That Corrupting Country

Thomas Keymer

  • Orientalist Jones: Sir William Jones, Poet, Lawyer and Linguist, 1746-94 by Michael Franklin
    Oxford, 396 pp, £35.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 953200 1

Sir William Jones, the Enlightenment polymath who established the shared origins of Indo-European languages and cultures, certainly didn’t lack a capacity for big vision. But he was also keen on details, with no time for broad-brush talk about the seven ages of man. He was 47 – still in Jaques’s fifth age (‘And then the justice … with eyes severe’) – when he died in 1794, in the fancy Calcutta suburb of Garden Reach. Two decades earlier he had drawn up a more fine-grained scale of his own, which he called the ‘Andrometer’. This had 63 points, starting with the Lockean blankness of a newborn child (‘Ideas received through the senses’) and ending in septuagenarian piety (‘Preparation for eternity’). Jones didn’t mean, his first biographer, Baron Teignmouth, nervously added, that we shouldn’t be preparing for eternity the whole time. But it was secular immortality he really had in view as he worked his way through the demanding regime of intellectual and practical attainments laid out in the Andrometer. One thing drove him above all: ‘Glory I shall pursue,’ he told a Hungarian colleague in 1771, ‘through fire and water, by night and by day.’

In good 18th-century style, the Andrometer was intended for both instruction and amusement when it was sketched out for the 16-year-old Viscount Althorp, Jones’s pupil and future patron, who became home secretary after his death. The tensions and paradoxes of patronage culture mark Jones’s entire career, nowhere more than in his dealings with Althorp and the Spencer family. The grandson of an Anglesey sheep farmer, Jones was never exactly poor: his father was a real self-made man, a brilliant mathematician who rose from charity school in Llanfechell to become vice-president of the Royal Society (introducing ‘pi’ in its modern meaning along the way). But he died before his son’s third birthday, and Jones started life with only a modest bequest. Tutoring Althorp was his way of working through college, and, he boasted, ‘with the fortune of a peasant, giving himself the education of a prince’, he mastered Arabic and Persian, as well as fencing and the Welsh harp. It was later said of Jones’s proud but incomplete Welshness that he understood every language except his own.

Even the Spencers were unable to give Jones everything he craved at Oxford: he wasn’t elected to the Regius Chair of Modern History and Languages (a long shot in his early twenties), or the Lord Almoner’s Professorship of Arabic (awarded to an inoffensive plodder), or even the university’s seat in Parliament, despite the fact that Althorp’s glamorous sister Georgiana canvassed on his behalf. ‘Patronage … will carry votes against me: it must therefore be exerted for me,’ Jones insisted, but to no avail. Elsewhere patronage was decisive. Through the Spencers Jones gained access to Whig grandees who kept him going with minor preferments until he landed a big prize in 1783: he was made a judge in the Supreme Court of Bengal, an appointment worth £6000 per annum, ten times his earnings at the time, perhaps fifty times the income of a typical lawyer.

Jones, dependent in practice on the hereditary elite for recognition of his talents, was committed in theory to meritocratic independence – indeed, it was often alleged, to outright republicanism. As Michael Franklin suggests in his excellent biography, Jones must have relished upending the patron-client hierarchy when he got Althorp elected to Samuel Johnson’s Turk’s Head Club, where Jones had mingled with Burke and Gibbon before even Boswell was admitted. Althorp was also the addressee of An Ode in Imitation of Alcaeus (1781), a politically audacious poem that Jones described, in almost Miltonic tones, as ‘the last sigh of my departed hope for a renovation of our free Constitution’. At first sight a conventional patronage panegyric (‘Althorp,’ it begins, ‘what forms a state?’), the ode soon shades into radical polemic, with barely moderated talk of ‘Men, who their duties know,/But know their rights, and knowing dare maintain’. This trenchant formulation originates in an obscure Patriot drama of 1749, but in the aftermath of the French Revolution it was Jones’s version that was stamped on medals by the democrat Thomas Spence. Franklin tracks the motto’s path through American political discourse, from Jefferson’s speeches to the rhetoric of abolitionism; even ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ may glance at an earlier line from the poem, about ‘starr’d and spangled courts’. In England, the Ode in Imitation of Alcaeus reached ordinary readers in a broadsheet version distributed free by the Society for Constitutional Information (it purged the invocation to Althorp), the first of several activist appropriations. Spence reprinted the poem in his incendiary journal Pigs’ Meat (named in defiance of Burke’s counter-revolutionary sneer at the ‘swinish multitude’), and it reappeared in a Chartist newspaper of 1839.

Even though Jones couldn’t have foreseen all this, he was looking ahead when he wrote a pro-American epithalamium in which Freedom, Concord and Justice flee decadent Albion for Delaware and its ‘purer soil’. He contemplated doing the same himself (amid rumours that he was a peace envoy, or even a spy) but backed out, although not until after he’d arranged to sail from Nantes. Asia was in any case the logical move, and one Jones had been preparing for all his life. As an Oxford student he’d employed a Syrian called Mirza to help him translate the Mille et une nuits back into Arabic. On graduating in 1768, he was hired by Christian VII of Denmark to translate into French the Tarīkh-i Nādirī, which chronicles the depredations of Nadir Shah, a Persian warlord who invaded India in the 1730s, sacking Delhi and fatally destabilising the Mughal empire. Jones allayed his qualms about this commission (Christian was scarcely an enlightened despot; Nadir was genocidal) in a preface which declared power to be ‘always odious’. He also turned the project to his advantage by appending a treatise he’d written on Oriental verse. The treatise applies to Persian literature the sublime aesthetics of the Oxford Orientalist Robert Lowth, for whom the terse passion of ancient Hebrew poetry (Job and Psalms especially) had expressive powers unmatched by the regulated, decorous traditions of classical verse. Generous illustrations from the 14th-century poet Hāfiz decorated the work that made Jones’s name, A Grammar of the Persian Language (1771), in which he whimsically styled himself Yūnus Ūksfurdī, or Oxford Jones.

The Grammar was widely read for its opulent verse translations (‘the sense aches at them’, Elizabeth Montagu wrote), but Jones was careful to make the poetry accessible to mainstream neoclassical taste. Hāfiz was not only exotic and strange but ‘the Anacreon of Persia’; in Jones’s hands Hāfiz and his predecessor Firdausi sometimes end up sounding like Horace or Pope. Firdausi, enraptured by his beloved’s embrace, ‘should seem to touch the sky with my exalted head’ – an unmistakable echo of Horace’s first ode to his patron Maecenas. In Jones’s follow-up collection of 1772, Poems, Consisting Chiefly of Translations from the Asiatick Languages, the half-naked heroine whose beauty is ‘part conceal’d, and part disclos’d to sight’ might remind the reader of the eroticised trees of Pope’s Windsor Forest, which ‘part admit, and part exclude the day;/As some coy nymph her lover’s warm address/Nor quite indulges, nor can quite repress’. Eastern and Western poetry had closer affinities than we might assume, Jones insisted, and while exploiting the reputation of the Orient for sensuous abandon, he also firmly contests the stereotype of Eastern irrationality and despotism. His translation (from Sa’dī’s Bostan) of a Persian monarch’s advice to his son is coloured by Whiggish rhetoric: a century or two before, Jones claimed, it ‘would have been suppressed in Europe, for spreading with too strong a glare the light of liberty and reason’.

Yet this was not just a matter of disinterested scholarship, or even, in Franklin’s apt phrase, ‘affirmative Orientalism’. Persian was the language of Mughal diplomacy, and the Grammar’s commercial value is shown not only by Jones’s attempts to secure East India Company funding for it (in the end he relied on the market) but also by an unsuccessful conspiracy to pirate the book. The same combination of academic interest and hard-nosed careerism is evident in later works such as The Mahometan Law of Succession to the Property of Intestates (1782), one of several treatises in comparative law that Jones used to flaunt his credentials for the long-touted Bengal appointment. Some came to see him as a would-be nabob, fixated on the stupendous opportunities for self-enrichment in India after Clive. There was warning as well as congratulation in Benjamin Franklin’s cool message when the posting at last came through: ‘Wishes that you may return from that corrupting Country, with a great deal of Money honestly acquir’d, and with full as much Virtue as you carry out with you.’

Despite Jones’s manifest pragmatism, his principles still got in the way. Called to the bar in 1774, he practised for years on the Carmarthen and other Welsh circuits, and Franklin has found evidence in legal archives of his willingness to work on behalf of the dispossessed. In London, Jones mixed with lawyers politicised by the radical John Wilkes; in Wales – no longer Yūnus Ūksfurdī but hanner Cymro, or ‘half-Welshman’ – he defended the rack-rented poor against the entrenched power of an anglicised squirearchy. His letters from the assizes towns of west Wales deplore ‘the abject state of vassalage to which the peasantry and lower yeomanry of the counties through which I pass twice a year, are reduced, or the cruel insults and injuries, which they are forced to bear’.

Not much of this social analysis seems to have made its way into print. Some of Jones’s most fiercely contested cases concerned naval impressment, a practice that rose sharply after Spain’s seizure of Port Egmont in the Falklands and escalated again during the American war. As Jones told Althorp from Haverfordwest (with a rare lapse into Orientalist cliché), the power of press gangs left the peasantry of Britain ‘no more free than the people of Constantinople or Morocco’. He even proposed to publish a speech he’d given on the illegality of press warrants, though the likelihood is that discretion prevailed. Franklin attributes to Jones the anonymous Discourse on the Impressing of Mariners (1778), but on weak grounds. The Discourse includes an anecdote about the author being sent by his father to help a family servant abducted by the press gang, but even the precocious Jones could not have done this while still a toddler. The servant was a liveried coachman, which doesn’t fit either. In fact A Discourse on the Impressing of Mariners was attributed to Thomas Green, a Suffolk pamphleteer, as early as 1825, and there seems no reason to doubt this identification.

Instead Jones jeopardised his career by publishing on a grander if more theoretical subject. The Principles of Government, in a Dialogue between a Scholar and a Peasant (1782) was again published as a free pamphlet by the Society for Constitutional Information. In the discursive context of elite republicanism (Jones first wrote it in French for coterie circulation), there was nothing particularly outspoken about the text. But after ten thousand copies of it were given away, it came to look more like an instruction manual for the poor. A passage in which the scholar acts on his enthusiasm for citizen militias as a bulwark against tyranny by handing the peasant a musket must have seemed particularly alarming. Like the ode to Althorp, The Principles of Government has a history of turning up at fraught political junctures – after the Peterloo massacre, during the Chartist protests – but the most interesting reprint was an earlier one, a Wrexham edition of 1783 by Jones’s future brother-in-law, William Davies Shipley, who also considered a Welsh translation. Shipley was indicted by the high sheriff of Flintshire, Thomas Fitzmaurice, who thought the pamphlet ‘seditious, treasonable and diabolical’, a call to armed rebellion. Almost simultaneously, Jones’s appointment to the Bengal bench was announced, with a knighthood into the bargain. Jones had waited years for this; the decisive intervention on his behalf came from Lord Shelburne, who as well as being the new prime minister was Fitzmaurice’s brother.

So Jones was entrusted with a key office of imperial jurisdiction just as his work was indicted for seditious libel. Is this the rigorous fair-mindedness of 18th-century administration – innocent until proven guilty – or the ramshackle nature of the imperial machine? Or was it simply a low-risk means of getting Jones out of the way? In the end, Shipley was tried and acquitted for republishing The Principles of Government, and the case made legal history by transferring from judge to jury the right to determine what is seditious, a change formalised in Fox’s 1792 Libel Act. Even so, it must have been a relief to those charged with control of the press in the 1790s – a decade that saw further reprints of political works by Jones, some gleefully outing him as a Supreme Court judge – that Jones was now five thousand miles away, immersed in philology and comparative jurisprudence. His friends or admirers, from Richard Price to Mary Wollstonecraft, might be making trouble, but at least he wouldn’t be replying to Burke’s Reflections. There wasn’t much danger of Jones fomenting unrest in India. Franklin makes persuasive analogies between the subaltern peoples whose predicament concerned Jones in both Carmarthen and Calcutta, but the analogy went only so far: ‘I should hardly think of instructing the Gentoos in the maxims of the Athenians,’ Jones assured Gibbon. Democracy was not to be preached to Indians, ‘who must and will be governed by absolute power’.


Franklin dislikes what he calls the ‘old canard’ about Jones being a radical at home, promoting liberty and popular enfranchisement, and a despot abroad, honing the apparatus of imperial domination. But the evidence is mixed. A powerful case exists for the progressive, enlightened, enlightening Jones who used his time in Calcutta to understand the diverse cultures of India more fully than any Westerner before him, and who disseminated this knowledge in ways that challenged Eurocentric assumptions. He quickly founded the Asiatick Society as a forum for research, and circulated the findings in Asiatick Researches, the society’s journal. He contributed papers – in his lifetime they made up perhaps a third of the total – on everything from anthropology and archaeology to philology and religion; he also explored sciences like botany from an Indian perspective, taking care not to superimpose a Linnaean grid on indigenous knowledge. His project of enrolling Indians in the Asiatick Society got nowhere, but he published papers by several members of the Bengali intelligentsia in Asiatick Researches, and his long-suffering wife (he kept her waiting 17 years; they never had children) described him working collaboratively ‘with Arabs and Persians in the morning, Hindus in the evening’. Much of this work was legal scholarship, motivated at first by Jones’s distrust of the pandits and maulavis he met in the courtroom, but leading in time to an exhaustive digest, and attempted synthesis, of Hindu and Muslim law. Jones codified and promoted indigenous jurisprudence – though he favoured elite systems over popular customary law – in ways that impeded the colonial imposition of alien procedures.

The same bold syncretic ambitions mark Jones’s linguistic researches, and here his long-term significance is greater still. It’s hard to overstate the breakthrough that resulted from his fascination with Sanskrit, as much in scholarly method as in cultural politics. In his momentous ‘Third Anniversary Discourse’ of 1786, he made the genetic connection between European languages and Sanskrit – a language ‘more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either’. He was provocatively reorienting, even reversing, the cultural hierarchy between coloniser and colonised. Jones later reinforced this challenge to cultural Eurocentrism with his rapturous, sensationally popular translation of Kālidāsa’s Sakuntalā, which influenced European (especially German) Romanticism. As the final piece of his intellectual jigsaw, Sanskrit also enabled Jones to posit a proto-Indo-European language which was observable in shared grammatical structures as well as vocabulary. Speculations about a common originary language had been made before, but it was Jones who grounded them in rigorous structural analysis as opposed to etymological guesswork: a groundbreaking move that could be applied beyond linguistics to comparative study of mythology, religion and (as Jones adds in the ‘Third Anniversary Discourse’) the ‘sublime theories’ that ‘Pythagoras and Plato derived … from the same fountain with the sages of India’.

This valorisation of Sanskrit and Indian culture more generally contrasts starkly with the dismissiveness of the 19th century, when for Macaulay ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.’ Yet Jones’s approach may have been a smarter way of securing imperial domination. A hostile view would see Jones as a desk-bound Clive whose scholarly energies provided the intellectual counterpart to military conquest, promoting the control of subject populations through complete mastery of their languages, customs and traditions. He was a close ally of Warren Hastings, then governor general of Bengal, who knew as well as any postcolonialist that knowledge was power. The use of native jurisprudence was a key part of Hastings’s strategy to legitimise his regime, which would be able to govern more securely if it mastered local practices and laws, and more easily inherit the mantle of enlightened Mughal despotism. It was for this reason above all, as Jones noted in a letter to Burke, that ‘the old Mogul constitution’ must be preferred to Whig principle: ‘A system of liberty, forced upon a people invincibly attached to opposite habits, would in truth be a system of cruel tyranny.’

Burke was having none of this when he launched the impeachment of Hastings in 1788, and occasionally Franklin loses patience himself. In an incongruous moment, he portrays Jones as an intellectual despoiler, a rifler of languages and cultures who did as much violence as an East India Company general. ‘The imperial aggression was so strident and the catalogue of pillage and corruption so complete,’ Franklin writes with a flourish, ‘we even looted the Hindustani word loot.’ But linguistic appropriation and material expropriation aren’t quite the same thing. When Nadir Shah looted the Koh-i-Noor in 1739, or when Lord Dalhousie more urbanely looted it in 1850, the diamond was lost to India; when loot entered English (in 1839, the OED suggests), the word wasn’t. It was still in circulation there, alongside shampoo, thug and bungalow, even if the metropole had gained a term of imperial self-reproach. If Jones’s philological work dispossessed anyone, the losers were the Brahmin elite whose control of Sanskrit literature was weakened, opening the way to a broad-based cultural nationalism that resisted imperial rule. That was never on the Andrometer plan.