Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Halhed, Nathaniel Brassey
HALHED, NATHANIEL BRASSEY (1751–1830), orientalist, was born at Westminster on 25 May 1751. His father, William Halhed, of an old Oxfordshire family, was for eighteen years a director of the Bank of England. Halhed was at Harrow under Sumner, and there began his friendship with Richard Brinsley Sheridan, in conjunction with whom he subsequently produced a verse translation of Aristænetus. In 1768 he entered Christ Church, Oxford, where he made the acquaintance of William (afterwards Sir William) Jones (1746-1794) [q. v.], who led him to study Arabic. Having been jilted by Miss Linley in favour of Sheridan, he left England, obtaining a writership in the East India Company's service. In India he attracted the notice of Warren Hastings, at whose suggestion he began, at the age of twenty-three, his translation of the Gentoo code, completing it in 1776. This code was a digest of Sanskrit law-books made, at the instance of Hastings, by eleven Brahmans. Halhed translated from a Persian version; his work went through several editions, and was translated into French. In 1778 he published at Hooghly in Bengal a grammar of 'the Bengal language.' The printing-press set up by Halhed at Hooghly was the first in India; the type for printing Bengali was cut by Charles (afterwards Sir Charles) Wilkins. Halhed was apparently the first to call public attention to the affinity between Sanskrit words and 'those of Persian, Arabic, and even of Latin and Greek,' an affinity independently detected somewhat earlier by French Jesuits. He thus deserves recognition as one of the pioneers of modern philology. Returning to England in 1785, he became a candidate for Leicester at the general election of 1790, but, withdrawing from the contest, was elected M.P. for Lymington, Hampshire, which he represented till 1795. In January of the latter year he became a believer in the prophetic claims of Richard Brothers [q. v.], being probably captivated by some resemblance between the teaching of Brothers and the oriental mysticism with which he was familiar. Contrary to the strong advice of his friend Sir Elijah Impey [q. v.], Halhed, on 31 March, in a speech which has been published, moved that Brothers's 'Revealed Knowledge' be laid before the House of Commons. In defending Brothers from a charge of treason he argued that it was no treason to claim the crown in a future contingency which involved 'a palpable impossibility.' On 21 April he moved for a copy of the warrant on which Brothers was apprehended. Neither motion found a seconder, and Halhed shortly after resigned his seat. His belief in Brothers does not seem to have lasted long, but it terminated his literary as well as his public career. Some of his relatives thought him out of his mind, and would have put him under restraint. With John Wright, a carpenter, who left Brothers with him, he corresponded till 1804. Investments in French assignats reduced his fortune, and in July 1809 he obtained a good appointment in the East India House. He died in London on 18 Feb. 1830, and was buried at Petersham, Surrey. He married (before 1784) Helena Ribaut, daughter of the Dutch governor of Chinsurah, Bengal, but died without issue. Halhed had some peculiarities, due to excessive sensitiveness, but endeared himself to his many friends. His imitations of Martial, suppressed on account of their personal allusions, show keen power of epigram. His collection of oriental manuscripts was purchased by the trustees of the British Museum. Other manuscripts went to his nephew, Nathaniel John Halhed, judge of the Sudder Dewannee Adaulut (d. 1838). The legatee's representative only received them from the executor, Dr. John Grant, in 1863. Among them is a correspondence with Warren Hastings, from which it may be gathered that, between 1800 and 1816, Halhed had made considerable progress with an English translation of the 'Mahabhárata' from a Persian version; the manuscript is now in the library of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
- 'The Love Epistles of Aristænetus, translated … into English metre,' &c., 1771, 8vo (preface signed H[alhed]. S[heridan].; reprinted in 'Bonn's Classical Library,' 1854).
- 'A Code of Gentoo Laws,' &c., 1776, 4to (the translator's name is not on the title-page, but is given in the preliminary matter); 2nd edition, 1777, 8vo; 3rd edition, 1781, 8vo; in French, by J. B. R. Robinet, ‘Code des Lois des Gentoux,’ Paris, 1778, 4to. Halhed's preface was criticised by George Costard [q. v.] 3. ‘A Grammar of the Bengal Language,’ &c., Hoogly (sic), 1778, 4to. 4. ‘A Narrative of the Events … in Bombay and Bengal relative to the Mahratta Empire,’ &c., 1779, 8vo. 5. ‘A Letter to Governor Johnstone on Indian Affairs,’ &c., 1783, 8vo (signed ‘Detector’). 6. ‘The Letters of Detector on the Seventh and Eighth Reports of the Libel Committee,’ &c., 1783, 8vo. 7. ‘Imitations of some of the Epigrams of Martial,’ &c., 1793, 4to (anon.; Latin and English). His contributions to the Brothers literature, all 1795, 8vo, are: 8. ‘A Testimony of the Authenticity of the Prophecies of R. Brothers,’ &c. 9. ‘The Whole of the Testimonies to the Authenticity of the Prophecies,’ &c. (prefixed is Halhed's portrait, engraved by White from a drawing by I. Cruikshank). 10. ‘A Word of Admonition to the Rt. Hon. Wm. Pitt,’ &c. 11. ‘Two Letters to the Rt. Hon. Lord Loughborough,’ &c. 12. ‘Speech in the House of Commons,’ &c. (31 March; two editions, same year). 13. ‘The Second Speech,’ &c. (21 April; two editions, same year). 14. ‘Liberty and Equality, a Sermon or Essay,’ &c. 15. ‘A Calculation of the Millenium … Reply to Dr. Horne,’ &c. (three editions, same year; contains also No. 12). 16. ‘An Answer to Dr. Horne's Second Pamphlet,’ &c. (contains also No. 14).