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EMPIRE AND ENLIGHTENMENT IN THREE LETTERS FROM SIR WILLIAM JONES TO GOVERNOR-GENERAL JOHN MACPHERSON

  • JOSHUA EHRLICH (a1)
Abstract

These newly discovered letters help to reconstruct the close association between two seemingly disparate eighteenth-century Britons in India. Moreover, they suggest that a fixation on clashes of ‘cultural attitudes’ has distorted modern assessments of the politics of scholarly patronage in that era. The long-lauded William Jones and the long-dismissed John Macpherson were not so different after all. The views of each ranged from the sublime heights of Enlightened philosophy to the grubby depths of imperial politics.

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Corresponding author
University of Macau, Department of History, E21-2017, Avenida da Universidade, Macaujehrlich@um.edu.mo
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1 Cannon, Garland, Sir William Jones: a bibliography of primary and secondary sources (Amsterdam, 1979), p. 3. The reference, to another letter from Jones to Macpherson, is now untraceable.

2 Trevor-Roper, Hugh, ‘James Macpherson and Fingal’, in Trevor-Roper, The invention of Scotland: myth and history, ed. J., Jeremy Cater (New Haven, CT, 2008), p. 251 n. 43.

3 Blake, David M., Catalogue of the European manuscripts in the Oriental and India Office collections of the British Library (London, 1998), p. 313.

4 Hastings wrote that he feared becoming an ‘incumbrance’ on Jones and the other members of the society. Hastings to Jones et al., 30 Jan. 1784, in ‘The introduction’, Asiatick Researches, 1 (Calcutta, 1788), p. vii.

5 James Noel Mackenzie Maclean, ‘The early political careers of James “Fingal” Macpherson (1736–1796) and Sir John Macpherson, Bart. (1744–1821)’ (Ph.D. diss., Edinburgh, 1967); McElroy, George, ‘Ossianic imagination and the history of India: James and John Macpherson as propagandists and intriguers’, in Carter, Jennifer J. and Pittock, Joan H., eds., Aberdeen and the Enlightenment: proceedings of a conference held at the University of Aberdeen (Aberdeen, 1987), pp. 363–74.

6 John Shore to W. Bensley, 13 Nov. 1786, in Teignmouth, Lord, Memoir of the life and correspondence of John Lord Teignmouth (2 vols., London, 1843), i, p. 128; Earl Cornwallis to Henry Dundas, 8 Aug. 1789, in Ross, Charles, ed., Correspondence of Charles, first marquis of Cornwallis (2nd edn, 3 vols., London, 1859), i, p. 430.

7 E.g. Sutherland, Lucy S., The East India Company in eighteenth-century politics (corr. edn, Oxford, 1962); Wickwire, Franklin and Wickwire, Mary, Cornwallis: the imperial years (Chapel Hill, NC, 1980).

8 H. Dodwell, ‘Hastings in India: a new batch of letters’, Times, London, 22 Sept. 1927, p. 15; P. E. Roberts to ed., Times, London, 24 Sept. 1927, p. 6.

9 Foster, Stephen, A private empire (Millers Point, NSW, 2010), see esp. pp. 81–94.

10 See Joshua Ehrlich, ‘The East India Company and the politics of knowledge’ (Ph.D. diss., Harvard, 2018), ch. 2.

11 Jones to Macpherson, 17 May 1785, Cannon, in Garland, ed., The letters of Sir William Jones (2 vols., Oxford, 1970), ii, p. 672.

12 Macpherson to Ferguson, 12 Jan. 1786, in Merolle, Vincenzo, ed., The correspondence of Adam Ferguson (2 vols., London, 1995), ii, p. 316.

13 Cannon, Garland, The life and mind of Oriental Jones: Sir William Jones, the father of modern linguistics (Cambridge, 1990), p. xv.

14 E.g. Franklin, Michael J., Orientalist Jones: Sir William Jones, poet, lawyer, and linguist, 1746–1794 (Oxford, 2011), pp. 125, 154–5, 161, 166, 183.

15 See e.g. Jones to the Second Earl Spencer, 1–11 Sept. 1787, in Cannon, ed., Letters, ii, p. 764.

16 For an exposition of the difficulty with Jones, see Teltscher, Kate, India inscribed: European and British writing on India, 1600–1800 (Delhi, 1995), pp. 192228.

17 For an attempt to mediate between these two ‘Orientalisms’, see Dodson, Michael S., Orientalism, empire, and national culture: India, 1770–1870 (Basingstoke, 2007), pp. 117. There also remains the much older meaning of ‘Orientalism’ simply as Western scholarship on the East.

18 One of Jones's most perceptive readers has noted that, up until his death, ‘his opinion of the Indian scholars who had labored with him remained ambivalent’. Rocher, Rosane, ‘Weaving knowledge: Sir William Jones and Indian pandits’, in Cannon, Garland and Brine, Kevin R., eds., Objects of enquiry: the life, contributions, and influences of Sir William Jones (1746–1794) (New York, NY, 1995), p. 69.

19 Franklin, Michael J., ‘“Harmonious” Jones and “Honest John” Shore: contrasting responses of Garden Reach neighbors to the experience of India’, European Romantic Review, 27 (2016), pp. 134–5.

20 E.g. The case of Sir John Macpherson (London, 1808), p. 99 n*. The endorsement would even appear on Macpherson's epitaph. Hughes, William Essington, ed., Monumental inscriptions and extracts from registers of births, marriages, and deaths, at St. Anne's Church, Soho (London, 1905), p. 17.

21 Teignmouth, Lord, Memoirs of the life, writings, and correspondence, of Sir William Jones (London, 1804), pp. 258–9; Cannon, ed., Letters, ii, pp. 673–4.

22 Now the South Kolkata neighborhood of Tollygunge.

23 Now the site of Kidderpore Bridge.

24 Subsequent letters indicate that Macpherson granted Zain-ud-Din an audience, but that whatever patronage he extended was insufficient to prevent the poet succumbing to indigence in the following months. See Cannon, ed., Letters, ii, pp. 674–5; Macpherson, W. C., ed., Soldiering in India, 1764–1787 (Edinburgh, 1928), p. 345.

25 The Asiatic Society of Bengal.

26 Macpherson proposed that the Society appoint a member to supervise financial affairs at the Calcutta Madrasa, an institution established by Governor-General Warren Hastings in 1781. See Cannon, ed., Letters, ii, pp. 675–6; Proceedings of the Asiatic Society, 4 vols. (Calcutta, 1980–2000), i, p. 54.

27 William Chambers, member of the Asiatic Society and Persian interpreter to the Supreme Court.

28 The maulvi (Islamic scholar) Majd-ud-Din.

29 Khosrow I (531–79), the twenty-second Sasanian emperor of Persia and a famed patron of arts and science.

30 Hastings's suppression of Chait Singh's rebellion in 1781.

31 ‘The Book of Kings’, Ferdowsi's Persian epic.

32 The region lying north of Persia and Afghanistan.

33 Khosrow II (c. 570–628), the twenty-third Sasanian emperor of Persia and a famed military conqueror.

34 According to the Shahnameh, the powerful and deceitful king of Persia's rival Turan.

35 Mighty vanquisher of Afrasiab.

36 Ferdowsi's Ghaznavid patron.

37 Jones gave a different impression in another letter dated two days earlier. See Cannon, ed., Letters, ii, p. 677.

38 The year is recorded on the envelope.

39 Cannon, ed., Letters, ii, p. 687.

40 Ibid., ii, pp. 682, 687.

41 Ibid., ii, pp. 712–13.

42 A catalogue of a very extensive collection of books in British and foreign theology, ecclesiastical history, etc. etc. with an appendix of Oriental and miscellaneous literature, and Oriental manuscripts. 1834–5 ([London], 1834), p. 507. This gloss, like the original letter, has gone unnoticed by scholars.

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