In Praise Of A Pioneer: ‘Oriental’ William Jones

In Praise Of A Pioneer: ‘Oriental’ William Jones

Some contentious readers may question the subject of this article. To be honest, Sir William Jones wasn’t my first choice. I wanted to write about early archaeologists working in British India and then move to post-partition Pakistan. But as I delved deeply into Sir William’s life and work, I was deeply influenced and changed my original plan. I fell in love with this brilliant man of the British Empire as I explored more about him and his contribution.

Every other document emphasized his role and that of the Asian Society of Bengal in the creation of Indology as a new discipline. There is no doubt that he was the one who laid the foundation for systematic disciplines of archaeology, history and linguistics in India. With such references, it is extremely difficult to ignore his intellectual personality in any narrative dealing with ancient South Asian history. It is indeed not possible to cover Sir William’s work in a single article like this. However, I have endeavored to cover his most important contributions in the following three sections, which cover his life, education and work in England and India.

Image of the English edition of the work translated from Persian into French by William Jones

William Jones was born on September 28, 1746. Following Welsh tradition, he took his father’s first name (William) and his father’s surname Jones. His father died when he was only three years old. He attended Harrow School, where he proved a promising student in classical scholarship and oriental languages.

In 1764 he entered University College, Oxford, where he made progress in Greek and Hebrew languages ​​and learned more about Near Eastern studies, Oriental literature and philosophy. In addition, he also mastered the Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish language. At Oxford he continued his studies with the help of a college scholarship and income from tutoring. He completed his Bachelor of Arts in 1768, but was already famous as an orientalist.

At that time King Christian VII of Denmark was visiting England and William Jones was asked to translate Mirza Mehdi Khan Astarabadi’s biography of Nader Shah from Persian into French. The proposed task was difficult, but he accepted it. At one point he interrupted his studies for a year just to finish the translation. Finally, the translated book with the French title came out Story by Nader Chah in 1770. The publication helped establish him as a translator and linguist. He wrote another book A grammar of the Persian language, in 1771, which turned out to be one of the best grammar books on the Persian language in the English language. He wrote several other books including Poeseos Asiaticae Commentariorum (1774), which included translations of Arabic and Persian poetry. These books earned him nicknames such as “Oriental Jones”, “Persian Jones” and “Linguist Jones”. In the meantime, he was thinking about a book of poetry entitled britain discovered, but he focused more on translating from Asian languages.

In the book he criticized the king, highlighted the exploitation of India, pointed to unrest in the colonies (America) and condemned the African slave trade

William Jones received his master’s degree in 1773 and was admitted to the bar a year later. During his legal days he always longed to acquire the style and graceful demeanor of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the multi-talented Roman jurist, philosopher, skeptic and statesman. Therefore, he shaped his muddled ideas and focused on himself according to this assumed model. He also developed a detailed plan which he called “Andrometer” – its rough translation might be “Human Measure”. The components of the plan were: 30 years of vocational preparation, the next 20 years of vocational training and public service. After that, one should reserve one’s years for literary contributions and other pursuits, and then move toward lifelong dedication, “preparation for eternity.” He had some success in the legal practice and his legal reputation was recognized in 1776 when he was appointed Commissioner of Bankruptcy. It was an insignificant position, but it made him about a hundred pounds a year.

Asiatic Society of Bengal Logo – Attested in 1905 and depicting Sir William Jones

In the midst of this period he undertook another project: the English translation of the speeches of Isaius on the Athenian succession, which he published in 1779. The translation from Greek into English made him a leading jurist and legal scholar. It was a single book, proving that his abilities were universal and easily adaptable to any area or topic of his interest. He also wrote his famous Essay on surety law in 1781. Readers believed that it was a result of his legal studies and notes. It was considered the first systematic and scholarly treatment of English law. The concluding part of the book introduced the reader to the history of English law, the author’s analysis and a synthesis.

In his legal career he had a tendency to uphold social justice. Therefore he sacrificed many opportunities or was prevented from taking them. However, he continued to write, and in a record three years (from 1780 to 1783) produced a considerable number of books. Popularity came to An Inquiry into the Legal Mode of Suppressing Riots, with a Constitutional Plan for Future Defense (1780), written in connection with the Gordon Riots. These riots left London at the mercy of the mob for five days, and eventually the army was called in to calm the city. Another book A speech on the nomination of candidates to represent the country of Middlesex (1780) was written against the background of general elections. In the book he criticized the king, highlighted the exploitation of India, pointed to unrest in the colonies (America) and condemned the African slave trade. Another pamphlet that also became famous was The principles of government in a dialogue between a scholar and a peasant (1782). She exposed the oppression in her own country and advocated the new philosophies of equality and the common good.

surety law (1796) by William Jones

He anonymously published a forty-page letter entitled A Letter to a Patriotic Senator Heading a Bill for the Constitutional Representation of the People (1783). Like previous books, this one also had a backstory. A Member of Parliament asked William Jones for his views on constitutional representation and the response came out in the form of a pamphlet. She attacked the system, revealing that while the British Constitution allows all subjects to vote, except in cases of extreme intellectual disability, only wealthy men regularly go to Parliament. The author argued that the only solution was to hold annual elections with more parliamentary representatives from the common people.

In addition to all these political writings, he also wrote political poems. Most of them supported the American Revolution. As a result, rumors circulated in London that Jones was moving to the United States of America to help the new nation write the constitution. However, William Jones was aiming for something else: a change of government. Eventually Lord North’s government was defeated, and the Marquess of Rockingham became Prime Minister of Great Britain for the second time (he remained in office from 27 March to 1 July 1782). Now the friends of William Jones were in power, but they were divided, and important issues had to be resolved before them. These were: the Ireland issue, the future of America, and economic and political interests in India. On the other hand, he explored all possibilities and approached all his friends to get the position of a judge at the Supreme Court Judicature in Fort William, Calcutta (also known as the Supreme Court of Bengal). But there was no hope, so he thought about emigrating to America, or continuing his law practice in London, or settling in Oxford and living a reclusive life together with Anna Maria. But none of these options had a guaranteed stream of income that would help him live his preferred lifestyle and pursue intellectual dreams.

In the midst of the crisis he turned again to Shelburne, now Prime Minister following the sudden death of Lord Rockingham. Finally, after five years of waiting, the good news came. Shelburne kept his promise and obtained the King’s approval to appoint William Jones as Justice of the Supreme Court of Bengal. This was made public by the London newspaper on March 03, 1783. Garland Cannon in his book Oriental Jones, a biography of Sir William Jones (1746-1774) commented on the appointment: “On his [William Jones’] Shoulders rested a bigger problem – could the oriental peoples learn to love and trust the west? In the colonial year of 1783, the apolitical Jones was on his way to Bengal to seek the answer.”

(Sequel follows)

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