Erskine, William (1773-1852) (DNB01)
|←Erpingham, Thomas||Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement
Erskine, William (1773-1852)
ERSKINE, WILLIAM (1773–1852), historian and orientalist, born in Edinburgh on 8 Nov. 1773, was seventh child of David Erskine and Jean Melvin. His father was a writer to the signet, and a son of John Erskine (1695–1768) [q. v.] Thomas Erskine (1788–1870) [q. v.] of Linlathen was his half-brother. William was educated at the Royal High School and the Edinburgh University, and was apparently a fellow-student of John Leyden [q. v.] They met again in Calcutta, and Erskine, in his dedication of the translation of 'Babar's Memoirs' to Mountstuart Elphinstone, refers to Ley- den as 'a friend rendered doubly dear to me, as the only companion of my youthful studies and cares, whom I have met, or can ever hope to meet, in this land of exile.' Other associates of his at this time were Thomas Brown (1778-1820) [q. v] the metaphysician, and the poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) [q.v.] He was also a friend and fellow-student of Francis Horner [q. v.]
Erskine's father had expressed a wish that he should enter the church, but the family trustees made him a lawyer's apprentice. He served for seven years (1792-9) with James Dundas, writer to the signet, but the position was not congenial to him, and he left Edinburgh in the end of 1799 to become factor to Mr. Hay of Drummetzie at Dunse, and to set up as a country writer. While in Edinburgh he published a poem called 'An Epistle from Lady Grange to Edward D .' It took its title from the Lady Grange who was shut up in St. Kilda [see Eerskine, James, Lord Grange]. It was supposed to have been written from that island, but the story told in the poem is entirely imaginary. Erskine was afraid that the fact of his having written poetry might injure his prospects as a lawyer, and so he sent the poem to London to be published, and did not attach his name to it. The secret, however, was revealed by a paragraph in the 'Monthly Magazine' for December 1797.
Erskine remained at Dunse till November 1803, but his salary was only 60l. a year and his prospects were bad. He therefore threw up his appointment and returned to Edinburgh with the intention of studying medicine. But he had not been there a fortnight before Sir James Mackintosh [q. v.] invited him to accompany him to India, promising him the first appointment in his gift. It seems that Erskine was introduced by James Reddie [q. v.] to Mackintosh, who was attracted by his taste for philosophical studies. He accepted Mackintosh's offer and left Edinburgh almost immediately. On 12 Dec. 1803 he reached London, and sailed from Hyde with Mackintosh and his family in February 1804. Mackintosh's estimate of Erskine is given in a letter dated 28 May 1807, and addressed to Dr. Parr, where he says, 'I had the good fortune to bring out with me a young Scotch gentleman, Mr. Erskine, who is one of the most amiable, ingenious, and accurately informed men in the world ' (Mackintosh, Life, i. 331). Erskine arrived in Bombay in May 1804, and on 26 Nov. he attended a meeting convened by Mackintosh at Pare! for the purpose of founding a literary society. The society became known as ' The Literary Society of Bombay,' and Erskine was its first secretary. Soon after his arrival he was appointed sealer and clerk to the small cause court. He was also for many years one of the stipendiary magistrates of Bombay.
Erskine must have begun early his Persian studies, for he states that he had translated a small portion of 'Babar's Memoirs' some years before 1810-11. Between 1813 and 1821 he contributed five articles to the 'Transactions of the Literary Society of Bombay,' of which three volumes were published in London, 1819-23 (republished in 1877 by V. N. Mandlik). The second article, read in 1813, was on the Cave Temple of Elephanta, and is probably the most valuable of the five. It is referred to by Reginald Heber [q. v.] in his ' Journal,' and is still a standard treatise on the subject. In 1820 Erskine was made master in equity in the recorder's court of Bombay by Sir William David Evans [q. v.] There he enjoyed the friendship and confidence of Mountstuart Elphinstone [q. v.], and was one of the committee of three which drew up the celebrated Bombay code of regulations. With reference to this, Elphinstone writes to Strachey on 3 Sept. 1820 (Life, i. 117) : The great security for the efficiency of this committee is in the character of Mr. Erskine, a gentleman out of the service, distinguished for the solidity of his understanding and the extent of his knowledge.' Erskine, however, did not hold his mastership in the court of equity long, for he left India under a cloud in 1823. He was removed from his offices in court, was accused of defalcations, and had to give heavy security before he was allowed to leave the country (Douglas, Glimpses of Old Bombay, London, 1900, p. 33). On the other hand, the chief-justice, Sir Edward West, who had been the recorder of the old court, appears to have behaved harshly to Erskine, the honesty of whose intentions was undoubted, though he must have been neglectful of his duties. Probably sickness was the cause, for he left India in bad health, and returned to England via China. On his departure the residents of Bombay presented him with an address. On his return from India Erskine at first settled in Edinburgh, and in 1826 he published the translation of 'Babar's Memoirs,' which had been completed and sent home ten years previously. From Erskine's preface it appears that he had been working at a translation of the 'Memoirs' from the Persian version while Leyden had been engaged on the other side of India in translating the same work from the Turki original. Leyden died in August 1811, before his translation was half finished, and Erskine, to whom and to Heber Leyden left his papers, received the manuscript in the end of 1813. By this time Erskine had finished his translation from the Persian. He at once set about comparing and correcting the two translations, and had just completed this when he received from Elphinstone a copy of the Turki original. This compelled him to undertake a third labour, viz. that of comparing his translation throughout with the Turki, and not merely with Leyden's translation, which was only a fragment. In his own words ' the discovery of this valuable manuscript (the Elphinstone manuscript, and which has, unhappily, again disappeared) reduced me, though heartily sick of the task, to the necessity of commencing my work once more.' The title-page states that the translation was made partly by Leyden and partly by Erskine, and the book was published, as we learn from Sir Walter Scott, for the benefit of Leyden's father ; but the credit of the performance is mainly due to Erskine. Leyden translated only down to page 195 of the 'Memoirs,' and pages 246-54, and he supplied scarcely any notes. Erskine contributed a valuable preface and introduction, he corrected Leyden's version, and he translated the remainder of the 425 pages, which include the Indian campaign and the description of India and its productions. He also supplied the notes, which Lord Jeffrey described as 'the most intelligent, learned, and least pedantic notes we have ever seen annexed to such a performance' (Edinburgh Review, 1827). The translation is indeed an admirable one, and will probably never be superseded. Almost its only defect is that it was made mainly from the Persian version and not from the Turki original. This defect has been practically remedied by Pavet de Courteille, who published a French translation from the Turki in 1871. His translation, however, has few notes, and is not always perfectly accurate. It has been made, too, from a single imprint (Ilminsky's), and without any collation of manuscripts. Leyden and Erskine's translation, which was published in London in 1826 in 4to, has been long out of print ; an abridgment by R. M. Caldecott appeared in 1844.
In 1827 Erskine went to Pau, where he resided for two or three years. In 1836 he became provost of St. Andrews. In 1839 he returned to Edinburgh, and from 1845 to 1848 he was at Bonn. For some years also he rented Blackburn House in Linlithgowshire, but most of his later years were spent in Edinburgh. For the last year of his life he was blind. He died at Edinburgh on 28 May 1852, and is buried in the churchyard of St. John's episcopal church, Princes' Street. On 27 Sept. 1809 he married, at Madras, Maitland, second daughter of Sir James Mackintosh; she died in London on 15 Jan. 1861. Erskine had fourteen children, of whom one, Miss Louisa Erskine, still survives. Four of his sons, two of whom are noticed below, were in the Indian civil service. Erskine's portrait is in the rooms of the Bombay branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.
Erskine's chief work, apart from his great edition of 'Bäbar's Memoirs,' is his 'History of India under Bäbar and Humayun' (1854, 2 vols.) This was edited by his son, James Claudius, and was published after his death, though, as appears from the preface dated Bonn, 28 May 1845, it had been completed several years before. The work is a very valuable contribution to Indian history (cf. Calcutta JRevieic, 1855, vol. xx.) It is the only history of India which has been written by a thorough Persian scholar (Elphinstone was unable to read Persian manuscripts) and it is marked throughout by good sense, accuracy, and impartiality. Though Erskine was by no means so brilliant a man as his father-in-law, Mackintosh, or as his brother-in-law, Claudius James Rich [q. v.], he surpassed them both in powers of application, and in adherence to one subject, and thus he did more solid work than either of them. His intention was to have carried his history down to the time of Aurangzib, and he had collected many manuscripts for this purpose, and had also translated several of them. The latter consist of renderings, more or less complete, and abstracts of the 'Tarikh Reshidi of Haidar Mirzi,' the 'Memoirs of Bayazid Biyat,' Badauni, Abul Fazl's 'Akbarnama,' ' Jauhar's Memoirs,' and the 'Memoirs of Jehangir.' These are now in the British Museum, having been presented in 1865 by his son, J. Claudius, together with those of Leyden. J. Claudius Erskine also sold to the Museum his father's oriental manuscripts, of which the Persian amount to 195, the total number being 436. It is stated in Colebrooke's 'Life of Mountstuart Elphinstone' (ii. 340) that Erskine wrote the greater part of the third volume of Malcolm's 'Life of Olive.'
Erskine's elder son, James Claudius Erskine 1821-1893), member of the Indian civil service, was born on 20 May 1820. He was educated at St. Andrews and Haileybury ; arrived in Bombay in 1840, and became private secretary to the governor of Bombay. In 1846 he married Emily Georgina, daughter of Lestock Reid, acting-governor of Bombay. He was secretary of the judicial department, Bombay, in 1854; first director of public instruction in Western India, 1855–9; member of council, 1860–2; judge of Bombay high court, 1862–1863. He was a highly accomplished man and a good lawyer. He died in London on 5 June 1893.
Erskine's younger son, Henry Napier Bruce Erskine, C.S.I. (1832-1893), also a distinguished civilian, arrived in Bombay in 1853, was commissioner of northern division, 1877-9, and commissioner of Scinde, 1879-1887. He died at Great Malvern on 4 Dec. 1893 (article in Times of India, 20 Jan. 1894; Martin Wood, Things of India made Plain, London, 1884, p. 13; private information; Fergusson, Chronicles of the Cumming Club, Edinburgh, 1887).
[The best notice of Erskine is in a paper contributed to the Journal of the Bombay branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1852 by Dr. John Wilson (iv. 276). There are also notices in the R.A.S.J. for 1853, vol. xv., annual report; and in Rieu's Catalogue of Persian MSS. iii. preface, p. xix; and there are references to him in the Lives of Mackintosh, Mountstuart Elphinstone (Elphinstone's Life by Colebrooke, London, 1884, contains several interesting letters from Elphinstone to Erskine), Horner, in Beattie's Life of Campbell, 1849, i. 243. and in the letters of Erskine of Linlathen (edited by Dr. Hanna, Edinburgh, 1877). Some information has been received from Erskins's grandson, Lestocq Erskine, esq., of Bookham, Surrey.]