Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Forbes, Duncan (1798-1868)

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FORBES, DUNCAN (1798–1868), orientalist, was born of humble parentage at Kinnaird in Perthshire on 28 April 1798. His parents emigrated to America in the spring of 1801, taking only their youngest child with them, while Duncan was consigned to the care of his paternal grandfather in Glenfernate. His early schooling was of the scantiest, and he knew no English till he was about thirteen years old, but he soon showed intellectual independence and plain commonsense. When barely seventeen years old he was chosen village schoolmaster of Straloch, and soon after began to attend Kirkmichael school as a student. In October 1818 he entered Perth grammar school, and qualified himself to matriculate two years after at the university of St. Andrews, where he took the degree of M.A. in 1823. In the summer of the same year he accepted an appointment in the Calcutta Academy, then newly established, and arrived at Calcutta in the following November. Ill-health, however, obliged him to return to England early in 1826, when he became, soon after his arrival in London, assistant to Dr. John Borthwick Gilchrist [q. v.], teacher of Hindustani, and afterwards to Dr. Sandford Arnot. In 1837 he was appointed professor of oriental languages in King's College, London, a post which he occupied until 1861, when he was elected to an honorary fellowship of the college. From 1849 to 1855 Forbes was employed by the trustees of the British Museum to make a catalogue of the collection of Persian MSS., previously uncatalogued, and numbering at that time just over a thousand. This work is contained in four large volumes of manuscript in the department of Oriental MSS. The plan of arrangement, the absence of bibliographical apparatus, probably due to want of revision from the cataloguer, and, lastly, the addition of new collections equal in bulk to the old, rendered it necessary to entirely recast Forbes's work in the new printed ‘Catalogue of Persian MSS.’ The preface to the latter (vol. iii. p. xxviii) states that ‘the use of Dr. Forbes's catalogue was practically confined to the help it afforded in the preliminary classing of the MSS.’ He was a successful teacher, and writer of useful publications. His habits were singularly self-denying, and his chief relaxation was chess-playing, on the history of which in the Orient he wrote ‘Observations on the Origin and Progress of Chess, containing a brief account of the theory and practice of the Chaturanga, the primæval game of the Hindūs, also of the Shatranj, the mediæval game of the Persians and Arabs,’ &c., 8vo, London, 1855. This was followed by a work of great research, entitled ‘The History of Chess, from the time of the early Invention of the Game in India till the period of its Establishment in Western and Central Europe,’ 8vo, London, 1860. Some portions of it have, however, been handled with great severity by Dr. van der Linde in his ‘Geschichte des Schachspiels.’ Forbes, who was a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, was created honorary LL.D. of St. Andrews University in 1847. He died on 17 Aug. 1868. With Sandford Arnot, Forbes was joint author of ‘A New Persian Grammar, containing … the elementary principles of that … language,’ 8vo, London, 1828, and ‘An Essay on the Origin and Structure of the Hindostanee Tongue, … with an account of the principal elementary works on the subject,’ 8vo, London, 1828; second edition, 8vo, London, 1844; 3rd edit., enlarged (appendix), 3 pts. 8vo, 1861. He also added to the new edition of Arnot's ‘Grammar of the Hindūstānī Tongue,’ 8vo, London, 1844, ‘a selection of easy extracts for reading in the Persi-Arabic and Devanagari character, with a copious vocabulary and explanatory notes.’ He also published: 1. ‘The Hindustani Manual; a pocket companion for those who visit India. Part 1. A compendious grammar. Part 2. A vocabulary of useful words,’ 18mo, London, 1845; new edit., 24mo, 1850; new edit., revised by J. T. Platts, 24mo, 1874. 2. ‘A Grammar of the Hindūstānī Language in the Oriental and Roman Character. To which is added a copious selection of easy extracts for reading in the Persi-Arabic and Devanagari characters,’ 8vo, London, 1846. 3. ‘A Dictionary, Hindustani and English. To which is added a reversed Part, English and Hindustani,’ 2 vols. 8vo, London, 1848; 2nd edit., greatly enlarged, 2 pts. 8vo, 1857; new edit., printed entirely in the Roman character, 2 pts. 8vo, 1859. 4. ‘Oriental Penmanship; an essay for facilitating the reading and writing of the Tàlik character …,’ 4to, London, 1849. 5. ‘Two Letters addressed to E. B. Eastwick,’ attacking Eastwick's ‘Lucubrations on the Bāgh o Bahār,’ 8vo, London, 1852. 6. ‘A smaller Hindustani and English Dictionary,’ sq. 8vo, London, 1861. 7. ‘A Grammar of the Bengālī Language,’ 8vo, London, 1861. 8. ‘The Bengālī Reader … A new edition … revised,’ 8vo, London, 1862. 9. ‘A Grammar of the Arabic Language,’ 8vo, London, 1863. 10. ‘Arabic Reading Lessons,’ 8vo, London, 1864. 11. ‘Catalogue of Oriental Manuscripts, chiefly Persian, collected within the last five-and-thirty years,’ 8vo, London, 1866. For the Oriental Translation Fund he translated the Persian romance ‘The Adventures of Hatim Taï,’ 4to, London, 1830. He edited, with a vocabulary, the ‘Bāgh o Bahār’ in 1846, 1849, and (with the Hindustani text ‘printed in the Roman character’), 1859; revised and corrected L. F. Smith's translation of the same work in 1851, and published his own version in 1862. In 1852 appeared his edition of the ‘Totā-Kahānī’ in Hindustani, and in 1857 his edition of the ‘Baitāl-Pachīsī’ in Hindi. Writing as ‘Fior Ghael’ Forbes discussed Celtic dialects, denying that Welsh was one, in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for May 1836, and led the warm controversy which followed (cf. Gent. Mag. 1838–9). Forbes was also author of a privately printed autobiography.

Forbes's books, though clear and convenient to use, show little original research. It is indeed to be regretted that he endeavoured to cover, without due equipment of scholarship, an area of oriental study extending into fields so widely separated as Arabic and Bengali, in neither of which was he really at home. Still his elementary manuals are often of greater use to beginners than more learned works.

[Annual Report of the Royal Asiatic Society, May 1869, pp. vii–viii; St. Andrews Univ. Calendar, 1800–53, pp. 24, 70; King's College Calendar; Brit. Mus. Catalogues of Printed Books and of Persian MSS.; Cat. of Printed Books in Library of Faculty of Advocates, iii. 206–7; information kindly supplied by Professor Cecil Bendall.]