Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilkins, Charles

WILKINS, Sir CHARLES (1749?–1836), orientalist, born at Frome, Somerset, in 1749 (or in 1750, for contemporary authorities differ as to his age at death), was the son of Walter Wilkins of that town, and his wife Martha Wray, niece of Robert Bateman Wray [q. v.] the engraver. In 1770 he proceeded to Bengal in the service of the East India Company as a writer, and became superintendent of the company's factories at Maldah. ‘About 1778,’ he writes, his ‘curiosity was excited by the example of his friend Mr. Halhed to commence the study of the Sanskrit’ [see Halhed, Nathaniel Brassey]. The vernaculars he had of course previously studied, and he also took up Persian. His first important work was the leading part which he played in establishing (also in 1778) a printing-press for oriental languages. Here he was not only organiser, but also (in the words of Halhed) ‘metallurgist, engraver, founder, and printer’ of types for alphabets so elaborate and distinct from one another as Bengali and Persian. He also co-operated with Sir William Jones [q. v.] in the foundation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Leaving India for health in 1786, he resided for a time at Bath, occupied with translations from the Sanskrit; and later on at Hawkhurst, where he commenced the formation of a fount of Nagari type for printing Sanskrit. But in 1800 he re-entered the service of the East India Company as librarian, an office then established mainly for the custody of oriental manuscripts taken at Seringapatam and elsewhere. On the establishment in 1805 of the company's college at Haileybury he accepted the offices of examiner and visitor, and continued the duties without any intermission up to his death in London on 13 May 1836; he was interred at the chapel in Portland Town. His portrait was painted in later life by J. G. Middleton, and a mezzotint by J. Sartain was published in 1830.

Wilkins was twice married and left three daughters, one of them being married to the numismatist, William Marsden (1754–1836) [q. v.]

Wilkins's literary achievements were recognised by his being elected F.R.S. on 12 June 1788, and created D.C.L. Oxon. in 1805; while in 1825 the Royal Society of Literature awarded him their medal as ‘princeps litteraturæ Sanscritæ.’ He was knighted in 1833, and was also an associate of the Institut de France.

Wilkins was the first Englishman to gain a thorough grasp of Sanskrit, and as such was greatly esteemed (as may be seen in extant correspondence) by Sir William Jones, who stated that ‘but for’ Wilkins's ‘aid he would never have learned’ Sanskrit. In Indian epigraphy he was especially a pioneer, being the first European to study Sanskrit inscriptions, which were unintelligible to the pandits of his day. Of five articles by him in the earlier volumes of ‘Asiatic Researches,’ four are on this subject, one of primary importance to the real history of India, which still has to be written.

Besides these articles he published the following works:

Translations from the Sanskrit:

  1. ‘The Bhagavad-gitā,’ one of the most remarkable philosophical poems of the world, issued in London in 1785 by the East India Company, with an introductory letter by Warren Hastings (republished in French by J. P. Parraud, 1787).
  2. ‘Hitopadesa,’ Bath, 1787.
  3. ‘Story of Sakuntalā, from the Mahābhārata,’ 1793 (in ‘Oriental Repertory’), and 1795 (separate).

Grammatical and lexical works:

  1. ‘New Edition of Richardson's “Persian, Arabic, and English Dictionary,”’ 1806.
  2. ‘Grammar of the Sanskrĭta Language,’ commenced in India, continued at Hawkhurst, and finally issued mainly for use at Haileybury in 1808.
  3. ‘Radicals of the Sanskrita Language’ (from ancient sources), 1815.

He also compiled in 1798 a catalogue of Sir William Jones's manuscripts.

[Gent. Mag. 1836, ii. 97–8; English Cyclop. and Penny Cyclopædia; Annual Register for 1836; Centenary volume Asiatic Soc. Bengal; letters in Journal Amer. Oriental Society, 1880, vol. x.; prefaces to Sir W. Jones's Sacontala, and to Wilkins's Sanskrita Grammar.]

C. B.