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10th March 2002

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Rolling out the words

It's a first for Sri Lanka. The very first stamps to be printed here will be released on the Ides of March. 

But unlike in ancient times, where the Ides of March were considered unlucky, this year will be a doubly special landmark not only for Sri Lanka, but also for the Government Press. For, March 15, 2002 will mark the day when the Government Press will issue the first stamps to be printed in Sri Lanka at its offices in Borella to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Gazette. 

Passers-by don't give a second glance to the old, gray and sprawling buildings of the Government Press on eight-acres off Baseline Road in busy Borella. Though these offices are and have been the nerve centre of government, being the official organ for all state communications, the more famous, or infamous landmark here is the Welikada Magazine Prison, standing adjacent. The two have also had "historical links" over the years.

Last week, we ventured into the dim but bustling halls of printing, with their monstrous rolling presses gobbling up reams and reams of paper, ancient monocasting machines still using hot lead and empty spaces piled high with Gazettes bundled with the inevitable pink tape, in search of the beginning of the printed word.

The journey was fascinating, leading us through the cobwebbed corridors of time into the Dutch era, through to the British period, onto independence and now. A time warp conjuring images of the first little printing press being installed in Galle by the Dutch. Then back to the present with its offset machines and computers.

"Whatever developments take place in the electronic media, the print media will survive," assures the 54-year-old Government Printer, Neville Nanayakkara. 

Equally at home among the offset machines, the letter presses and the laptop, Mr. Nanayakkara should know. He has been with the Press for 31 years, 21, as its dynamic head, since he came in as a raw recruit straight from the university in 1971. 

And the Press spewing out documentation to the volume of 15 metric tons a day is throbbing evidence that the printed word will survive in the aeons to come.

The beginnings were simple and humble. The ancients of Ceylon wrote on ola leaves and the King's declarations or ana were publicized to the commoners by the ada berakaru (drum-beaters). Then came the Portuguese, who imported the first paper, but not for printing, only for writing. 

When the Dutch took over from the Portuguese, they went one step further. Not only did they bring the paper from overseas, they also imported a small press, primarily to propagate their religion. Guess the year? It was way back in 1737, over two and a half centuries ago. The first document to be printed was a prayer leaf in Dutch called the Placcaat, from "block type" in the Galle Fort. The types had been hand-gathered, then ink spread over them, a paper spread over that and a roller used to get an imprint. 

With the traffic between Galle and Colombo increasing, the press too was moved to Colombo and the first Sinhala document was printed on April 5, 1737, with news of pepper cultivations in the Matara district. The 535x600 mm paper had been printed on one side and pasted close to the village headmen's homes on coconut trees or on flat surfaces where the common folk could gather to take a look at the Dutch declarations.

"Many attempts had been made from about 1920 onwards to set up a printing press for books in the Sinhala language; but the technical problems could not at first be overcome. However, about 1725, the Superintendent of the Company, Arsenal Gabriel Schade set to work again on experiments in casting the Sinhalese types and moulding the required machine parts," Archivist J.H.O. Paulusz has stated. 

By 1737, his efforts had paid off, as Dutch Governor Gustaff Willem Baron Van Imhoff (1736-40) states in his memoir, ".........Therefore the printing press established during my administration will be a useful instrument. I will not detain Your Excellency by a discussion relating to the first beginning of this important work ..........Although it was only in May, 1737 that a commencement was made with the type, yet already have been published a Sinhalese prayer book, a booklet in the same language for the instruction of those who wish to partake of the Lord's Supper, catechisms in Mallabaar, and the four Gospels in Sinhalese............"

It can be presumed that Schade, also called the Baas of the Arsenal, designed the first movable type printing press in Sinhala and Tamil. In keeping with the Dutch policy of propagating their religion, the first 40-page Sinhala book, 'Singaleesch Gebeede-Boek' contained the Lord's Prayer, morning and night prayers, grace before and after meals, the 12 articles of the Creed and the Ten Commandments. 

"The hand-made paper consisted of pieces of cloth. The cover-page was tinted red and had a gold border. Right in the middle of the cover page was the proud logo of the Dutch," said a Government Press spokesman who is in charge of the anniversary celebrations.

The Dutch also printed a large number of rules, regulations and orders for distribution in the administrative areas of Ceylon coming under their rule. 

Records indicate that these were the first "official" documents ever to be printed here.

From then on, the printed word was well on its way to being established. 

With the capture of the island by the British, the Dutch press changed hands and came into the possession of the British. It was the British who made a fine art of printing, by formalizing the process and setting up the relevant structures. The renovated Dutch press was then used by the British to publish No. 1 of The Ceylon Government Gazette on March 15, 1802. Printed by Frans De Bruin at the Government Press and modelled on the Oxford Gazette which Britain had started in 1656, it was considered the first newspaper in Ceylon.

"HIS EXCELLENCY THE GOVERNOUR being of Opinion that great convenience would arise to the Publick if all Government Orders & Notifications were made known and Circulated, through the Medium of a News-Paper, has been pleased to direct that a Prospectus of such a Paper should be prepared, & Published, as follows, Vizt," states the original issue.

Costing "TWO Rix Dollars pr Menfem" the weekly issue clearly lays down what was to be published proclamations, general orders, government advertisements, judicial and all other notifications that were deemed beneficial to the public. It would also accommodate "the advertisements of individuals announcing public or private sales, notices of left goods, arrival and departure of ships, births, marriages, deaths and all other matters that may with propriety come under name of public advertisement".

Interestingly, the maiden issue carries an account of the pomp and pageantry with which the British were greeted, with "Entertainment" at the house of the Maha Modeliar. The Modeliar, representing native headmen, had congratulated Governor Frederic North and stated how pleased they were "in having become Subjects of so Good, Great and Benevolent a Sovereign". 

Though in 1806 came the Tamil Gazette, the Sinhala one was only printed in 1814. Buried under the dust of time, the reason for this is difficult to fathom. 

In reality, the Gazette functioned like any newspaper published today, not only providing news of what the government was doing but also filling the people in on struggles and uprisings within the country, much to the dismay of the Empire. The Empire struck back in 1832, prohibiting the publication of such juicy titbits.

Another first for the Government Press was the publication of the Colombo Journal, the first "newspaper" in Ceylon in 1832. But this too ran into snags when "the Home authorities did not approve of the development of newspaper enterprise under official auspices, and requested their representatives to confine their energies to the Government Gazette, which still continues to be the ponderous official organ, the receptacle for information which scarcely tempts private subscription," states Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon.

That the Press was functioning without a hitch is evident from a note in the British Administrative Report for 1869, where among the usual statistics of expenditure and books etc, then Printer William Skeen has highlighted only the problem of "insufficiency of light in the Composing room". That the industry was growing and doing well is proven by the statement that "the appointment of an Extra Assistant to the Government Printer has so far, been attended with good results". 

Up to 1926, the Government Press had been located in Fort close to all the other government offices and under the eye of the Governor himself who had close contacts with the Government Printer. Records reveal a decision to move the presses to Welikada, in Borella on very valid grounds to get prisoners, including women, to learn a trade at the presses, thus establishing historic links with the prison. This also paved the way for women to enter a very strong male bastion. 

At present, of the 1850 strong workforce, 184 are women handling jobs in the computer, proof-reading, clerical and binding sections.

"When we moved to Baseline Road, the Press had beautiful surroundings, almost like a park. There were flower-beds and lawns, and tall jak and mango trees. And just across was Campbell Park with its big trees forming spreading canopies," says an octogenarian former Works Manager T.B. Samath living in retirement. From 1802 to 1972, the numbering of the Gazette continued without a break, but with Sri Lanka breaking away from Britain and becoming a republic, a new first issue was released on May 22, 1972. Another change wrought by this was the substitution of the British emblem which proudly adorned the Gazette, with the Sri Lankan logo. Once again when Sri Lanka switched to an Executive Presidency, the numbering started afresh. 

Meanwhile, in 1960, the Press had diversified its activities taking up the printing of school textbooks. Two hundred years on since the first Gazette saw the light of day, the modern Government Press is equipped to face the future. 

So next time you pick up any official form, birth, marriage, death, or passport to name a few, take up the Gazette or mark your ballot, take a look. They would have been printed by the Government Press. 

No Act passed by Parliament becomes law, until it is Gazetted. That's how important and inextricably linked to our lives the Government Press is.



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