By M J Franklin Sir William Jones was one of the greatest intellectual navigators of all time and redrew the map of European thought Sir William Jones was the youngest child of William ap Sion Siors
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‘A far-seeing man who seeks to connect the unknown to the known.’ This is how Goethe described Sir William Jones (1746–1794), the foremost Orientalist of his generation and one of the greatest intellectual navigators of all time. Jones redrew the map of European thought. Even before he graduated BA from University College, Oxford in 1768, the 22-year-old Jones applied for the Regius Chair of Modern History and Languages, worth £400 a year. “Ambition is critical” one might say! Jones was destined not to become an academic but he had accepted in 1765 the post of tutor to George John Spencer, Viscount Althorp, an ancestor of “the people’s princess” Diana. Jones was the youngest child of William ap Sion Siors This enabled Jones to employ a Syrian named Mirza to improve his Arabic (together they translated A Thousand and One Nights back into its original tongue), to receive fencing lessons from Domenico Angelo, and lessons on the Welsh harp from a musician called Evans. In his own words, he was: “with the fortune of a peasant, giving himself the education of a prince”. Jones was born in Beaufort Buildings, Westminster, on September 28, 1746, the youngest child of William ap Sion Siors (son of John George), known in London as William “Longitude” Jones FRS (c1675-1749), the eminent Welsh mathematician, friend of Newton, and first to use π as the ratio of c/d, and Mary Nix, the enlightened daughter of a cabinet-maker. His inheritance of intellectual precision was complemented by the influence of his polymathic Anglesey relation, Lewis Morris (1701-65), whose circle pioneered a Welsh cultural renaissance. A genealogy Morris enclosed in a letter from Llanfihangel Tre’r Beirdd (Town of the Bards), to his friend William Jones Sr showed that they shared an ancestry deriving from Hwfa ap Cynddelw, Lord of Llyslifon, and the princes of Gwynedd. Jones’ first publication was a translation from Persian into French of what became the Histoire de Nader Chah (1770), a biography of the Persian monarch Nadir Shah (d 1747). Jones, a passionate believer in universal manhood suffrage, accepted this prestigious commission from King Christian VII of Denmark with reluctance. Having little sympathy for a Persian tyrant, Jones appended his own “Traité sur la poësie orientale”, which used translations of odes by Hãfiz to undermine the tyrannical hold of Graeco-Roman classicism over European literature. Looking eastward might refresh jaded neo-classical tastes, as he wrote to his Hungarian Orientalist friend, Count Reviczki: “From my earliest years, I was charmed with the poetry of the Greeks; nothing, I then thought, could be more sublime than the Odes of Pindar, nothing sweeter than Anacreon, nothing more polished and elegant than the golden remains of Sappho, Archilochus, Alcæus, and Simonides: but when I had tasted the poetry of the Arabs and Persians [...]” He sought a profession where intellect and merit might secure a rival exclusivity to that of rank It was perhaps Welsh princely blood that made him dissatisfied with his post as tutor. He sought a profession where intellect and merit might secure a rival exclusivity to that of rank, and on September 19, 1770 entered the Middle Temple to begin studying for the bar. For some time dusty legal tomes predominated over the Bodley’s Persian manuscripts, but the fame for which he thirsted: “Glory I shall pursue through fire and water, by night and by day”, arrived with the publication of his Grammar of the Persian Language (1771). Yunus Uksfurdi (Oxford Jones), produced not only a Shakaristãn (a chest of sugar), as the grammar was titled in Persian, but a gulistãn (bower of roses), replete with the beauties of “the Persian Anacreon” Hãfiz, a rubã’i (quatrain) and a half by Omar Khayyãm, and the love-songs of Firdausi: “If I could sleep one night on thy bosom, I should seem to touch the sky with my exalted head.” A book proffering Oriental breasts and chests of rupees was likely to succeed. Jones had inaugurated Romantic Orientalism. Perfectly balancing the aesthetic and the utilitarian, his Grammar designed to train Company writers in the language of Mughal governance simultaneously inspired them to love mystical Persian poetry. At the age of 26, “Persian” Jones was elected to Dr Johnson’s Literary Club, on terms of intimacy with the metropolitan luminaries of the day. The names of his friends present a roll–call of late eighteenth–century glitterati: Johnson, Hester Thrale, Elizabeth Craven, Boswell, Reynolds, Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, Elizabeth Vesey, Elizabeth Montagu, Franklin, Price, Priestley, Burke, Hastings, Zoffany, Gibbon, Goldsmith, Percy, Sheridan, Fox, Pitt, Wilkes, Warton, Garrick, etc. Statue of Sir William Jones
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From 1775-1783 Jones chose to practise as a barrister on the Oxford and Carmarthen circuits, and Wales radicalized him. At Carmarthen, Haverfordwest, and Cardigan he championed the rights of a peasantry oppressed by the arbitrary power of largely Anglicized landowners, a rack-renting squirearchy, and English-speaking monoglot magistrates and judges. Jones’ egalitarian principles aligned him with the underprivileged, frequently representing impoverished Welsh clients gratis. Jones, together with figures such as his friend Richard Price, and the deist, educator, and universalist, David Williams, were linking Wales with metropolitan and international spheres of oppositional radicalism. Jones’ increasing radicalism earned him a reputation as a republican and long delayed his appointment to the bench on the Supreme Court in Calcutta. His pamphlet The Principles of Government, in a Dialogue between a Scholar and a Peasant (1782) was written to convince Benjamin Franklin that the mysteries of the state might be comprehended by the working man. Jones observed that “a free state is only a more numerous and more powerful club, and that he only is a free man, who is a member of such a state”, maintaining that the qualification for membership was the property which every man possessed in his own life and liberty. Its emphases upon popular education, parliamentary reform, and co-operative association anticipated the radicalism of Thomas Paine and William Godwin. Jones’ Indian ocean vision was of unparalleled opportunities for intellectual exploration The work was published as a free pamphlet by Major Cartwright’s Society for Constitutional Information. William Shipley, dean of St Asaph and shortly to become Jones’ brother-in-law, reprinted this tract at Wrexham in January 1783. The high sheriff of Flintshire, Thomas Fitzmaurice, promptly prosecuted Shipley for publishing a paper “seditious, treasonable, and diabolical”. Ironically, however, while Fitzmaurice was blackening Jones’ name in Flintshire, Fitzmaurice’s brother, William Petty, second earl of Shelburne, then prime minister, was at Windsor, recommending Jones for the Indian judgeship. Knighted and married to his beloved Anna Maria Shipley, Jones’ Indian ocean vision was of unparalleled opportunities for intellectual exploration, limited “only by the geographical limits of Asia” encompassing “MAN and NATURE; whatever is performed by the one, or produced by the other”. Arriving in Calcutta on September 25, 1783 Jones fell immediately in love with India. He tells of his inexpressible pleasure in reading of Krishna in a Persian translation of the Šrïmad Bhägwatam: “[I]t is by far the most entertaining book, on account of its novelty and wildness, that I ever read”. At times it almost sounds as if Jones has gone native. In the impassioned erotic tones of a bhakta (Hindu devotee), he announces: “I am in love with the Gopia, charmed with Crishen, an enthusiastick admirer of Räm, and a devout adorer of Brimha-bishen-mehais” [Brahma, Vishnu, Siva: the trimurti/trinity]. Jones was inspired to write a series of “Hymns to Hindu Deities” presenting a dignified picture of Hinduism to the West. In distinct opposition to Eurocentrism, Jones encouraged a recentering of perspective from the hub which is India. The organ of the Indocentric Asiatic Society he founded, Asiatick Researches, transformed western conceptions of a marginalized subcontinent, placing a vibrant India at the centre of European Romanticism. The Himalayas were forced upwards as the result of tectonic plate collision; and at sunset on October 5, 1784, Jones was surveying from a friend’s bungalow at Bhagalpur the snow-capped peak of Chomolhari in Bhutan. Jones was the first to prove the global physical elevation of the subcontinent By triangulation he calculated the elevation of the Himalayas, convinced they surpassed the Andes (then considered the world’s highest peaks): they were “the highest mountains in the world, without excepting the ANDES”. George Everest was not yet born and Jones was the first to prove the global physical elevation of the subcontinent. Two years later Jones, having learnt Sanskrit, revealed India’s cultural elevation though the revolutionary upthrust of comparative philology. This was the real tectonic shift for it demolished western claims to intellectual superiority. Jones transformed Europe’s self-understanding with the following passage: “The Sanscrit 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, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source which perhaps no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.” (Third Anniversary Discourse, February 2, 1786) Jones was making an imaginative scientific leap which marks the beginning of Indo-European comparative grammar and modern comparative linguistics. His familiarity with 28 languages enabled him to compile word-lists such as the following: Sanskrit matar Greek meter Latin mater Persian madar German mutter Spanish madre Russian mat’ Welsh modryb; mam Breton mamm Albanian mëmë French mere; maman Afghan mor Arabic umm English mother; mum Gaelic mathair Jones suggests the revolutionary idea of language evolution and, if languages can change over time, they may also become extinct – Jones’ putative lost source is what we now term Proto-Indo-European. His paradigm-shifting researches in Calcutta reveal the most extensive language family in the world. But if the linguistic thinking is radical, the racial ramifications are truly revolutionary. At a time when few Europeans expected – or desired - to find either refinement or family in India, this passage radically adjusted pre-conceptions of western cultural superiority, introducing disconcerting notions of familial relationship between the rulers and their “black” subjects. Within that family Sanskrit is seen as a more beautiful sister than her revered Western siblings. Empire had facilitated Jones’ famous statement of the Indo-European thesis by sending him to be a judge in Calcutta. Though a Crown appointee, he served a regime controlled by the world’s first global corporation – the East India Company, resplendent in its unconstitutional power and private army. The “Honourable Company” was the corporate creator of empire, Britain and modernity. As globalizing commerce was shrinking the world, Jones’ researches stressed global interconnectedness. His commitment to the translation of culture influenced European and British Romanticism In Bengal his Sanskrit researches inaugurated Indology, and comparative literature, philology, mythology, and law. He did more than any other writer to destroy Eurocentric prejudice, reshaping western perceptions of India and the Orient. Jones incorporated ancient India into world history, identifying the “Palibothra” of the Greeks with Pataliputra, the birthplace of king Asoka in the third century BCE, at that time the world’s largest city, and “Sandracottus” with the fourth-century BCE Maurya emperor Chandragupta. His commitment to the translation of culture, a multiculturalism fascinated as much by similitude as difference, profoundly influenced European and British Romanticism. Another revolutionary contribution to Orientalism, Jones’ translation of Kälidäsa’s classic play Sakuntalã (1789) created a western sensation. Lighting the blue lotos touchpaper of Romantic Indophilia, Sakuntalã inspired poets, philologists, ethnologists, and mythographers throughout Europe. Jones announced that Sakuntalã was “so much like Shakespeare, that I should have thought our great dramatick poet had studied Cãlidãsa”. Having revolutionized language theory by recognizing Sanskrit as a more polite sister of Latin and Greek, Jones introduces the beauteous Sakuntalã to embody that Indian refinement in all her seductive elegance: “Dushm. [Aside] Admirably spoken, Priyamvadá! No; her charms cannot be hidden, even though a robe of twisted fibres be thrown over her shoulders and conceal part of her bosom, like a veil of yellow leaves enfolding a fragrant flower. The water lily, though dark moss may settle on its head, is nevertheless beautiful; and the moon with dewy beams is rendered yet brighter by its black spots. The bark itself acquires elegance from the features of a girl with antelope’s eyes, and rather augments than diminishes my ardour. Many are the rough stalks which support the water lily; but many and exquisite are the blossoms which hang on them.” Jones worked tirelessly with a team of Hindu pandits and Muslim maulavis Jones’ key legal project was his preparation of an exhaustive digest of Hindu and Muslim law, a foundation stone of the policy of legitimizing British rule through the recovery of native traditions. In this he worked tirelessly with a team of Hindu pandits and Muslim maulavis (legal scholars), despite his arduous judicial schedules. In a courtroom break, Jones copied out a sentence from the Yajurvèda (1500–1200 BCE): “Then God produced Law, and Law is the king of kings, by whose help the weak are made strong”, adding his own comparative reflection: “Montesquieu was abused in Europe for a sentiment, which occurs in the oldest book of a country governed immemorially by despotism”. Pluralism has an ancient and respected pedigree in the subcontinent, nourishing a culture of open debate which has shaped the heterodoxy of Indian democracy. Central ideas of religious tolerance are at least as old as the rock-carved edicts of Maurya king Asoka (273-232 BCE), the four-lion capital from one of whose pillars provides the emblem of India’s republic: “There should be growth in the essentials of all religions […] all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause”. In the face of resurgent neo-colonialism in the West, “preventive” wars in the Middle East, and exacerbated religious fundamentalism and fanaticism in most major world religions, it is an appropriate time to consider the rational tradition of artistic, intellectual and religious exchange and debate which has flourished in the subcontinent. WalesOnline In launching the Asiatic Society on January 15, 1784, Sir William Jones offered his research as a “Nezr” (ceremonial Mughal gift), and the Sanskritist Charles Wilkins reciprocated – not with a Sanskrit poem – but with a classical Persian ghazal (ode) by Häfiz, symbolizing the Süfi concept of suhl-i kul (peace with all). This enacting of Mughal politesse possessed a political dimension. The regime’s use of Sufi mysticism and Hindu Vedantism, quietist and potentially syncretist, fostered a tradition of Indian interculturalism which Hastings saw as essential to peaceful and effective government of Hindus and Muslims, whether Shia or Sunni. For many of the Hastings circle, as for Pandit Nehru later, India was more than Hindutva (Hindu-ness). In March 2003 I discovered a letter from William Jones to Harford Jones, East India Company Factor at Basra, expressing his passionate desire to see “Persia, the most delightful, the most compact, the most desirable country of them all”, to view its cultural treasures and ancient monuments, and to talk to its respected poets. While I read his words: “I burn with a desire of seeing Shiraz”, Baghdad was in flames. Jones’ infectious fascination with Indo-Persian linguistic and cultural affinities, his intellectual investment in pluralism, and his enlightened commitment to a syncretic East-West synthesis remain something of a beacon in a world where “intelligence” is squandered upon missiles, and where the shrines of Sufi saints are targets of Taleban explosives, intolerant Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism, and all those seeking to destroy the diversity and plurality of Islam. Jones accomplished Oriental renaissance in the West and cultural revolution in India. He is remembered with great affection throughout the subcontinent as a man who facilitated India’s cultural assimilation into the modern world, helping to build India’s future on the immensity, sophistication, and pluralism of its past. Welsh History Month is in association with The National Trust, Cadw, the National Museum of Wales and the National Library of Wales ---Sir William Jones was one of the greatest intellectual navigators of all time and redrew the map of European thought--- ...