Halhed, Nathaniel Brassey

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Halhed, Nathaniel Brassey (1751-1830) orientalist and grammarian, is credited with being the first grammarian to write a Bangla grammar using Bangla texts and letters for illustration. Earlier, some rudimentary forms of Bangla grammars and lexicographies had been attempted in Roman script by Portuguese missionaries. Halhed, however, was the first grammarian who attempted to compile a Bangla grammar systematically.

Nathaniel Brassey Halhed

Nathaniel Brassey Halhed belonged to an upper-middle-class family from London. He was the eldest son of William Halhed, a bank director. He studied at Harrow (1758-68) where he met Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Samuel Parr and william jones (1747-1794). From Harrow, Halhed moved to Christ College, Oxford (1768-70), where he met Jones again. Here Jones inspired him to study arabic which Halhed did briefly. Halhed then took up the study of Greek and Latin, and learned Greek well enough to translate The Love Epistles of Aristaenetus with Sheridan. The book saw three editions in four years.Halhed showed literary promise, but circumstances obliged him to leave the country. Both Halhed and Sheridan were in love with the same woman, Miss Linley.

In the end it was Sheridan who won her. At about this time, Halhed had a terrible quarrel with his banker father. Like many of his contemporaries who sailed overseas in search of success and solace, broken-hearted Halhed also left England for achieving success overseas. He arrived in Kolkata in 1772 and joined the east india company as a writer (a cleark or a beginner civilian). As an alumnus of Harrow and Christ College and with a considerable literary reputation, Halhed soon became a friend of Governor warren hastings, an alumnus of Westminster and a patron of oriental learning.

The public school fraternity helped Halhed start an orientalist career. At Hastings' request he undertook and completed a monumental legal work: A Code of Gentoo Laws, or Ordinations of the Pundits (London 1776). It was a digest of Hindu law books compiled originally in Sanskrit by eleven Brahmin pundits engaged to work on a daily basis. It was first translated into Persian by a munshi and then into English by Halhed, a long, three-stage exercise, though the participants in the earlier two stages remained unrecognised. Several editions of Gentoo Laws appeared in the next decades it also appeared in French and German. Halhed, though only in his late twenties, was thus on the verge of a European reputation.

At the request of Warren Hastings, Halhed launched his second project: a grammar of the bangla language. His venture, A Grammar of the Bengal Language, was completed and published in 1778. After the publication of his grammar, Halhed returned to London. In 1784, he was back in Kolkata. The Kolkata social scenario had, however, changed with Hastings having fallen out of favour with the Court of Directors, and he was asked to resign which he did. Halhed also resigned and returned to London the same year.

On his return home, Halhed made several important translations, including Upanisad (1787) based on Dara Shiko's Persian translation. In 1791 Halhed was elected to parliament, his motive being to defend Hastings in his trial, which he did exceedingly well. But soon British intellectuals began to suspect Halhed's intellectual objectivity because he believed in yogism and sufism. Halhed was, in fact, at the time toying with the idea of striking a synthesis between oriental and Christian lore. He supported one Richard Brothers who claimed to be a new prophet. His sympathy for Brothers further lowered his image. Furthermore, he was found, to the disgust of most Londoners, to be sympathetic to the French Revolution. His belief in the French revolutionary tenets was so deep that he transferred his lifelong savings to France for safer and more lucrative investment. It was an unwise move, and Halhed lost his entire savings. Friendless and penniless, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed died on 18 February 1830.

Nathaniel Brassey Halhed's lasting contribution, as far as Bengal cultural history is concerned, is his Grammar of the Bengal Language. Formerly Portuguese missionaries had written some Bangla grammars in their own language, but these were short and fragmentary and had been written for their own missionary purposes. Halhed's attempt was essentially a disinterested intellectual exercise. His approach was close to the spirit of European Enlightenment, pursuing knowledge for knowledge's sake. Bangla letters appeared in print for the first time in his grammar. The first printed grammar, vocabulario, published from Lisbon in 1743, had been entirely in Portuguese. Halhed's grammar was in English, but it used extensive illustrations and examples from Bangla texts. However, Halhed's weakness was that he compiled his grammar without knowing the language well. Consequently, his attempt failed to have any lasting value though he may be called the first person to set the Bangla grammatical literature on its journey to modernity. [Sirajul Islam]

Bibliography MA Qayyum, A Critical Study of the Early Bengali Grammars, Asiatic Society, Dhaka, 1982.