Orme, Robert (DNB00)

ORME, ROBERT (1728–1801), historian of India, born on Christmas day 1728 at Anjengo, Travancore State, India, was the second son of Alexander Orme, physician and surgeon in the service of the East India Company, and chief of the settlement at Anjengo (Memoir; some accounts erroneously give his father's christian name as John or Robert). His mother's maiden name was Hill. He was sent when about two years old to the house of his aunt, Mrs. Robert Adams, in Cavendish Square, London. From about 1734 to 1741 he was educated at Harrow School under Dr. James Cox (Hist. of the College of Winchester, &c., 1816, ‘Harrow,’ p. 33), and was then placed for a year in the office of the accountant-general of the African Company. In 1742 he went to Calcutta, where his elder brother William was a ‘writer’ in the East India Company. Orme engaged himself in the mercantile house of Jackson & Wedderburn at Calcutta, and made a voyage to Surat. On returning to Calcutta in 1743 he was appointed a writer in the East India Company's service. He acquired a reputation for his knowledge of native manners and customs, and in 1752 was asked to state his opinion on the regulation of the police in Calcutta. In the same year he drew up part of ‘A General Idea of the Government and People of Indostan.’ This was afterwards completed, and posthumously published in Orme's ‘Historical Fragments,’ edition of 1805. In 1753 he visited England, and during his absence in 1754 was appointed by the court of directors a member of the council at Madras. Returning to India, he arrived at Madras on 14 Sept. 1754. He took an active part in the deliberations of the council respecting the military operations in the Carnatic, 1754–8, and recommended the appointment of Clive to command the expedition against Suráj-ud-Dowlah. Orme was for some years intimate with Clive, but the friendship was broken off about 1769. From 1757 to 1758 Orme was commissary and accountant-general. At the end of 1758, his health being impaired, he left India with a small fortune. The Grantham, the ship in which he sailed, was captured by the French on 4 Jan. 1759 and taken to Mauritius. Orme ultimately reached Nantes in France in the spring of 1760.

In the autumn of 1760 he bought a house in Harley Street, London, where he formed a library of ancient and modern classics, and arranged his materials—collected since 1742—for an Indian history. In August 1763 he published the first volume of his principal work, ‘A History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan from the year 1745,’ 4to; vol. ii. was published in two parts in 1778. Orme was complimented on his work by Sir William Jones (letter of 26 June 1773; cf. Sir W. Jones, ‘Third Discourse’) and by Dr. William Robertson, the historian. He was elected fellow of the Society of Antiquaries on 8 Nov. 1770, and from about 1769 till his death was historiographer to the East India Company at a salary of 400l. a year. He was given access to the records at the India House, and obtained information from Bussy, whom he visited in 1773 at his country seat in France. Macaulay (Essays, ‘Lord Clive’) has praised Orme's history as one of the most authentic and finely written in our language, though he remarks justly that the extreme minuteness of its treatment renders it wearisome. Malleson (History of the French in India, pp. vii, viii) pronounces the history to be ‘generally a faithful record,’ though one which unfortunately treats the French ‘rather as accessories than as principals in the story.’ Thackeray, in ‘The Newcomes,’ makes it the favourite work of Colonel Newcome. Orme told Dr. Parr that in preparing the third volume he completely formed every sentence in his mind before writing it down. A third edition of the work appeared in 1780, fourth 1790, fifth 1799. There were other editions in 1803; 1861 London, and Madras. In 1782 Orme published ‘Historical Fragments of the Mogul Empire, of the Morattoes, and of the English Concerns in Indostan from the year 1659.’ This was reprinted in 1805 (London, 4to), with a memoir of the author, giving some extracts from his correspondence with Robertson the historian, and others (cf. Edin. Rev. January 1807, p. 391 seq.). Orme's essays ‘On the Origin of the English Establishment … at Broach and Surat’ and ‘A General Idea of the Government and People of Indostan’ were included in this volume. Though extremely laborious and accurate, he is said (Memoir, p. xxiv) to have had ‘little or no acquaintance with the learned languages of Asia.’ It appears from his memoranda that his favourite reading was in the Greek and Roman classics. He records the perusal in 1743 of Rapin's ‘History of England,’ ‘of which I do not remember a word.’

In 1792 he retired to Great Ealing, Middlesex, where he died on 13 Jan. 1801, in his 73rd year. He was buried on 21 Jan. in the churchyard of St. Mary's, Ealing (Lysons, Environs of London, Supplement, p. 130), where there is a memorial tablet describing him as ‘endeared to his friends by the gentleness of his manners’ (see engraving of tablet in Memoir, p. lxvii). He was an admirer of Dr. Johnson, and delighted in his conversation, saying that on whatever subject Johnson talked, he either ‘gives you new thoughts or a new colouring’ (Boswell, Life of Johnson, anno 1778, iii. 284, ed. Hill; cf. ib. ii. 300).

A bust of Orme at the age of forty-six, made in 1774 by J. Nollekens, R.A. (Smith, Nollekens, ii. 74), was bequeathed to the East India Company; an engraving of it forms the frontispiece to Orme's ‘Historical Fragments,’ ed. 1805. His face is described as expressing shrewdness and intelligence. Orme had a taste for painting and sculpture, and was a lover of Handel.

The circumstance that Orme was married is stated (Gent. Mag.) to have been unknown even to his intimate friends till after his death, when the court of directors of the E. I. C. settled a small annuity on his widow (the Memoir makes no mention of the marriage). He bequeathed to his friend and executor, John Roberts, chairman of the court of directors, all his books, manuscripts, &c., with a request—duly carried out—that he would present them to the East India Company. This collection, now in the library of the India Office, consists of fifty-one volumes of printed tracts on India and the East India Company; 231 manuscript volumes, compiled by Orme, containing a vast body of information on Indian affairs; letters relating to the company's affairs; maps, charts, plans, &c. (Gent. Mag. 1803, pt. i. p. 518). In the maps accompanying his published works Orme had marked many hundreds of places for the first time. A considerable part of Orme's library had been sold by him at Sotheby's about April 1796, when he gave up his house in Harley Street.

[Memoir of Orme prefixed to the Historical Fragments, ed. 1805 (cited above as Memoir); Aiken's General Biography, 1808, art. ‘Orme;’ Gent. Mag. 1803 pt. i. pp. 517, 518 (Memoir reprinted from the Asiatic Annual Register), pt. ii. p. 799; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Allibone's Dict. Engl. Lit.; Nichols's Lit. Anecdotes, iii. 499; Encyclop. Brit. 9th ed. ‘Orme;’ Cat. of E. I. C. Library; Brit. Mus. Cat.; authorities cited above.]

W. W.