Members and fellows of the Royal Asiatic Society gathered together on 24 January 2012 to do honour to the memory of two dynamic founders – founders of Indology and founders of Asiatic Societies – polymathic men of genius, learning and authority. Although it was a dank and dark January night, two earlier and enlightening Januaries were celebrated: the mid-January of 1784 which saw the founding of the Asiatic Society of Bengal by Sir William Jones, and that early January of 1823 – almost four decades later – which marked Henry Thomas Colebrooke’s founding of the Royal Asiatic Society.

M Franklin book cover This event was the brainchild of RAS President Gordon Johnson, CBE, MC, TD and Director Dr Alison Ohta, inspired by the appearance of two biographies of these Asiatic Society founders: The Making of Western Indology: Henry Thomas Colebrooke and the East India Company by Sanskritists Rosane and Ludo Rocher (University of Pennsylvania) and Orientalist Jones: Sir William Jones, Poet, Lawyer, and Linguist, 1746-1794 by Michael J. Franklin, Department of English Language and Literature (Swansea University). The Rochers were unfortunately unable to attend the launch, but their book was introduced with an entertaining and instructive talk from that most eminent historian of empire, Professor P. J. Marshall, CBE, FBA, who stressed their scrupulous research. The Rochers’ book will undoubtedly bring the name of the RAS founder to a much wider readership, and address the comparative neglect of a man who, had he been German, as Max Müller famously stated: ‘we should have seen his statue in his native place, his name written in letters of gold on the walls of academies; we should have heard of Colebrooke jubilees and Colebrooke scholarships’.

Michael Franklin stressed the differences between the ‘imaginative and inventive’ Jones and Colebrooke’s rigorously ‘scientific attention to detail’, but pointed out that the two Orientalists shared a vast and polymathic range of interests in Sanskrit, Hindu law, religion, and philosophy. Above all, many of their recreations were similar, especially botany, in which Colebrooke followed Jones’s lead in cultural ecology. Franklin read of how: ‘One day when Jones was deeply involved in taxonomical study of the lotus, consulting Sanskrit books concerning the use of its seeds and rhizomes as food and medicine, while Anna, his wife, attempted to capture its beauty in a watercolour, they received an unexpected visit from “a native of Nepal who made prostrations before it on entering my study, where the fine plant and beautiful flowers lay for examination”. The incident set a sacred seal upon the cultural importance of the Joneses’ investigative and recuperative labours.’

Colebrooke and Jones arrived in Bengal within a few months of each other in the year of 1783: Colebrooke, a well-connected but socially insecure 18-year-old, and Jones, a celebrity lawyer and Orientalist in his prime at 37. They both fell in love withIndia: Jones immediately and with a poet’s passion, and Colebrooke more slowly, with a sort of ‘lingering-out sweet skill’. The Royal Asiatic Society celebrated that love and the intensity of their desire to communicate it throughoutEuropeand the West.

Michael Franklin, who was elected FRAS last month, was presented by Orientalist John Drew with a first edition of the first volume of Francis Gladwin’s Ayeen Akbery, or, The Institutes of the Emperor Akbar (3 vols, Calcutta, 1783–6). This was a text whose value for Indian government had been stressed by William Jones as early as 1771, and Governor-General Warren Hastings commissioned its translation by Persianist Gladwin. It was thus a most apt gift as this book, published just as Jones arrived in Calcutta in September 1783, marked a key stage in Hastings’s plan to govern India in accordance with ‘the original constitution of the Moghul Empire’.

Hastings’s government of ‘British’ Indiaand his patronage of Sanskrit and Indo-Persian texts is the theme of a conference entitled ‘Indian Pluralism and Hastings’s Orientalist Regime’ to be held in Gregynog on 18-20 July 2012. Plenary speakers include Dr Natasha Eaton (King’s College, London); William Dalrymple; Professor Carl Ernst (North Carolina), Professor P. J. Marshall (King’s College, London), Professor Daniel White (Toronto). Proposals for 30-minute papers are invited and should be sent to Michael J. Franklin, English Department, Swansea University, Singleton Park, Swansea SA2 8PP, by 1 March 2012.