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Centre for South Asian Studies: Research


Historic Collections of Printed Books on South Asia

Peter B. Freshwater

Edinburgh University Library appears to have acquired books on South Asia since the early years of the 18th century when, from 1710 until 1837, it was entitled to claim a free copy of every book printed in the United Kingdom. For much of this time the University had had as Principal William Robertson, the leading historian whose last published work was the remarkable Historical disquisition concerning the knowledge which the ancients had of India ... (London, 1791). Robertson did not bequeath to the University or to the Library any significant collection of books of his own but, as Principal, he did much to ensure that the University's agent in London claimed as many new and appropriate books for the Library as he could.

The Library continued to acquire books on South Asia, by purchase and by gift, all through the 19th century and continues to do so. The University had established a Chair of Hebrew and Semitic Languages as early as 1642, and some of its incumbents appear to have had interests in other Oriental languages as well. At least one early holder of the Chair of Constitutional History (now the Chair of Constitutional Law), Alexander Fraser Tytler, had an interest in India, publishing Considerations on the present political state of India , 2 volumes (London, 1815). However, the Library probably owes much of its later South Asian printed wealth to the incumbents of the Chair of Sanskrit, which was instituted in 1862. The first, Theodor Aufrecht, left behind him several scholarly catalogues and editions of Sanskrit manuscripts. The second, Hans Julius Eggeling (Professor from 1875 until his retiral in 1914), had been Librarian of the India Office until his appointment to the Chair. He was associated with the University Library for almost all of his tenure of office, first as a member of the Committee, with a brief period as Acting Librarian following the death of the Librarian John Small in 1886, and later as Curator of the Library from 1887 to 1913. Eggeling's successor in the Chair, Arthur Berriedale Keith was Professor from 1914 until his death in 1944, after which his sister presented to the Library her late brother's papers and correspondence and his working library of about 1600 books and 1500 offprints and pamphlets; many of these are to with the literature, history and politics of India and the constitutional development of the British Empire (Keith had also held the post of Lecturer in the Constitution of the British Empire).

Not surprisingly, most of the Library's printed books on South Asia reflect the interest of the West in, and influence upon, the Indian sub-continent, especially the history shared by the peoples of the Indian sub-continent and Britain. Many of its historic materials on South Asia are to be found among the books acquired during its copyright period, but a significant number predate it. These include early descriptions such as John Ogilby's Asia, the first part; being an accurate description of Persia ... the vast empire of the Great Mogol, and other parts of India (London, 1673) as well as travellers' accounts like An historical relation of the Island of Ceylon in the East Indies ... by Robert Knox (London, 1681); Knox was captain of an East-India Company frigate who was captured in Ceylon when he put the ship into harbour there for a refit after a storm. The Library is also well stocked with collected editions of early accounts of travellers to South Asia and to other parts of the world.

Contemporary printed items published by and about the East India Company, its servants and its activities include occasional 17th-century pamphlets like Sir Dudley Digges' The Defence of Trade (London, 1624) in the Dugald Stewart Collection, and other 17th-century titles have more recently been purchased as facsimile reprints. Later EIC material includes An act for establishing certain regulations for ... the affairs of the East India Company (London, 1774) with texts in Hindustani and English, John Bruce's Annals of the Honorable East-India Company... 3 volumes, (London, 1810), H. T. Prinsep's General register of the Hon'ble East India Company's civil servants of the Bengal establishment, from 1790 to 1842 ... (Calcutta, 1844), and occasional satires such as Sir Charles D'Oyley's Tom Raw, the griffin: a burlesque poem in twelve cantos ... (London, 1828) illustrated with hand-coloured caricatures.

The Library's 18th-century collections reflect the growing scholarly interest in India, its peoples, their languages and their customs, and a more general interest in the wars waged by the EIC on behalf of the British Government against various Indian rulers. Warren Hastings and others like him encouraged and fostered scholarly activity while engaged in their professional administrative and warlike occupations; some of the Library's material on Hastings and some of the other titles mentioned in this paper are listed in its exhibition catalogue, Warren Hastings and British India (Edinburgh, 1988). Sir William Jones produced Poeseos asiaticae commentorium libris ex (London, 1774) and other pioneering books on Indian languages and literatures. The Asiatic Society, founded in 1784, published volumes of transactions, Asiatick researches , and other series between 1788 and 1839. Thomas Maurice produced his Indian antiquities ... 5 volumes (London, 1793-94) and History of Hindostan ... 2 volumes (London, 1795-98) before becoming a Church of England vicar and Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. Works on administrative affairs include John Zephaniah Holwell's Indian tracts (London, 1764), which includes a revised version of his personal account of the Black Hole of Calcutta, of which he was one of the survivors, in 1758. Holwell compiled other works on Indian history and customs, and these too are represented. In fact, the Library's excellent collections of 18th-century pamphlets often makes it possible to follow different sides of political discussions. For example, the general collection has a set of Henry Vansittart's Narrative of the transactions of Bengal from the year 1760 to the year 1764... 3 volumes (London, 1766), and the Dugald Stewart Collection includes Luke Scrafton's Observations on Mr Vansittart's Narrative (London, [1767]); Vansittart, Scraffon and Francis Forde were all drowned in a shipwreck on their way out to India in 1770 to reform the Bengal administration.

South Asia continues to be well represented in the Library's 19th and early 20th-century collections, which include scholarly and popular works. Basic general history is represented by the 3-volume History of British India (London, 1817) by James Mill, father of the better-known philosopher John Stuart Mill, a later and more detailed History of British India in 6 volumes (London, 1841-45) by Edward Thornton, who also compiled A gazetteer of the territories under the government of the East-India Company... 4 volumes (London, 1854). They rub shoulders with volumes of local history published in their own countries, such as Syad Muhammad Latif's Lahore: its history, architectural remains and antiquities (Lahore, 1892) and Agra historical and descriptive (Calcutta, 1896). Travellers' accounts and diaries too are plentiful, like Mountstuart Elphinstone's An account of the kingdom of Caubul... (London, 1815), Francis Egerton's Journal of a winter's tour in India , 2 volumes (London, 1852), Charles Raikes' Notes on the north-west provinces of India (London, 1852), Sir Joseph Hooker's Himalayan journals , 2 volumes (London, 1854), and William Henry Knight's Diary of a pedestrian in Cashmere and Tibet (London, 1863). As well as the Berriedale Keith Collection already mentioned, one other collection of particular note is the Cleghorn Bequest of books on forestry, many of which relate to Indian forestry.

Periodicals and series are often surprisingly extensive. The Library has, for instance, three incomplete but complementary sets of different editions of Asiatick researches , originally published in Calcutta between 1788 and 1839 and later reprinted in London. The Transactions and Journals of the Royal Asiatic Society and of its Bombay and Ceylon Branches, and the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal , are all well represented if not complete. Many of these volumes, and indeed many of the monographs on South Asia, are interesting examples of early Indian printing, and would repay a bibliographical survey of such imprints in the Library. The Library is also rich in late 19th and early 20th-century productions of Indian presses, especially those of government and state printers.

When a library has been acquiring books for well over 400 years and comes late to adopting the computer as the medium for compiling and providing access to its catalogues, it is easy to underestimate the wealth of books, especially older titles and those in non-Western languages, that lie partially hidden on the library's shelves. This is Edinburgh University Library's present plight: only the full retrospective conversion of that catalogue, and the addition of the records to the current on-line catalogue, will reveal the full extent of the Library's historic holdings on South Asia. In the mean time, it is necessary still to search the guard-book catalogue author by author, but the rewards are there for those who do.

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