History of the Saracens/Memoir of Ockley

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At a time when Oriental studies were at their infancy in this country, Simon Ockley, animated by the illustrious example of Pocock, and the laborious diligence of Prideaux, devoted his life and his fortune to those novel researches, which necessarily involved both. With that enthusiasm which the ancient votary experienced, and with that patient suffering the modern martyr has endured, he pursued, till he accomplished, the useful object of his labours. He perhaps was the first who exhibited to us other heroes than those of Greece and Rome; sages as contemplative, and a people more magnificent even than the iron masters of the world.[1]

Simon Ockley was born at Exeter in 1678, and was descended from a good family of Great Ellingham, in Norfolk, where his father usually resided. After a proper foundation laid in school-learning, he was sent, in 1693, to Queen’s College in Cambridge, where he soon distinguished himself by great quickness of parts as well as intense application to literature; to the oriental languages more particularly, for his uncommon skill in which he afterwards became famous. He took, at the usual time, the degrees in arts, and that of bachelor in divinity. Having taken orders also, he was, in 1705, through the interest of Simon Patrick, bishop of Ely, presented by Jesus College, in Cambridge, to the vicarage of Swavesey, in that county; and, in 1711, chosen Arabic professor of the university. These preferments he held to the day of his death, which happened at Swavesey, Aug. 9, 1720, immaturely to himself, but more so to his family.

Ockley had the culture of Oriental learning very much at heart, and the several publications which he made were intended solely to promote it. In 1706, he printed, at Cambridge, a useful little book, entitled, “Introductio ad Linguas Orientales.” Prefixed is a dedication to his friend the bishop of Ely, and a preface, addressed to the Juventas Academics, whom he labours to excite by various arguments to the pursuit of oriental learning; assuring them in, general, that no man ever was, or ever will be, truly great in divinity, without at least some portion of skill in it. There is a chapter in this work, relating to the celebrated controversy between Buxtorf and Capellus, upon the antiquity of the Hebrew points, where Ockley professes to thank with Buxtorf, who contended for it: but he afterwards changed his opinion, and went over to Capellus, although he had not any opportunity of publicly declaring it. And indeed it is plain, from his manner of closing that chapter upon the points, that he was then far enough from having any settled persuasion about them.

In 1707, he published in 12mo. from the Italian of Leo Modena, a Venetian rabbi, “The History of the present Jews throughout the World; being an ample, though succinct, account of their customs, ceremonies, and manner of living at this time:” to which is subjoined a “Supplement concerning the Carraites and Samaritans, from the French of Father Simon.” In 1708, a little curious book, entitled “The Improvement of Human Reason, exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan, written above 500 years ago, by Abu Jaafar Ebn Tophail:” translated from the Arabic, and illustrated with figures, 8vo. The design of the author, who was a Mohammedan philosopher, is to show, how human reason may, by observation and experience, arrive at the knowledge of natural things, and thence to supernatural, and particularly the knowledge of God and a future state: the design of the translator, to give those who might be unacquainted with it, a specimen of the genius of the Arabian philosophers, and to excite young scholars to the reading of eastern authors. This was the point our rabbi had constantly in view; and, therefore, in his “Oratio Inauguralis,” for the professorship, it was with no small pleasure, as we imagine, that he insisted upon the beauty, copiousness, and antiquity, of the Arabic tongue in particular, and upon the use of oriental learning in general; and that he dwelt upon the praises of Erpenius, Golius, Pocock, Herbelot, and all who had in any way contributed to promote the study of it. In 1713, his name appeared to a little book, with this title “An Account of South-West Barbary, containing what is most remarkable in the territories of the king of Fez and Morocco; written by a person who had been a slave there a considerable time, and published from his authentic manuscript: to which acre added, two Letters; one from the present king of Morocco to Colonel Kirk; the other to Sir Cloudesly Shovell, with Sir Cloudesly’s answer,” &c., 8vo. While we are enumerating these small publications of the professor, it will be but proper to mention two sermons: one, “Upon the Dignity and Authority of the Christian Priesthood,” preached at Ormond Chapel, London, in 1710; another, “Upon the Necessity of Instructing Children in the Scriptures,” at St. Ives, in Huntingdonshire, 1713. To these we must add a new translation of the second “Apocryphal Book of Esdras,” from the Arabic version of it, as that which we have in our common Bibles is from the vulgar Latin, 1716. Mr. Whiston, we are told, was the person who employed him in this translation, upon a strong suspicion, that it must needs make for the Arian cause he was then reviving; and he, accordingly, published it in one of his volumes of “Primitive Christianity Revived.” Ockley, however, was firmly of opinion, that it could serve nothing at all to his purpose; as appears from a printed letter of his to Mr. (afterwards Dr.) Thirlby, in which are the following words: “You shall have my ‘Esdras’ in a little time; two hundred of which I reserved, when Mr. Whiston reprinted his, purely upon this account, because I was loath that anything with my name to it should be extant only in his heretical volumes. I only stay, till the learned author of the ‘History of Montanism’ has finished a dissertation which he has promised me to prefix to that book.”[2] A learned letter of Ockley’s to Mr. W. Wotton is printed among the “Miscellaneous Tracts of Mr. Bowyer, 1784.”

But the most considerable by far of all the professor’s performances is, “The History of the Saracens;” begun from the death of Mohammed, the founder of the Saracenic empire, which happened in 632, and carried down through a succession, of caliphs, to 705. This “History,” which illustrates the religion, rites, customs, and manner of living of that warlike people, is very curious and entertaining; and Ockley was at vast pains in collecting materials from the most authentic Arabic authors, especially manuscripts, not hitherto published in any European language; and for that purpose resided a long time at Oxford, to be near the Bodleian library, where those manuscripts were reposited. It is in 2 vols. 8vo.; the first of which was published in 1708; the second, in 1718: and both were soon after republished. A third edition was printed, in the same size, at Cambridge, in 1757; to which is prefixed, “An Account of the Arabians or Saracens, of the Life of Mohammed, and the Mohammedan Religion, by a learned hand:” that is, by the learned Dr. Long, master of Pembroke hall, in Cambridge.

While at Oxford, preparing this work, he sent a letter to his daughter, part of which is worth transcribing, as characteristic both of him and his labours. “My condition here is this: one of the most useful and necessary authors I have is written in such a wretched hand, that the very reading of it is perfect deciphering. I am forced sometimes to take three or four lines together, and then pull them all to pieces to find where the words begin and end; for oftentimes it is so written, that a word is divided as if the former part of it was the end of the foregoing word, and the latter part the beginning of another; besides innumerable other difficulties known only to those that understand the language. Add to this the pains of abridging, comparing authors, selecting proper materials, and the like, which in a remote and copious language, abounding with difficulties sometimes insuperable, make it equivalent at least to the performing of six times so much in Greek and Latin. So that if I continue in the same course in which I am engaged at present, that is, from the time I rise in the morning till I can see no longer at night, I cannot pretend once to entertain the least thought of seeing home till Michaelmas. Were it not that there is some satisfaction in answering the end of my profession, some in making new discoveries, and some in the hopes of obliging my country with the history of the greatest empire the world ever yet saw, I would sooner do almost anything than submit to the drudgery.

“People imagine, that it is only understanding Arabic, and then translating a book out of it, and there is an end of the story: but if ever learning revives among us, posterity will judge better. This work of mine (in another way) is almost of as different a nature from translating out of the Greek or Latin, as translating a poet from one language to another is different from prose. One comfort I have, that the authors I am concerned with are very good in their kind, and afford me plenty of materials, which will clear up a great many mistakes of modern travellers, who, passing through the eastern countries, without the necessary knowledge of the history and ancient customs of the Mohammedans, pick up little pieces of tradition from the present inhabitants, and deliver them as obscurely as they receive them. One thing pleases me much, that we shall give a very particular account of Ali and Hosein, who are reckoned saints by the Persians, and whose names you must have met with both in Herbert and Tavernier; for the sake of whom there remains that implacable and irreconcilable hatred between the Turks and Persians to this very day, which you may look for in vain in all the English books that have hitherto appeared. It would be a great satisfaction to me, if the author I have were complete in all his volumes, that I might bring the history down five or six hundred years: but, alas! of twelve that he wrote, we have but two at Oxford, which are large quartos, and from whence I take the chief of my materials.

“I wish that some public spirit would arise among us, and cause those books to be bought in the east for us which we want. I should be very willing to lay out my pains for the service of the public. If we could but procure £500 to be judiciously laid out in the east, in such books as I could mention for the public library at Cambridge, it would be the greatest improvement that could be conceived: but that is a happiness not to be expected in my time. We are all swallowed up in politics; there is no room for letters: and it is to be feared that the next generation will not only inherit but improve the polite ignorance of the present.”

Poor Ockley, always a student, and rarely what is called a man of the world, once encountered a literary calamity which frequently occurs when an author finds himself among the vapid triflers and the polished cynics of the fashionable circle. Something like a patron he found in Harley, the Earl of Oxford, and once had the unlucky honour of dining at the table of my Lord Treasurer. It is probable that Ockley, from retired habits and severe studies, was not at all accomplished in the suaviter in modo, of which greater geniuses than Ockley have so surlily despaired. How he behaved we cannot narrate; probably he delivered himself with as great simplicity at the table of the Lord Treasurer, as on the wrong side of Cambridge Castle gate. The embarrassment this simplicity drew him into, is very fully stated in the following copious apology he addressed to the Earl of Oxford, which we have transcribed from the original; perhaps it may be a useful memorial to some men of letters as little polished as the learned Ockley:—

Cambridge, July 15, 1714.
My Lord,
“I was so struck with horror and amazement two days ago, that I cannot possibly express it. A friend of mine showed me a letter, part of the contents of which were, ‘That Professor Ockley had given such extreme offence by some uncourtly answers to some gentlemen at my Lord Treasurer’s table, that it would be in vain to make any further application to him.’
“My Lord, it is impossible for me to recollect, at this distance of time. All that I can say is this: that, as on the one side for a man to come to his patron’s table with a design to affront either him or his friends, supposes him a perfect natural, a mere idiot; so on the other side it would be extremely severe, if a person whose education was far distant from the politeness of a court, should, upon the account of an unguarded expression, or some little inadvertency in his behaviour, suffer a capital sentence.
“Which is my case, if I have forfeited your Lordship’s favour; which God forbid! That man is involved in double ruin that is not only forsaken by his friend; but, which is the unavoidable consequence, exposed to the malice and contempt, not only of enemies, but, what is still more grievous, of all sorts of fools.
“It is not the talent of every well-meaning man to converse with his superiors with due decorum; for, either when he reflects upon the vast distance of their station above his own, he is struck dumb and almost insensible; or else their condescension and courtly behaviour encourages him to be too familiar. To steer exactly between these two extremes requires not only a good intention, but presence of mind, and long custom.
“Another article in my friend’s letter was, ‘That somebody had informed your lordship, that I was a very sot.’ When first I had the honour to be known to your lordship, I could easily foresee that there would be persons enough that would envy me upon that account, and do what in them lay to traduce me. Let Haman enjoy never so much himself, it is all nothing, it does him no good, till poor Mordecai is hanged out of his way.
“But I never feared the being censured upon that account. Here in the University, I converse with none but persons of the most distinguished reputations both for learning and virtue, and receive from them daily as great marks of respect and esteem, which I should not have, if that imputation were true. It is most certain that I do indulge myself the freedom of drinking a cheerful cup, at proper seasons, among my friends; but no otherwise than is done by thousands of honest men who never forfeit their character by it. And whoever doth no more than so, deserves no more to be called a sot, than a man that eats a hearty meal would be willing to be called a glutton.
“As for those detractors, if I have but the least assurance of your lordship’s favour, I can very easily despise them. They are nati consumere fruges. They need not trouble themselves about what other people do; for whatever they eat and drink, it is only robbing the poor. Resigning myself entirely to your Lordship’s goodness and pardon, I conclude this necessary apology with like provocation, That I would be content he should take my character from any person that had a good one of his own.

“I am, with all submission,

“My Lord,

“Your Lordship’s most obedient, &c.

Simon Ockley.

To the honour of the Earl of Oxford, this unlucky piece of awkwardness at table, in giving “uncourtly answers,” did not interrupt his regard for the poor oriental student; for several years afterwards the correspondence of Ockley was still acceptable to the Earl.[1]

In the meantime, Ockley was one of those unfortunate persons, whom Pierius Valerianus would have recorded, in his book “De infelicitate literatorum.” In his “Inaugural Oration,” printed in 1711, he calls fortune venefica and noverca, speaks of mordaces curæ as things long familiar to him; and, in Dec. 1717, we find him actually under confinement for debt. In the introduction to the second volume of the first edition of his “Saracenic History,” he not only tells us so, but even stoically dates from Cambridge Castle. His biographer thus accounts for his unfortunate situation:-Having married very young, he was encumbered with a family early in life; his preferment in the church was not answerable to his reputation as a scholar; his patron, the Earl of Oxford, fell into disgrace when he wanted him most; and, lastly, he had some share of that common infirmity among the learned, which makes them negligent of economy and a prudential regard to outward things, without which, however, all the wit, and all the learning, in the world, will but serve to render a man the more miserable.

If the letters of the widows and children of many of our eminent authors were collected, they would demonstrate the great fact, that the man who is a husband or a father ought not to be an author. They might weary with a monotonous cry, and usually would be dated from the gaol or the garret. I have seen an original letter from the widow of Ockley to the Earl of Oxford, in which she lays before him the deplorable situation of her affairs; the debts of the Professor being beyond what his effects amounted to, the severity of the creditors would not even suffer the executor to make the best of his effects; the widow remained destitute of necessaries, incapable of assisting her children.

Thus students have devoted their days to studies worthy of a student. They are public benefactors, yet find no friend in the public, who cannot yet appreciate their value—Ministers of state know it, though they have rarely protected them. Ockley, by letters I have seen, was frequently employed by Bolingbroke to translate letters from the sovereign of Morocco to our court; yet all the debts for which he was imprisoned in Cambridge Castle did not exceed two hundred pounds. The public interest is concerned in stimulating such enthusiasts; they are men who cannot be salaried, who can not be created by letters patent; for they are men who infuse their soul into their studies, and breathe their fondness for them in their last agonies. Yet such are doomed to feel their life pass away like a painful dream![1]

As to the literary character of Ockley, it is certain that he was extremely well skilled in all the ancient languages, and particularly the oriental; so that the very learned Reland thought it not too much to declare, that he was “vir, si quis alius, harum literarum peritus.” He was, likewise, very knowing in modern languages, as in the French, Spanish, Italian, &c. and, upon the whole, considered as a linguist, we may presume that very few have exceeded him.[3]

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 D’Israeli’s Calamities of Authors.
  2. This letter, dated Oct. the 15th 1712, is entitled, “An Account of the authority of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, controverted between Dr. Grabe and Mr. Whiston.” 1712. 8vo.
  3. For this biography, which is principally written by Dr. Heathcote, we are indebted to Chalmers’s Biographical Dictionary and D’Israeli’s Calamities of Authors.