- ‘Orientalist Jones’: Sir William Jones, Poet, Lawyer, and Linguist, 1746–1794
Michael Franklin’s comprehensive study of the eighteenth-century leading Orientalist William Jones offers a new and extensive critical biography of this polymathic integrator of Eastern and Western culture. Focusing on Jones’s status as a socio-political thinker, as well as on his contributions to literature, linguistics and the law, the book revolves around the situational irony that depicts him as a radical reformist who turns out to be a colonial administrator. Being a radical Whig, the ‘Oriental’ Jones in the West becomes the ‘Orientalist’ Jones in the East and a crucial figure of British imperialism. It is due to this change of character that Jones’s name comes along with a variety of soubriquets such as the ‘Republican’, ‘Libertarian’, ‘Selim’, ‘Counsellor’, ‘Linguist’, ‘Conscientious’, ‘Persian’, ‘Plenipotentiary’, ‘Republican’, ‘Harmonious’, ‘Justice’, ‘Oriental’ and, finally, ‘Orientalist’ Jones. Franklin draws scrupulous attention to each of these categories in an attempt to illuminate various façades of Jones’s complex personality.
In the course of this compelling study of Orientalism and colonial discourse, informed but [End Page 193] not dominated by the work of Edward Said, Franklin undertakes a detailed examination of Jones’s long-term ambitions as a high-court judge in India. By contrasting Jones with other exemplars of British colonial rule such as Warren Hastings, the so-called ‘architect of India’ who was impeached by Parliament under allegations of corruption during his time as Governor-General of Bengal, a portrait emerges of a multifaceted and skilful man, able to deflect attention away from the brute realities of imperialism by coating his activities with a pleasing patina of refined morality and scholarly erudition. These qualities are, in turn, skilfully depicted by Franklin in his subtle use of irony and in the attention given to the symbolic resonances of Jones’s life-story. A perfect example of the latter is the emphasis placed in the narrative on the haunting presence of Crocodile, the frigate in which Jones voyaged across the seas: the symbol of predatory power, operating by stealth.
That the scholarly work undertaken by the arbiter of colonialism would ultimately work in the service of Indian nationalism is ably demonstrated by Franklin’s sensitive discussion of the lasting significance of Jones’s retrieval of Sanskrit texts such as Sakuntala. Although Franklin has much to say about Jones’s work as a translator of Persian and Sanskrit texts, writings that would have a profound influence on later Romantic poets such as Keats, Shelley and, indeed, Byron, Franklin is at pains to emphasise that it was not by scholarship alone that Jones would shape the ways in which Indians would go on to perceive themselves. Franklin’s meticulous research into the legal documents in various courts from the Carmarthen circuit to the Supreme Court of Bengal illustrates Jones’s passion for social justice. Yet, while it might be tempting to present a redemptive account of Jones’s career by placing emphasis on the liberal, egalitarian side of his character, it must be borne in mind that the founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the defender of the rights of Indian citizens to trial by jury was, at the same time, a committed and enthusiastic agent of colonial rule. A sense of the paradoxical nature of the Orientalist’s character is revealed by Franklin in his searching account of Jones’s complicated relationship with the uncomfortable business of slavery. Noting that Jones, the poet, frequently adopts a ‘high moral tone’ in his anti-slavery writings, Franklin does not overlook the fact that Jones, the ‘slave owner’, was instrumental in the abolition of the Bengal slave trade.
Franklin delineates two different aspects of acculturation with regard to Orientalism throughout the book: first, Jones’s acculturation in terms of his own ethnic hybridity as a Welshman and his opposition to the ethnocentric biases of England; second, the Orient’s acculturation as a result of the ethnocentricity of the West. In...