Peter Percival

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Peter Percival
Peter Percival.jpg
Born (1803-07-24)24 July 1803
Died 11 July 1882(1882-07-11) (aged 78)
Yercaud, India
Occupation Educator, linguist, missionary
Relatives Robert Bruce Foote, son–in–law

Peter Percival (24 July 1803 – 11 July 1882[1]) was a British born missionary, linguist and a pioneering educator in Sri Lanka and South India during the British colonial era. His work influenced prominent people such as Robert Bruce Foote a pioneering geologist and archaeologist and Arumuka Navalar, a Hindu revivalist. He began his career in British held Sri Lanka and Bengal as a Wesleyan Methodist missionary. His early work was in the minority Sri Lankan Tamil dominant Jaffna peninsula. He was instrumental in starting and upgrading a number of schools within the Jaffna peninsula. His preference of education over evangelism influenced educational programs off all others who sought to improve the literacy rate in the district. During his stay in Jaffna, he led the effort to translate the Bible into Tamil, based on the Authorised Version.[2] After returning to England, he converted to Anglicanism. Subsequent to his posting in South India, he severed his association with the Anglican Missionary Society that had sent him to India and worked as an educator in Presidency College in Madras Presidency. He published English-Tamil and English-Telugu dictionaries as well as a number of books on Indian culture and religion. He died in 1882 in Yercaud in present-day Tamil Nadu.


Sri Lanka[edit]

Peter Percival was sent to Jaffna peninsula in Sri Lanka by the Wesleyan Methodist Mission of North Ceylon in 1826.[3] At his arrival the missionary society and its efforts had not produced results expected by their original expectations and goals. A number of previous missionaries had returned to Europe after short stints due to illness.[4] He spent most of his early adult life in Jaffna peninsula until 1851, with a short stint in Bengal (1829–32).[5] While in Bengal he was influenced by the educational policies of Alexander Duff, a Presbyterian missionary.[6] During his period of stay in Jaffna peninsula, he upgraded a number of existing Methodist missionary primary schools into fully accredited high schools and founded new ones especially for girls. He was instrumental in upgrading Jaffna Central College and Point Pedro Methodist Girls College from primary schools to full-fledged high schools. He founded Vembadi Girls' High School and Hartley College.[6] Apart from these popular schools, he also opened number of village schools for primary education. In 1836 his efforts led to the building of St. Paul's chapel in Jaffna.[7]

During his tenure as the principle of Jaffna Central College, he hired his former student Arumuka Navalar as a teacher and collaborated with him in translating the Bible into Tamil.[8][9] Peter Percival's eight-year association allowed Arumuka Navalar to develop his ideas as to how to revive the moribund Saivite sect of the upper caste Tamils of Jaffna peninsula.[8] Peter Percival's preference of education over evangelism created friction with other Wesleyan missionaries but it also influenced the educational practices of all those who were trying to improve the literary levels of 19th-century Sri Lankan Tamil society.[6][10][11] These early efforts in education led to the relatively higher literacy levels and resultant monopolisation of government jobs by minority Sri Lankan Tamils compared to the rest of the population of Sri Lanka when it gained independence from Britain in 1948. (See Origins of the Sri Lankan civil war)


In 1851, he returned to England with the intention of coming back to Sri Lanka but due to differences with the Methodist hierarchy in London, he renounced Methodism.[12] In 1852, he was ordained deacon by the Anglican Bishop of London. During the next two years, he worked as a lecturer at St Augustine's College, Canterbury, teaching a course about India and its religions.[5]


In 1854, he went to Madras in South India with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, an Anglican missionary society. He became an Anglican priest ordained by Bishop of Madras in 1855. In 1856 after becoming the Registrar of Madras University and Professor of Sanskrit and Vernacular Literature in Presidency College, he severed his relationship with the missionary society.[5][13]

Later life[edit]

In India he was known a scholar in Tamil and Telugu.[14] After having published the Tamil translation of the Bible, he wrote the book Land of the Veda: India Briefly Described in some of its Aspects, Physical, Social, Intellectual and Moral. His other publications include, a book on Tamil proverbs in English, English-Tamil and English-Telugu dictionaries, and a bilingual Tamil and Telugu journal Dinavartamani.[14] He also translated into English, Tamil proverbs and the literary work of Avvaiyar, a Tamil poet.[14]

His daughter married pioneering geologist and archaeologist Robert Bruce Foote. Peter Percival and Robert Bruce Foote were lifelong friends and shared their interest in Indian culture, history and linguistics. He retired to the hill station town of Yercaud and died in 1882.[14] Graves of both Peter Percival and Robert Bruce Foote were found in the cemetery of the Holy Trinity Church at Yercaud in 2009.[6]


Cited literature[edit]

External links[edit]