Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Hodgson, Brian Houghton

HODGSON, BRIAN HOUGHTON (1800–1894), Indian civilian and orientalist, born at Prestbury in Cheshire on 1 Feb. 1800, was the last of a succession of four Brian Hodgsons, whose united ages averaged more than eighty-three years. His father was a partner in the banking house of Hawkins, Mills & Co. of Macclesfield, which failed, with many others, at the beginning of the century, but ultimately paid twenty shillings in the pound. He was from 1814 to 1820 superintendent of martello towers on the coast of Essex, and from 1820 to 1850 barrack-master in Canterbury. He ultimately died in Holland in 1858, aged ninety-two. His mother was Catherine, daughter of William Houghton of Manchester and Newton Park, Lancashire. His grandfather's sister Margaret was the wife of Beilby Porteus [q. v.], bishop of London.

Brian Houghton Hodgson was the second child and eldest son. His early education was obtained at Macclesfield grammar school under David Davies, and at Richmond under Daniel Charles Delafosse, both schoolmasters of repute in their day. In 1816 he was nominated to a writership in Bengal by James Pattison, and was admitted to the East India Company's college at Haileybury. In after life he used to say that he derived much benefit from the teaching and personal kindness of Thomas Robert Malthus [q. v.], then professor of history at Haileybury. On his arrival at Calcutta in 1818 he continued his oriental studies, according to the custom of that time, in the college of Fort William, devoting himself specially to Persian. But his health soon broke down, and he was never again able to live in the plains of Bengal. Most fortunately he received one of the two appointments in the hills that were then open to a junior civil servant, that of assistant commissioner of Kumaon. The frontier tract of Kumaon, amid the outer ranges of the Himalayas, had recently come under British rule, on the conclusion of the Gurkha war in 1815. Its first British ruler was George William Traill, who held the post of commissioner of Kumaon continuously for twenty years and stamped his strong personality upon the administration. It was of great advantage to Hodgson to serve his apprenticeship under such a man, and also in a district adjoining the native state of Nepal, which was destined to be the scene of his own lifework. After he had been less than two years in Kumaon, the post of assistant resident in Nepal fell vacant, and Hodgson was chosen to fill it. Henceforth, for twenty-three years (1820-43), he remained at Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, secluded from the active life of Indian administration, but in a unique position to devote himself to study. In order to complete the catalogue of his services, it should be stated that in 1823 he acted for some months as deputy secretary in the political (i. e. foreign) department at Calcutta ; but his health again failed, and he was glad to return to Nepal in the humble capacity of postmaster. In 1825 we find him again assistant resident, acting resident from 1829 to 1831, but not confirmed as resident until 1833.

At this time the warlike Gurkhas of Nepal were still chafing under the treaty imposed upon them after Sir David Ochterlony's victories of 1815, by which they lost large tracts of recently conquered territory, and were compelled to accept a British resident at their court. Even to the present day Nepal ranks as an independent state, outside the Indian feudatory system, and recognising China in some vague sense as its suzerain. Hodgson's position, therefore, at Kathmandu was not the same as that of an ordinary resident at the court of a native state. His functions were essentially diplomatic, and did not include the right of imposing advice with regard to the internal administration. His difficulties were enhanced by the peculiar composition of the Nepalese court, which consisted (then as now) of a roi faineant, while all power was vested in the hands of a minister, himself only the chief of the strongest faction in the state. Ministerial crises were frequent, sometimes ending in indiscriminate massacre, and at any moment a safety-valve against domestic revolution might be sought in an unprovoked invasion of the plains of India. It is Hodgson's chief title to political distinction that he succeeded in persuading the Nepalese court to keep the peace during the anxious period of the first Afghan war. But even so he was not able to gain the approval of Lord Ellenborough, who distrusted all 'politicals,' especially if they happened to be civilians. On the ground that Hodgson had failed to carry out his instructions to the letter, Lord Ellenborough suddenly dismissed him from the residency of Nepal, and added insult to injury by gazetting him to the petty post of assistant commissioner at Simla (not then the summer residence of the viceroy). Hodgson forthwith resigned the service and sailed for England, thus terminating his official career for ever at the early age of forty-three.

Meanwhile Hodgson had won for himself a more permanent reputation in a very different field. From his first residence in Nepal he resolved to take advantage of his opportunities to study the literature, religion, and language of a country then absolutely unknown. The ruling race of Gurkhas are devout Hindus, still retaining many archaic features of the Hindu social system. But a large proportion of the population are Buddhists, and Nepal is in close contact with Tibet. Hodgson's supreme contribution to science is to have discovered the literature of Northern Buddhism, as preserved in both Sanskrit and Tibetan manuscripts. As early as 1828 he contributed papers on this subject to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which finally took shape in his 'Illustrations of the Literature and Religion of the Buddhists' (Serampur, 1841). It is, however, upon his work as a collector rather than as an author that Hodgson's fame rests. For years he was indefatigable in acquiring original manuscripts, and in obtaining copies of others, which he proceeded to distribute with lavish hand among public libraries. From Tibet he procured two copies of the vast encyclopædias called the 'Kahgyur' and the 'Stangyur,' consisting of about 350 volumes in Tibetan block-printing. One of these copies he presented to the college of Fort William, the other to the court of directors of the East India Company. Of Sanskrit manuscripts he collected more than four hundred, which are now divided among the libraries of Calcutta, London, and Paris. The portion sent to Paris supplied Eugene Burnouf with the materials for his two epoch-making works, which first placed the knowledge of Northern Buddhism on a scientific foundation. Burnouf 's posthumous 'Le Lotus de la Bonne Loi' (Paris, 1852) is dedicated to Hodgson, 'comme au fondateur de la veritable etude du Bouddhisme par les textes et les monuments.'

Hodgson's curiosity was by no means confined to literature and religion. He collected a great mass of documents relating to the history, the administration, the trade, and the people of Nepal, for a work on that country which he was fated never to write. These are now deposited in the library of the India Office. He was one of the pioneers of scientific ethnology, his monograph on 'The Koch, Bodo, and Dhimal People' (1847) being always referred to as the model of what such research should be. As a zoologist his name stands equally high. In the 'Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers' there are no less than 127 entered under his name. From Nepal and the neighbouring regions he added 150 new species to the avi-fauna of India; and he was the first to describe thirty-nine new species of mammalia, one of which (Budorcas taxicolor) ranks as a new genus. By means of native collectors and artists whom he trained, he was enabled to present to the British Museum more than 10,000 specimens of birds, mammals, and reptiles, together with 1,800 sheets of drawings, which are now in the rooms of the Zoological Society. He also wrote on the physical geography of the Himalayas, and on the topography of Tibet, with special reference to trade routes.

Hodgson has further left his mark on some Indian questions of practical utility. One of his earliest official reports from Nepal urged the enlistment of Gurkhas in the Indian army, and at the crisis of the mutiny his influence was exercised with Lord Canning at Calcutta to accept Sir Jang Bahadur's offer of military assistance. He planted a tea garden in the residency grounds at Kathmandu, and was among the first to advocate the settlement of European colonists at hill stations. On the subject of education he took a line of his own. At the time when Macaulay's powerful arguments decided the government to prefer English to the classical languages of the east as the medium for higher instruction, Hodgson issued a series of letters in favour of the claim of the vernaculars. In particular he proposed the establishment of a normal vernacular college for native schoolmasters.

To return to the chronological order of Hodgson's life. His resignation of the civil service in 1843 was irrevocable; but after less than a year at home he resolved to return to India in a private capacity in order to continue his scientific researches. He fixed his residence at Darjiling, as near as he could get to his favourite Nepal. Here for thirteen years he lived the life of a recluse, suffering a good deal from weak health, which could not abate his collecting ardour and his devotion to learning. It was during this period that he applied himself chiefly to ethnology. One of the few guests that he entertained was Sir Joseph Hooker, then engaged on a botanical exploration of Sikkim. In 1853 he returned to England for a short visit, in the course of which he met and married his first wife, Anne, daughter of General Henry Alexander Scott. It was her inability to stand the climate that finally compelled him to leave India in 1858. He settled in Gloucestershire, first at Dursley, and afterwards (1867) at Alderley, under the Cotswold hills. He now altogether abandoned his oriental studies, and adapted himself to the life of a country gentleman, riding to hounds until sixty-eight years of age. From 1883 onwards he wintered on the Riviera, in a villa that he built for himself at Mentone. His first wife died in 1868, and in the second year of his widowerhood he married Susan, daughter of the Rev. Chambré Townshend of Derry, co. Cork, who survived him. By neither marriage were there any children. He died in London, at 48 Dover Street, on 23 May 1894, and was buried in the church-yard of Alderley.

It is remarkable that Hodgson never received any mark of reward from his own government for either his official or his scientific services. In 1838 he was created a chevalier of the legion of honour, and was awarded a gold medal by the Société Asiatique. In 1844 he was elected a corresponding member of the Institut de France. Many learned societies, on the continent as well as in England, made him an honorary member. In 1877 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society; and in 1889 the university of Oxford conferred upon him the honorary degree of D.C.L. When he first left India (in 1843) the Asiatic Society of Bengal had a bust made of him by T. E. Thornycroft, a duplicate of which is in the rooms of the Royal Asiatic Society in London. Reproductions of this bust and of other portraits at various ages are to be found in his biography. The most important of his numerous papers were collected in three volumes':

  1. 'Essays on the Languages, Literature, and Religion of Nepal and Tibet, together with Papers on the Geography, Ethnology, and Commerce of those Countries' (1874); and
  2. 'Miscellaneous Essays relating to Indian Subjects,' 2 vols. (1880).

[Life of Brian Houghton Hodgson, by Sir William Wilson Hunter, London, 1896.]

J. S. C.