Chess & Sanskrit: Persian Jones in Old Calcutta

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Thomas Daniell: Houses on the Chowringhee Road, looking north, Calcutta, 1787

The only time I have visited Calcutta was in September 1988. I was on my way to Bhutan to go trekking and our group assembled in Calcutta for the flight to Paro, Bhutan’s only airport. I was glad for this stopover because I wanted to visit the South Park Street Cemetery, which was established under the British Raj in 1767. The sons of Captain Cook and Charles Dickens are buried there, along with William Thackeray’s father Raymond. I was looking for the grave of William Jones, a late-eighteenth-century genius and polymath. By the time of his death at age 47 he had a working knowledge of twenty-eight languages, including Tibetan, Middle Persian, Hebrew, Bengali, and Turkish. He was actually a colonial judge but in his spare time he translated from Sanskrit and founded the field of historic linguistics.

Jones was born in London in 1746. His father, also William, was a mathematics tutor who introduced the notation ‘π’ for the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle. He died when Jones was three but left enough of an estate that Jones was able to go to Harrow. A childhood accident had seriously affected his vision in one eye, inhibiting his participation in athletics, but his eidetic memory was already apparent to his fellow students. They once wanted to perform The Tempest but could not find a copy of the play; Jones obligingly wrote it out for them from memory.

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William Jones

After Harrow he joined University College at Oxford in 1764. A year later, he accepted a job that changed his life. The Spencers of Althorp—ancestors of Princess Diana—were looking for a tutor for their seven-year-old son, George John. On the basis of recommendations Jones was hired. He also took on the task of teaching George’s sister, Georgiana, who was a year younger than her brother. She later became the Duchess of Devonshire, notorious for her wild fashion, gambling, and participation in a ménage à trois with her husband and her friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster. She was the inspiration for Sheridan’s play, The School for Scandal, as well as for the recent film The Duchess. Jones began a life-long association with the family. His letters to George John are some of the finest of the eighteenth century. (All the letters referred to in this post are taken from an unpublished edition of Jones’s letters edited by Rosane Rocher of the University of Pennsylvania and myself.)

While tutoring George and Georgina, Jones compiled a Persian language grammar and dictionary, which he modeled after Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. Indeed, in 1773 he was elected to Johnson’s Club, where he became known as Persian Jones or Oriental Jones. He attempted to persuade George John to join and sent him the following letter describing some of the members:

Burke, the pleasantest companion in the world, his eloquence all the kingdom knows … Fox, of great talents both natural and acquired … Gibbon, an elegant writer, not without wit in conversation … Garrick, whom all Europe knows … Sheridan, a sprightly young fellow with a fine comick genius, very little older than yourself … Johnson, the best scholar of his age … Smith, author of a great work on the wealth of nations … Reynolds, a great artist and fine writer on his art … Boswell of Corsica, a good natured odd fellow …

By this time Jones had decided to become a lawyer, and for several years he built up his legal practice by traveling a circuit of several hundred miles on horseback. But his real ambition was to be named a puisne judge in the Bengal Supreme Court in India. (Puisne—pronounced “puny”—is a term of art for a regular judge as opposed to a chief justice.) This highly political appointment was paid the then-staggering salary of £6,000. Jones figured that his living expenses would cost him only about £2,000 a year, and after not too many years he could retire to England and live in comfort, if not luxury. He would also have enough money to marry Anna Maria Shipley, the woman he had fallen in love with. It wasn’t until 1783 that Jones was able to pull enough strings to get this appointment and marry Anna Maria. The two of them then set off on the six-month passage to Calcutta on the frigate Crocodile.


The frontispiece to “Caissa,” Jones’s Latin poem about chess, from The Poetical Works of Sir William Jones, Volume 1 (London, 1810)

Jones made a list of things he planned to do in India, among them writing a history of chess—at age 17 he had written a Latin poem about chess that can be found translated in some chess anthologies. Not long after arriving, he realized that he had to learn Sanskrit. The courts appointed Pandits—native Hindus—to interpret Hindu law and Jones was concerned that their translations might not be unbiased. Soon, he was translating the seven-act play by Kalidasa, The Recognition of Sakuntala, which introduced many Europeans to Sanskrit literature.


In his study of Sanskrit, Jones discovered that the language was surprisingly close to Greek. In both, two of anything as opposed to one or three has a special form. Moreover, the numbers “one”,”two”,”three” in Sanskrit are “eka”, “dvi”, “tri,” similar to the Greek “ena”,”duo,” “tria.” What could account for this? Jones, with his vast knowledge of languages, realized there must have been an early language from which both evolved. Speaking to the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1786, he said:

The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly been produced by accident; so strong indeed that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from a common source, which perhaps no longer exists…

This remarkable discovery is now considered to have opened the field of historic linguistics. The early language Jones identified is referred to as Proto-Indo-European and is thought to have been spoken on the steppes in the general region of the Black Sea. For reasons unknown, these people migrated north and south in the third and fourth millennia BCE, implanting their language as they went.

How this migration affected the Indian subcontinent can be seen on a language map of India:

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Once you get to Andhira Pradesh, you are in a different linguistic space, indicating, perhaps, the southernmost reach of the Proto-Indo-European people.

Jones had remarkably liberal views. He had favored the American colonists and had even made plans to emigrate to America. Unlike many, probably most, of the British colonials in India he did not look down on Indian culture, He studied Sanskrit with local scholars and admired the culture. He was also a temperate man given to long daily walks and a life of moderation.

By November 1793, Anna Maria, who had been sickly during much of her stay in India, had to go back to England if she was going to survive. Jones was to follow as soon as he could but on April 27, 1794, he died after a brief illness. The people in the colony were devastated. In his memoirs, William Hickey, a lawyer who practiced in Calcutta wrote:

The death of this enlightened and very learned man was properly felt to be a public calamity. The event was equally lamented by the natives as by Europeans, for all felt and acknowledged his extraordinary talents and his unblemished integrity as a Judge.

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The tomb of William Jones, South Park Street Cemetery, Calcutta

The community in Calcutta raised money to build for him one of the grandest tombs in the South Park Street Cemetery. One can only imagine how Anna Maria must have felt when she learned about this six months later. Georgiana, who had been tutored by Jones and was a distant relation of Anna Maria’s, wrote a poem about him. The last verse reads,

Regret and praise the general voice bestows,
And public sorrows with domestic blend;
But deeper yet must be the grief of those,
Who, while the sage they honor’d, lov’d the friend.

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