Page:Dictionary of National Biography. Sup. Vol II (1901).djvu/442

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

benefit from the teaching and personal kindness of Thomas Robert Malthus [q. v.], then professor of history at Haileybury. On his arrival at Calcutta in 1818 he continued his oriental studies, according to the custom of that time, in the college of Fort William, devoting himself specially to Persian. But his health soon broke down, and he was never again able to live in the plains of Bengal. Most fortunately he received one of the two appointments in the hills that were then open to a junior civil servant, that of assistant commissioner of Kumaon. The frontier tract of Kumaon, amid the outer ranges of the Himalayas, had recently come under British rule, on the conclusion of the Gurkha war in 1815. Its first British ruler was George William Traill, who held the post of commissioner of Kumaon continuously for twenty years and stamped his strong personality upon the administration. It was of great advantage to Hodgson to serve his apprenticeship under such a man, and also in a district adjoining the native state of Nepal, which was destined to be the scene of his own lifework. After he had been less than two years in Kumaon, the post of assistant resident in Nepal fell vacant, and Hodgson was chosen to fill it. Henceforth, for twenty-three years (1820-43), he remained at Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, secluded from the active life of Indian administration, but in a unique position to devote himself to study. In order to complete the catalogue of his services, it should be stated that in 1823 he acted for some months as deputy secretary in the political (i. e. foreign) department at Calcutta ; but his health again failed, and he was glad to return to Nepal in the humble capacity of postmaster. In 1825 we find him again assistant resident, acting resident from 1829 to 1831, but not confirmed as resident until 1833.

At this time the warlike Gurkhas of Nepal were still chafing under the treaty imposed upon them after Sir David Ochterlony's victories of 1815, by which they lost large tracts of recently conquered territory, and were compelled to accept a British resident at their court. Even to the present day Nepal ranks as an independent state, outside the Indian feudatory system, and recognising China in some vague sense as its suzerain. Hodgson's position, therefore, at Kathmandu was not the same as that of an ordinary resident at the court of a native state. His functions were essentially diplomatic, and did not include the right of imposing advice with regard to the internal administration. His difficulties were enhanced by the peculiar composition of the Nepalese court, which consisted (then as now) of a roi faineant, while all power was vested in the hands of a minister, himself only the chief of the strongest faction in the state. Ministerial crises were frequent, sometimes ending in indiscriminate massacre, and at any moment a safety-valve against domestic revolution might be sought in an unprovoked invasion of the plains of India. It is Hodgson's chief title to political distinction that he succeeded in persuading the Nepalese court to keep the peace during the anxious period of the first Afghan war. But even so he was not able to gain the approval of Lord Ellenborough, who distrusted all 'politicals,' especially if they happened to be civilians. On the ground that Hodgson had failed to carry out his instructions to the letter, Lord Ellenborough suddenly dismissed him from the residency of Nepal, and added insult to injury by gazetting him to the petty post of assistant commissioner at Simla (not then the summer residence of the viceroy). Hodgson forthwith resigned the service and sailed for England, thus terminating his official career for ever at the early age of forty-three.

Meanwhile Hodgson had won for himself a more permanent reputation in a very different field. From his first residence in Nepal he resolved to take advantage of his opportunities to study the literature, religion, and language of a country then absolutely unknown. The ruling race of Gurkhas are devout Hindus, still retaining many archaic features of the Hindu social system. But a large proportion of the population are Buddhists, and Nepal is in close contact with Tibet. Hodgson's supreme contribution to science is to have discovered the literature of Northern Buddhism, as preserved in both Sanskrit and Tibetan manuscripts. As early as 1828 he contributed papers on this subject to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which finally took shape in his 'Illustrations of the Literature and Religion of the Buddhists' (Serampur, 1841). It is, however, upon his work as a collector rather than as an author that Hodgson's fame rests. For years he was indefatigable in acquiring original manuscripts, and in obtaining copies of others, which he proceeded to distribute with lavish hand among public libraries. From Tibet he procured two copies of the vast encyclopædias called the 'Kahgyur' and the 'Stangyur,' consisting of about 350 volumes in Tibetan block-printing. One of these copies he presented to the college of Fort William, the other to the