in 1852. The 3,000 proverbs listed here was a result of the conversations Moegling had with the people he met in this period.
He also adopted a simple style in translating works into Kannada. Rajendra Name, a history of Coorg published in 1857 at the behest of Haleri Veera Rajendra Wodeyar, was printed without the use of any otthakshara (supportive alphabet).
By the time Moegling returned to Germany in 1860, his fellow German missionaries had also begun taking a deeper interest in vernacular languages.
Rev. Herman Gundert edited and produced a Malayalam dictionary in 1872, followed by Rev. August Meanner, who brought out the first Tulu dictionary in 1886. Meanwhile, Rev. Ferdinand Kittel brought out the first Kannada–English dictionary documenting over 70,000 words in 1894.
Archived copy of the first Kannada-English dictionary compiled by Rev. Kittel
Like Moegling, these missionaries travelled across provinces in southern India for over two decades before producing the vernacular dictionaries in Malayalam, Tulu and Kannada.
The efforts of the German missionaries to enrich a language so alien to them broke barriers in vernacular journalism and helped bridge the gap between vernacular languages and English at the time.