Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Cultural Possession, Imperial Control, and Comparative Religion: The Calcutta Perspectives of Sir William Jones and Nathaniel Brassey Halhed

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Cultural Possession, Imperial Control, and Comparative Religion: The Calcutta Perspectives of Sir William Jones and Nathaniel Brassey Halhed

Article excerpt

This article focuses on the contrast between the attempts of Sir William Jones and those of his fellow Orientalist, Nathaniel Halhed, to introduce the Hindu deities and their native devotees to a Western audience, both within the colony and in Europe. Works written by imperial administrators in Bengal represent a distinctive discourse of Orientalism, and it will be considered to what extent they constitute a case of possessing India culturally [pace Edward Said] or of being culturally possessed by India.

Nathaniel Brassey Halhed (1750-1831) enjoyed his time at Oxford and the culmination of his literary and libertine researches was to publish with Richard Sheridan a verse translation of The Love Epistles of Aristaenetus (1771). Halhed, who used to sign his letters to Sheridan as LYD (lazy young dog), was sent out to India in 1772 to cure him of his riotous behaviour. In England he had been a rival with Sheridan for the hand of Elizabeth Linley and in Calcutta he lost no time in presenting his poetic and personal addresses to the most attractive women, married or single, of Fort William. (1) In contrast with the conventional picture of the nabob, however, India ultimately exerted a maturing influence upon Halhed. The Calcutta catalyst proved to be Halhed's meeting with Warren Hastings, Governor and Governor-General of Bengal from 1772 to 1785.

A key plank of Hastings's rigorously Orientalist policies was to establish the authority of the British government in Bengal on Indian laws, which necessitated European judges' familiarity with native laws, and the reassurance of the British public concerning the sophistication of these laws. This had led to the employment of eleven learned Brahmans by the Revenue Board from 1773 to 1775 to compile for use in the courts of the province a Sanskrit law code that was subsequently rendered into Persian. In choosing Halhed to translate the Persian text into English, Hastings, always astute in recognizing and recruiting potential Indologists, cured him of his aimless dissipation. Halhed's A Code of Gentoo Laws (1776) effectively marks the transformation of libertine into Orientalist; its preface reveals Halhed's intense fascination with Hindu culture. Two years later, having become expert in Bengali, the principal medium for commercial transactions, Halhed published A Grammar of the Bengal Language. Increasingly, Halhed's concerns were with the control of language and the language of control.

One of the first of Halhed's Indian poems, `The Bramin and the River Ganges', written while he was at work on his translation of the Code, was sent to Hastings on 22 May 1774. As the first European privileged to receive the full cooperation of Hindu pandits, it is perhaps not surprising that, in this poem at least, he initially appeared to empathize with the `care-worn Bramin':

 
   Silent and sad (where Ganges' waters roll) 
   A care-worn Bramin took his pensive way, 
   Prescient of ill, in agony of soul 
   Tracing his country's progress to decay. 
   Age on his brow her furrow stamp had wrought, 
   While sorrow added to th' impression deep: 
   And melting Nature at each pause of thought 
   Snatch'd the indulgent interval to weep. 
   Thus straying, as he wearied out with pray'r 
   Each fabled guardian of that hallow'd wave; 
   To soothe the misery of vain despair 
   The river's goddess left her oozy cave. (l. 1) (2) 

In her response the river goddess Ganga, despite her `oozy' environs, demonstrates an almost `British' stiffness of upper lip/bank as she berates in pronounced `masculine' tones this lamenting stereotype of the feminized Hindoo, this lethargic and torpid Gentoo: (3)

 
   `O lost to thought and obstinately blind! 
   Weak man!' she cried, `thy baseless passion cease: 
   Rouse from this torpid lethargy of mind, 
   And wake at last to comfort and to peace. 
   Smile, that no more ambitious spoilers range 
   Thy labour's fruits relentless to devour: 
   Smile to obey (and hail the happy change) 
   The rule of reason for the rod of pow'r. … 
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