F. W. Ellis who died in his prime by accidental consumption of poison

The Collector of Madras had also penned commentaries on Purananooru, Naladiyar, Seevaka Sinthamani, Bharatham, and Prabulingaleelai. He was a pioneer in propounding that the Dravidian languages were interrelated and not derived from Sanskrit

Updated - May 17, 2024 08:07 am IST

Published - May 17, 2024 12:05 am IST

The unmarked memorial of Ellis at the CSI Church in Ramanathapuram.?

The unmarked memorial of Ellis at the CSI Church in Ramanathapuram.? | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

The original plaque in English that is in the government museum at Ramalinga Vilasam, the palace of the Sethupathis.

The original plaque in English that is in the government museum at Ramalinga Vilasam, the palace of the Sethupathis. | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

An unmarked memorial stands among the graves of foreigners and British officials on the premises of the CSI Church in Ramanathapuram. Church officials seem to have woken up to the importance of the great man who lies buried here and have refurbished it. Church priest V. Prem says it is the grave of Francis Whyte Ellis (1777-1819), a British civil servant who first translated The Tirukkural. There is a plan to fix a marble plaque bearing his name and other details. The original plaques in Tamil and English are in the government museum at Ramalinga Vilasam, the palace of the Sethupathis. “Many years ago, when I went there, I could not find the plaque. When I searched, I could see it was being used as a step. We recovered the plaques and kept them in the museum,” recalls V. Vedachalam, an archaeologist and former curator of the museum.

The plaque reads: “Sacred to the memory of FRANCIS WHYTE ELLIS ESQRE of the madras civil service whose valuable life was suddenly terminated by a fatal accident at this place on the 9th March 1819 in the 41st year of his age uniting activity of mind with versatility of genius, he displayed the same ardour and happy sufficiency on whatever his varied talents were employed.”

Suffering from dyspepsia

According to Thomas R. Trautmann, author of Languages and Nations: The Dravidian Proof in Colonial Madras, Ellis died suddenly on March 9, 1819, not of disease, as many Englishmen in India did, but of a fatal accident. Suffering from dyspepsia, Ellis went south to carry out his research. He was residing with Madurai Collector Rous Petrie, instead of heading to the cooler climate of a hill station. “During a trip to Ramnad in the southernmost tip of India, while medicating himself for his ailment, he took something poisonous by mistake and died,” writes Trautmann, recalling the words of his friend and great orientalist William Erskine that the poison was laudanum “or some other noxious liquid”.

His household goods and personal effects were auctioned off in Madurai and Madras, including an excellent collection of books and manuscripts.

Ellis was the Collector of Madras and founded the College of Fort St. George to solve the problems of language in colonial Madras. He assembled the best minds on the subject of languages and created the Literary Society of Madras. In an article, Elleesan Entoru Arignan (A scholar called Ellis), which is part of the book Aash Adichuvattil Aringergal, Aalumaigal (Essays on Personalities), historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy writes that Ellis had also penned commentaries on Purananooru, Naladiyar, Seevaka Sinthamani, Bharatham, and Prabulingaleelai. “He called himself Elleesan in step with the Tamil tradition. As the Collector of Madras, he minted gold coins bearing the images of Thiruvalluvar,” he says. He was so well-versed in Tamil that he even wrote poetry and a stanza in praise of Ramachandra Kavirayar, who taught him Tamil. When Madras faced water scarcity, Ellis dug wells and fixed plaques containing Tamil verses that ended with Tirukkural couplets.

Trautmann places the contribution of Ellis on a par with those of Sir William Jones and Sir John Marshall to the conception of India’s deep past. “The fundamental contributions were, again, the concepts of the Indo-European language family, announced by Sir William Jones in 1786, and the Dravidian language family, published by Ellis in 1816, plus the formulation of the concept of the Indus Civilization, first published by Sir John Marshall in 1924,” he writes. “Both from a world-history perspective, then, and from the perspective of the history of Indian civilization, Jones and Ellis had roles of immense importance. But while Jones is well known and much written of, Francis Whyte Ellis is nearly forgotten,” he says.

Caldwell not generous

Though Ellis was a pioneer in propounding that the Dravidian languages were interrelated and not derived from Sanskrit, the publication of Robert Caldwell’s A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages stole Ellis’s thunder. “But Caldwell was not excessively generous in giving credit to his predecessors, and Ellis in particular gets much less than his due in Caldwell’s preface to the first edition,” says Trautmann.

“The first to break ground in the field was Mr. Ellis, a Madras Civilian, who was profoundly versed in the Tamil language and literature, and whose interesting but very brief comparison, not of the grammatical forms, but only of some of the vocables of three Dr?vidian dialects, is contained in his introduction to [A.D.] Campbell’s The Grammar of the Teloogoo Language,” writes Caldwell.

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