Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, Horace Hayman

WILSON, HORACE HAYMAN (1786–1860), orientalist, was born in London on 26 Sept. 1786. Receiving his general education in Soho Square, London, he commenced medical studies in 1804 at St. Thomas's Hospital, and in 1808 was nominated assistant-surgeon on the Bengal establishment of the East India Company. The voyage occupied six months, and during it he commenced his oriental studies by learning Hindustani. On his arrival he was appointed, owing to his proficiency in chemistry and metallurgy, assistant to John Leyden [q. v.] at the Calcutta mint, where in 1816 he became assay-master. ‘Excited by the example and biography of Sir Wm. Jones’ (to use his own words), he ‘entered on the study of Sanskrit with warm interest, as soon after’ his ‘arrival in India in 1808 as official occupations allowed.’ In 1813 we find him publishing his first Sanskrit work, an annotated text of the ‘Meghadūta of Kālidāsa.’ It is still more remarkable to note that as early as 1819 he completed the first ‘Sanskrit-English Dictionary.’ It was greatly improved in the second edition (1831), which remained until the completion of the great German lexicon in 1875 the standard reference-book for European scholars. In the same year (1819) he was sent by government to Benares for the inspection of the college there, a visit which he utilised for the collection of materials for his great work on the Indian drama.

During nearly the whole of his stay in India Wilson held the office of secretary to the Asiatic Society of Bengal (appointment dated 2 April 1811), contributing to its journal some of his most important papers. He was also secretary to the committee of public instruction and visitor to the Sanskrit College of Calcutta.

In 1832 he was selected to fill the chair of Sanskrit at Oxford, which had been founded by Joseph Boden [q. v.] in 1827. He resided in Oxford from 1833 to 1836, when he succeeded Sir Charles Wilkins [q. v.] as librarian to the East India Company, and moved to London, merely visiting Oxford for a part of each term, but giving instruction to all who needed his help. He became likewise examiner at the company's college at Haileybury, visiting it twice yearly. In London he was an original member of the Royal Asiatic Society (1823), in which he held the office of director from 1837 till his death. Wilson was elected F.R.S. in 1834, and was member of numerous foreign learned societies.

He died on 8 May 1860 in London at Upper Wimpole Street. He married a daughter of George Siddons of the Bengal service, who was a son of the great actress. Several descendants of this marriage survive.

An engraving, dated 1851, by William Walker, gives his portrait from a painting (now at the Royal Asiatic Society) by Sir John Watson-Gordon. A portrait by Sir George Hayter is in possession of Wilson's grandson at Brighton, and several other pictures (including one by Robert Tait), sketches, and drawings are extant. In the National Portrait Gallery, London, is a sketch from life by James Atkinson. There is also a bust by Chantrey in the Bodleian library, and another bust on the façade of the India office.

Wilson did much to promote a real knowledge of the very numerous branches of Indian learning which he made his own. Beneath his writings and teaching there flowed an undercurrent of enthusiasm which, in spite of a certain dryness of manner and baldness of style, often communicated itself to pupils or readers. His point of view, natural to an early scholar educated in India, and the limitations of his scholarship were shown in an appreciation by Böthlingk and Roth, the greatest of Sanskrit lexicographers, who, while expressing their sense of Wilson's immense erudition, lamented that he had taken the point of view of native scholars rather than advanced in the path of European students (Sanskrit Wörterbuch, Bd. I., Vorwort).

A complete list, mainly compiled by himself, of his separate works, editions, joint productions, and papers in journals, is given with his obituary in the ‘Annual Report of the Royal Asiatic Society’ for 1860. Besides the ‘Dictionary’ (1819, 1832, and 1874) already mentioned, the most important are: 1. ‘Select Specimens of the Theatre of the Hindus,’ 1826–7, 2 vols. (this has gone through several editions, and was translated into French; Wilson, himself an accomplished actor, seems to have entered into this work with special enthusiasm). 2. ‘Catalogue of the Mackenzie MSS.,’ Calcutta, 1828, 8vo. 3. ‘Sāṅ-khya-kārikā,’ London, 1837, 4to. 4. ‘Vishnupurāna,’ London, 1840, 4to. 5. ‘Lectures on the Religious and Philosophical Systems of the Hindus,’ 1840. 6. ‘Continuation of Mill's British India, 1805–35,’ London, 1844–8. 7. ‘Translation of the Rig-Veda’ (according to the native school of interpretation), 6 vols.; vol. i. was published in 1850, and vols. v. and vi. have been completed and published since his death. 8. ‘Glossary of Judicial and Revenue Terms of … India,’ London, 1855, 4to. A collected edition (12 vols.) of his works was also published in London (1862–71) under the editorship of Reinhold Rost [q. v.], one of his successors at the India office. Wilson was a great collector of Sanskrit manuscripts. No fewer than five hundred and forty, comprising both vedic and classical works, were brought together by him, and form the most important part of the Sanskrit manuscripts now in the Bodleian Library.

[Annual Report of Royal Asiatic Society for 1860, and other records of the Society; Memorials of Haileybury College (biography by Sir M. Monier-Williams, Wilson's pupil and successor at Oxford); English Cyclopedia; Asiatic Soc. Bengal, Centenary vol.; communications from family and from Professor Cowell, his pupil and friend.]

C. B.