As a cataloging librarian, one of the questions I’m often asked about my job is “do you have to read a lot of the book (thesis, script, video…) when you catalog it?” The answer is usually “no” because most published materials have helpful indexes, tables of contents, blurbs, or external reviews to help sort out the subject matter. (Most librarians will tell you that a very long “to read someday” list is an occupational hazard, because we don’t have time to read all the cool things we see every day.) Cataloging unpublished manuscripts is a little different, requiring more skimming and historical detective work (of the type I discussed in a blog post from last year). Last week I cataloged an unpublished manuscript that was entirely hand-written. Deciphering that much handwriting was a first for me, and fascinating!

Rev. Royal Merriman Cole graduated from Amherst College in 1866 at the age of 27.¹ In the summer of 1868 he graduated from Bangor Theological Seminary, married Eliza Cobleigh (who had attended Mt. Holyoke Seminary), was ordained by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and set sail from New York on August 15. They arrived in Erzroom (Erzurum), Turkey, on Sept. 30, 1868. Cole wrote in an 1873 letter to an Amherst professor: “I was able to take hold of the language with great earnestness, and have, I feel, succeeded beyond my best expectations. In six months I preached my first regular sermon…written in full, in the Armenian character. From that time on I have used simple notes and have now come to speak with about as much freedom, I think, as I should in English. Of course I have not so wide a range of words.”

The Cole family lived in Erzurum from 1868 to 1898, and in Bitlis (also in Turkey, about 190 miles further southeast, near Lake Van) from 1899 until he retired in 1907. They returned to America on furloughs (of about one year in length) during 1875, 1889, and 1898.

Cole begins his narrative in ‘Interior Turkey Reminiscences: Forty Years in Kourdistan (Armenia)’ with their return journey after their first furlough in 1875. He notes that they were concerned about prospects of war in Turkey – “the political sky that way is lowering, and the future for that storm-tossed land, should the old ‘Eastern question’ be re-opened, seems ominous indeed.” But the home secretary of the ABCFM assured them that “it will blow over by the time you get there.” This turned out to be far from the case, and so the Coles were eyewitnesses on the eastern front of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The first half of ‘Reminiscences’ consists of Cole’s diary entries from May 1877 to May 1878, during which time Erzurum was attacked, besieged, and eventually surrendered to the Russians. Cole spent much of this time trying to provide famine relief and volunteering in the hospitals.

“June 26th (1877) …We have worked hard today to secure from the Government “red tape” orders so we can enter into active work for these poor soldier boys. For, grateful as the Government and others at the place might be, to think that we Christians were desireous of doing something to alleviate the sufferings of their needy soldiers, yet, from long experience, we knew better than to enter upon such responsible work without the formal, written endorsement from the powers that be…”

July 1st (1877) – [Their wedding anniversary. Eliza Cole and the children were staying for several months in Trebizond (Trabzon), on the coast of the Black Sea, which was safer.] “…I am glad to have the dear ones away from these exciting times and the bad air incident to so much sickness in the place. I have worked four long hours among the suffering ones to-day and I have found some desperate cases…”
Disease was a constant threat, and every member of the family was struck with typhoid or other illness during the following months. They buried two children and several missionary and medical friends.

“Nov. 24th, Saturday (1877), Oh, my God, what means this havoc of death in our home! Five weeks ago, and we were weeping over our Charlie because he was not, and now we stand distracted over a much more stunning blow dealt out to us…”

The second half of the manuscript summarizes various episodes from their life in Bitlis in the 1880s and 1890s. Some of Eliza Cole’s diary entries are also transcribed, including some from October 1895, when a massacre of Armenians occurred in Bitlis.

It appears that the original diaries are now located in Toronto at the private, non-profit Zoryan Institute, as they note on their website: “In 1997, the Zoryan Institute acquired the much sought after Cole Collection. This collection consists of some 9,100 densely hand-written pages, plus 900 photographs.”

‘Reminiscences’ was never published, although Cole went so far as to request a foreword from James L. Barton, who published several books about missionary work in Turkey.

Cole’s overseas service is one example of a rich historical tradition at Amherst College, which was originally founded mainly to educate future Christian ministers, and whose motto still is Terras Irradient – literally, “that they may illumine the lands.” Not surprisingly, there are numerous other diaries, photographs, and letters documenting alumni missionary work in the Archives & Special Collections. Many of these sources are being explored this semester by students in the class “Collaborative Art: Practice and Theory of Working with a Community” taught by Wendy Ewald and Fazal Sheikh.

The entire manuscript is in the process of being digitized, and will be available later this semester through the Amherst College Digital Collections portal. (When it is up, maybe I will find the time to actually read it all – I’ve added it to my list.)

¹All of Cole’s biographical information is from the Archives & Special Collections alumni biographical files and class files.

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