Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Men who wrote Hobson-Jobson

Portrait of Henry Yule from the 1903 edition of The Book of Ser Marco Polo, edited by Henri Cordier


The Hobson-Jobson was a dictionary of Indoisms compiled at the end of the 19th century. It probably anticipated the curry invasion and the social acceptance of strange, foreign accented creoles in the United Kingdom by about a century. Back then, however, scarcely any Indian who wasn’t of the well-bred princely sort or couldn’t speak impeccable English made it to the United Kingdom and the prime carriers of such Indian-infused creole were either  Eurasian  (Anglo-Indian) or Britons who had spent their careers and possibly their lifetimes in the subcontinent  and now sought out a quiet retirement  in a blighty they had not seen for decades.    

The authors of the Hobson-Jobson were two very interesting gentlemen – Sir Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell. Yule is well known for his translation of Marco Polo’s travels that became a bestseller. He came to India as an officer in Bengal Engineers and travelled extensively in Central Asia and North-East India apart from playing an active part in the Sikh Wars.  In 1855, Yule was part of an Indian diplomatic mission to the Burmese Empire and wrote an account of it. Retiring from service after the 1857 mutiny, Yule spent the rest of his life in Italy and United Kingdom, visiting libraries and writing travel and history books.   In 1871, he translated Marco Polo’s travelogue into English and published it in two volumes with the title The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. He dedicated  the work which many consider his magnum opus to his royal patron Margherita, the princess of Piedmont and included a huge list of credits thanking among others, Sir Alexander Cunningham, Rev Robert Caldwell, Sir Bartle Frere and Hugh Cleghorn.  When Yule died in 1889 at the age of sixty-nine, he left  behind a chequered career and a mountain of travelogues, geography and history books.

"Doorway of Marco Polo's house". Frontispiece  of The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian (1871)



While Yule’s life was certainly colourful,  his inquiries were rarely accompanied by the depth of research that was the prime feature of the works of the ICS officer from down south . Burnell was a polyglot (he knew a dozen languages) and a polymath who authored a seminal work on South Indian epigraphy, in which he traces the evolution of South Indian scripts from its earliest forms known back then  - the grantha copper plates of the Pallavas from the 4th century AD to those that survived into the 17th century AD.    Serving for over two decades in the Madras Presidency, he was one of a coterie of British civil servants such as Fleet, Pargiter , Sewell and Cammiade who dabbled in Indian archaeology. In 1873, he wrote On Some Pahlavi inscriptions in South India in which he published translations of the Pahlavi inscriptions found in the St. Thomas crosses of South India.  Though Burnell betrays an anti-Hindu bias in his work, his opinions on the antiquity of the Pahlavi inscriptions are quite honest and reliable. He dated the Pahlavi inscriptions to the 8th century AD and expressed doubts over the possibility of the Apostle St. Thomas (who, according to tradition, lived in the 1st century AD) having arrived in India or preached here.   Burnell also took a keen interest in manuscriptology and prepared a catalog of manuscripts found in the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Tanjore.  His career was cut short by an early death at the age of 42; in fact, Burnell had never been in tolerable health during his twenty-two-year stay in India and a promising career thus came to a abrupt premature end.

Table depicting origin of South Indian scripts, Elements of South-Indian Palaeography, "South Indian Alphabets and their Development", pp 14.

The first edition of Hobson-Jobson was published in 1886; Burnell having died in 1882 was posthumously credited as co-author of the work.  In fact, Yule, probably teary-eyed, recounts in the preface how Burnell had written to him in 1872 suggesting such an idea though the two had met only once before. Yule says that it triggered a ten-year  long association that lasted until Burnell’s death. The list of credits is much smaller compared to the Travels of Marco Polo and the personages not so well-known as Cunningham or Frere.    The 870-page work that includes a supplement which had been left out in the main body is dedicated by Henry Yule to his older brother, Sir George Udny Yule who had passed away earlier that same year.   

Cover of the first edition of Hobson-Jobson (1886)


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