Nathaniel Brassey Halhed

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Nathaniel Brassey Halhed (25 May 1751 – 18 February 1830) was an English Orientalist and philologist. Halhed was born at Westminster. He was educated at Harrow, where he began his intimacy with Richard Brinsley Sheridan, which continued after he entered Christ Church, Oxford. At Oxford he also made the acquaintance of William Jones, the famous Orientalist, who induced him to study Arabic. Accepting a writership in the service of the East India Company, Halhed went out to India, and here, at the suggestion of Warren Hastings, by whose orders it had been compiled, translated the Hindu legal code from a Persian version of the original Sanskrit. This translation was published in 1776 under the title A Code of Gentoo Laws.In 1778 he published a Bengali grammar, to print which he set up, at Hugli, the first Bengali press in India. It is claimed that he was the first writer to call attention to the philological connection of Sanskrit with Persian, Arabic, Greek and Latin.In 1785 he returned to England, and from 1790–1795 was Member of Parliament for Lymington, Hants. For some time he was a disciple of Richard Brothers, and his unwise speech in parliament in defence of Brothers made it impossible for him to remain in the House of Commons, from which he resigned in 1795. He subsequently obtained a home appointment under the East India Company. He died in London on 18 February 1830. His collection of Oriental manuscripts was purchased by the British Museum, and there is an unfinished translation by him of the Mahabharata in the library of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

Early life[edit]

Nathaniel Brassey Halhed was born in a merchant family to William Halhed, a bank director, on 25 May 1751 and christened in the parish of St. Peter-le-Poor, Old Broad Street. His mother was Frances, daughter of late John Caswell, M.P. for Leominster. Nathaniel went to Harrow School from the age of seven to seventeen. William Jones, who would carry on the Halhed’s work on Oriental Literature in India, also went to the same school. Halhed entered Christ Church on 13 July 1768 at the age of seventeen. He remained there for three years but did not take a degree. Jones had preceded him from Harrow to Oxford and they shared an intellectual relationship.

Literary ambitions[edit]

Halhed also had a literary ambition to which end he corresponded with Sheridan and worked together to bring their ventures to reality. Their projects were not successful although they worked laboriously on several works like the Crazy Tales and the more important farce called Ixiom which was later referred to as Jupiter. The latter did not make it to the stage and Halhed left for India even before it was absolute that their venture had failed. One work, The Love Epistles of Aristaenetus. Translated from the Greek into English Metre, was a success of sorts which was written by Halhed and revised by Sheridan and published anonymously. Although it did make a stir, yet, two years after its publication the book was harshly criticised and stamped as a failure.

There has been considerable debate over the authorship of the Epistles. It was widely thought that Sheridan had written the piece while Halhed had merely laid its foundations. This has been proven as false but it did, even if in a slight manner, ignite what would become a bitter rivalry between the two friends over an Elizabeth Linley who was liked by both the young men and who chose Sheridan over Halhed. Their friendship came to an end when Halhed sailed for Calcutta and returned to sit on the opposite side in the parliament being allied to bitter enemies.

Bengal and the East India Company[edit]

Halhed's father was bitterly disappointed in him and therefore decided to send him to India under the employment of the East India Company through his connections. His petition for a writership was granted and endorsed by the former governor of Bengal, Harry Verelst. Though appointed on 4 December 1771, Halhed knew about it long before and spent the remainder of the year preparing himself for his new career. He had to learn accounting and at Oxford he learnt Persian and, possibly, dabbled in some Arabic.

Halhed was first placed in the accountant general's office under Mr. Darrel and next as a Persian translator. He went to Cossimbazaar to strengthen his knowledge of Persian through practical application and also acquaint himself with the silk trade. It was in Kasimbazaar that Halhed also acquired another language, Bengali, that was crucial while dealing with the aurungs or weaving districts. However, despite his hardship in Bengal he still had several romantic affairs with Elizabeth Pleydell, a certain Nancy, Diana Rochfort, and Henrietta Yorker among others.

Halhed's tenacity of writing poetry did not abate till much later by which time he had written a diverse amount of poetry in the form of pleas and love poems. The opening of the Calcutta Theatre in November, 1773 gave Halhed occasion to write no less than three prologues. A production of King Lear also spurred him to write five more pieces. Amid the varied and culturally rich atmosphere of Bengal, Halhed was inspired to write several humorous verses and poems one of which, A Lady's Farewell to Calcutta, was an eloquently expressed lament for those who regretted staying in the mofussil. These poems though not valued from a literary perspective paint a vivid picture of life in Bengal when only a handful of British residents populated Calcutta.

A Code of Gentoo Laws[edit]

A few months before Halhed's appointment as writer, the court of directors notified the President and council at Fort William College of their determination to take over the administration of civil justice and the execution of the policy to be left with the newly appointed Governor, Warren Hastings. Hastings assumed governorship in April, 1772 and by August submitted what was to become the Judicial Plan of 1772. The plan provided among other things that "all suits regarding the inheritance, marriage, caste and other religious usages, or institutions, the laws of the Koran with respect to Mohametans and those of the Shaster with respect to Gentoos shall be invariably adhered to."

Although the plan was simple it was beset with difficulties since there was no Englishman who could read Sanskrit and very few Indians who could. The prospect of employing the scholars or pundits as judges was also ruled out since the pundits were interpreters of the Sanskrit texts and, therefore, were not aided by any particular code to provide sound justice. Thus, the cumbersome job of translation was undertaken and ten pundits were hired to which an eleventh was added. Hastings was particularly diligent about it since he envisaged making a text in English that contained the native laws to prove that India was not in a savage state as was mistakenly believed and that its laws, though not as sophisticated as English laws, were able enough in their native region of enforcement. Hastings could not trust the authorities in England, not even the well-wishers, since they had not set foot in India and had no idea of the ways of the country. He found it necessary to show the authorities that it was far prudent to apply the native laws on their subjects rather than laws that would be alien to them.

To this effect the pundits began to assimilate a text from various sources which they named Vivadarnavasetu or the sea of litigations. The subsequent translation to Persian, a language Halhed and Hastings was well acquainted with, was done via a Bengali oral version by Zaid ud-Din 'Ali Rasa'i. Halhed translated the Persian text to English closely attended by Hastings himself. The complete translation was in Hastings' hands on 27 March 1775. At his request the East India Company had it printed in London in 1776 in a handsome quarto under the title of A Code of Gentoo Laws, or, Ordinations of the Pundits. This was a private edition, copies of which were not for sale, but was distributed by the East India Company. A pirated and less luxurious edition in octavo was printed by Donaldson the following year followed by a second edition in 1781 and translations in French and German appeared as early as 1778.

The book sold successfully and made Halhed famous. However, the publication of the book brought not just praise but also strong criticism against the native laws and more importantly the authenticity of the text since it was generally agreed that a translation of the third degree would be highly erroneous and misleading from the original. The code, however, failed to become the authoritative text of the Anglo-Indian judicial system. Its impact was greater in Europe and the Continent than in India and a literary success more due to Halhed's preface and the introduction to Sanskrit than the laws themselves. A review in the London based Critical Review on September 1777 stated:[1]

"This is a most sublime performance ... we are persuaded that even this enlightened quarter of the globe cannot boast anything which soars so completely above the narrow, vulgar sphere of prejudice and priestcraft. The most amiable part of modern philosophy is hardly upon a level with the extensive charity, the comprehensive benevolence, of a few rude untutored Hindoo Bramins ... Mr. Halhed has rendered more real service to this country, to the world in general, by this performance, than ever flowed from all the wealth of all the nabobs by whom the country of these poor people has been plundered ... Wealth is not the only, nor the most valuable commodity, which Britain might import from India."

A Grammar of the Bengali Language[edit]

A great impediment for the administration and trade with the aurungs was the lack of knowledge of Bengali. The East India Company had several employees with varying degrees of knowledge in Persian but there was none who could speak the Bengali dialect with ease. Moreover, the company lacked a confidential translator who could provide some aid in the matter and to this effect Halhed proposed the plan of the Bengal translatorship to the Board of Trade and he himself took the responsibility of executing the proposed plan and set out the first grammar of Bengali, the salaries of the pundits and the scribe who assisted him being paid by Hastings. Difficulty arose while transforming the work to print since, unlike the code, the manuscript could not be sent to England for printing as a Bengali type was needed. This necessitated the establishment of a Bengali Printing press. The Governor-General, who had been in full support of Halhed's work, appointed Charles Wilkins who had been in the Company's civil service in Bengal to undertake a set of Bengali types and the first Bengali Printing Press was set up at Hugli. The actual work of creating the typeface was done by Panchanan Karmakar, under the supervision of Wilkins.[2] Under the recommendation of the Governor-General the book was then accepted as the property of the Company and "a gratuity [was] allowed to those gentlemen of 30 rupees for each copy and…recommended to them to prosecute the work under the sanction and protection of this Government". Wilkins informed the council on 13 November that the printing was completed by which time Halhed had left Bengal for England.

Halhed's Grammar was widely believed at the time to be the first grammar of Bengali, for the Portuguese work of Manuel da Assumpção, published in Lisbon in 1743, remained largely unknown in Britain and Bengal.

Concept of the Indo-European language family[edit]

Halhed's observation of Sanskrit in the preface of his book stated that he had been "astonished to find the similitude of Shanscrit words with those of Persian and Arabic, and even of Latin and Greek: and these not in technical and metaphorical terms, which the mutation of refined arts and improved manner might have occasionally introduced; but in the main ground-work of language, in monosyllables, in the names of numbers, and the appellations of such things as would be first discriminated as the immediate dawn of civilisation." This was soon to be heralded as a major step in the discovery of the Indo-European language family.

The Governor’s protégé[edit]

Halhed had become one of Warren Hastings' favorites and believed in Hastings' philosophy with a fierce conviction. It was, therefore, not surprising when Halhed received special favors from the Governor. On 5 July 1774, about seven months after he began translating the Code, the Governor presented to the council that in consequence of the new dispositions for the post of faujdar, his correspondence and need for translators of Persian documents had risen considerably and that he required an assistant in addition to the munshis. His choice was Halhed who was appointed for the post. A more controversial move made by Hastings exposed Halhed as a target to the opposing factions when Hastings nominated him for the post of Commissary General in October, 1776. Although Halhed received the post, he had to resign from it after the views of England became known and Halhed chose to leave Bengal.

Marriage[edit]

Despite wooing several women of reputable accomplishments Halhed married (Helena) Louisa Ribaut, stepdaughter of Johannes Matthias Ross, the head of Dutch factory at Kasimbazaar when Halhed was stationed there. It is possible to assume that the marriage was a little difficult in the beginning owing to the marked absence of Louisa Halhed from the public and literary life of Halhed in the early years of their marriage but soon it was to become the strongest of bonds and the most faithful one for the difficult times that lay ahead of Halhed. Although there are no records of the betrothal it probably took place in 1775.

War of the Pamphlets[edit]

Halhed soon took residence in Holland and later in London. Even though he had ceased being an employee of the East India Company he continued to be an ally and the protégé of Hastings and advocated his policies while, conversely, attacked those who sought to defame Hastings or criticise him. His first undertaking to this end was an anonymous tract in 1779 in defense of Hastings' policies with respect to the Maratha War. Being away from his former patron did not lead to an estrangement but to an intimacy which would not have been becoming while working under Hastings. Very soon he began to write poetry expressing his persisting fidelity and admiration for the governor. On 8 June 1782, in imitation of Horace's Ode in praise of Augustus, he proclaimed:

What thanks, O Hastings, from the Chair,

What ballot of impartial names,

What vote of Commons shall declare

The meed exerted virtue claims.

Soon Halhed began to write more for Hastings' cause and became intently involved in Indian politics. Under the pseudonym of "Detector" he wrote a series of open letters that appeared in the daily papers, as separate pamphlets and grouped into collections. These letters span over a year, from October, 1782 to November, 1783.

To India and back[edit]

Declining wealth forced Halhed to consider a return to India although this time he sought to do so without appearing to be aided by Hastings. He wrote a letter to the court of directors on 18 November 1783 containing a long resume of his activities in the Company's service and made an extraordinary request of being appointed as a member of the committee of Revenue which was the highest paid body in Calcutta. Although he tried to give the impression of being independent of Hastings' patronage, he could neither shake off his reputation as an ally of Hastings nor deny that he belonged to his party. The growing opposition against Hastings had begun to abate and any opposition to Halhed's appointment was consequently dropped. Halhed got the desired post which inadvertently made him look even more closely associated with Hastings than ever before.

Halhed returned to India as a reputed Englishman with his wife and a black servant. However, upon reaching Calcutta Halhed found Hastings to be in Lucknow. In his absence, he presented his credentials to Wheler who was acting as the governor-general in Hastings' absence. Since there was no vacancy in the committee and no other appointments could be made without Hastings, Halhed was left without much to do. In a very short time he received summons from Hastings to Lucknow. Little did Halhed know that Hastings had decided to leave for England. Hastings made for Calcutta while Halhed was on his way to Lucknow but Hastings did not wish to leave Halhed behind. He was determined to assemble a group of his favorites and take them to England to help his cause which he rightly speculated to be under graver threats than before. To facilitate Halhed's uninterrupted stay and subsistence in England he planned to appoint Halhed as an agent of the Nawab Wazir of Oudh in England. Halhed achieved the post that paid him handsomely with little effort after being recommended so highly and hurried back to Calcutta to his wife to get ready to go back to England. He, subsequently, resigned from the Company's services and threw in his lot with Hastings. It was from this point that Halhed became an intimate aide to Hastings, a friend and adviser. This was a major turning point in his life since he consciously chose current politics over his scholarly ambitions.

The Bengal squad[edit]

The group that followed Hastings to England consisted of Halhed, David Anderson, Major William Sands, Colonel Sweeney Toone, Dr. Clement Francis, Captain Jonathan Scott, John Shore, Lieutenant Col. William Popham, Sir John d'Oyly and was known as the Bengal Squad. Halhed arrived in England on 18 June. As Hastings had rightly assumed, troubles in England had only taken a backseat and they came back with a greater immensity to Hastings. Burke brought twenty-two charges against Hastings in April, 1786 and Halhed was in the middle of it, his reputation and wealth suffering along his former patron.The Benares charge for which Halhed had drafted the answer was not in accord with Hastings' line of defense and had to be dropped causing Halhed to become unpopular and ridiculed. He also slipped up at least one of Hastings' shady accounts when he was called in to testify and this too added to the charges brought against Hastings.

Soon Halhed began to look for a parliamentary career. His vehement opposition of Burke, Fox and his erstwhile friend, Sheridan, who were enemies of Hastings, made him one of the Tories and he sought election to parliament which failed miserably and cost him a great deal. He succeeded in acquiring a seat in May, 1791 from the borough of Lymington, in Hampshire. Halhed's return from India was a severe blow since he could no longer pursue his Oriental interests without the aid of the pundits. In the decade of Hastings' impeachment, Halhed remained entangled in the war of pamphlets and could indulge in a few Persian manuscripts that offered second-grade translation of the original Sanskrit works. Among his translated works the Upanisad (1787) which was based on Dara Shiko's Persian translation happens to stand out. Slowly but surely, Halhed's vigor waned being so far removed from India and the lack of appreciation in England for his Oriental works and contempt for being a returned Nabob, an agent of an Indian Prince, and a Hastings' man.

Disciple of Richard Brothers[edit]

The next great change in Halhed's life was Richard Brothers and his prophecies. So utterly idle was Halhed that he decided to look into A revealed knowledge of the Prophecies and Times. The text not only appealed to him but also mirrored the style of the antique Hindu texts that Halhed was completely taken in by it. Halhed's beliefs had changed so radically that he transformed from a skeptic to a gnostic. Halhed then wrote and distributed a Testimony of the Authenticity of the Prophecies of Richard Brothers, and of his Mission to recall the Jews along with Brothers' own book. The most scandalous statement made by Halhed was to identify London with Babylon and Sodom of the book of Revelation. The immediate reaction to this was almost universal: Halhed, known for his expertise in the Oriental and classical, was seen to be mad and eccentric. However, alienation and criticism did not deter Halhed. He wrote more for Brothers and petitioned for him in the parliament when he was arrested for criminal lunacy. It was not long before Halhed realized the futility of his actions and therefore laid the matter rest but not before his embarrassing himself most profoundly in public and declaring his belief in Brothers’ prophecies.

Life of seclusion and after[edit]

For all the effort that Halhed took to advocate Brothers' belief he remained unsuccessful and damaged his reputation irreparably. The millennium saw him a proud but recluse man. He soon accepted the futility of his actions and took stock of his bearings, began to pay off his debts, sold his personal collection of Oriental manuscripts and his own unpublished works. He lived twelve years without saying one word, and many thought he was dead. He was suffering from acute poverty and lack of employment. Indeed so deplorable was his condition that he once had to refuse meeting Mrs. Hastings on her visit to London for lack of adequate clothing. However, he came out of this ascetic existence and rejoined his former friends most of whom were returned Anglo-Indians. In spite of his resolution never to rejoin the Company's services, it was still with the home administration of the Company where lay his greatest possibility of finding employment as he was too old to travel to India. It was difficult for him to acquire a post since he could not join at the bottom of the ladder and the rigid seniority system hindered him being posted at an elevated rank. Fortunately, luck smiled upon him when the Company decided to expand its examiner's department. Halhed applied to one of the newly opened civil secretary posts which carried a £600 salary in April and was appointed in July the same year. The salary was soon increased to £1000 with incentives. The work not just provided him with a steady income but also made the newly opened Company Library accessible to him which contained several new manuscripts. Charles Wilkins, his old partner, was the custodian. Halhed spent much of the summer of 1810 translating a curious collection of Tipu Sultan's dreams written in the prince's own hand. He also made translations of the Mahabharata although his work was more of a personal study, fragmentary in nature, and made to "understand the grand scheme of the universe". He did not seek to publish any of his translations.

Death of Hastings[edit]

The trial of Hastings had left the remaining members of the Bengal Squad in similar positions of limited social acceptance. In turn this cemented their own bonds and Hastings was revered like a guide and leader. The Halheds had grown most intimate with Hastings. However, Hastings, who was nearing eighty, was growing weaker, his health failing rapidly and he suffered from heart ailments and temporary paralysis of speech and limbs. Halhed wrote for every occasion, for not even the trivial remained insignificant when it concerned Hastings. At long last came some consolation when Hastings was called to testify as an expert on Indian affairs in 1813. In June, the University of Oxford conferred upon him an honorary degree and in 1814, Hastings was elevated to the ranks of the privy council.

This happiness was very short-lived as Hastings died on 22 August 1818. Halhed who could not communicate his sentiments orally wrote two poems, and was also given the responsibility of composing the epitaph. Hastings' death brought the relatively peaceful era to an end and in spring 1819, Halhed declared his intention of resigning from the Company’s services after ten years of service. He was allowed a £500 salary and to his fortune, he recovered some of his early investments. At his death his assets were estimated to be around £18000.

Death[edit]

Halhed lived for another decade in silence without writing a single poem or working on any Oriental work. His quiet life came to an end on 18 February 1830. He was buried in the family tomb of Petersham Parish Church. Louisa Halhed lived for a year longer and died on 24 July 1831.

See also[edit]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ Dalrymple 2004, p. 40
  2. ^ Hossain, Ayub. "Panchanan Karmakar". Banglapedia. Retrieved 18 May 2014. 

References[edit]

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

External links[edit]

Excerpts of his notes on some Persian translations of Sanskrit texts were published by Hindley under the title Antient Indian Literature Illustrative of the Researches of the Asiatick Society, established in Bengal *[1]

Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
Harry Burrard II
Harry Burrard I
Member of Parliament for Lymington
1791 – 1796
With: Harry Burrard II
Succeeded by
Harry Burrard II
William Manning