Colebrooke, Henry Thomas 1765-1837, the first great Sanskrit scholar of Europe, was the son of Sir George Colebrooke, the head of an old and wealthy firm of bankers. Sir George sat in the House of Commons for Arundel, and had made himself useful to the directors of the East India Company by his defence of their privileges in parliament; in return for this service he was invited to join the court of directors, of which he eventually became chairman in 1769. His son Henry, who was born in London on 15 June 1765, may have inherited his scholarly bent from his father, who was something of an antiquary and a man of culture; but he undoubtedly derived more of his intellectual vigour from his mother, Mary, daughter and heiress of Patrick Gaynor of Antigua, a woman of remarkable energies of mind. Henry was brought up at home, where, with the aid of a tutor, he gained a considerable mastery of the classical languages, together with French and some German, and began to show that delight in mathematics which afterwards became a ruling passion. His father's influence with the court of directors naturally pointed to an Indian career for the son, and Henry received a writership in the Bengal service in August 1782. As he sailed from Portsmouth he was a witness of the foundering of the Royal George. The thirty-two years of service in the East India Company's civil departments upon which he was now entering were occupied with the monotonous but not uninteresting routine of official duties, varied by little travelling, and no personal experience of war or danger. Colebrooke was appointed assistant collector at Tirhut in 1786, and was not sorry to leave Calcutta, where the gambling and drinking of the representatives of English civilisation disgusted him. Though a retired student, who at first preferred his chair to the saddle, he was not disinclined to win his experience of the world, and took his turn at the gambling-table, with a little temporary interest, which soon wore off. The drinking bouts of the Calcutta bucks only aroused his contempt; he had a strong head himself, and despised people who lost theirs. Still more indignant was he with the low moral tone which pervaded Anglo-Indian society at that time; and in a letter to his father he accuses Warren Hastings of being the author of this debauched condition, by filling the country with a set of harpies, who adopted one pursuit—a fortune. He left his small appointment at the board of accounts with satisfaction, to enter upon his revenue duties at Tirhut. His brother, who also held an appointment at Calcutta, had weaned him somewhat from his too close application to study, and had induced him to spare what time he could for riding and shooting, and so keen did the sporting taste become, that in after years he would take more pride in his shooting, which was admirable, than in his highest scholarly attainments. His official duties, however, left little leisure for either sport or study. He soon established a reputation for thorough and capable work, and what time he had to spare was devoted to an inquiry connected with his office. He became engaged upon a minute examination into the state of husbandry in Bengal, and the results of his inquiries were privately printed in 1795. The volume was not only a masterly survey of the conditions of agriculture in India, but a searching criticism of the policy pursued by England, and a comprehensive view of what that policy ought to be. It opposed the renewal of the company's monopoly, and advocated free-trade principles. The work gave no little offence to the directors, and it was not considered advisable to publish it in England.
During the preparation of this volume Colebrooke had been transferred from Tirhut to Purneah, where his recognised administrative ability was much in request, and here he at length began to prosecute the study of oriental languages and especially Sanskrit. During his first years in India the literatures of the East seem to have repelled him by their extravagance and flighty imagery. His was not a mind to tolerate sins of excess in poetry; he was wont to express very contemptuous criticisms on Persian and Arabic literature, and what he had learnt of Hindu culture affected him with a similar repulsion. His fondness for mathematical pursuits, however, and especially astronomy, led him to inquire what degree of proficiency the Hindus had attained in science, while the difficulties attending the administration of justice among natives according to their own law made a study of the latter essential to the proper exercise of the judicial functions with which Colebrooke was now entrusted. The recent foundation of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, and the publication of its valuable papers in Asiatic Researches, had doubtless a share in stimulating Colebrooke's curiosity concerning the actual facts of Hindu antiquity; but the imperative necessity of a better knowledge of Indian law than could then be obtained from English works was an incentive that pressed most cogently upon the zealous magistrate. Just as revenue duties had stimulated him to undertake a thorough survey of Indian husbandry, so legal functions now compelled him to learn Sanskrit in order to read the Hindu law-books. The code of Gentoo law drawn up by a commission of Brahmans under the direction of Warren Hastings in 1776 was very inadequate to the needs of the law courts, and Sir William Jones had proposed to government the compilation of an extensive code, of both Mohammedan and Hindu law, arranged after the method of Justinian's Pandects, with extracts from the native authorities. Sir William died before he could do much more than plan the work, and it was carried on by a pundit, Jagannátha. The important task of translating this great work was undertaken by Colebrooke. He had already acquired a considerable mastery of the language, in spite of the lack of suitable grammars and dictionaries, which made the task difficult to a degree that can hardly be realised now. But the very refinements of Sanskrit grammar, and the flexibility and capability of the language—or, to use the words of Paulinus, the admirable craft of the devil which had led the Brahman philosophers to form a language at once so rich and complicated—attracted the ingenious and exact mind of Colebrooke, and in 1794 he wrote to his father, I am now fairly entered among oriental researches, and — Sanskrit inquiries.
The first-fruits of this study appeared in the paper on the Duties of a Faithful Hindu Widow, in the Asiatic Researches, 1794, in which he published various Sanskrit texts relating to the suttee or burning of widows. His appointment in 1795 to the magistracy of Mirzapur, near the great centre of Brahmanical learning at Benares, was a notable advantage, for he soon established friendly relations with the learned men of the Sanskrit College, and obtained access to their manuscripts. Leisure for study was, however, very scanty; an Indian judge, instead of enjoying the comfortable sinecure with which he was often credited by detractors in England, had to hear from three hundred to five hundred causes a month, record his proceedings at large, with all the pleadings, evidence, &c., in writing, furnish monthly reports of every cause decided, monthly accounts of all moneys passing through the court, and correspond on the business of the police, &c., with the native magistrates under him, with the magistrates of other districts, and with government. Besides ordinary stress of official work, Colebrooke was still further interrupted in his studies (though he had now completed his translation of the Digest of Hindu Law) by being sent on a mission to the court of Nagpzr, where he was to carry out the Marquis Wellesley's policy by inducing the Raja of Berar to join the defensive alliance with the company against the power of Scindia, who threatened to support Tippz. By the time Colebrooke arrived at Nagpzr in 1799 events had forestalled him; Seringapatam had fallen, and Tippz was dead; and the jealousy and suspicion of the Mahrattas had been so excited by the proceedings of the English in the distribution of the Mysore dominions, that any attempts at conciliation were useless, and an alliance was out of the question. After the usual oriental delays and excuses, Colebrooke left Nagpzr in 1801, with a sense of unavoidable failure. The subsequent struggles with the Mahratta states, ending in the victories of Assaye and Argaum, and the annexation of Cuttack, showed the temper which the Mysore proceedings had evoked.
Meanwhile the Digest had been published in four folio volumes (Calcutta, 1798), and Colebrooke had received the thanks of the governor-general. The work had taken him two years of hard labour, and he had refused remuneration; he had committed himself, he wrote, to disinterestedness in literary labours. But the value and thoroughness of the work, joined to other evidence of his capability as a judge, led to his appointment to a seat on the bench of the new court of appeal at Calcutta in 1801, and he became the president of the bench in 1805. Simultaneously Lord Wellesley appointed him professor of Hindu law and Sanskrit at the recently founded college of Fort William, the repute of which it was intended to raise by attaching to it the most conspicuous names in Indian studies, who were to give their countenance and guidance to the institution without salary. Colebrooke was too deeply occupied to give lectures, but he assisted in examinations, and undertook a Sanskrit Grammar in recognition of the compliment which had been paid him. This grammar, which he had for some years contemplated, was a methodical arrangement of the intricate rules of Pánini and his commentators, and, lacking illustrations and examples, was too complicated and difficult for the use of beginners, who found Wilkins's grammar, published at nearly the same time, better suited to their needs. But Colebrooke's work, of which the first volume alone appeared, 1805, had the merit of placing the results of the native grammarians in their true light for the first time, and vindicating their authority against the scholars who had regarded them as of little value. It is also interesting to note how his studies at this period foreshadowed many of the discoveries of the as yet unborn science of comparative philology.
In spite of continuous labour from morning till sunset at the business of his office, he contrived to do a considerable amount of valuable scholarly work. Indeed, his best efforts belong to this busy period, for it was during his judicial employment at Calcutta that he wrote his essays on the Sanskrit and Pracrit poetry and languages, his papers on the religious ceremonies of the Hindus, his Observations on the Sect of Jains, and, above all, his Essay on the Vedas. His vigorous mind found relaxation in a change, not a cessation, of study, and after the long business hours of the day, filled with trying judicial duties, he would turn with fresh zest to his Sanskrit manuscripts, and would be found in his study, multis circumfusus libris. He was at all times a devourer of books, and it is recorded that when on a voyage nothing printed could be obtained but the technical library of the ship's surgeon, Colebrooke set himself to a vigorous course of medical studies, of which he soon obtained a remarkable mastery. In Sanskrit his reading must have been immense, since every paper he wrote testifies not merely to his originality and ingenious turn of intellect, but to the breadth and extent of his researches; and it must be remembered that all this oriental reading had to be pursued in manuscript, and there was hardly a printed book to smooth his progress.¥*¥*!/«*)çA'IAå»ÅÀNÀ"$î%ß&()æ)ù)*ÿThe essay on the Vedas was among his most important works; it was the first authentic account of these ancient scriptures. It must have been a work of great labour, and could have been executed by no one except himself, as, independently of the knowledge of Sanskrit which it demanded, the possession of the books themselves was not within the reach of any European save one whose position commanded the respect and whose character conciliated the confidence of the Brahmans. This essay is still the only authority available for information respecting the oldest and most important religious writings of the Hindus. So wrote Horace Hayman Wilson in 1837. The importance of Colebrooke's essay and his other papers was increased by their opportuneness. There was at the time when he wrote a considerable, and not unnatural, distrust of Indian scholarship. The first leaders of Hindu discovery, among whom the brilliant but imaginative Sir William Jones held the first place, were very much in the hands of their pundits; and engrossed by theories of correspondence between Hindu and other civilisations, they sought out points of relation and comparison, which their pundits were only too ready to supply out of their own imaginations, or from comparatively modern books, or even from downright forgeries. Sir William Jones, despite his real and sterling qualities of mind, was absolutely incapable of reining in his imagination, and he set up theories which had positively nothing authoritative to rest upon. Indian scholarship began to be regarded with suspicion; men of learning in other studies ventured to doubt the existence of the Vedas, as ancient writings, and to agree with Dugald Stewart, that Sanskrit might after all be a mere invention of the Brahmans—a literary language coined by priests to conceal their impositions.
Colebrooke's apposite appearance upon the scene dispelled these doubts. His honesty, learning, and extreme caution were apparent to all who were competent to examine the question; he treated the literary problems with which he dealt as though they were problems of physical science, and made a point of under- rather than over-stating his case. Precision, scientific sobriety, absolute accuracy and truthfulness were his characteristics. He could say exactly, and in precise terms, what the Sanskrit writers had to tell about astronomy, or contracts, or prosody, or religion, and the very dryness and moderation of his tone carried with it the conviction of his accuracy. He had read the Vedas through with the help of the scholiasts, and to a thorough knowledge of Sanskrit he added what was almost as important for the scientific matters he also discussed, a competent knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. The result was that he restored the Vedas to their rightful place, demolished the absurd speculations which ignorance, or worse, a partial knowledge, had induced, and showed what Indian science really was worth when divested of the fanciful excrescences of learned Europeans. The estimate was arrived at not without disappointment, for he had conceived great hopes of what the scientific writings of the Hindus might contain. The essay on the Vedas was written when Colebrooke was at the zenith of his reputation, and soon after its publication he was elected president of the Bengal Asiatic Society.
At the same time Colebrooke had not abandoned his juristical studies. In 1810 he was at work at a supplement to the Digest, which was to recast the imperfect section on inheritance, and to add others on criminal law, evidence, pleadings, &c. The task was abandoned, like several others, for he had always more on hand than he could finish; but his translation of two treatises on inheritance, published in 1810, fulfilled in part his object, and he also issued the beginning of a great treatise on contracts. By the collection and revision of the ancient texts, which would probably have been lost without his intervention, he became in some degree the legislator of India (Max Müller).
The highest honour to which the civilian aspires was reached in 1807, when Colebrooke attained his seat on the council; and his five years of office corresponded very nearly with Lord Minto's administration. Among the multifarious questions that came before the council, he showed a special activity in regard to reforms in the internal administration, which the governor-general's pacific policy fostered in a marked degree, and, as might be expected, Colebrooke lost no opportunity of stimulating oriental studies—not only Sanskrit, but other Eastern tongues, in many of which he was proficient—and notably encouraged the excellent work of the Serampzr mission press. In 1810 he married Miss Elizabeth Wilkinson, by whom he had three sons, and after the conclusion of his term on the council he prepared to return to England, and take the leisure which the fortune he had amassed during his thirty-two years' service would now enable him to enjoy. On the eve of their departure, however, in October 1814, his wife died, and he returned home alone.
After his return, Colebrooke presented his valuable collection of Sanskrit manuscripts to the India House, where they have proved a priceless treasure to all succeeding scholars; and abandoning to some extent the literary studies which had made his name famous, devoted himself principally to scientific pursuits and experiments. He finished, however, some of the works which he had begun in Calcutta such as the inheritance and contract treatises, and his volume on Hindu mathematics, and wrote his well-known papers on Hindu philosophy for the Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, which he had helped to found in 1823, and of which, as he declined to be president, he was elected to the specially constituted office of director. He also contributed to the Transactions of the Astronomical Society (of which he became president in 1824), as well as to the Linnean and the Geological, of both of which he was a member. Ten papers from his pen also appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Science. With the exception of the translation of the Sánkhya Kárika, which was published after his death by H. H. Wilson, Colebrooke's literary labours came to an end with his paper on the Hindu Courts of Justice, 1828. He had much to harass him in his latter years; the property which, on his homeward voyage from India, he had purchased at the Cape of Good Hope proved unremunerative; and he was forced to make a journey thither in 1821 to look after it; the charge of two nieces under chancery involved litigation; and the death of two of his sons, both promising young men, served to break down much of his remaining health and spirits. Cataract reduced him to total blindness, other sufferings supervened, and some years of bodily helplessness, borne bravely, ended in his death on 10 March 1837, in his seventy-third year. At the time of his death he was a foreign member of the French Institute and the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg.
His life has been written with much skill and discrimination by his only surviving son, Sir T. E. Colebrooke (Trübner, 1873), and Professor Max Müller contributed an appreciative notice of Colebrooke's achievements to the Edinburgh Review, which was republished in Biographical Essays. The following is a complete list of his works: I. Separate works: 1. Remarks on the Present State of Husbandry and Commerce in Bengal, 4to, Calcutta, 1795, printed for private circulation. 2. A Digest of Hindu Law on Contracts and Successions, with a Commentary by Jagannátha Tercapanchánana, translated from the original Sanskrit, 4 vols. folio, Calcutta, 1798. 3. Introductory Remarks to the Hitópodésá, Calcutta, 1804. 4. A Grammar of the Sanskrit Language, vol. i., Calcutta, 1805. 5. The Amera Cósha, a Sanskrit Lexicon, with marginal translations, Serampore, 1808. 6. Two Treatises on the Hindu Law of Inheritance, Calcutta, 1810. 7. Algebra, with Arithmetic and Mensuration, from the Sanskrit of Bramegupta, and Bháscara, preceded by a Dissertation on the State of Science as known to the Hindus, London, 1817. 8. On Import of Colonial Corn, London, 1818. 9. Treatise on Obligations and Contracts, part i., London, 1818. 10. The Sánkhya Kárika, translated from the Sanskrit (published posthumously by Professor H. H. Wilson), London Oriental Translation Fund, 1837. II. Contributions to learned societies: Articles in ‘Asiatic Researches’: ‘On the Duties of a Faithful Hindu Widow,’ 1795; ‘Enumeration of Indian Classes,’ 1798; ‘Indian Weights and Measures,’ 1798; ‘On the Religious Ceremonies of the Hindus,’ three essays, 1798-1801; ‘Inscription on the Lat of Firzz Shah,’ 1801; ‘On the Origin and peculiar Tenets of certain Muhammedan Sects,’ 1801; ‘On the Sanskrit and Pracrit Languages,’ 1801; ‘On the Vedas,’ 1805; ‘On a Species of Ox named Gayál,’ 1805; ‘On the Sect of Jains,’ 1807; ‘On the Indian and Arabian Divisions of the Zodiac,’ 1807; ‘On Olibanum or Frankincense,’ 1807; ‘On Ancient Monuments with Hindu Inscriptions,’ 1807; ‘On Sanskrit and Pracrit Poetry,’ 1808; ‘On the Sources of the Ganges,’ 1810; ‘On the Notions of Hindu Astronomers concerning the Procession of the Equinoxes and Motions of the Planets,’ 1816; ‘On the Height of the Himalayas,’ 1816; ‘On the Camphor Tree,’ 1816.¾Articles in the ‘Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society:’ ‘A Discourse at the first General Meeting,’ 1823; ‘On the Philosophy of the Hindus,’ five parts, 1823-7; ‘On Inscriptions in South Bihár,’ 1824; ‘Three Grants of Land,’ 1824; ‘The Valley of the Setlej,’ 1825; ‘Inscriptions of the Jaina Sect in South Bihár,’ 1826; ‘On Hindu Courts of Justice,’ 1828.¾Articles in the ‘Quarterly Journal of Science:’ ‘On the Height of the Himalaya Mountains,’ 1819, 1821; ‘On Fluidity,’ 1820; ‘Meteorological Observations on the Atlantic,’ 1823; ‘On the Climate of South Africa,’ 1823; and six other articles.¾Articles in the ‘Transactions of the Linnean Society:’ ‘On Select Indian Plants,’ 1817; ‘On Indian Species of Menispermum,’ 1819; ‘On Boswellia,’ 1826. Articles in the ‘Transactions of the Geological Society’: ‘On the Valley of the Setlej River,’ 1820; ‘On the Geology of the North-eastern Border of Bengal,’ 1821.¾‘Narrative of a Journey from Mirzapúr to Nagpúr,’ anonymous (‘Asiatic Ann. Register’), 1806; ‘On the Origin of Caste’ (published in the ‘Life’); ‘Reply to attack of Mr. Bentley’ (‘Asiatic Journal’), 1826; ‘On Dichotomous and Quinary Arrangements in Natural History’ (‘Zoological Journal’), 1828. The most important of these papers have been collected in ‘Miscellaneous Essays.’
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Contributor: S. L.-P. [Stanley Lane-Poole]