Henry Thomas Colebrooke

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Henry Thomas Colebrooke
A bust of Henry Thomas Colebrooke currently owned by the Royal Asiatic Society
BornJune 15 1756(1756-06-15)
London, England
DiedApril 10 1837 (aged 80)
London, England
Known forSanskrit scholar, one of the founders of the Royal Asiatic Society

Henry Thomas Colebrooke (June 15, 1765 - March 10, 1837) was an English orientalist, a co-founder of the Royal Astronomical Society, serving as its second President and of the Royal Asiatic Society, serving as founder Director. He was a civil servant in India from 1783 until 1814, working his way up through the ranks to serve as a member of the Supreme Council. Previously, he presided over the court of appeals and held an honorary chair in Sanskrit at Fort William College, Calcutta. Almost entirely self-taught, he followed in the footsteps of William Jones as a pioneer of the serious study of India's history, philosophy, religion and languages. Colebrooke is widely regarded as the father of Sanskrit studies, of Indology and of Comparative Philology in Europe. His published work contributed significantly to knowledge in a variety of fields. One of his protégés became Oxford's first professor of Sanskrit, while his donations to the India Office Library provided subsequent generations with essential material to pursue their academic researches.

Colebrooke played an important role in establishing the study of India's cultural and intellectual heritage in the Western academy. Later in the nineteenth century, the attitude of racial superiority that accompanied European colonialism tended to impact negatively on the study of non-European cultures by Europeans, since these were thought to contain nothing useful or beneficial. Colebrooke represents an early challenge to this biased view. His legacy helped to ensure the future of the serious, systematic and scientific study of another cultural sphere. This enabled others to challenge racist assumptions by demonstrating that no single civilization can claim a monopoly of what is of value, interest and benefit to the flourishing of life. The fact that Colebrooke was out of sympathy with those who saw their task in India as making a profit at any cost may explain why he did not receive the usual honors and awards for a man of his rank. In helping to inspire Western interest in the study of India, Colebrooke significantly advanced understanding of important contributions to the cultural patrimony of the whole human family.


Early years

Henry Thomas Colebrooke, third son of Sir George Colebrooke, a Second Baronet, was born in London. His father was a banker, Member of Parliament fro Arundel between 1754 and 1774, a director of the British East India Company and Chairman from 1769 to 1773. Colebrooke was educated at home; when only fifteen he had made considerable attainments in classics and mathematics. From the age of twelve to sixteen he lived in France where, following the collapse of his father's finances, the family lived on Sir George's East India Company pension.

Service with the East India Company

In 1782 he was appointed to a writership with the East India Company, following the footsteps of his older brother. He sailed to India in 1782. About a year after his arrival he was placed in the board of accounts in Calcutta; three years later he transferred to Tirhut as assistant collector (deputy chief administrative officer). In 1789 he was placed in charge of a survey of the resources in the Purneah district. It was there that he wrote his Remarks on the Husbandry and Commerce of Bengal, privately printed in 1795, in which he advocated free trade between Great Britain and India. In 1793, he was transferred to Nator. When Sir William Jones died in 1794 he was commissioned to produce a summary of Hinduism law and moved from the revenue to the judicial branch. In 1795 he was appointed district magistrate in Mirzapur, which is near Varanasi. In March 1799 he was sent to Nagpur as a member pro tempore of the diplomatic corps to negotiate a treaty with the Rajah of Berar. He remained in Nagpur for the next two years before returning to his post at Mirzapur. Although no treaty was finalized, Colebrooke was commended for his efforts and rewarded with a seat on the new superior court of appeal in Calcutta. By 1805 he was chief justice and by 1807 he was a member of the governor-generals council serving for five years, the usual term. The highest office open to civilians, this was usually achieved towards the end of an individual's service in India. This was followed by a brief return to the court of appeal and membership of the board of revenue before he retired from India in 1814. He also served a term as President of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, founded by Jone's in 1784. He published twenty papers in the Society's journal. He was also responsible for the establishing of supervisory boards for the three branches of the civil service. Although he worked at various times in all three branches, he counseled that people should specialize in one and should not normally be transferred from one branch to another.


In 1805, Lord Wellesley, the governor-general appointed Colebrooke honorary professor of Hindu law and Sanskrit at the college of Fort William. This did not involve teaching; "He seems to have been a director of studies rather than an actual professor, but" writes F. Max Müller he rendered valuable service as examiner in Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindustani, and Persian."[1] Colebrooke also did much to develop the College's library, which was later given to the India Office Library. During his residence at Calcutta he wrote his Sanskrit Grammar (1805), some papers on the religious ceremonies of the Hindus, and his Essay on the Vedas (1805), for a long time the standard work in English on the subject. This established that Buddhism post-dated Brahmanism. His work on Jainism pioneered the study of that tradition by non-Indians. His work on Sanskrit has been described as "monument marking the beginning of the study of traditional Sanskrit linguistics (vyakarana) by non-Indians."[2] His interests ranged widely across geography, mathematics and biology. He was especially interested in the exploration of the Himalayas. He called them "my mountains." Five of his papers discussed various ancient inscriptions, expressing his interest in history. One area of research was the origin of the Hindu caste system. Gombrich comments that "perhaps only the visual arts were missing from his repertoire." He even wrote an article on Indian weights and measures. His "editions and translations of Sanskrit mathematical works remain fundamental for any student of the subject," says Gombrich, Oxford's Boden Professor.[2] Colebrooke was scientific in his approach, setting out

to examine and record facts with the rigor of a student of physical science, and to lay down the results of [his] inquiries with a method necessarily dry, but affording a storehouse of important observations for future students. Mr. Colebrooke's comments, or general remarks, are few but weighty, and put forward with a caution that may be regarded as excessive, and render his writings unattractive to the general reader.[3]

He was encouraged throughout by correspondence with his father, whose initial inquiry about Indian religion stimulated Colebrooke's interest. When he first arrived in India he did not want to stay. However, as his scholarly interests developed his attitude changed. F. Max Müller identifies him as a pioneer in the field of Comparative Philology, commenting that "the range of his comparisons was very wide, and embraced not only Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin with their derivatives, but also the Germanic and Slavonic languages."[1] Max Müller, regarded by many as the founder of the scientific study of religion, describes Colebrooke as the "father and founder of true Sanskrit scholarship in Europe."[4] He engaged in debate with James Mill on the "antiquity of Indian scientific knowledge" arguing that the Arabs adapted "a division of the Zodiac familiar to the Hindus."[5] Banerjee adds that Colebrooke's inquiries in the field of Indian astronomy was so detailed that comparatively little was left for later researchers.[6] Gombrich comments that one article alone contains "as much material as one would hope to find in a modern doctoral dissertation."[2]

Royal Astronomical and Royal Asiatic Societies: Co-Founder

After returning to England, Colebrooke was a co-founder of the Royal Astronomical Society. He was present at the inaugural dinner and meeting on January 12 1820 when the Astronomical Society was founded. In 1822, he became the second President of the Astronomical Society.

Colebrooke was also instrumental in founding the Royal Asiatic Society, chairing all of its early meetings, the first of which took place in his home on January 9, 1823. He served as the first Director of the Society; he did not consider himself sufficiently distinguished to assume the Presidency, which went to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn. He was a friend of Horace Hayman Wilson, who succeeded him as Director of the Society. Colebrooke regarded himself as having picked up the torch of scholarly interest in India's culture, religions and languages from Jone's and as passing this on to Wilson, to whom he wrote in 1827:

Careless and indifferent as our countrymen are, I think, nevertheless, you and I may derive more complacent feelings from the reflection that, following the footsteps of Sir W. Jones, we have, with so little aid of collaborators, and so little encouragement, opened nearly every avenue, and left it to foreigners, who are taking up the clue we have furnished, to complete the outline of what we have sketched. It is some gratification to natural pride that the opportunity which the English have enjoyed has not been wholly unemployed.[7]

In 1818 he donated 2749 manuscripts to what is now the India Office Library, London. Max Müller describes this as a "treasury from which every student of Sanskrit has since drawn."[8] In 1824 he gave the RAS a collection of "drawings of Indian objects ranging from musical instruments to agricultural implements".[2]

Wilson became Oxford's first Boden Chair of Sanskrit in 1832.

Selected works

Later life

Colebrooke was out of sympathy with his peers in India while serving on the Supreme Council due to his support for free-trade. He lost favor when he counseled a temporary withholding of remittances to London following an expensive war in Java, believing that the money was needed in India. Gombrich records that when William Pitt the Younger read his book on agriculture in Bengali, which advocated free trade, he commented that Colebrooke "was lucky not to be dismissed from the service." He may have disliked the emphasis on making a profit at any cost that dominated the company's administrative policy. This attitude could have contributed to the reasons why he was not honored with any awards, which men of his rank usually received. He personally lost much of his fortune through unwise investments. He bought some land in the United States thinking that he might retire there. He did spend a year in South Africa (1821–2). His health began to fail towards the end of his life and from 1829 he was blind. As well as losing two of his three sons, two nieces died which saddened him and contributed to his ill health. Towards the end he was completely bed-ridden. Gombrich says that he felt "unjustly treated" because honors did not come his way.[2]


Colebrooke married Elizabeth Wilkinson in 1810. She died two months before he retired from India. Of their three sons, only Sir Thomas Edward Colebrooke survived. He wrote his father's biography, The Life of H. T. Colebrooke in 1873. Thomas, who inherited the Baronetcy from his uncle, who died childless served in the House of Commons from 1842 to 1852 and from 1857 to 1868. He was Lord Lieutenant of Lanarkshire from 1869 until 1890. From 1869 until 1872 he was Dean of Faculties at Glasgow University, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1873.[9] His son, Edward Arthur Colebrooke, the 5th Baronet, a Lord in Waiting for Edward VII of the United Kingdom, Privy Counsellor (from 1914) and a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (1922), Knight Grand Commander (1927) was raised to the peerage as Baron Colebrooke in 1906. When he died, without a male heir. in 1939, both titles became extinct.[10]


Colebrooke's role in making the study of India's cultural and linguistic heritage a serious subject of scholarly inquiry helped this to gain a foothold within the Western academy. At the time, there were those who thought such inquiry a waste of time and effort and certainly unworthy of financial support. Two years before his death, Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote his "Minute on Education" in India, in which he claimed that he had never met an Orientalist who "could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia."[11] Subsequently, the Government in India decided that it would only fund education in English medium with a European curriculum.

It was awareness that the study of things Eastern had little support in England that inspired Colebrooke and others to establish the Royal Asiatic Society. He wrote: "In England nobody cares about Oriental literature, or is likely to give the least attention to it."[12] Despite lack of interest and even opposition to the sympathetic study of non-European cultures, the pioneer efforts of Colebrooke and of others helped to establish an infrastructure that nurtured the developing field of study when it was at a vulnerable stage and even ensured that some knowledge was not permanently lost. Colebrooke saw India's literary and cultural heritage as of interest and of value. Later in the nineteenth century, as attitudes of racial and cultural superiority began to dominate the European academy, other cultures tended to be studies in order to ridicule them or to illustrate their inferiority. This was largely to give imperialism a moral justification. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Colebrooke did not dismiss everything he encountered in India as inferior. Nor were his interests purely antiquarian; his first published work discussed a pragmatic concern, the state of agriculture in Bengal.

Posthumously, "a genus of Didynamia Gymnospermia was named Colebrookia in his honour."[2] The intellectual significance of his legacy is explored in detail in Rocher and Rocher (2007). They suggest that he took what was of localized interest and imbued it with the ethos of a professional, transnational field of scholarly inquiry.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Müller (1904) 252.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Gombrich (2004), 541.
  3. Colebrooke Colebrooke (1873), 235.
  4. Müller (1904), 262.
  5. Chakrabarti (2004), 243.
  6. Banerjee (1920), 156.
  7. Müller (1904), 265.
  8. Müller (1904), 263.
  9. Glasgow University, Biography of Sir Thomas Edward Colebrooke. Retrieved February 21, 2009.
  10. Darryl Lundy, 2004, A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain as well as the royal families of Europe, The Peerage.com. Retrieved February 21, 2009.
  11. T.B. Macauley, Minute on Education, in H. Sharp, Selections from Educational Records, Part I (1781-1839) (Calcutta, IN: Bureau of Education, 1965). Retrieved February 21, 2009.
  12. Müller (1904), 256.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Banerjee, Gauranga Nath. 1920. Hellenism in Ancient India. Calcutta, IN: Butterworth & Co.
  • Chakrabarti, Pratik. 2004. Western Science in Modern India: Metropolitan Methods, Colonial Practices. Delhi, IN: Permanent Black. ISBN 9788178240787.
  • Colebrooke, T.E., and H.T. Colebrooke. 1873. The Life of H.T. Colebrooke. London, UK: Trübner.
  • Gombrich, Richard F. 2004. "Colebrooke, Henry Thomas." In Matthew, H.C.G., and Brian Howard Harrison. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: In Association with the British Academy: From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198614111.
  • Müller, Max F. 1904. Chips from a German Workshop: Biographical Essays. London, UK: Longmans, Green & Co.
  • Rocher, Ludo, and Rosane Rocher. 2007. The Making of Western Indology: Henry Thomas Colebrooke and the East India Company. London, UK: Routledge. ISBN 9780415336017.

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