Thursday, 28 October 2021

Br Francke - a missionary scholar

August Hermann Francke (1870-1930), whose 150th birth anniversary falls on 5th November, was one of the best-known missionary scholars of his generation. To this day, his work is frequently cited among scholars of Himalayan and Tibetan history, and he deserves to be remembered by the wider Moravian Church across the world.

Francke was born in south-east Germany, the son of a dyer. He was trained as a primary school teacher and taught at a boarding school for children of missionary parents before himself being called to the Moravian mission field in the Western Himalaya. In 1896 he arrived in Leh, the leading town of Ladakh in the far north of India. The following year he married Theodora Weiz, herself the daughter of a missionary, who had been sent out to join him. They had three children, all born in India.

Francke's career as a full-time missionary was relatively short. He served in Leh for three years, before setting up a new mission at Khalatse, some 50 miles downstream along the river Indus. He was based there until 1906 and then moved to Kyelang in Lahul, now part in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. In 1908, he and his family had to return home to Germany because of Dora's ill-health.

Those early years in India laid the foundations of Francke's future career as a scholar. An earlier missionary, Heinrich August JŠschke (1817-1883) had translated most of the new Testament into literary Tibetan, as well as preparing a Tibetan-English Dictionary (1881). Together with his German and Ladakhi colleagues, Francke was part of a team that began work on the translation of the Old Testament. At the same time, he was keen to promote the study of the spoken languages of the region. Working with local Christians, he prepared versions of the Gospel of St Mark in Ladakhi as well as the three languages of Lahul: Bunan, Tinan and Manchad.

Francke's linguistic researches led him to the study of Ladakhi folksongs and then to the Kesar epic, which exists in different versions in Ladakh, Tibet and Mongolia. At the same time, he became interested in the history of Ladakh, drawing on the royal chronicles of the region, as well as rock inscriptions and oral history. Starting in the 1890s, he published a series of scholarly papers with learned societies in India, Britain, Germany and Finland. He also brought out publications from the mission press in Leh, including the La dwags kyi ag bar, the first Tibetan-language newspaper. In 1907, he published A History of Western Tibet, the first English-language history of the region.

These publications brought him to the attention of the Archaeological Survey of India, a British-Indian government department based in Simla. In 1909, Francke returned to India for just over a year, leaving his family in German, and undertook a pioneering archaeological research expedition to the Himalayan regions of Kinnaur, Spiti and Ladakh. After returning to Germany, he spent three years at his home in south-east Germany, writing up his historical researches and at the same time continuing with the Tibetan translation of the Bible in association with the London-based British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS).

This combination of interests led Francke to undertake what proved to be his final journey to India in 1914. This time, instead of travelling by sea, he went overland via Russia and Chinese Turkestan (now Xinjiang). His intention was to travel via Ladakh to Darjeeling in the Eastern Himalaya where he would study the Lhasa dialect of Tibetan. However, his timing proved to be particularly unfortunate. While still in Chinese territory, he heard distant rumours of the outbreak of the First World War, but guessed that Germany and Britain would be fighting together against Russia. It was only when he arrived in Leh in September 1914 that he discovered that the two countries were on opposite sides, and that he was now officially classified as an enemy alien. To his chagrin, he was sent to an internment camp in Ahmednagar, before being repatriated to Germany in 1916 (via Alexandra Palace which had been turned into an internment centre). He then served as an interpreter at a camp for Indian prisoners of war in Romania before himself being imprisoned a second time at the end of the war.

Francke spent much of the final decade of his life in Berlin where he became the University's first professor of Tibetan in 1925. In these years, he continued the same combination of interests as before, publishing scholarly articles on Ladakhi history, which continuing work on the translation of the Old Testament in association with Joseph Gergan (1878-1946 - see accompanying article). However, in early 1930 he was suddenly taken ill, and died in Berlin's CharitŽ Hospital, still aged only 59.

Francke's contemporaries valued him not only for his scholarship but also for his personal warmth and a sense of humour that still comes across in his numerous publications. This warmth extended to his Ladakhi colleagues whom he regarded as his friends, and not merely as disciples or informants. According to his grandson Martin Klingner, he drew particular inspiration from Joseph Gergan in Leh, and the catechist Chosphel in Khalatse, to the extent that their Christian faith served to reinforce his own. Even after leaving full-time church service, he remained faithful to both vocations, as a missionary and a scholar, to the end of his life.

John Bray

Helped start the revived Moravian Mission School in Leh in 1980 and is now an independent scholar specialising in Ladakh and the Himalayan border regions

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