Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Prinsep, James
PRINSEP, JAMES (1799–1840), architect and orientalist, born in 1759, was seventh son of John Prinsep, and a younger brother of Henry Thoby Prinsep [q. v.] He was originally intended for the profession of an architect, and at the age of fifteen commenced the study of that profession under Augustus Pugin [q. v.], but his eyesight being injured by too close application to mechanical and other drawing, he was obliged to seek fresh employment. Eventually, after having undergone a training for the duties of assay, he was appointed, at the age of twenty, assistant assay-master at the Calcutta mint, arriving there on 15 Sept. 1819. His eyesight in the meantime, under skilful medical treatment, had been completely restored. His chief in the mint was Dr. Horace Hayman Wilson, afterwards Boden professor of Sanscrit at Oxford, and for many years librarian at the India House. A few months after Prinsep's arrival, Dr. Wilson was sent to Benares to remodel the mint in that city, and during his absence Prinsep conducted all the assay business at the Calcutta mint. On Wilson's return, Prinsep was appointed assay-master in the Benares mint, and retained that office until that mint was abolished in 1830, when he was reappointed to the Calcutta mint as deputy assay-master under Wilson. On the retirement of the latter in 1832, Prinsep succeeded him as assay-master and secretary to the mint committee at Calcutta. He retained these appointments until 1838, when, owing to his intense application to scientific and literary pursuits, in addition to his official duties, his health entirely failed, and he was compelled to return to England. He died in London, of softening of the brain, on 22 April 1840, in his forty-first year.
Apart from his literary and scientific pursuits, Prinsep's work was by no means confined to his assay duties. Upon his appointment at Benares, finding a new mint under construction the architectural design of which was very defective, he obtained authority to complete the building upon an amended plan, which he carried out with considerable skill at the estimated cost of the original design. He was subsequently employed upon similar work at the same station, including the erection of a church. He also acted as member and secretary of a committee appointed to carry out municipal improvements. He improved the drainage of the city by constructing a tunnel from the Ganges to conduct water into it. He built a bridge of five arches of large span over the Karamnasa, a river which divides the province of Benares from Behar. He took down and restored the minarets of the mosque of Arangzíb, the foundations of which were giving way. After his return to Calcutta he successfully completed a canal which had been commenced under the direction of one of his brothers, an officer of the Bengal engineers, who was killed by a fall from his horse while engaged upon the work. The construction of this canal, which connected the river Hugli with the navigation of the Sunderbands, was a difficult work, involving the building of locks in soil of quicksands, and was regarded as a very skilful piece of engineering. Prinsep's mechanical skill appears to have been very remarkable even in his childhood. When at the Calcutta mint he prepared with his own hands, for purposes of assay, a balance of such delicacy as to indicate the three-thousandth part of a grain. He was the author of a reform of the weights and measures of India, and of the uniform coinage, under which the company's rupee was substituted in 1835 for the various coinages then existing. His work, 'Useful Tables illustrative of Indian History,' included in the collected edition of his works, is a mine of information regarding all coins of Indian currency from the earliest times, as well as chronological and genealogical details of ancient and modern India.
But it is upon his literary work that Prinsep's fame mainly rests. Shortly after his return from Benares to Calcutta, he became a frequent contributor to, and afterwards editor of, a periodical called 'Gleanings in Science,' started by Major Herbert, a scientific officer in the company's service. Its object was to make known in India discoveries or advances in art and science made in Europe. This periodical subsequently became the journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, of which Prinsep became secretary in succession to Wilson. From this time Prinsep devoted himself largely to the study of the antiquities of India, and to deciphering ancient inscriptions, of which copies were sent to him from all parts of India. He succeeded in deciphering certain important inscriptions in the Páli language, on pillars at Delhi and Allahabad, which had baffled Sir William Jones, Colebrooke, and Wilson. These inscriptions, Prinsep found, were identical with each other, and had their counterparts on rocks at Girnár in Guzerát, and at Dhauli in Katak (Cuttack). They contained edicts of Asoka, the Buddhist prince who lived in the third century before Christ and was the contemporary of the early Seleucidæ kings of Syria. Prinsep also devoted much time and labour to the study of numismatics. His articles on this subject and on other matters connected with the antiquities of India were in 1858 collected and published in two volumes under the editorship of Mr. Edward Thomas. Prinsep was a fellow of the Royal Society, and a corresponding member of the Institute of France and of the Royal Academy at Berlin.
A memorial of him was erected at Calcutta in the form of a ghát or landing-place, with a handsome building for the protection of passengers landing or embarking. This stands on the left bank of the Hugli below Fort William, and is known as 'Prinsep's Ghát.'
Prinsep married, in 1885, Harriet, youngest daughter of Colonel Aubert, of the Bengal army, who, with one daughter, survived him.
[Annual Register, 1840; Essays on Indian Antiquities, Historic, Numismatic, and Palæographic, of the late James Prinsep, F.R.S., secretary to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, &c., with Memoir by Henry Thoby Prinsep, edited by Edward Thomas, London, 1858; Men whom India has known, compiled by J. J. Higginbotham, 1871.]