Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Marsden, William (1754-1836)

MARSDEN, WILLIAM (1754–1836), orientalist and numismatist, born at Verval, co. Wicklow, Ireland, on 16 Nov. 1754, was the sixth son and tenth child of John Marsden by his second wife Eleanor Bagnall. John Marsden was engaged in 'extensive mercantile and shipping concerns' in Dublin, and was a promoter (in 1783) and director of the National Bank of Ireland. The family had settled in Ireland at the end of the reign of Queen Anne, and was probably of Derbyshire origin. William Marsden received a classical education in schools at Dublin, and was preparing to enter Trinity College there, with a view to the church, when, at the suggestion of his eldest brother, John Marsden, a writer in the East India Company's service at Fort Marlborough (Bencoolen) in Sumatra, he obtained an appointment from the company. He left Gravesend on 27 Dec. 1770, and reached Bencoolen on 30 May 1771. During an eight years' residence in Sumatra, Marsden did good official service as sub-secretary, and afterwards as principal secretary, to the government. He amused his leisure hours by writing verses and by acting female parts in a theatre at Bencoolen built and chiefly-managed by his brother. He also mastered the vernacular tongue, a study which bore fruit later on in his 'Dictionary of the Malayan Language.' Marsden's employment by the company practically ceased on 6 July 1779, when he left Sumatra for England. He invested his savings, and in January 1785 established with his brother John (who had also returned from Sumatra) an East India agency business in Gower Street, London. On 3 March 1795 Marsden, who since 1780 had enjoyed much leisure for learned studies, was induced to accept the post of second secretary of the admiralty, and was promoted to be first secretary (with a salary of 4,000l. a year) in 1804. He discharged his duties ably during this eventful period of naval history. He resigned the secretaryship in June 1807, and received a pension for life of 1,500l., which in 1831 he voluntarily relinquished to the nation.

Marsden was elected fellow of the Royal Society 23 Jan. 1783, became treasurer and vice-president, and often presided during the illness of Sir Joseph Banks. He had made the acquaintance of Banks in March 1780, and from that time till 1795 was a constant guest at his 'philosophical breakfasts ' in Soho Square, at which ne met, among others, Dr. Solander, Dr. Maskelyne, Major Rennell, Sir William Herschel, Planta, and Bishop Horsley. He was elected fellow of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in November 1784, and fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1786. He was an original member of the Royal Irish Academy (May 1785), member and treasurer of the Royal Society Club 1787), and a member of the Literary Club 26 Feb. 1799). In June 1786 he received the honorary degree of D.C.L. Oxford.

After his retirement Marsden took a house named Edge Grove at Aldenham, Hertfordshire, where he henceforth chiefly lived. In 1833 he suffered from apoplexy, and an attack proved fatal on 6 Oct. 1836. He was buried in the cemetery at Kensal Green.

On 22 Aug. 1807 Marsden married Elizabeth Wray, eldest daughter of his friend Sir Charles Wilkins. His wife survived him, and afterwards married Lieutenant-colonel W. M. Leake [q. v.], the classical topographer and numismatist. Marsden had written about 1828 an autobiography, which was edited and privately printed by his widow in 1838 as 'A Brief Memoir of . . . William Marsden,' London, 4to. The obituary of Marsden in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' for 1837 (pt. i. pp. 212-13) mentions a portrait of him drawn by S. Cousins in 1820, and engraved by him under the name of his master, Mr. Reynolds. Marsden's collection of oriental books and manuscripts he presented in 1835 to King's College, London.

Marsden's literary reputation was first assured in 1783 by the publication of his 'History of Sumatra,' a work bearing the peculiar impress of his mind, 'strong sense, truthfulness, and caution.' It was welcomed in the 'Quarterly Review' (lxiv. 99) by Southey as a model of descriptive composition, and was highly praised in other English periodicals (Allibone, Dict. Engl. Lit. s.v. 'Marsden'). His 'Dictionary and Grammar of the Malayan Language,' begun in 1786 and published in 18 12, added still further to his reputation, while the publication of his 'Numismata Orientalia ' in 1823-5 established his fame as a numismatist. The last-named valuable and original work describes Marsden's collection of oriental coins, at that time unique in England. The Cufic coins were purchased by Marsden in September 1805 of G. Miles, a coin-dealer, who had acquired them from Sir Robert Ainslie [q. v.] Marsden arranged and deciphered the specimens, and afterwards added other coins, chiefly Indian, to his cabinet. The whole collection was presented by him to the British Museum on 12 July 1834. It consists of about 3,447 oriental coins, including 618 specimens in gold and 1,228 in silver (manuscript note by E. Hawkins in copy of Num. Orient. in department of coins, British Museum).

Marsden's chief publications are : 1. 'The History of Sumatra,' London, 1783, 4to ; 2nd edit. 1784 ; 3rd edit. 1811, 4to ; German translation, Leipzig, 1785, 8vo ; French translation, 1788, 8vo. 2. 'A Catalogue of Dictionaries, Vocabularies, Grammars, and Alphabets,' 2 pts. London, 1796, 4to, privately printed (Martin, Priv. Printed Books). 3. 'A Dictionary of the Malayan Language ; to which is prefixed a Grammar, with an Introduction and Praxis,' 2 pts. London, 1812, 4to (a Dutch translation, Haarlem, 1825, 4to). 4. 'A Grammar of the Malayan Language,' London, 1812, 4to. 5. 'the Travels of Marco Polo,' translated from the Italian, with notes, 1818, 4to ; also 1847, 8vo, in Bonn's 'Antiquarian Library.' Colonel Yule, preface to 'Marco Polo,' i. p. viii, says that Marsden's edition must always be spoken of with respect, though much elucidatory matter has since come to light . 6. 'Numismata Orientalia Illustrata,' with plates, London, pt. i. 1823, pt, ii. 1825, 4to. 7. 'Bibliotheca Marsdeniana Philologica et Orientalis, a Catalogue of Works and Manuscripts collected with a view to the general comparison of Languages and to the study of Oriental Literature,' London, 1827, 4to. 8. 'Nakhoda Muda, Memoirs of a Malayan Family,' 1830, 8vo (Oriental Translation Fund). 9. 'Miscellaneous Works,' London, 1834, 4to (containing three tracts, on the Polynesian languages, on a conventional Roman alphabet applicable to Oriental languages, and on a national English dictionary). Marsden also contributed papers to periodicals, among which may be mentioned, 'The Era of the Mahometans,' in the 'Philosophical Transactions,' 1788, and one on the language and Indian origin of the gipsies, in the 'Archæologia,' vol. vii.

[Brief Memoir of Marsden, by his widow. 1838 ; Gent. Mag. 1837, pt. i. pp. 212-13; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

W. W.