Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tolfrey, William

TOLFREY, WILLIAM (1778?–1817), orientalist, born in or about 1778, was educated in England. Proceeding in 1794 to Calcutta, where his father then lived, he obtained at first some subordinate post in a public office, but soon afterwards relinquished this for an ensigncy in the 76th (foot) regiment. His military career was creditable. Promoted to the 74th regiment, he served in the Mysore war under General George Harris (afterwards first Lord Harris) [q. v.], and in the Mahratta campaigns of 1803–4. He was distinguished also in the battle of Assaye. In 1805 he sold his commission, and, visiting an uncle, Samuel Tolfrey, in Ceylon, obtained a post in the public service of the island in 1806. In 1813 he was assistant commissioner of revenue and commerce, and shortly afterwards his proficiency in Sinhalese obtained him the post of chief translator to the resident at Kandy. On the arrival of Sir Robert Brownrigg as governor in 1812, a bible society was started, and Tolfrey undertook the revision of the old Sinhalese translation of the Bible made by the Dutch. Struck by the unduly colloquial character of this version, he adopted the strange course of previously translating each verse into the classical Pali. It was probably this that led him to attempt the translation of the whole New Testament into Pali, a work which he had nearly completed at the time of his death. It was subsequently printed, but as a literary production it was of no great value. Tolfrey was, however, probably the first Englishman to study Pali, the most important of the languages of Buddhism, and he merits recognition as a pioneer. Benjamin Clough used his materials for the compilation of his Pali grammar, produced in 1824, which was the only work of the kind for some thirty years. Tolfrey died in Ceylon on 4 Jan. 1817.

[Ceylon Government Gazette, 11 Jan. 1817; Ceylon Almanac, 1814; epitaph cited in James Selkirk's Recollections, p. 94; Bible in Many Lands; Clough's Pali Grammar.]

C. B.