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Sir William Jones' Flash of Light in the East

Douglas Tan | National University of Singapore

A painting of a man
Painting of Sir William Jones, by James Posselwhite, original available at the National Library of Wales. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

In his first year at Oxford University, a young student proved so precocious that his tutors decided they had nothing more to teach and granted him a special exemption to skip classes. Left to his own devices, the young man threw himself into the study of languages, publishing works in Hebrew, Turkish, Persian and Arabic even before the end of his first year. This was the kind of genius that characterised the life of Sir William Jones, a polymath in every sense, who would establish the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal and leave a defining legacy for how later generations of British Imperial scholars understood foreign cultures.  

Born in 1746 to William Jones Senior and his wife Mary, William Junior was well-positioned from the start. The senior Jones was a mathematician of great repute. He was a close associate of the likes of Sir Edmund Hailey and Sir Issac Newton. Jones Senior would, unfortunately, pass away only three years after Jones Junior was born. With the paltry sum that his father had left for his education, Jones Junior would enrol at Harrow, where he would win multiple awards and gain a reputation as Harrow’s ‘great scholar’.  

Upon graduating from Harrow, Jones would enter University College Oxford. By now, the funds his father had left behind had run dry, and Jones had to find alternative finances to support his studies. Fortunately, his former headmaster at Harrow introduced him to a wealthy family, the Shipleys, whose son he would tutor. His financial difficulties alleviated for the moment, he threw himself back into linguistics. In 1771, he published A Grammar of the Persian Language, wherein he attempted to provide a guide to learning the Persian Language. He was so confident that he declared any European who followed his recommendations for study would be able to become fluent in Persian within a year of study. 

One might be forgiven for thinking that this was the first step onto a prestigious academic career. However, such an assumption would be wrong. By the time A Grammar was published, Jones had become disenchanted with the life of an Oriental Scholar. He turned to law, entering the Middle Temple in 1770. In 1774 he was called to the bar. Jones was a popular lawyer, building a reputation for standing up for the downtrodden, yet this failed to boost the growth of his sluggish career. His career failing, it must have seemed to Jones that despite his obvious talents, he would never make a name for himself. Then, in March 1783, Jones would receive the news he had been dreaming of — William Jones was to take up the post of puisne judge of the Supreme Court of Calcutta.  

The Promised Land 

A panting of a city street in a daylight with people walking around
Calcutta, 1788. This was the kind of landscape into which Sir William Jones would enter. Image courtesy of the British Museum

The role of puisne judge had been one that Jones had pined for since 1777 when it was vacated upon the previous holder’s death. There were supposed to be four judges, one Chief Justice and three puisne judges, presiding over the Supreme Court. At the time, the Supreme Court was the highest judicial authority in British India, and, as its second highest position, the position of puisne judge entailed a sizable annual salary of £6,000. Such a sum would virtually guarantee Jones’ perpetual freedom from financial difficulty after a few years of service. This newfound financial confidence gave him the grounds to wed Anna Maria Shipley, one of the daughters of the Shipley family, his original patrons. His new bride in tow, Jones set off on the six-month journey from London to Calcutta.  

Stepping off the ship in 1783, Jones had finally arrived in his promised land. India was to be the place where he would finally make his name, and where his talents would be recognised. He had once been lauded as the foremost Oriental scholar of the age before the pragmatic demands of life in Victorian England forced him to turn away from his passion for Oriental languages. Now, he would finally step foot into the Orient, the land which had so entranced him in his youth, to interact with and learn about the peoples that inhabited it. As puisne judge, Jones regularly mixed with the highest reaches of society in Calcutta. Jones’ idea for a society dedicated to the study of the Orient would find support from these circles. One evening in early 1784, in the hall that housed the Supreme Court, Jones would announce the formation of his Asiatic Society. With official backing from the governor-general, many high officials and administrators of the British East India Company would become regulars at meetings of Jones’ Asiatic Society. 

Jones’ Asiatic Society produced groundbreaking work on topics that included the culture, geography, zoology, and botany of the lands of the East. In other words, it produced knowledge that British Imperial servants needed to know and interact with in the course of their duties in the East. Little wonder then, that it received official support and heavy interest from English East India Company officials. From its inception, Jones had envisioned for his Society to develop into an important site of production for useful knowledge. His life experiences had convinced him that knowledge work was not viable if the producers of knowledge did not make efforts to ensure that said knowledge appealed to the wealthy. 

Jones always framed his annual speeches at the annual Society meetings with the intent of calibrating the Society’s efforts towards producing knowledge that was chiefly useful to British interests in the East. It was with this in mind that he would make his world-shaking proclamation in the third-anniversary discourse in February 1786, that 


the Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity,...than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source.

When comprehending this statement, we need also remember Jones’ role as puisne judge of the Supreme Court of Bengal. His discovery of the Indo-European link in Sanskrit was an unintended consequence of a long-term project by which he hoped to govern the Indians by their own law codes. Apart from Sanskrit Hindu laws, he was unable to find any single law code which was stable and reliable enough to be utilised as a set of general laws to judge the Indians. The utilisation of these laws in court for adjudication was further hampered as no European judge possessed a working comprehension of Sanskrit. As a consequence, the court had to rely upon translators to act as intermediaries. The impartiality and reliability of these translators were often dubious, leading Jones to attempt to learn Sanskrit for himself. It was in the process of attempting to learn Sanskrit in order to interpret Hindu laws that Jones stumbled upon his discovery.  

A Beginning and An End 

In the long term, Jones’ proclamation would set the tone for comparative linguistics, enabling Europeans to henceforth compare and draw links and similarities between different languages, and by extension, between the cultures that used these languages. With a single proclamation, Jones opened the way for comparative approaches to civilisational discourse. The implication that Sanskrit, an oriental language, had a common source as the esteemed European classical languages elevated the status of Indian civilisation to near parity with Europe. A hundred years before Darwin, Jones had posited a similar theory of mono-genesis. With him, India and its cultural riches were brought to the attention of the wider world.  

In the short term, Jones’ declaration enabled Imperial servants to better understand and interact with the Oriental cultures they found themselves embroiled in. But his proclamation seemed to be of little immediate benefit to the Asiatic Society. Jones’ declaration was published in the first volume of the Society’s journal, but the Society was so impoverished that Jones had to call upon members to contribute funds to defray printing costs. In 1788, Jones’ determination would be rewarded, as scholars back in London realised the importance of his declaration and copies of the journal were so sought after that a pirated version was soon produced when supply failed to keep pace with demand.  

Jones himself would only live to oversee the publication of the next two volumes of the Society’s journal, passing away in 1794. At the time of his death, his wife was in London due to health issues, and Jones himself had been preparing to join her. He had accrued sufficient savings and resigned his post. The future of his Society was more or less secure, having established a working partnership with a publisher in England to produce volumes of its journal. On the morning that he was bound to leave on a ship for England, however, he would quietly expire in his bed. The sun had set for the man who ushered in a new dawn in European studies of foreign cultures. 


Further reading: 


  • Mukherjee, S.N., Sir William Jones: A Study in Eighteenth-Century British Attitudes to India, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968) 

  • Franklin, Michael J., Orientalist Jones: Sir William Jones, Poet, Lawyer, and Linguist, 1746-1794, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)  

  • Cannon, Garland H., Oriental Jones: a Biography of Sir William Jones (1746-1794), (London: Asia Publishing House for the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, 1964)  

Douglas Tan is currently in the first year of his M.A. at the National University of Singapore, where he had previously completed his bachelor's degree. His work deals with the History of the British Empire, particularly with conceptions of race and the biographies of pivotal Imperial servants in the development of ideas of race.  



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