Magazine article The Spectator

The Radical Imperialist

Magazine article The Spectator

The Radical Imperialist

Article excerpt

'Orientalist Jones': Sir William Jones, Poet, Lawyer, and Linguist, 1746-1794

by Michael J. Franklin

OUP, £35, pp. 396,

ISBN 9780199532001

In the summer of 1780, at the height of the Gordon Riots, a London mob raised a cry of 'kill the lawyers' and headed for the Inns of Court. A militia of several hundred barristers, equipped with muskets but doubtful aim, assembled to guard the Middle Temple. At the 11th hour they were spared by the intervention of the army, whose firing into the crowd quelled the mayhem.

Sir William Jones - soon to be appointed a judge of the supreme court in Bengal, but also a linguist, poet, orientalist and politician - was among the defenders. Afterwards he composed a pamphlet demanding that 'every man in the City and in the country will carry his firelock and will know how to use it.' His scheme for universal armament played to fears of the baying rabble, but its real target was the despotic government that he saw as the greater threat.

Dr Johnson called Jones 'the most enlightened of the sons of men'. In his bestknown poem he posed the question, 'What constitutes a state?' and, in words quoted by American Presidents and Senators down the century that followed, answered: 'Men. . .

[who] know their rights, and knowing dare maintain.' The same theme was pressed in his Principles of Government, written in 1782 at the house of his friend Benjamin Franklin, which advocated universal manhood suffrage and popular education.

Even as Jones was securing recommendation to the Crown for appointment to the Indian judicial bench, the King's ministers were prosecuting the printer of his 'seditious, treasonable, and diabolical' tract - a feat of political dexterity that few judges can have matched before or since.

Michael Franklin has written the definitive biography of this most polymathic of men, moving with ease between the many facets of his remarkable mind. In rescuing Jones from the more extravagant slurs of postcolonialist critics, he restores him as a major figure in the shaping of Western relations with India.Yet he also acknowledges the insoluble conundrum of Jones the imperialist.

Had he not gone to Bengal at the age of 36, Jones would have been remembered as one of the most sparkling of Georgian savants and radical champions of the rights of men. Born in Wales mid-century, his father, who rubbed shoulders with Isaac Newton, died suddenly when he was three. …

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