Monthly Archives: October 2019

Gilbert and Sullivan on UK Government procedure


It is one of the best things about this glorious country that official utterances are invariably seen as unanswerable.

Cf BoJo on Brexit happening on 31 October for sure.

UK surgeons are refusing to work long hours ========================


Surgeons are fed up of a new tax which is making extra work less profitable.

Keeping this surgeons doing their work is vital. Literally. The UK Government therefore should do whatever it takes to keep the surgeons happy.


Sir William Jones




Jones was born at London in 1746. His father hailed from Wales. William Jones grew up bilingual in Welsh and English. He may be regarded as belonging to both Wales and England.

William Jones father was a mathematician of great repute. He invented the usage of Pi to denote 3.14.  Jones’ father died when the boy was three. Jones was raised by his mother. For a bourgeois family they lived in straitened circumstances.

William Jones enrolled in Harrow School at the age of 7. These days Harrow does not admit boys until they have attained the age of 13. 7 was young even by the standards of the 18th century to start at Harrow.

Jones excelled academically. He found the curriculum that consisted of Mathematics, Latin, Ancient Greek and Hebrew to be far too unchallenging. The headmaster remarked that Jones knew more Greek than he did himself. He decided to teach himself a few languages. With the aid of textbooks he soon mastered Persian. He then proceeded to learn Arabic. Jones also taught himself Chinese. He was to attain absolute fluency in Chinese despite never going to China. He learnt more and more tongues – ancient and modern – just for fun. He was a phenomenal autodidact. There was no doubt that he was a prodigy. He wished to attend university but did not have sufficient means. His outstanding intellectual prowess won him a scholarship.

Jones was very taken by the Roman author Cicero. Cicero taught that one should never waste a minute. Jones was convinced by this dictum and used every moment for self-improvement. He was forever studying and writing. This accounts for his compendious writing. 

Harrow School educated some boys for free who were from the parish of Harrow. Other pupils were known as ‘foreigners’ in that they came from outside that parish. The great majority of pupils were ‘foreigners’ in that sense and Jones was among them. Almost all the so-called foreigners paid fees. Jones was one of the very few foreigners who was educated gratis. This was owing to his prodigious intellectual gifts. William Jones was a prodigy. He certainly had an outstanding inherent aptitude his jaw dropping attainments required very strenuous effort. He was known to be extremely industrious. He seemed to vindicate the 10,000 hours theory. That is that a person only achieves excellence in something by fully concentrating on studying it for at least 10 000 hours. 

Harrow School was unruly like most British public schools at the time. The boys played their own rough sports. This included Harrow Football. Football has not been codified nationally and each school played its own version of the game. There was plenty of bullying. The school was Anglican and the boys were required to attend worship in the Church of England. This did not make them all more moral. Many of them skipped lessons to ride to the hounds. Masters were constantly struggling to get boys out of taverns where the schoolboys were betting on cockfights and getting themselves stocious drunk.

At the age of 17 Jones published a poem entitled Caissa on chess. Here are the first few lines:

Of armies on the chequer’d field array’d,
And guiltless war in pleasing form display’d;
When two bold kings contend with vain alarms,
In ivory this, and that in ebon arms;
Sing, sportive maids, that haunt the sacred hill
Of Pindus, and the fam’d Pierian rill.






William Jones went up to Oxford University. He was admitted to what is widely believed to be the most ancient college: University College. Legend had it that Univ (as University College is known) was founded by King Alfred the Great in 871. Univ now acknowledges that this claim is specious. The truth is that Univ was founded by William of Durham in 1249. Jones signed the college register on 16 March 1764. He was then aged 17. These days undergraduates always begin in October. In the 18th century they could join in any term. A Bachelor’s degree did not necessarily take three years. It could take slightly less for an exceptionally hardworking undergraduate and it often took a little longer than three years. 

Jones had the misfortune to attend Oxford when the university was at its lowest ebb. Although Oxford was the only university in England besides Cambridge its reputation internationally was not good. There were some very bright and studious boys at Oxford. The best of the dons worked sedulously and published some magnificent tomes. However, more than a few undergraduates were admitted simply because they could pay the fee. There were no academic admissions criteria as such. The undergraduates were expected to be able to write Latin and Ancient Greek competently. All university ceremonies were conducted entirely in Latin. In order to matriculate at the university people had to swear an oath that they accepted the king as head of the Church of England. Roman Catholics could not do this in good conscience and so were effectively disbarred from the university. The Scots universities also discriminated against Catholics but those universities at least had a richly deserved reputation for intellectual achievement at the time. 

Although the 1760s was perhaps the most inglorious chapter in Oxford’s history William Jones was lucky to be a member of one of the few colleges that bucked the trend. The man who had just been elected Master of Univ was Nathan Wetherell. Wetherell was a forward looking man who insisted on keeping academic standard rigorous. He would tolerate none of the lassitude and philistinism that blighted other colleges. 

On 31 October 1764 Jones was awarded the Bennet scholarship. He did not take part in other college activities. He seems to have studied so zealously that he had no time for recreation. 

All undergraduates lived in their college throughout their time at the university. They were required to attend chapel every morning. This was Anglican worship and even those who belonged to other Protestant denominations such as Baptists or Church of Scotland had to attend Anglican services. The wealthier boys lived a charmed life. The affluent tended not to show up to lectures and only attended tutorials because they were sent down (expelled) if they did not. These rich undergraduates often spent their days riding to the hounds, gambling and whoring. Opium had lately been introduced as a recreational drug. It was entirely legal to sell it as a narcotic. A few undergraduates indulged in this fashionable vice.

The impecunious undergraduates often worked as servitors. A servitor acted as a servant to a rich boy. William Smithson (founder of the Smithsonian Museum) was one such undergraduate who was compelled to work as a servitor at this time. 

Undergraduates had to wear subfusc for all university activities. This meant a white shirt, bowtie and dark suit with a gown. Despite this subfusc in the 18th century was not quite what it is today. These activities where they wore subfusc included lectures and meals (if they chose to attend) as well as compulsory occasions which meant chapel and tutorials. At dinner undergraduates had to wear a smart coat, a white shirt, a cravat, silk stockings and a wig or powdered hair. 

Some undergraduates played sports in their free time. Cricket, football, real tennis, boxing, wrestling and rowing were among these. There was no compulsion to join in any sport. 

Dons would hear essays read aloud at classes. Several undergraduates would be at a class. After the essay or written translation had been read the don would ask the other undergraduates to critique what they had heard. This is called a dialectic. Two opposing views were expressed on the same set of facts. The Socratic method was often used. A don would chair the discussion and encourage the youth who had read an essay to defend his work. Tutorials took place a couple of times a week. A don would set his undergraduates essays for each tutorial as well as issuing reading lists. Because so much of the curriculum consisted of construing ancient languages into English a don would ask one undergraduate to translate the text aloud. After a few lines of a poem or a page of prose he would then ask another undergraduate to take over. The boys had to stay on their toes because they never knew exactly when the don would ask another one of them to take over the construction of the text from Latin or Greek into English. 

Undergraduates had much latitude in what they studied. All boys at Oxford had to do some Latin and Greek. No one had a claim to being educated unless he could hold his own in his languages. An undergraduate could dip into Modern Languages such as French, Italian, German and Arabic. History was studied but this was mainly Ancient History studied through the Classical Languages. The same went for Philosophy. Theology was also available. Sciences and Mathematics existed but were not popular. Medicine and Law only existed as postgraduate degrees. Art and Music did not exist as university subjects. 

Examinations were oral and conducted in Latin. After three years or so an undergraduate would be quizzed by dons on his studies. 

Degrees were unclassified. That is to say that an undergraduate either passed or failed. There was no system whereby an undergraduate was awarded a First class degree, a Second class degree, a Third class degree and so on. Degree classification was only introduced in the early 19th century. 

Aristocratic undergraduates often lounged around Oxford for a year or two. They commonly went down without graduating. They had acquired a little polish and felt no need to pick up a degree. 

 Jones met a Syrian in London named Mirza. William Jones he brought this man to Oxford at his own expense. He used this man to help him learn Arabic. There was already a Professorship of Arabic at Oxford but Jones does not appear to have taken any instruction from an Oxford don in the subject. Edward Gibbon was among those who dipped into Arabic whilst at Oxford. 

William Jones was notable as one of the most brilliant undergraduates of his day. The obvious course for him would have been to seek a Fellowship. A fellowship meant being a Fellow of a college. The Fellows of a college are the governing body. The Fellows were mostly the dons but some of them performed other roles such as being bursar (in charge of the college’s money) and some held various administrative positions. A Fellowship was a very coveted position and often held for life.

 If Jones was awarded a Fellowship then he would have been made with a decent income and a place to live. However, it seemed like it not to be for two reasons. Fellowships were usually only  open to those who were ordained in the Church of England. Jones was an Anglican like almost all of the middle and upper classes but he was not especially religious. Quite a few fellows were ordained priests not because they were religious minded but simply for the sake of their careers. Jones showed no inclination to become a clergyman. The Master of Univ, Wetherell, was broadminded and decided to engineer Jones’s election to the Fellowship anyway. The serving Fellows voted as to who would be allowed to become a Fellow.  Jones was not unique in becoming a Fellow while he was not a clergyman. William Scott was another Univ Fellow who had not been ordained. 

Despite not being in holy orders he was awarded a Fellowship. It had been offered to him on 12 April 1766. This was a very remarkable accomplishment because he had not become a priest and even more astonishingly he was still an undergraduate! Such a thing is impossible now but at the time this accolade was very rare indeed for an undergraduate but was occasionally granted. The other reason it is extraordinary that he became a fellow is that fellowships were seldom awarded on merit. 18th century Britain was an extremely unequal society and nepotism was frank. Dons openly said that they granted Fellowships to a young man because he was a relative or as a payback for a favour. Jones came from a penurious family and had not relatives with any sway. Because he was one of the ablest Oxonians of his generation he was made a Fellow. Fellows were usually required to resign their Fellowships if they married. The stipend was to support bachelors and not families. 



Jones then secured a job as tutor to the seven year old George, Viscount Althorp. Lord Althorp was the eldest son of Earl Spencer. This was the dynasty that was to later include Princess Diana. As in Lord George Althorp was her ancestor. Viscount Althorp was being prepared to enroll at Harrow School. This choice of school was possibly influenced by Jones himself being an Old Harrovian. 

Jones later tutored  Lady Georgiana Spencer. Lady Georgiana was the sister of Viscount Althorp. William Jones taught Lady Georgiana writing. She became the Duchess of Devonshire. She is featured in the film The Duchess where she is played by Keira Knightley. The Duchess of Devonshire was very self-possessed and had to negotiate a miserable marriage plagued by her melancholic husband’s affair with the duchess’ dearest friend. The Duchess of Devonshire’s affair with Hon Charles Grey did not make matters easier. Could it have been Jones’ introducing her to classical literature gave her some notion of how to live such a complex love life?

Fellows usually did some tutoring in their college. Jones never did this because he was too busy tutoring the children of Earl Spencer. Nor did Jones hold any offices at Univ. He regularly visited and stayed overnight. There were guest rooms to enable old members of the college to do this. He would use the Bodleian Library which was one of the very few places in the United Kingdom that houses works in Persian and the other languages he was studying. 

Jones became known as an Orientalist. To some extent Oriental Studies  was founded as a subject in the UK because of the trail he had blazed. Jones was so renowned that the King of Denmark visited him. Denmark possessed some territory in India until the 1860s which why Indian Studies were of intense importance to the Danes. In his free time Jones translated texts from Persian to French. He did this for ‘Nader Shah’s History’ which was originally penned by Mirza Mehdi Khan Astarabadi. King Christian VII of Denmark had requested this because Indian Studies mattered to him on account of possessing Indian territory. Jones translated the poems of Hafez into French verse. It was ‘Histoire de Nader Chah’ which was a treatise on Oriental poetry.

In 1772 he published a work entitled, ”Poems consisting chiefly of translations from the Asiatic languages and two essays on the poetry of the Eastern nations and on the arts commonly called imitative”. It is a typical 18th century mouthful of a title. In his essay on Eastern poetry Jones gave a very contemporary view of the importance of the natural world to poetry, ‘Now it is certain that all poetry receives a very considerable ornament from the beauty of the natural images.’  In this same essay Jones expressed the unusual opinion that harshness and even ugliness have their place in poetic inspiration, ‘We must not believe that the Arabian poetry can please only by its description of beauty.    Since the gloomy and terrible objects which produce the sublime when they are aptly described are nowhere more common than in the desert and stony Arabia. Indeed we see nothing so frequently painted by the poets of these countries more commonly  painted as Wolves and forests, rocks and precipice and wildernesses.’ He speculated why Arabic poetry focussed so much on two regions – Yemen and Kashmir. Kashmir is not an Arabic speaking region but being part of the Muslim world it was known to Arab poets. Moreover, the educated minority in Kashmir sometimes wrote Arabic because most of them were Muslims so they needed to read Arabic in order to study the Holy Koran in its original version. Jones’ educated guess was that Yemen (Arabia Felix as Westerners called it) and Kashmir were places of exceptional sublimity. He waxed lyrical about their cool, calm air, flower laden verdant vales and aromatic plants. 

At the age of 22 he temporarily gave up poesy. He turned his formidable intellect to law.

He valued oratory and translated the Ancient Greek jurist Asias’s work ”On Causes concerning the law of succession to property in Athens.”

Jones later went to London and read for the Bar. In those days there were no Bar exams as such. A youth who spent a couple of years at the bar doing odd jobs for barristers and eating dinners in the hall of his Inn of Court would be considered to have picked up a working knowledge of the law. He was a member of Middle Temple.  He was called to the Bar and quickly achieved renown.

Jones was appointed a puisne judge. Puisne is pronounced ‘puny’ and is a low ranking judge. He served on a circuit in his paternal Wales. In the Principality he was seen as standing for the common man against the wealthy and well connected. Perhaps this is owing to his own difficult start in life. He had been a shoo in to serve in the Welsh judiciary since Welsh was his mother tongue. In the 18th century not everyone in Wales spoke English. Jones often had to hear evidence in Welsh. 

Sir William Jones was hugely respected as a scholar of jurisprudence. His work on bailments was celebrated.

Jones taught himself Persian and received only a few lessons in the language. In 1771 he published a book entitled ”Persian Grammar”. This book was so highly regarded that it became the standard work on the subject for a further century.

Since 1772 he was a member of the Royal Society. The Royal Society was for men of the most outstanding erudition. Most of them were scientists but some of them were learned in the Humanities or jurisprudence. Since 1773 he was a member of Samuel Johnson’s literary club. Dr Johnson had acquired fame for publishing the first English dictionary. 

Jones was a man of advanced opinions. He might even be termed a radical. He joined the Society for Constitutional Information. This organisation did not simply collate and disseminate information about the functioning and misfunctioning of British Government. It also pressed the case for far going reform.


William Jones found himself in accord with the demands of American reformers in the early 1770s. He met Benjamin Franklin in Paris to see whether the aspirations of the Thirteen Colonies could be satisfied within the British Empire. Both men were keen to avoid bloodshed and neither was an extremist. If it did come to a fight not all American reformers were not sure that those who sought independence would win. If an independence movement was defeated then the cause of reform would be hugely set back both in America and the UK. Jones was a most acceptable to the Americans as an interlocutor because he was known to share their opinions. In the end it was impossible to find a peaceful solution. William Jones outspoken advocacy of American independence did not help his career. He was impolitic enough to publish a tract expressing his view that London ought to make major concessions to American opinion.  This was ”Principles in Government: a dialogue between a scholar and a peasant.” William Jones believed that most men ought to have some say in the government of their country.

Jones spoke Portuguese, English, Welsh, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Danish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish and Arabic. He was eager to learn Indian languages.



Jones wanted to be appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Calcutta. It was March 1783 when he was informed of his promotion. He was finally appointed to the senior bench at the age of 37. It was difficult to induce British judges to seek posts in India because the voyage was lengthy and dangerous. Moreover, the Indian climate and tropical diseases meant that Britishers seldom survived long in the Subcontinent. This is why the judges who sought to sit on the Indian bench were often second raters. It was staggering that a man of Jones’ talents was willing, nay, eager to serve in India. 

He was a superb poet but published just one volume of his own verse. He translated poems from other language into French verse. Some have criticised his translations for being unfaithful to the original. He felt that ”Asian poetry can revitalise  European literature which has subsisted too long on the same images.” Jones did little to preserve the rhythm of rhyme scheme of the poems he rendered in French and English.


As Jones was about to leave the United Kingdom he realised that he had better settle his personal life. William Jones married Anna Maria Shipley. She was well got since her father was the Bishop of Llandaff. Llandaff is just outside Cardiff so the Welsh capital was within his see. Dr Jonathan Shipley was therefore the foremost churchman in Wales. 


In 1783 the British Government finally accepted that the United States was independent. Jones known sympathy for American independence was no longer a barrier to promotion. In March 1783 he was knighted under the Fox-North Coalition. His knighthood was in recognition of his meritorious service as a judge. Moreover, it was felt that a knighthood was apposite to the dignity of the senior bench. Jones finally secured the appointment he craved to the Supreme Court in Calcutta. He had pined to serve as a judge there because it was an advance in his legal career but it would also open a treasure trove of Indian literature for him. India held the same place in the British imagination as Egypt had in the Ancient Roman imagination. India was a gigantic and mysterious country. Its civilisation was venerable yet decayed. India held out many sensual temptations. The Britishers felt they had must to teach the Indians but also much to learn from them. There is no question that Jones was exhilarated to be voyaging to the land that had long entranced him. In 1783, before setting sail for India, he resigned his Fellowship. Univ expected its Fellows to do this if their income became so high that it was unconscionable for them to receive a stipend from the college. 


In 1783 he went took ship to Calcutta. It is now called Kolkatta. The perilous four month voyage took him around the Cape of Good Hope. Sir William and Lady Anna Maria Jones landed in India in September 1783. Calcutta was the capital of British India. At that time the Honourable East India Company handled the United Kingdom’s relations with India. The Mughal Empire ruled northern India. The Mughal Empire had sold some land to the East India Company. The East India Company owned some ports on the coast of India as well as ruling most of Bengal. Bangladesh did not existed that the time. West Bengal and Bangladesh were united back then and simply called Bengal. The East India Company then governed perhaps 10% of the territory of what is now the Republic of India.

The Calcutta Supreme Court building where Jones sat still exists. It is now called Kolkatta High Court. 

Sir William had been an open proponent of American independence. He favoured political reform at home. However, he was convinced that such nostra had no application to India. Jones wrote to a Virginian diplomat Arthur Lee, ‘ I shall never cease thinking that rational liberty makes men virtuous and virtue, happy. Wishing therefore ardently for universal liberty. But your observation on the Hindus is too just.  They are incapable of civil liberty. Few of them have any idea of it and those who have do not wish it. Though I must deplore the evil but know the necessity of it. They must be ruled by an absolute power.   I know the necessity of it. And I feel my pain much alleviated by knowing the natives themselves as well as from observation are happier under us than they were or could have been under the sultans of Delhi or petty rajahs. ’ 

Jones’s view found some agreement amongst Indians. One Bengali Brahmin who concurred was  Pudev Mukuvpaday. This view is deeply unpopular now so Indians are not eager to bring this to public attention. The East India Company did not wish to change Indian Law unless it was exigent to do so. That would anger the people of India and possibly spark a revolt. Therefore the British judges wished to know as much as possible about the traditional laws of India. 

In 1784 he co-founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal. The purpose of this society was to promote the study of Indian languages and the appreciation of India’s ancient and magnificent civilisation. The society had a journal called Asiatick in which monographs were published.

Sir William’s Persian was to stand him in good stead. This is because the official language of the Mughal Empire was Persian. The courts of the East India Company also administered justice in Persian.

Sir William was so smitten with India that he composed hymns to the Hindu pantheon. One of the most celebrated poems that he wrote as though he were an ancient Hindu Brahmin  was A Hymn to Ganga. Jones composed this ode to a goddess imploring her to bestow her favour on the British Raj. This is ‘A Hymn to Ganga.’

What name sweet bride will best allure

The sacred air and give thee honour due

 Vishnu Bidy Mild Pishmasu

Sweet Surunaga Trishutapor 

 By that I call its power confess

 Its power confess with growing gifts thy suppliance

Who with all sails in many a light oared boat

On thy jasper bosom float

 No frown dear goddess on a peerless race with a liberal heart and martial grace 

 Wafted from a colder isles remote

As they preserve our laws and bid our terrors cease 

 So be their darling laws preserved in wealth in joy in peace. 

He spent 11 years there and never returned to the British Isles. Jones was to make his name as an Indologist. That is to say a scholar of all things Indian.

In India he wrote under the nom de plume Youns Uksfardi. This was a humourous soubriquet. ‘Youns’ is a Persianised version of ‘Jones’. ‘Uksfardi’ is the Persian for ‘from Oxford.’ This indicates Sir William Jones profound attachment to Oxford.

Persian song of Hafez. It is in the Northern Anthology of Literature.

”     Sweet maid  if thou wouldst charm my sight and bid these arms  thy neck enfold /

That rosy cheek that lily hand would  give thy poet more delight /

Than all  Bukhara’s   vaunted gold  /

 than all the gems of Samarkand /

Boy let yon liquid ruby flow /

And bid thy pensive heart be glad /

Whatever the frowning zealots say /

Tell them their Eden cannot show/

A stream so clear as Ruknabad/

A bower so sweet as Mauzalay/ 

Oh when these fair perfidious maids whose eyes our secret haunts infest

 Their dear destructive charms display  each glance my tender breast invades/

and robs my wounded soul of rest

 / as starters seize their destined pray/

In vain with love our bosoms glow/

Can all our tears, can all our sights new lustre to those charms impart?

 Can cheeks where living roses blow

/ where nature spreads her richest dyes  /

Require the borrowed gloss of art

Speak not of fate ah change the theme

And Talk of odours and talk of wine/

Talk of the flowers that round us bloom/ 

It is all a cloud it is all a dream

 To love and joy thy thoughts confined

Nor hope to pierce the gloom/ Beauty has such resistless power 

That even the chaste Egyptian dame sighed for the blooming Hebrew boy /

For her how fatal was the hour 

When  to the banks of Nilus came a youth so lovely and so coy /

But ah sweet maid my counsel hear/

You should attend when those advise whom long experience renders sage

While music charms the ravished air /

While sparkling cups delight our eyes/ 

Be gay and scorn the frowns of age/

What cruel answer have I heard?/ 

And yet by heaven I love thee still /

Can aught be cruel from thy lip? 

Yet say how fell that bitter word from lips which streams of sweetness fill /

Which naught drops of honey sit/

Go boldly forth my simple  lay whose accents flow with artless ease  /

Like Orients pearls in random strung/

Thy notes are sweet the damsels say

But far sweeter if they please

The nymph for whom these words are sung.   ”

Jones arrived in India not knowing any Sanskrit. He was soon to become a master of the language. He was taught by a pandit – a Hindu priest. Sanskrit is an Ancient Indian language which is used for Hindu prayers and rituals. It was no longer a spoken language even in the 18th century but all the Hindu holy texts are in this language. Jones read the Vedas voraciously. Soon he was well versed in the Hindu scriptures.

Sir William Jones had mixed feelings about the people of India. ‘The Indians are soft and voluptuous but artful and insincere at least to the Europeans whom to say the truth they have had no great reason to admire for the opposite virtues. But they are fond of poetry which they have learnt from the Persians. ’ His verdict about the Indians is not entirely flattering. Looked at objectively, is it possibly at least partly fair? India had a poetic tradition dating far back before much interaction with Persia. Yet Jones has a point. Northern India in the 18th century was imbued with Persian cultural influence. Indeed the Taj Mahal was designed by an architect from Persia. The Muslim educated classes wrote Persian as much as their own languages. The Hindu educated classes also wrote Persian but to a lesser extent than their Muslim compatriots. Persia’s borders were not clearly defined at the time. Those whom Sir William called Persian might well be classed as living in what we call Afghanistan today or even Pakistan. Urdu was the language of most North Indian Muslims. Urdu is a blend of Persian and Hindi. 

Sir William said the Persians ‘…The general character of the nation is that softness and love of pleasure, that indolence and effeminacy which have made them an easy prey to  all the western and northern swarms that have from time to time invaded them. Yet they are not wholly void of martial spirit. And if they are not naturally brave they are at least extremely docile and might with proper discipline be made excellent soldiers.’ 

Sir William preferred Greek poetry to Persian. He likened Homer and Thedosy to each other: 

‘I am far from pretending to assert that the poet of Persia is equal to that of Greece.  But there is a very great resemblance between the works of those two extraordinary men. Both drew their images from nature herself without catching them and  painting in the manner of the modern poets the likeness of a likeness.’ 

Sir William nonetheless exalted Persia’s contribution to world literature. He speculated as to why this country had so much to give:

‘ But the greater part of them in the short intervals peace that they happen to enjoy constantly sink into a state of inactivity and pass their lives in a pleasurable yet studious retirement and this may be one reason why Persia has produced more writer of every kind and chiefly poets than all Europe together to pursue those arts which cannot be cultivated to advantage without the greatest calmness and serenity of mind.’ 

Despite being very opinionated about these lands Jones never visited Persia nor Arabia. 

Jones composed a hymn to the Hindu love goddess. He was aware of the erotic character of much Indian Literature. In his translations of Indian texts he often omitted passages which he felt were too sexually charged for British sensibilities. 

Jones delved into philosophy. He  wrote of Francis Bacon’s triad of memory, treason and imagination.


Sir William was scintillated by the interconnection between European and Indian languages. He coined the term Indo-European languages. British poets after Sir William drew upon Orientalia to revivify their writing. They learnt new metaphors and similes from Indian Literature. European Romanticism learnt much from Indian poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley were deeply affected by the erudition of Sir William. Think of ‘Kublai Khan’ by Coleridge. In Shelley’s case this may have been particularly so partly because Shelley attended the same Oxford college as Sir William, namely University College, Oxford. Mary Shelley, the daughter of Percy Bysshe Shelley, was also profoundly influenced by work that Sir William had brought to the attention of the Anglosphere. Robert Southey was to owe much to the trail blazed by Sir William. Lord Byron also drew greatly on Sir William’s erudition. Thomas Moore, the Irish poet, read Jones avidly and was persuaded by his judgments on Persian and Arabic literature. 

Sir William continued to translate Indian and Persian works into English, French and Latin. Being a jurist he was fascinated by the ancient Indian codes of law. He also studied Sharia Law avidly. Sharia Law was much more humane than English Law back then. Sharia Law prescribed capital punishment for fewer offences than English Law at the time. 

Sir William set himself the gargantuan task of writing a Digest of Hindu Law.

 Sir William was obsessed with India and expressed huge admiration for India’s cultural accomplishments. Despite this his overall verdict was that he believed in ‘The decided inferiority of most Asiatic nations.’ 

Some have belittled Sir William’s accomplishments. They say that his achievements have been overly vaunted by Britishers who are eager to big up the positive side of their involvement in India. It is noted that much of endeavour to codify Hindu and Islamic Law was simply replicating work already completed by Hindu and Islamic scholars. Jones was unique in translating these texts into European tongues. 

Jones also read work from pre-Islamic ideas. He was perhaps too steeped in the Enlightenment to fully appreciate the eras he was studying. He had the greatest of respect for the civilisations he was studying. Only later did British scholars tend to be prejudiced against Indian learning as inherently less worthy of admiration than European endeavours. 

It is partly due to the manifold publications of Sir William that the Indian Insitute was later founded at Oxford University. This institute was dedicated to studying the languages and academic achievements of India to prepare men for the Indian Civil Service. The Indian Institute exists long after the British Raj has gone the way of Nineveh and Tyre. It still provides a place to study South Asia. 

Sir William Jones is memorialised in the chapel of University College, Oxford. There a relief statue entitled ‘Sir William Jones and the pandits’ depicts Sir William conferring with eminent Hindu scholars. A statue of him there bears a plinth inscription setting forth his manifold accomplishments. The statue shows Indian scholars sitting at his feet as he taught them. It has the words engraved on it ‘He formed a digest of Hindu and Mohametan laws.’ ”Mohametan” was what Muslims were called at the time. It is an allusion to the final and greatest prophet of Islam: the Prophet Muhammad Peace and Blessings Upon Him. This author is a particular fan of Sir William because the present author is also a Univ old member and an Indophile. 

The notion that Sir William ‘gave’ laws to the Hindus has been scorned by an Indian academic named Rajiv Malhotra. ‘The Battle for Sanskrit’ is Malhotra’s tome on this vexed question. Malhotra insists that Jones was a pupil of the Indians and not the other way around. 

Sir William Jones was said to have command of 13 languages. He could also converse in a further 28. A working knowledge of 41 languages meant that Sir William Jones can be classed as a hyperpolyglot. He was a polymath. Jones even studied Indian Botany and drew plants. He was fascinated by fauna and owned a lemur because it was an especially Indian animal. He was grief stricken when his pet went the way of all flesh. He was acclaimed as jurist as well as a linguist.

He died in 1794. Sir William is interred in Calcutta. His grave can be found at South Park Street Cemetery. Sir William is surely the most revered Welshman in India. Besides the memorial to Jones in Univ College Chapel there is almost a memorial to him in the St Mary’s (the University Church) on Oxford High Street.  Two memorials to him on the same street: it is a measure of the high esteem in which his prodigious accomplishments are held. The Univ memorial to Sir William was intended to be erected in Calcutta Cathedral. (Forgive the usage of 18th century spelling). It was commissioned by Lady Jones, Sir William’s widow. However, for some unclear reason the said marble memorial was never transported to Hindustan and was therefore put in Univ instead. The Univ memorial is tendentious. Some say that he is shown as the master and the Indians are his pupils as he is on the chair. But this may be a misreading of the artistic message. Sir William is taking notes. This is cultural cross-fertilisation. Sir William made it very plain that he exalted India’s intellectual feats. The Indian men appear to be thinking about what they are about to say. The interpretation of this relief statue as being demeaning to Indians is perhaps projecting later prejudices onto a work of the 1790s. Subsequent British administrators, notable Lord Thomas Babbington Macaulay, were of the foolish opinion that the Britishers did not need to be schooled by the Indians. 

There is a memorial to him in St Paul’s Cathedral. His statue has him with Hindu laws under his arm. Even those who consider Sir William’s attainments to have been overstated must own that he was a very distinguished jurist and a peerless ployglot. 

Only 30 years after his death he was largely forgotten. Since the 1950s his reputation has been rehabilitated. Lord Teignmouth published a very admiring biography of Sir William in 1804. G Cannon published the edited letters of Sir William in 1970. He is the subject of several recent books.