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Jones, Sir William


Jones, Sir William (1746-1794) founder of orientalism, founder of Calcutta Asiatic Society, jurist, poet, pioneer of comparative linguistics. Birth 28 September 1946 at Westminster, London. Father was a Mathematician and Fellow of the Royal Society in Mathematics.

Sir William Jones

Jones learnt from within his family circle the dictum, 'Read, and you will know'. He became adept in reading and understanding at a very early age. He received training in memorising and remembering the soliloquies of Shakespearean dramas and Gay's fable. He got himself admitted to the public school at Harrow in the year 1753. He wrote an Ode entitled 'Saul and David' and a tragedy entitled Maleager. He mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew when at school. Hebrew made him greatly interested in Middle-Eastern literature. He also mastered Arabic.

Jones went to Oxford University in 1764 and studied a lot there and, at the same time, acquired greater proficiency in both Arabic and Persian. He got acquainted with the Polish diplomat Count Charles Revizki who was a translator of the Gazals of the Persian poet Hafiz. From his studies of the gazals of Hafiz and the works of Saadi and Ferdousi Jones realised that Pindar, Anacreon Sappo, Archilochus, Alcaius and Simonides, and others were in no way greater than the former. He became a great devotee of Hafiz. His fame as an orientalist and his proficiency in both Arabic and Persian languages at that time added a new dimension to his fame and its news reached the palace.

In 1768 the King of Denmark, Christian VIII, came to London with the intention of having the Persian Manuscript of the biography of Emperor Nadir Shah entitled Tarikh-i-Nadiri written by Mirza Mahdi translated and sought the help of the British Government. Jones worked hard for about a year and completed its translation and published it in Latin under the title L' Historie de Nader Chah. In his letter to George III, King of England, the King of Denmark praised Jones's translation very highly. Jones was made a member of the Royal Society of Copenhagen. These two events raised Jones's reputation as an orientalist right to the peak. This translation was so much on demand that Jones had to publish a shortened version of it in English in 1773. Luis XVI, the Emperor of France, praised Jones by saying that he knew better French than himself. Besides the notes and annotations to his French translation, Jones added one essay on Eastern literature (Treatise on Oriental Poetry) to it. Edward Gibbon commented laudably on this treatise in his famous history. In this essay Jones highlighted the excellence of Arabic and Persian literatures. Jones refuted the European prejudices and advocated that the novel qualities of Middle-Eastern literature were suitable for enriching European literature. He eloquently pointed out Ferdousi's Epic xhahnama, the Arabic Poetic anthologiesthe Moallaqat and Hamasha, Attar's Pandenama and poet Abul Ala's Epistles and asserted that like European literature Eastern literature also had many branches. He also highlighted the various characteristics of Eastern literature. At this time he published his A Grammar of the Persian Language (1771). In 1773 Jones was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

On 19 September 1774 Jones began his studies in law at the Middle Temple. In 1776 Lord Chancellor Bathherst appointed Jones as one of the sixty commissioners dealing with the affairs of Bankruptcy. After his appointment as a Commissioner of Bankruptcy Jones translated in English the speech of the fourth century Greek orator Isoeus in English. The full title of the book was The Speeches of Isoeus in Causes Concerning the Law of Succession to Property at Athens. He very strongly put forward arguments in favour of comparative studies in law.

According to the stipulation in the Regulating Act a Supreme Court was established in Calcutta with a view to ensuring justice for the British and other inhabitants of Calcutta. When Jones learnt in 1777 that justice Lemaistre of this Court had died, he became interested in being considered for appointment to this post. But when he was not considered for the post he waited for the next opportunity. In 1782 he translated into English the famous book of law of inheritance entitled Bughyat al-Bahith by Al-Mulaqqin. The full name of the book was The Mohamedan Law of Succession to the Property of Intestates. It drew the attention of the Company Government.

Jones's knowledge of law, his translations relating to Indian Law, his world-wide fame as an Orientalist and the recommendations of his friends were at last taken into consideration and Jones was Knighted in 1783. He was, at the same time, appointed a judge of the Calcutta Supreme Court. He got married to Anna Maria prior to his departure for Calcutta.

In the ship on his voyage to Calcutta he spent his time by chatting and playing chess with his newly married wife and by undertaking Persian and law studies and by consulting materials relating to India. Besides these, he also made a plan about what other areas, apart from his duties as a judge, of oriental studies he would explore for carrying on research during his stay at Calcutta. The title of his plan was 'Objects of Enquiry during My Residence in Asia'. Not only this, he also gave a final shape to his thoughts about establishing a research organisation at Calcutta following the model of the Royal Society.

When his ship reached the Arabian Sea in August he once again thought about establishing a Society at Calcutta on the model of the Royal Society of London for carrying on wide-ranging research and studies about the East. Jones understood it very clearly that it would not be possible for any single man to undertake and materialise the hugely multifarious research projects he had thought of. It was for this reason that he had thought of a wide-ranging co-operative society. Jones was aware that the Englishmen who had come to India were suffering from the superiority complex that their way of life and their being the colonial powers and progressive alienated them from the Indians and made them objects of distrust. This is why they failed to be intimate with them and establish a relationship of trust and understanding and of faithful cooperation. Jones cherished the hope that this atmosphere of distrust could be removed through well-thought-out steps and he would be able to contribute actively to making the culture, tradition and civilisation of both the East and the West acceptable to both the British and the Indians and the society that he had planned would be able to play a helpful role.

After joining the Calcutta Supreme Court as a judge, Jones convened a meeting of those civilians who were interested in the matters relating to the East on January 15, 1784. The meeting was attended by justice Hyde, General John Clirk, Francis Gladwin, Thomas Law, Jonathan Duncan, Charles Wilkins, George Burlow and such other high officials. The Asiatic Society of Calcutta came into being. Jones requested Warren Hastings, the then Governor General, to act as the President of the Society. But Hastings expressed his inability to accept the position. So Sir William Jones became the first Chairman of the Society. Jones introduced the tradition of delivering one annual lecture in the next meeting of the Society and the first lecture that he delivered following this tradition was entitled 'A Discourse on the Institution of a Society for Inquiring into the History, Civil and Natural, the Antiquities, Arts, Sciences and Literature, of Asia.'

Jones was carrying on his studies relating to Hindu religion through the medium of Persian. At this time Charles Wilkins encouraged him to learn Sanskrit. Jones visited the Field of Plassey and composed three poems there and dedicated them to his wife. These poems are: (1) Plassey-Plain, a Ballad, Addressed to Lady Jones, by Her Husband; (2) Lines from the Arabic and (3) Au Firmament. He wrote a memorial essay about Ashburton entitled 'The Character of John Lord Ashburton' and sent it to his friends in London for publication in some journal. In 1784 a case was filed with the Supreme Court entitled George Tyler versus Constable Frederick Didker for trial. Jones was greatly afflicted by the misdemeanour of Didker and the preferential verdict of Justice Chambers, the Chief Justice and the other judge, Justice Hyde. It was painful for him, but he had to endure the pain of not being able to hold aloft the sceptre of justice, as he was alone and in the minority among the three judges. On being attracted by the trees and plants of India he made a list of those innumerable trees and plants not included in Systema Naturae of the Swedish Botanist Carolus Linnaeus (Carl Von Linne) and included this list into that of Linnaeus and laid the foundation of Indian Botany in Europe. He visited Benares with a view to learning Sanskrit and associated himself with some Sanskrit Pundits. In order to help the Government in administering justice he translated Menu and Dharmasastra into English.

On 24th February 1785 Jones delivered The Second Anniversary Discourse to the Asiatic Society and through this he informed the Europeans that the Indian civilisation was of great antiquity and was comparable with any great civilisation of the world. He fervently urged the members of the society to undertake research in Indian Botany, Chemistry, Arts and Sculpture. He also urged them to make a complete list of all the books of the East. He spoke strongly against slavery in India, although he himself bought some slaves. He wrote some poems on the gods, goddesses and Saints of India and published them in the Asiatic Miscellany.

Jones's fame as an Orientalist spread throughout the world when on 2 February 1786 he delivered his Third Anniversary Discourse. In this discourse he claimed with proofs that in a comparative study of European languages and Sanskrit he had noticed that the source of Greek, Latin, Gothic, Celtic and Sanskrit and Persian is the same. He took into account the similarities among these languages and thus he laid the foundation of comparative linguistics through this historical Discourse. After further scientific researches the scholars unanimously agreed that the assumptions of Sir William Jones were correct. Thus he acquired the prestige of being the father of Linguistic Science of the world.

Jones delivered The Fourth Anniversary Discourse to the Society on 15 February 1787. The subject matter of this Discourse was Pre-Mohammedan Arabian Civilisation. In this Discourse he threw light on the affinities between Arabic and Hebrew. Alongside his research on matters of language Jones carried on his studies in Indian Chemistry and Botany. In the meantime he collected the Sanskrit names of one thousand Indian trees. His knowledge of Sanskrit enabled him to discover the Indian litt'rateurs and philosophers who were equal to Homer, Pinder and Plato. He discovered in Kalidas, the poet/dramatist, the author of the drama sakuntala a poet/dramatist equal to Shakespeare. He was influenced by the Bhagabatgeeta translated by Wilkins.

Jones delivered his The Fifth Anniversary Discourse to the Society on 21 February 1788. The most important thing he discussed in this discourse was the Tartar Civilisation. He divided the people of the East into three groups: The Hindus, The Arabs and The Tartars. He also mentioned the various and strange divisions in each of these three groups. This year he edited and published the two rare manuscripts of the books entitled Laili Majnu and a Persian Poem of Hatifi which he had with him for the purpose of helping the debtors. Thinking that his knowledge in Sanskrit was more or less enough he started the translation of The Ordinances of Menu that year.

In his 1786 essay entitled 'A Dissertation on the Orthography of Asiatic Words in Roman Letters', Jones discussed the method of transliteration in Roman letters the languages of Sanskrit and Persia. His system became known as the Jonesian System. This method played a pioneering role in developing the science of sound of languages or Phonology.

On 19 February 1789 Jones delivered The Sixth Anniversary Discourse on The Persians to the Society. He made four important comments on the Persian nation and language in this Discourse. He said that (1) a powerful Indian dynasty reigned in Persia before the arrival of Assyrians; (2) the dialects of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and German evolved from the language of the first Persian Empire; (3) at that time, before the growth of other eastern nations, Persia was the center of population, knowledge and various arts; and (4) the founder nations of Arabia, Tartar and India originally migrated from Persia. The similarities that he noticed between Persian and Sanskrit when he was reading the sahnama in the original were the sources for the basis of his conclusion. At the beginning of 1789 he translated one poetic drama entitled The Songs of Joyadeva.

After their arrival in India, Jones and Anna Maria could not maintain good health during the last years of their stay. Frequently they fell ill. The Calcutta of that time, which grew up in an unplanned way, was very hazardous for health. They had already spent a little over six years there. Of the two, Jones, however, maintained a somewhat better health. On 25 February 1790 Jones delivered The Seventh Anniversary Discourse and on 24 February the following year he delivered The Eighth Anniversary Discourse to the Society.

In these two Discourses he discussed the languages of the east and their origin. Just after one year, in 1792, he delivered The Ninth Anniversary Discourse. In this one he focused attention to the origin of man in the whole of Asia and the whole of the world. Through these discourses he laid down the foundation of comparative anthropology. Jones's health gradually deteriorated from 1791. In spite of his ill health he continued to lead researchers in matters of the East. His Muhammedan Law of Inheritance and his Institutes of Hindu Laws were published respectively in 1792 and 1794. Sir William Jones breathed his last in Calcutta on 27 April 1794. [Abu Taher Mojumder]

Bibliography A T Mojumder, Sir William Jones and the East (1978); Garland Cannon (ed.), Jones's Letters (1970); Garland Cannon, Oriental Jones (1964); SN Mukherjee, Sir William Jones (1968).