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Fort William College


Fort William College an orientalist training centre set up by Governor General lord wellesley in 1800 within the Fort William complex. Its object was to effect moral and intellectual improvement of the newly recruited European civil servants. Wellesley envisioned ruling British India efficiently with the help of an enlightened and trained bureaucracy. Under the existing system the young civilians, who were mostly between fifteen and seventeen years of age, were posted to districts without giving them any institutional training in local history, languages and the art of administration. For governance point of view, it seemed to empire builder entirely unacceptable. Wellesley felt that both academic and moral training were necessary to make the new arrivals capable of facing the challenge of governing an alien people. Thus he set up the College of Fort William, Calcutta in 1800. Like the calcutta madrasa of warren hastinga and the Benaras Hindu College of Jonathan Duncan, Wellesley's college was not, in fact, a fully government institution. Its expenses were designed to have been met by contributions from all the civilians in India and an uncertain allocation that was to come from the operation of the Government Printing Press.

A Department was established for each major language and culture of India. For each Department there was one Professor and a couple of Assistant teachers. Persian, which was still used as the court language of India, had a Department headed by Neile B Edmonstone, then a Persian translator to the Government. His Assistant teacher was John H Harington, a Judge of Sadar Diwani Adalat and Francis Gladwin, a soldier diplomat. For Arabic studies, Wellesley engaged Lt John Baillie, who was considered to be the best Arabist after William Jones. The Hindustani Language Department was entrusted to John B Gilchrist, an Indologist of great repute. HT Colebroooke, the famous orientalist, was selected to head the Sanskrit Department. William Cary, a non-civilian missionary and a specialist in many Indian languages including Bangla, was selected to head the Department of Vernacular Languages. All the Departments had a number of Pundits and Munshis who made up the native element of the College staff. In all, twelve Faculties were established by 1805. The pay scale of the staff was not uniformly designed. For example, while the European Faculty members received salaries from 1500 to 3000 rupees a month, their Indian colleagues, who were their language tutors and assistants, received salaries ranging from 40 to 200 rupees only. A College Council consisting of Faculty Professors administered the College. Matters of discipline were entrusted to two clergymen, the provost and the vice-provost.

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Fort William College, Kolkata

At the apex of the college administration was the Governor General himself. The students were all newly arrived covenanted servants of the Company. They were required to receive linguistic and administrative training for two consecutive years before posting. Wellesley, himself a classical scholar, had a dream that his College would be so productive in the cultivation of arts and sciences that someday it should flower into the ‘Oxford of the East’, as he put it metaphorically.

The College was, in fact, moving towards realising such a goal. Research and publications were begun in collaboration with the Serampore Press and asiatic society of Bengal. The college staff became well known in the East and West as interpreters of oriental civilization. Their works and ideas attracted the attention of European orientalists. Following their footsteps many of their students subsequently turned out to be great orientalists. The most outstanding students matriculating from the College who made themselves renowned as orientalists within the first decade of the establishment of the College included W W Bird, R Brown, T Fortesque, HP Haughton, H Mackenzie, MB Martin, C Metcalfe, HT Prinsep, H Shakespeare, and A Tod. The teachers and alumni of the college have been instrumental in reforming and modernising almost all the languages of India including Bangla.

Among the most celebrated Bengali staff members of the College were Ramram Basu, Tarinicharan Mitra and Mrittunjoy Bidyalankar. With the help of these Pundits the Professors of the College successfully experimented with standardising Bangla language and fashioning its prose. It was with the encouragement and co-operation of the College of Fort William that the technology of printing and publishing vernacular books was begun and collaborative learned institutions established. The celebrated serampore mission press was launched in 1801, the Hindustani Press in 1802, the Persian Press in 1805 and the Sanskrit Press in 1807. These printing presses were the first visible mark of an intellectual and technological change in Bengal. The entire credit for such a quick change goes to the College of Fort William, which was, indeed, fast becoming the 'Oxford of the East'.

But the Court of Directors disapproved the institution on the technical ground that it was established without taking any prior sanction from the Court. The Court informed Wellesley that an institute like the College of Fort William would be soon established in England. Thus followed the establishment of the East India College (commonly known as haileybury college located at Haileybury) in 1806. It was founded with a number of professorships held by eminent scholars from Oxford and Cambridge.

Out of practical considerations the College of Fort William was, however, allowed to function as an institution for instruction in vernaculars. The civilians who graduated Haileybury College were given the option of taking further linguistic training at the Fort William College. Curiously, many did opt for further training in vernaculars and in spite of financial difficulties the members of the College staff, native and European, had been working for the development of vernacular languages and literature. Lord william bentinck, Governor General, was committed to abandon the path of orientalism in education and administration. He refused to fund the projects sponsored by the College for writing and publishing books in vernacular languages. Bentinck announced his educational policy of public instruction in English in 1830. In the same year, he abolished the professorships of the College and in 1831 he abolished the College Council. Bentinck, curiously, retained the signboard of the College and some native Pundits who were allowed to work officially as private tutors of civilians. The Dalhousie administration formally dissolved the phantom College of Fort William in 1854. [Sirajul Islam]