A group of Nepali schoolboys
Posted to Kathmandu in 1820 as a junior political officer, Brian Hodgson found himself isolated and trapped in a fiercely xenophobic mountain kingdom that seemed bent on making war on the all-powerful British East India Company. For twenty-three years Hodgson struggled to keep the two sides apart. His legacy survives in the lasting peace and friendship between Britain and Nepal.
At the heart of this biography is the Orientalist movement driven by the European Enlightenment, which inspired Hodgson and others to devote themselves to the exploration of Asian culture, leading Hodgson to study Tibetan and Nepalese Buddhism, and much else besides. Hodgson became a forgotten man in his own lifetime but this biography re-establishes his importance as a pioneering natural historian and ethnologist, revealing a tortured individual who turned adversity to his advantage as the prisoner who learned to love his jail.
Below is an extract from The Prisoner of Kathmandu: Brian Hodgson in Nepal 1820-43 written by Charles Allen.
Charles Edward Trevelyan was only six years younger than Hodgson but utterly different in temperament and outlook – a man so driven by his convictions that he had no time or patience for anything else, the very model of stern Victorian rectitude. Trevelyan had done well at Fort William College but had been so offended by what he saw as the college’s moral laxity – in the year of his graduation thirteen of his fellow students were expelled for idleness – that he had left convinced it had outlived its purpose and should be closed down. His scholarship had earned him a post in January 1827 as a junior assistant to Sir Charles Metcalfe in Delhi, where the resident’s responsibilities had been enlarged to include the commissionership of Delhi.
Trevelyan had thrown himself into various city improvement schemes, but none more significant than those involving the Delhi Anglo-Indian College, a new institution set up to educate the sons of the local Muslim landowning class with the emphasis on Western learning. Having joined the college committee, Trevelyan played the leading role in the drafting of a quite remarkable paper that proposed a complete rethink of educational policy, not just for Delhi but for the whole of British India. Its central arguments were two-fold: that Indian learning, and science in particular, was so backward that it had to be replaced by Western learning; and that the only efficient means of imparting this new learning was through the medium of English:
Before an uneducated and half barbarous people can be improved by their adoption of a foreign literature in their vernacular tongue, a general taste and inclination for it must be diffused by the best educated people among them making it their study in the original. From this will follow a diffusion of the knowledge of the new literature – a general assimilation of Ideas towards it, and, what is of equal importance, assimilation of the Vernacular tongue.
Just as the Romans had acquired Greek learning through the Greek language, so the Indians would acquire Western learning through English, leading to better relations between rulers and ruled, the breaking down of barriers of caste and religion between the different Indian communities, and, ultimately, to a people united by a common language. A new and more efficient civil service would be created and morals would be improved, to ‘the real and lasting glory of our nation’.
Despite his tender years Trevelyan had had no hesitation in sending his paper direct to the Governor-General and in writing to him privately urging him to act. Bentinck had been sympathetic but it was not until after Trevelyan had been transferred to the political department in Calcutta in 1831 that he was able to join forces with the reverend alexander Duff and others who shared his views and aims.
In the meantime, Charles Trevelyan had made his mark in a most dramatic manner. A year after his arrival in Delhi Charles Metcalfe was promoted to the Governor-General’s supreme Council in Calcutta and his place as resident and Commissioner was taken by Sir James Edward Colebrooke, the elder brother of the distinguished Sanskritist, Edward Colebrooke, but a man of very different morals. Sir Charles, 3rd baronet, was aged 67 but had failed to enrich himself in India to the degree that he thought fit, despite his ownership of large sugar plantations in Antigua along with all their slaves. To Charles Trevelyan’s amazement and growing disgust, Colebrooke, his wife and their young son now set about exploiting their positions in the most blatant manner.
According to Indian custom, those who called on the resident as representative of a sovereign power made a token offering by presenting him with one or more gold coins, known as nazr. The resident then either remitted the nazr by returning it to the donor or accepted it in the name of the Government and placed it in the residency toshakana, or treasury, where it and all other gifts were lodged and recorded. It was strictly forbidden for any Government officer to accept nazr or any gift for himself or his family unless it was perishable, such as fruit or flowers. Trevelyan was astonished to see the Colebrookes not only helping themselves to every coin and gift that came their way but very deliberately setting out to extort further sums of money from those with whom they were supposed to be working in alliance, such as the local Indian princes.
Within weeks of his arrival Trevelyan began to record what was happening and to gather material evidence. In June 1829 he submitted a long letter to the Governor-General that listed more than fifty acts of embezzlement or corruption on the part of Sir Edward, his family and his personal servants.
This was an extraordinary act of courage considering Trevelyan was only twenty-two years of age.
In the uproar that followed he was ostracised by most of the other Europeans in Delhi and subjected to a stream of abuse and vilification by the Colebrookes, who sought to lay their own counter charges against what they described as ‘the clandestine whisper of a stripling’. But a board of enquiry was set up and in December 1829 the most serious of Trevelyan’s charges were found proven. Sir James Colebrooke was declared ‘unworthy of the confidence of Government and unfit for further employment’ and dismissed from service. He took ship with his family before criminal charges could be brought against them.
Sir James Colebrooke’s behaviour confirmed Bentinck’s poor opinion of his civil servants. As for Charles Trevelyan, he received the warmest approbation of the Governor-General and the HEICo’s Court of Directors for having ‘ably, honourably and manfully discharged his duty as a public servant, and by his zealous and unremitting exertions, performed a most painful and invidious task’. From this time on he could do no wrong in the eyes of Lord Bentinck and was promoted to become an under-secretary in the Foreign and Political Department.
On 18 March 1833 – just weeks after Brian Hodgson had been confirmed as the British resident in Kathmandu – Charles Trevelyan again wrote to the Governor-General. Not through his official conduit, Henry Thoby Prinsep, as propriety demanded, but again in a private capacity, reiterating some of the proposals for the anglicisation of education that he had first articulated in Delhi two years earlier. His letter began:
I long to see established under your Lordship’s auspices a system of education so comprehensive as to embrace every class of public teachers, so elastic as to admit of it’s being gradually extended to every village in the country and so interwoven with the constitution of the state … In short, I long to see such a system of education established in India as already exists in the state of new York, in the new England states and in Prussia and such as it [is] now proposed to establish in France & England. This would form the crowning measure of your Lordship’s administration. In 25 years it would entirely change the moral face of the country and countless millions in their successive generations would bless the memory of the man who called them to a higher & better state of existence.
This flattery hit its mark. Within a month Trevelyan was given a seat on the General Committee of Public Instruction, now chaired by Henry Shakespeare following the departure of its long-time chair- man Dr. Horace Wilson. A seat on the board of the native Medical Institution Committee as its Deputy secretary followed. With the tacit support of the Governor-General, Trevelyan began a press campaign against what he termed the ‘rage of Orientalism’ and the ‘ivory-towerism’ of its proponents, writing under the pen-name ‘Indophilus’. He again called for Fort William College to be closed down and for all educational funding to be redirected only to those institutions where English took precedence, with no more money to be spent on the translation of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic texts:
Let us not suffer ourselves to be persuaded … that we are instructing the Indians, while we are only gratifying the peculiar literary taste, and I fear, too generally, the vanity of a few European scholars who happen to have turned their attention to the Sanskrit and Arabic languages. Our business is not with Europe, but with India; and our object is to instruct the people of India by the united means of English and of the popular languages, and not to gain a reputation in Europe by a patronage of the learned few who have leisure and inclination to devote themselves to the study of Sanskrit and Arabic.
The General Committee of Public Instruction now split down the middle, five against five, with the Orientalists, led by Henry Thoby Prinsep and William Macnaghten, on the one side and the anglicists, led by Charles Trevelyan, on the other. From Oxford Horace Wilson gave the Orientalist faction what support he could, writing to his protégé and friend ram Kamal sen4 at the Asiatic society in Calcutta urging him to resist the changes on the grounds that ‘neither Lord William nor Mr. Trevelyan know what they are doing’ and that it was ‘a visionary absurdity to think of making English the language of India’.
Divisions grew as each party set out to make its case. Initially, the Governor-General presented himself as above the fray. However, on the supreme Council Sir Charles Metcalfe and William Bayley now found themselves increasingly sidelined, their advice overruled. ‘He appears to prefer everyone’s opinion to mine,’ declared Metcalfe of Lord Bentinck in a letter to a friend. What swung the balance was the arrival of Thomas Babington Macaulay.
Macaulay owed his position to a speech he had made in the house of Commons on 10 July 1833 seconding a motion to move a bill for the better government of his Majesty’s Indian territories. Largely thanks to his oratory, the motion was carried without a division and duly passed into law as the Government of India act. The speech was indeed remarkable, with Macaulay calling for Indians to be so well educated in European knowledge that they might one day be fit to govern themselves:
Whether such a day will ever come I know not. But never will I attempt to avert or to retard it. Whenever it comes, it will be the proudest day in English history. To have found a great people sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and superstition, to have so ruled them as to have made them desirous and capable of all the privileges of citizens, would indeed be a title to glory all our own … Those triumphs are the pacific triumphs of reason over barbarism; that empire is the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws.
Macaulay’s reward was a brief period of office as secretary of the Board of Control with responsibility for Indian affairs followed by his advancement to India as law Member on the Governor-General’s supreme Council. His main grounds for accepting the post were financial rather than ideological. It paid £10,000 a year (say, a quarter of a million pounds today) and the Macaulay’s – just like the Hodgsons and from the same cause of unwise investment – were in dire financial straits.
When Macaulay stepped ashore in Madras in June 1834 he was welcomed as a much needed ally by Lord William Bentinck. They proceeded to the hill-station of Ootacamund and then travelled together through south India. However, Macaulay had come to India with his twenty-four-year-old sister Hannah, and she proceeded directly to Calcutta without her brother.
It was at this point that Charles Trevelyan played another of his astonishing blinders. When the Governor-General’s cavalcade finally arrived in Calcutta in September 1834 Macaulay was dismayed to find that Hannah – a plain young lady without prospects whom he had expected to remain by his side as his housekeeper – had accepted a proposal of marriage from an equally plain and very intense young Civilian with no obvious charms. ‘He has no small talk,’ wrote Macaulay of his future brother-in-law to another of his sisters. ‘His mind is full of schemes of moral and political improvement, and his zeal boils over in his talk. His topics, even in courtship, are steam navigation, the equalisation of the sugar duties, the substitution of the roman for the Arabic alphabet in the Oriental languages … he is quite at the head of that active party among the younger servants of the Company who take the side of improvement.’
These views softened when Macaulay was informed by Lord Bentinck that his sister’s suitor was ‘the ablest young man in the service and the most noble-minded man he had ever seen’. Within days of his arrival in Calcutta Macaulay had been steam-rollered into a much talked about ménage a trois: Hannah Macaulay married Charles Trevelyan and William Macaulay moved in with them. The Governor-General was then persuaded by Trevelyan to appoint Macaulay President of the General Committee of Public Instruction in place of a demoralised Henry Shakespeare.
Macaulay at once made it plain to his fellow committee members that he had no time for its existing policy: ‘We are at present a board for printing books which are of less value than the paper on which they are printed when it was blank, and for giving artificial encouragement to absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics, and absurd theology.’ He proposed that no more public money should be spent either on translations of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic texts or in funding the Sanskrit College in Benares and the Calcutta Madrassa – ‘temples of darkness that were falling of themselves into decay’. After protests from the Orientalists on the General Committee, each party agreed to make its case before the Governor-General.
At this juncture Macaulay by-passed the General Committee and submitted to Lord Bentinck his now notorious Minute on Education, ridiculing India’s culture, languages and civilisation – a Minute that in its uncompromising call for anglicisation was in every respect but rhetoric the work of his brother-in-law:
Of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects. The question now before us is simply whether, when it is in our power to teach this language, we shall teach languages in which, by universal confession, there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own; whether, when we can teach European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, wherever they differ from those of Europe differ for the worse; and whether, when we can patronize sound philosophy and true history, we shall countenance, at the public expense, medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter.
According to Henry Thoby Prinsep’s son (also, and confusingly, named Henry Thoby), Macaulay threatened to resign if his proposals were not implemented. Lord Bentinck had only weeks to go before the end of his tenure as Governor-General and his health was giving way. He was content to give his approval, writing at the top of Macaulay’s Minute ‘I give my entire concurrence to the sentiments expressed in this Minute’. He then sent it across to Henry Thoby Prinsep’s office with instructions to bring it before the supreme Council.
Prinsep was shocked by what he read and called for an emergency meeting of the General Committee of Public Instruction, at which Macaulay’s Minute was fiercely criticised by himself, William Macnaghten and his youngest brother, James Prinsep – all threatening to resign if Macaulay went ahead and published his Minute. According to Trevelyan, harsh words were exchanged on both sides. ‘The blow had gone straight to the sources of their habitual feelings and the effect that followed was highly remarkable,’ he afterwards wrote in seeking to explain the Orientalist’s hostility:
hey felt as if the world were given to understand that they had spent their strength for nought and that their learning was altogether vanity. The axe seemed to them to be laid at the root of their reputations. This was more than human nature could bear. Men who had been remarkable for self-restraint completely lost their temper, and those who had been unaccustomed to give free expression to their feelings showed unusual warmth on this occasion. It was a striking exhibition of character.
The meeting broke up in disorder. Both Macnaghten and the older Prinsep then sat down to write their own counter-submissions, arguing that Macaulay’s proposals were based on his ‘superficial knowledge’ and were ‘useless, wasteful and cruel’, and that the imposition of English as a medium of instruction would be counter- productive: ‘If we wish to enlighten the great mass of the people of India we must use as our instrument the languages of India … Our object is to impart ideas, not words, and it must be much more easy to acquire these through the medium of the mother tongue than by a foreign one.’
At this point one of the Anglicists on the Committee, probably John Colvin, leaked at least part of Macaulay’s Minute. This was the last straw for Henry Thoby Prinsep. Although he always denied it, there is little doubt that it was he who then leaked the rest. ‘The report,’ he afterwards wrote in a private memoir, ‘was too widely circulated and too well vouched to be checked [i.e. stopped] and the whole town of Calcutta was in a ferment. In the course of two days a petition, respectful in language but strong in the points to which it averted, was signed by upwards of eight thousand educated Mahomedans and a similar petition in regard to the Sanskrit College was under preparation by the hindoos.’
Calcutta’s English-language newspapers now entered the fray, the Friend of India and the Calcutta Englishman arguing in favour of Macaulay’s proposals, while other papers such as the Bengal Hurkaru [Messenger] defended the Orientalist position.
On 7 March the Governor-General’s supreme Council met with the city of Calcutta in an uproar. Prinsep and Macnaghten’s submissions were declared by Lord Bentinck to be out of order and set aside. ‘I was met by a rebuke,’ recorded Henry Thoby Prinsep, ‘for having taken upon myself so much, accompanied by the declaration that secretaries are the organisers and not the advisers of Government and that their submitting Notes at all was under sufferance and an irregularity.’ To add further insult to this rebuff, Prinsep’s submission was returned to him with Macaulay’s pencilled comment attached, brief and to the point: ‘I remain not only unshaken, but confirmed in all my opinions on the general question. I may have committed a slight mistake or two as to details, and I may occasionally have used an epithet which might with advantage be softened down. But I do not retract the substance of a single proposition I have advanced.’
Some members of the supreme Council did indeed speak against Macaulay but he had the Governor-General’s support and a formal resolution was duly passed stating that ‘his Lordship in Council is of opinion that the great object of the British Government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science amongst the natives of India: and that the funds appropriated for the purposes of education would be best employed on English education alone.’ no more money was to be spent on the printing of ‘oriental books’ and the money saved should be devoted to ‘imparting to the native population a knowledge of English literature and science through the medium of the English language’.
Two weeks later Lord William Bentinck left for England, his six- year term of office completed and his place in history as a reforming proconsul assured.
At a meeting of the Asiatic society of Bengal held on the evening of 6 May 1835, a despondent James Prinsep informed those present that he had received an order from Government suspending the printing of all oriental works and disbanding the printing establishment. He then read out a list of the works then in the process of being printed and now to be ‘consigned to sudden destruction’. They included the Mahabharata – ‘to form five quarto volumes, and printed nearly to the middle of the second volume’ – the Rajatarangini chronicle of Kashmir – ‘comprising one quarto volume of 620 pages, of which about 200 remain to be published’ – and a great many other works in Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian either partly printed or being prepared for publication. ‘The interdiction,’ added Prinsep, ‘extends to all the oriental classics selected by the Committee and by Mr. Wilson as eminently fit to be preserved in a printed form: the Ramayana and some of the Puranas; the Mugdabodha, with commentary, and other works on Grammar; various standard treatises of law, rhetoric and logic; and, eventually, the Vedas themselves; also the various standard Bauddha works in Sanskrit brought to light by Mr. Hodgson … and a vast number of others.’
Prinsep then called upon the society ‘not only to remonstrate but in every way to exert its influence to save the venerable fabric of Indian literature from such a catastrophe, and to rescue our national character from the stigma of so unjust, unpopular, and so impolitic an act, which was not so far outdone by the destruction of the alexandrine library itself!’ He proposed a series of resolutions that in essence called upon the Government of India to reverse its policy.
Only one member present expressed his opposition. That was Charles Trevelyan, who chose to lighten the proceedings with an ill-timed joke, reported without comment in the minutes: ‘he had himself had a narrow escape of being a great orientalist, for he had obtained some credit for his progress in Sanskrit at [Haileybury] College, but his dictionary fell overboard during his voyage to this country, and thus he was saved from the bias which an enthusiastic devotion to this ancient tongue might have given to his views on education.’ In the circumstances the remark must have fallen very flat indeed.
An appeal, written by James Prinsep and the Bengali intellectual Ram Camal Sen, set out in fifteen clauses and addressed to Sir Charles Metcalfe in his capacity as acting Governor-General, was read out for approval at the next meeting of the Asiatic society of Bengal, held on 3 June 1835. This time the Anglicists came to the meeting better prepared. Led by John Colvin and Sir John Grant (brother of the President of the Board of Trade, Charles Grant), they did their best to water down Prinsep’s draft but were soundly defeated. The memorial was duly presented to the acting Governor-General.
But it was a Pyrrhic victory only. A month later the Asiatic society was informed that the original order issued by Lord Bentinck in Council must stand, and that it was the opinion of Sir Charles Metcalfe, as acting Governor-General, that ‘the funds appropriated for the purposes of education would be best employed in English education alone’. The only sop was that the collection of oriental books and manuscripts in the library of Fort William College should be made over to the Asiatic society, since the college would have no further need for them.
James Prinsep announced the news of the Orientalist’s defeat at the Asiatic society’s next meeting in July 1835. But he also had some good news, which was the society’s acquisition of a complete set of the Tibetan Tengyur in 108 volumes: ‘Mr. Hodgson proposes, with his usual munificence, to present this copy to the Calcutta Asiatic society, while he destines another complete copy of the printed Kangyur for the royal Asiatic society in London.’
This was indeed a magnificent gift that lifted the spirits of the demoralised Orientalists in Calcutta, and James Prinsep went on to place on record the society’s gratitude that ‘good chance had placed a man of Mr. Hodgson’s zeal in the residency of Nipal, in lieu of one of the new school’’ – the italics were Prinsep’s own. ‘But for him the 300 volumes of Indian literature, preserved beyond the snows in a foreign dress, might still have been unknown, or, if known, despised and unrecovered.’ To this James’s brother Henry Thoby Prinsep added his own thanks in a private letter. ‘This is indeed glorious,’ he wrote, ‘and will redound on your immortal fame. I have told Csoma [de Körös] that he must on no account run away until he has read the whole of the Stangyur [Tengyur] and made known its contents.’ According to Hodgson’s biographer this complete set of the Tibetan religious canon had come to Hodgson from no less a person than the Tashi lama of Tibet, apparently as an expression of thanks for his work on Buddhism.
In Kathmandu Brian Hodgson had followed the battle between the Orientalists and those he called the ‘Anglomaniasts’ with growing frustration. He had been kept fully in the picture by William Macnaghten and the Prinseps, but had felt unable to publicly take sides without jeopardising his position as British resident. Furthermore, he had his own views, which meant that he was unable to offer the Orientalist faction his full support.
A letter in which Hodgson set out his own position over seven tightly-written pages survives among the papers of James Prinsep. Dated 29 April – which places it a matter of days before the fateful supreme Council meeting – it shows every sign of having been scribbled in a state of agitation, the words scarcely formed in places, sloping down at the end of every line and with lots of underlining. But the gist is clear:
the imposition of English language as the prime medium of education might help the few but not the masses – and much the same could be said for Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic.
Hodgson had had plenty of opportunity to examine the way in which the Newars conducted themselves. Caste-ridden though they were, they nevertheless met in small assemblies to sort out disputes among themselves and to share information. Known as panchayats, these local assemblies also provided a means of education, chiefly in the form of religious instruction passed on by gurus such as Pandit Amritananda.
Hodgson’s argument was that if education was to extend beyond the privileged few in India it had to be in the vernacular languages and through such long-established local institutions as the panchayat and the village pandit, whose traditional role was to provide some form of rudimentary education to the children of the village: ‘Unless I mistake much,’ runs one of the more lucid passages in Hodgson’s letter, ‘it may be demonstrated from history & reason that the intellectual faculties of the many never get more cultivated with success save through the vulgar speech … My object is to inspirit & instruct the many in the quietest but most operative manner, & consistently with the present & permanent weal, none of which can be found in English indoctrination.’
Hodgson’s letter closed with an exhortation to Prinsep and his brothers not simply to oppose Macaulayism but also to promote the vernacular cause: ‘unless we are up & stirring, the enemy will carry it by talk. The Press is their ally because so far as English prevails, so far are the gentlemen of the Press at home – & no farther. Ditto, ditto, all views come from England. G.G. [Governor-General], heads of law, Commission etc etc.’
Hodgson lost no time in developing these views, which grew in time into ‘a plan and outline of a system of general education for the people of India’. One of the English language newspapers in Calcutta that had supported Macaulay’s anglicisation programme was the Friend of India, edited by an English missionary. Five months after Bentinck’s pronouncement the paper’s editor received the first of seven letters written by Hodgson attacking what was now official Government policy. The first two letters appeared under the pseudonym of ‘Junius’ but their authorship was soon known and when they were published with two more letters in 1837 under the title of Preeminence of the Vernaculars, or the Anglicists Answered: being four letters on the Education of the People of India they bore Hodgson’s name – and with good reason, for by then the tide had turned against the anglicists and in favour, not of the Orientalists, but of Hodgson’s cause: education in the vernacular.
‘You have,’ Hodgson charged the newspaper at the start of his first letter, ‘with the majority of the anglomaniasts, whilst disclaiming all express purpose of annihilating the indigenous literature, advocated the justice as well as expediency of the so-called negative course of withdrawing all public patronage from it. But sir, have you considered … the extent to which the spread of British rule from province to province, and kingdom to kingdom, has had the effect of closing the native seminaries throughout India, either by the political extinction of their patrons, or by the absorption of their resources?’
The present policy of anglicization could only make the situation worse. ‘Macaulayism,’ Hodgson predicted, ‘will help to widen the existing lamentable gulf that exists between us and the mass of people’ – and it was that mass of people that he cared about. Macaulayism called for the ‘exclusive learning’ of the favoured few, leading to the creation of what Macaulay had called ‘a class of people who can act as intermediaries between us and the millions we govern: a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect’.
But the dangers of creating this new class of anglicised officials were already becoming apparent:
The new class are learning Shakespeare and Milton, Bacon and newton; and with that sort of training they are dispatched into the interior to become officials, possessed of but a poor and mimicked resemblance of our own peculiar knowledge, though purchased at the expense of their own … The Europeans cannot possibly dispense with the old class of functionaries; cannot possibly get through the work with the new class: and thus the scheme which looks so well in Calcutta, finds no serious approver in the interior.
Macaulay had declared that the Indians were ‘a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue’ – this in defiance of the fact that ‘Bengalee, the language of twenty- seven millions, has good dictionaries and grammars, as well as works which exhibit a respectable share of precision and compass; whilst its connection with Sanskrit, and the peculiar genius of the latter, afford extraordinary means of enrichment by new terms competent to express any imaginable modification of thought.’ The same could be said of Hindi in northern India outside Bengal: ‘you have an indigenous system of vernacular instruction which has slowly and naturally grown out of the wants of the people. Build upon it.’
It was not a question of choosing between English or India’s classical languages: ‘Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, have proved the curse of this land … by reason of the administrative mystery they have created and upheld; and I hold it to surpass the wit of man to demonstrate that that terrible mystery will not be perpetuated by English.’ English certainly had a role to play in promoting Western knowledge, but if education was to include the Indian masses it had to be through their mother tongues.
What Hodgson proposed was a ‘middle way’, one that was neither Anglicist nor Orientalist. He called for the setting up of what he called normal Colleges, where the vernacular languages would take precedence over English:
Though I give the mother-tongues of the people the first and second place, I give English the third; and in my normal College, which is not so much an educational establishment as an indirect means of making all such establishments efficient, I would have the alumni equally versed in both tongues – theirs and ours … I want to locate therein a set of able men of the West, who shall be competent to give to India the essence of our indisputable knowledge; and to associate with them other men of this land, English and native, who shall transfer this essence into the vulgar tongues of India in the most efficient and attractive manner.
This call went down surprisingly well with the Christian missionaries, who had made it their business to set up their own vernacular schools, with Hodgson taking care to invoke the name of the almighty:
We seek to regenerate India; and to lay the foundations of a social system which with time and God’s blessing on the labours of its founders shall mature perhaps long after we are no longer forthcoming on the scene. Let then the foundation be broad and solid enough to support the vast superstructure. Let us begin in the right way, or fifty years hence we may have to retrace our steps and commence anew! Sound knowledge generally diffused is the greatest of blessings; but the soundness of knowledge has ever depended and ever will on its free, and equal, and large communication.
One of the first to support Hodgson’s appeal was his fellow Civilian and contemporary Frederick John shore, whose father Sir John shore (Lord Teignmouth) had been a very able administrator and noted Orientalist in his day. Shore waded in with a series of newspaper articles against Macaulayism under the nom de plume of ‘Friend of India’. But it was the intervention of the missionaries that really counted, among them the much respected Dr. John Wilson, founder of Wilson College, which became the nucleus of Bombay University. ‘Mr. Hodgson’s advocacy of the vernaculars is most convincing,’ he wrote. ‘They must be the medium of the regeneration of India, as they have been in every country on the face of the globe.’
Growing public disquiet, stoked by Hodgson, shore, Wilson and others, now gave greater urgency to a commission on Indian education that had originally been set up by Lord Bentinck before his departure. Leading that commission was the Baptist missionary turned maverick journalist William Adam, and what Adam discovered in the course of his enquiries in Bengal and Bihar was that a widespread system of indigenous education in the vernacular already existed in the form of ‘hedge schools’; in virtually every village there was a schoolmaster who provided at least some form of rudimentary education to its children. Adam estimated that there were a hundred thousand such schools in the lower Provinces of Bengal alone and he recommended that they should not only be recognised but supported by Government.
Sir Charles Metcalfe was still acting Governor-General, pending the arrival of the next Governor-General. He had refused to annul Lord Bentinck’s resolution on education, but he was no admirer of Charles Trevelyan and saw to it that he was moved sideways to become the secretary of the Sudder Board of revenue.
As for Thomas Macaulay, all his energies were now focused on the drafting of the Indian Penal Code, intended to replace the existing patchwork of Hindu, Muslim and east India Company laws with a single standard of justice that could be applied equally to all throughout British India.
This was to be Macaulay’s most lasting legacy. Although not fully implemented until 1862, the first draft of Macaulay’s Indian Penal Code was delivered to the Governor-General in Council in October 1837. A month later its author, together with his sister and his brother-in-law set sail for England.
Trevelyan passed the home voyage in a frenzy of writing, setting out at length the case for anglicisation, published in England in 1838 as On the Education of the People of India. He claimed a great victory, in that Persian was no longer being promoted as the language of diplomacy and Sanskrit no longer a required subject at Haileybury, but he had also to acknowledge that his victory was not complete, in as much that ‘every body is now agreed in giving the preference to the vernacular language’. The tide had turned against him.
Adam’s Indian education Commission report of 1838 greatly strengthened Hodgson’s case, as the Government of India acknowledged in its response: ‘no one has more earnestly urged the duty of communicating European knowledge to the natives than Mr. Hodgson; no one has more powerfully shown the importance of employing the vernacular languages for accomplishing that object; no one has more eloquently illustrated the necessity of conciliating the learned and of making them our coadjutors in the great works of a nation’s regeneration.’
There was by now a new Governor-General in post, who in his Minute of 1839 announced a watering down of his predecessor’s policy with vernacular instruction to be given equal weight with English. Even those elements of the Calcutta press that had previously supported Trevelyan now gave their support of Hodgson’s vernacular education scheme, urging the HEICo’s Court of Directors to increase the existing education budget so as to make this possible.
This foot-dragging on the part of that body so exasperated Brian Hodgson that in 1842 he publicly offered to put down five thousand rupees from his own purse towards the setting up of one of his normal Vernacular schools. In 1854, after more than a decade of dithering, the Court of Directors published a Despatch on Education that proposed ‘a scheme of education for all India’. So the principle of vernacular education was at least established, even though it was not until 1883 that primary education, ‘through the vernacular, in such subjects as will best fit them for their position in life’, began to be implemented in schools and colleges in British India.
Historians will continue to argue over the degree to which Brian Hodgson’s intervention influenced events but he undoubtedly helped to make vernacular education respectable as Government policy – and he had the satisfaction of seeing that great change brought about, however slow it had been in coming.
Yet it must be added that Brian Hodgson also lived to see the extinguishing of the spirit of British Orientalism that had so revitalised the language and culture of Bengal in his day, and which was greatly diminished as a consequences of the narrow-minded nationalism of Trevelyan and the Macaulayites. And as Orientalism declined so a new attitude towards India and Indians began to take its place, a growing sense of British superiority that only served to widen the existing gulf between the two peoples.