Gilchrist, John Borthwick (DNB00)

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GILCHRIST, JOHN BORTHWICK (1759–1841), orientalist, born at Edinburgh in 1759, was educated at George Heriot's Hospital in that city, an institution to which he bequeathed a liberal donation. Having studied for the medical profession and obtained the appointment of assistant-surgeon in the East India Company's service on 3 April 1783, he went out to Calcutta. He was promoted to a surgeoncy on 21 Oct. 1794 (Dodwell and Miles, Medical Officers of Indian Army, pp. 22–3). At that time the company were satisfied if their servants possessed a tolerable knowledge of Persian, the language of the courts and the government; but Gilchrist saw that to hold effective intercourse with the natives Hindustani should be substituted. Clad in native garb he travelled through those provinces where Hindustani was spoken in its greatest purity, and also acquired good knowledge of Sanskrit, Persian, and other Eastern tongues. His success inspired a new spirit in the company's servants, and the study of Hindustani became more popular. To further facilitate its study, Gilchrist published ‘A Dictionary, English and Hindoostanee,’ 2 parts, 4to, Calcutta, 1787–90; ‘A Grammar of the Hindoostanee Language,’ with a supplement, 4to, Calcutta, 1796; and ‘The Oriental Linguist, an … Introduction to the Language of Hindoostan,’ 4to, Calcutta, 1798 (another edition, 4to, Calcutta, 1802). The governor-general, Lord Wellesley, liberally aided his exertions, and upon the foundation of the Fort William College at Calcutta in 1800 appointed him its head. With the object of collecting a body of literature suitable as text-books for the study of the Urdū language by the European officials, he gathered together at Calcutta the best vernacular scholars of the time, and their works, due to his initiative, ‘are still unsurpassed as specimens of elegant and serviceable prose composition, not only in Urdū but also in Hindĭ’ (Encyclop. Britannica, 9th ed., xi. 849). To Gilchrist is thus due the elaboration of the vernacular as an official speech. His own writings at this period include ‘The Anti-jargonist … being partly an abridgment of the Oriental Linguist,’ 8vo, Calcutta, 1800; ‘The Stranger's East Indian Guide to the Hindoostanee, with an Appendix by A. H. Kelso,’ 8vo, Calcutta, 1802 (2nd edition, 8vo, London, 1808, 3rd edition, 1820); ‘The Hindee Story Teller, or entertaining expositor of the Roman, Persian, and Nagree Characters,’ 8vo, Calcutta, 1802; and ‘A Collection of Dialogues, English and Hindoostanee, on the most familiar and useful subjects,’ 8vo, Calcutta, 1804 (2nd edition, 8vo, Edinburgh, 1809; 3rd edition, 8vo, London, 1820). He also edited ‘The Hindee Moral Preceptor, and Persian Scholar's shortest road to the Hindoostanee Language, or vice versa [consisting of Saedi's Pand Namah in Persian, with a Hindustani translation, paradigms of Persian grammar, with their equivalents in Hindustani on opposite pages, &c.] Translated … and arranged by … natives’ (with a preface in English, and a literal prose version as well as a paraphrase in English verse by Gilchrist), 8vo, Calcutta, 1803; and ‘The Oriental Fabulist, or polyglot translations of Esop's and other Ancient Fables from the English Language into Hindoostanee, Persian, Arabic, &c., in the Roman character, by various hands,’ 8vo, Calcutta, 1803. In 1804 ill-health compelled him to return home. On his departure he received from the governor-general in council a letter to the court of directors in London, commending him to their favour as one who had done much to promote the study of oriental languages. Lord Wellesley also gave him a letter of introduction to Mr. Addington, afterwards Lord Sidmouth. Gilchrist fixed his residence for a while at Edinburgh, the university of which created him LL.D. on 30 Oct. 1804 (Cat. of Edinb. Graduates, 1858, p. 260). He retired from the company's service on a pension of 300l. on 6 Jan. 1809. His fiery temperament, violent politics, which savoured strongly of republicanism, and no less violent language, appear to have considerably astonished his fellow-citizens, especially at civic meetings. These peculiarities, together with his readiness to take offence, involved him often in serious quarrels. Among other eccentricities he set up an aviary of Eastern birds at his house on the north side of Nicolson Square, the building being fully exposed to the public gaze. In conjunction with James Inglis he started a bank in Edinburgh, under the style of Inglis, Borthwick Gilchrist, & Co.; but the enterprise came to grief owing to the suspicion with which other banks regarded it.

Gilbert compressed his ‘Anti-jargonist,’ ‘Stranger's Guide,’ ‘Oriental Linguist,’ and various other works on the Hindustani language, into two portable volumes, with the general title of ‘The British Indian Monitor,’ 8vo, Edinburgh, 1806–8, and also penned a fierce political tirade entitled ‘Parliamentary Reform on Constitutional Principles; or British Loyalty against Continental Royalty,’ &c., 8vo, Glasgow, 1815. In 1816 Gilchrist removed to London to find more congenial occupation in giving private lessons in oriental languages to candidates for the Indian service. Two years later, the East India Company having resolved that their servants, and more especially medical officers, should, previously to their leaving England, be instructed in the rudiments of Hindustani, created a professorship, and conferred it on Gilchrist. His classes were accordingly removed to the Oriental Institution, Leicester Square. He was allowed a salary of 200l. a year, besides 150l. more for a lecture room on condition that he should teach the students without charging them more than three guineas each. Gilchrist declined to accept the three guineas, but of his own authority made a regulation that students should be admitted to attend his class only on producing a receipt from his publishers proving the purchase of what he or the latter considered an adequate quantity of his oriental text-books. These cost from 10l. to 15l. Thus, by professing to teach them gratuitously, Gilchrist got from his pupils nearly four or five times the sum prescribed by his employers. His irregular method of teaching was also unfavourably criticised. In 1825 the company withdrew their support. Gilchrist had previously complained bitterly of what he considered their cruelty, parsimony, and ingratitude. His great object appears to have been to induce the company to compel all their juvenile officers to attend his lectures (instead of their assistant-surgeons only), by which his receipts would be enormously swelled. Failing in this, his official reports grew from year to year more lengthy and bitter. Having at last collected the whole together under the title of ‘The Orienti-Occidental Tuitionary Pioneer to Literary Pursuits by the King's and Company's Officers of all ranks … and departments … Fourteen Reports, &c. … A Panglossal Diorama for a Universal Language and Character … and a … new Theory of Latin Verbs,’ he formed a folio volume of abuse against his employers and almost every one connected with them in the diffusion of oriental learning. He carried on the class till the end of 1826, when he handed it over to Sandford Arnot and Duncan Forbes [q. v.] He engaged at the same time to give gratuitously a weekly lecture, but finding that the sale of his text-books decreased he tried to recover his old position. In the beginning of 1828 he ill-naturedly endeavoured to form a Hindustani class in the immediate neighbourhood of the institution. Arnot and Forbes, whose patience had been sorely tried by his vagaries, attacked him severely in the appendix to their first annual report of the London Oriental Institution, issued on 1 April of that year. During the remainder of his life Gilchrist lived in retirement. He died at Paris on 9 Jan. 1841. By his wife, Miss Mary Ann Coventry, he had no children. In August 1850 she married at Paris General Guglielmo Pepe of the kingdom of Naples.

Gilchrist's other publications are:

  1. ‘The Hindee-Roman Orthoepigraphical Ultimatum; or, a systematic … view of Oriental and Occidental visible Sounds on fixed … principles for acquiring the … pronunciation of many Oriental Languages; exemplified in one hundred popular anecdotes … and proverbs of the Hindoostanee story-teller. Second edition. (A … prospectus and … synopsis of the Persian Naghree and Roman characters),’ 8vo, London, 1820.
  2. ‘Dialogues English and Hindoostanee; for illustrating the Grammatical Principles of The Stranger's East Indian Guide,’ 8vo, London, 1820.
  3. ‘The Hindee Moral Preceptor; or Rudimental Principles of Persian Grammar … rendered … plain … through the medium of sixty exercises in prose and verse, including [selections from the Hikáyát-i Latif and others] the … Pundnamu or Ethics of Shuekh Sundee; with a Hindoostanee literal version, and an English metrical paraphrase of each poem. … Second edition,’ 2 pts., 8vo, London, 1821. A different book altogether from that bearing a similar title, as even the Hindustani version of the Pand Námah is entirely new.
  4. ‘The General East India Guide and Vade-Mecum: being a Digest of the work of the late Capt. Williamson, with many improvements and additions’ 8vo, London, 1825.
  5. ‘A New Theory and Prospectus of the Persian Verbs, with their Hindoostanee synonimes in Persian and English,’ 4to, Calcutta, 1831.
  6. ‘A Practical Appeal to the Public, through a Series of Letters, in Defence of the New System of Physic by the illustrious Hahnemann. … Letter the first,’ 8vo, London, 1833.

[W. Anderson's Scottish Nation, ii. 298–300; Memoir in Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen, ii. 106–7, written from personal knowledge; Annual Reg. 1841, lxxxiii. 181; East India Reg. 1803 pt. i. p. 83, 1805 p. 91; Brit. Mus. Cat. No record of the eighteenth-century alumni of Heriot's Hospital has been preserved.]

G. G.