Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ockley, Simon
OCKLEY, SIMON (1678–1720), orientalist, came of a ‘gentleman's family’ of Great Ellingham in Norfolk, where his father lived, but he was born at Exeter in 1678. He was apparently brought up in Norfolk, where Sir Algernon Potts of Mannington took an interest in the studious boy (Dedication to Account of Barbary). At the age of fifteen he entered (1693) Queens' College, Cambridge, where, according to Hearne, ‘being naturally inclin'd to ye Study of ye Oriental Tongues, he was, when abt 17 years of Age, made Hebrew Lecturer in ye said College, chiefly because he was poor and could hardly subsist’ (Remarks and Collections of Thomas Hearne, ed. Doble, i. 245). He took holy orders before he was twenty, and became curate at Swavesey, Cambridgeshire (near St. Ives), under the vicar, Joseph Wasse, as early as 1701 (Swavesey Parish Register); and in 1705 he succeeded to the vicariate by presentation of Jesus College, Cambridge, on the recommendation of Simon Patrick, bishop of Ely, ‘wch Bp pretends to be his Patron, tho' (like some other Prelates) 'tis only Pretence, he having as yet given him nothing to support himself and Family’ (Hearne, l.c., i. 246). Ockley had married very young, and the parish register at Swavesey records the baptisms of six children between May 1702 and September 1708, two of whom (Avis and Edward) died young. He never obtained any richer preferment, but remained vicar of Swavesey till his death. Hearne (l.c.) states that he would have received a better parsonage from his college but for ‘a certain Accident, wch redounded much to his Disgrace’—probably referring to rumours of intemperance, which Ockley indignantly repudiated some years later (1714) in a letter to the Lord-treasurer Harley, who had appointed him his chaplain in or before 1711 (D'Israeli, Calamities of Authors, Works, v. 189–92, ed. 1858). There is no evidence but Hearne's hint of disgrace, and Ockley's specific denial of the charge of sottishness; but the letter to Harley was explicitly called forth by some act of indiscretion reported to have been committed at the lord-treasurer's table, though it may well have been an indiscretion in conversation (as Ockley imagined), and not in wine. The uncouth scholar, who at Oxford struck Hearne (l.c. iii. 286) as ‘somewhat crazed,’ may easily be supposed to have stumbled into some maladroit speech or clumsy behaviour when he found himself bewildered among the wits and courtiers at Harley's dinner. Hearne (i. 245) records that Ockley was ‘admitted student into ye Publick Library’ on 8 Aug. 1701, for the purpose of consulting some Arabic manuscripts, and that in the spring of 1706 he again journeyed to Oxford, where he was (15 April) ‘incorporated Master of Arts’ (ib. i. 227). ‘This Journey was also undertaken purely for ye sake of ye Publick Library, wch he constantly frequented till Yesterday [i.e. 17 May], when he went away. He is upon other Publick Designs, and for yt end consulted divers of our Arabick MSSts; in wch Language he is said by some Judges to be ye best skill'd of any Man in England; wch he has in a great Measure made appear by his quick Turning into English about half of one of ye Said Arabic MSts in folio during his Stay with us, besides ye other Business upon his Hands. He is a man of very great Industry, and ought to be incourag'd, wch I do not question but he will if he lives to see Learning once more incourag'd in England, wch at present is not’ (ib. i. 246).
In spite of injurious reports and the grinding poverty of his domestic circumstances, Ockley devoted himself with passionate energy to oriental learning; and his visits to Oxford for the examination of Arabic manuscripts, together with his constant preoccupation in his studies when at home, can hardly have conduced to the good management of either vicarage or parish. But whatever he may have been as a parish priest, Ockley was a scholar of the rarest type. As his grandson, Dr. Ralph Heathcote, says, ‘Ockley had the culture of oriental learning very much at heart, and the several publications which he made were intended solely to promote it’ (Chalmers, Gen. Biogr. Dict. ed. 1815, xxiii. 294). They certainly were not calculated for profit, since Hearne observes (l.c. i. 246) of Ockley's first book, the ‘Introductio ad linguas orientales’ (Cambridge, 1706), that ‘there were only 500 printed, and conseqtly he ought to have recd a gratuity from some Generous Patron to satisfy him in yt wch he could not expect from a Bookseller when ye Number was so small.’ The ‘Introductio’ was dedicated to the Bishop of Ely, and the preface exhorts the ‘juventus academica’ to devote its attention to oriental literature, both for its own merits, and also for the aid which it supplies towards the proper study of divinity. The work contains, among many evidences of research, an examination of the controversy between Buxtorf and Capellus upon the antiquity of the Hebrew points, on which, however, it is obvious that the young scholar had himself come to no fixed conclusions. In December 1706 he dates from Swavesey the preface to his translation from the Italian of the Venetian rabbi Leon Modena's ‘History of the present Jews throughout the World’ (London, 1707), to which he added two supplements on the Carraites and Samaritans from the French of Father Simon; for he was a good French, Italian, and Spanish scholar as well as an orientalist of whose acquaintance with Eastern languages Adrian Reland could write ‘vir, si quis alius, harum literarum peritus.’ His dedication of ‘The Improvement of Human Reason, exhibited in the Life of Hai ebn Yokdhan,’ to Edward Pocock, ‘the worthy son of so great a father,’ shows one source of his enthusiasm for oriental learning; and he may fairly be classed as a disciple of ‘the Reverend and Learned Dr. Pocock, the Glory and Ornament of our Age and Nation, whose Memory I much reverence’ (Ded. to Human Reason, London, 1708, with quaint woodcuts; but the British Museum copy has a later substituted title-page of a different publisher, dated 1711). This translation (from the Arabic of Ibn at-Tufail), designed to stimulate the curiosity and admiration of young students for oriental authors, contains an appendix by Ockley (printed in 1708) on the possibility of man's attaining to the true knowledge of God without the use of external means of grace; the appendix, however, disappears from the slightly abridged edition of 1731.
In 1708 Ockley published the first volume of ‘The Conquest of Syria, Persia, and Egypt by the Saracens,’ the work which under its general but less accurate title, ‘The History of the Saracens,’ achieved a wide popularity, and, to all but specialists, constitutes Ockley's single title to fame. The second volume, bringing the history down to A.D. 705 (a.h. 86), did not appear till 1718 (London), together with a second edition of vol. i. A third edition (by subscription in 1757 at Cambridge) appeared with ‘Life of Mahomet,’ attributed to Dr. Long, master of Pembroke College, ‘for the sole benefit of Mrs. Anne Ockley’ (title-page), the daughter of Ockley, born in 1703. The ‘History’ was included in Bohn's Standard Library in 1848, and many times reprinted in various series. A French translation by A. F. Jault was published as early as 1748. The work was based upon a manuscript in the Bodleian Library ascribed to the Arabic historian El-Wâkidî, with additions from El-Mekîn, Abû-l-Fidâ, Abû-l-Faraj, and others. Hamaker, however, has proved that the manuscript in question is not the celebrated ‘Kitâb el-Maghâzî’ of El-Wâkidî, but the ‘Futûh esh-Sham,’ a work of little authority, which has even been characterised as ‘romance rather than history’ (Encycl. Britannica, 9th ed., s.v. Ockley, written or endorsed by Professor W. Robertson Smith). But, although many of its details require correction, the importance of Ockley's work in relation to the progress of oriental studies cannot be overestimated. Following in the steps of Pocock's famous ‘Specimen Historiæ Arabum,’ but adopting a popular method, and recommending it by an admirable English style, Ockley for the first time made the history of the early Saracen conquests attractive to the general reader, and stimulated the student to further research. With all its inaccuracies, Ockley's ‘History of the Saracens’ became a secondary classic, and formed for generations the main source of the average notions of early Mohammedan history. Gibbon did not disdain to use it freely.
The evidences of unwearied research in which it abounds insured its author's succession to the first vacant professorship of oriental languages. He was admitted a B.D. at Cambridge in 1710, and in December 1711 (Hearne, l.c., iii. 286) he was appointed to the chair of Arabic at his university; but the increase of income and consideration came too late. In his inaugural address as professor, Ockley expatiates with enthusiasm upon the beauty and utility of the Arabic language and literature, and pays tribute to the past labours of Erpenius, Golius, Pocock, and Herbelot; but refers sadly to fortune, always ‘venefica,’ and to the ‘mordaces curæ,’ which had so long embittered his life (Oratio Inauguralis habita Cantabrigiæ in Scholis Publicis Kalend. Febr. 1711 ).
It is not known whether he had any pupils, or devoted much time to lecturing at Cambridge. He continued to write and publish, however, on various branches of learning. In 1712 appeared his ‘Account of the Authority of the Arabic MSS. in the Bodleian Library controverted between Dr. Grabe and Mr. Whiston, in a Letter to Mr. Thirlby,’ in which Ockley endeavoured to clear himself of the charge of sympathising with Whiston's Arian proclivities (referred to in HEARNE, iii. 57, where Ockley's visit to the Bodleian Library in Whiston's company, in September 1710, is noticed; cf. iii. 485). Ockley translated the Second Book of Esdras from the Arabic for Whiston, but issued it separately in 1716, in order to emphasise his disagreement with Whiston's opinions. Harley had apparently recommended the poor professor to Mr. Secretary St. John, for it is recorded that Bolingbroke employed Ockley to translate some letters from Morocco. Connected with this task, no doubt, was the publication (London, 1713) of the ‘Account of South-West Barbary,’ a narrative of captivity by an unknown Christian slave who escaped in 1698. Besides editing the captive's story, Ockley appended two letters from the Emperor of Morocco, Muley Ismaîl, one to Captain Kirk of Tangier (in Arabic, with translation), the others to Sir Cloudesley Shovel ‘on board the Charles galley,’ with reply; and also a letter from Hulagu Khan to the Sultan of Aleppo, written in 1259. The fall of Harley and Bolingbroke, however, soon deprived Ockley of any hopes of advancement from the government. In 1717 (London) appeared a translation from the Arabic of ‘The Sentences of Ali,’ made by Ockley at the request of Thomas Freke of Hannington, Wiltshire (who also had urged the preparation and provided for the expense of publishing the ‘History of the Saracens.’). The preface contains a spirited eulogy of the Arabs and their literature; and at the end is found a ‘proposal for printing’ the second volume of the ‘History of the Saracens’ (to which the ‘Sentences of Ali’ was appended in 1718), dated 21 Dec. 1716, from which it appears that all Ockley asked from the subscribers was 2d. per sheet, of which 2s. 6d. was to be paid down, and ‘the rest on delivery of the quires;’ but a ‘small number to be on Royal Paper at 10s. a book.’ The preparation of this second volume occupied much time, and involved protracted residence at Oxford. In a letter to his daughter (published by Heathcote, in Chalmers, Gen. Biogr. Dict. ed. 1815, xxiii. 296–8), Ockley describes the labour of deciphering the manuscripts, abridging, comparing, and selecting; and the difficulty of rendering an oriental language into English. He was much hampered by the want of sufficient authorities, and adds: ‘We are all swallowed up in politics; there is no room for letters; and it is to be feared that the next generation will not only inherit but improve the polite ignorance of the present.’ He nevertheless worked at his manuscripts ‘from the time I rise in the morning till I can see no longer at night,’ and endured the drudgery in the hope of ‘obliging his country’ and ‘making new discoveries.’ The preface to the second volume of his ‘History’ was stoically dated (December 1717) from Cambridge Castle, where he was then imprisoned for debts amounting altogether to no more than 200l.; but the quiet of a prison he found more conducive to steady toil than the interruptions of an overpopulated parsonage (Preface to vol. ii.) Except some annotations to Wotton's ‘Miscellaneous Discourses’ (London, 1718), this was Ockley's last work, and on 9 Aug. 1720, at the age of forty-two, he died at Swavesey; he was buried there on the following day.
Two of Ockley's sermons were published: the one on the dignity and authority of the Christian priesthood, preached at Ormond Chapel, London, 1710; the other on the duty of instructing children in the Holy Scriptures, at St. Ives, in 1713. But it is not as a parson but as a pioneer in oriental scholarship that his memory lives; while his troubles and bitter penury have gained him a record in D'Israeli's melancholy catalogue of the ‘Calamities of Authors.’ On his death his debts exceeded his assets, and his widow was left in great distress with a son, Anthony, aged eighteen, and three daughters. Martha, the third daughter, was mother of Dr. Ralph Heathcote [q. v.]
[The original source of all the various notices of Ockley is the article contributed by his grandson, Dr. Ralph Heathcote, to the first edition (1761) of Chalmers's Gen. Biogr. Dict., and reprinted in the edition of 1815. Isaac D'Israeli had some original letters of Ockley in his hands when he wrote the notice for the Calamities of Authors (Works, v. 189–92). The Prefaces and Dedications to Ockley's works contain many autobiographical allusions. Hearne's Collections are useful. Extracts from Swavesey Parish Registers, contributed by the Rev. J. G. L. Lushington, vicar.]