Posted on: 30 April 2017

Digital Rare Book:
Lord William Bentinck
By Demetrius C. Boulger
Printed at The Clarendon Press, Oxford - 1897

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Of all the acts associated with the administration of Lord William Bentinck there was none more important or of greater consequence than the new education policy inaugurated in 1834, which was based on the establishment of English as the official language of the country. This policy was an innovation, and was regarded by some of the most experienced men in India as full of danger. The East India Company respected the language as well as the religion and customs of the people, and the Orientalist school predicted innumerable evils and misfortunes from any attempt to interfere with it. To introduce English into the schools and to make it the vehicle of knowledge was represented as destructive of the national learning, and to substitute the tongue of the European conqueror for Persian in the courts of law as certain to be followed by unpopularity, if not absolute animosity. In support of these views were to be found such venerable names as the
Prinseps ; but they were too far-fetched to carry the weight to which those who held them were entitled by their linguistic attainments and sympathy with the natives of India. The English school, as it was termed, was composed of younger men, and represented the more practical side of Indian administration. The late Sir Charles Trevelyan and Mr. Russell Colvin, who was Governor of the North-West Provinces in the first days of the Mutiny, were its principal leading men Sir Charles Metcalfe and others of the leaders, and of the day supported them.

It may be doubted how the contest would have resulted between these two opposing parties but for the efforts and genius of Macaulay. The Charter Act of 1833 provided for the appointment of an additional or Law-member to the Council of the Governor-General, and the post was offered to Mr. Macaulay, who had shown himself the ablest supporter of the India Bill in the House of Commons. He arrived in India before the end of the year, and he at once took a controlling part in the discussion of all matters relating to education and legal reform. It happened that at the moment of his arrival the subject of education was a burning topic on account of the difference of opinion prevailing in the General Committee of Public Instruction. The question in dispute was as to the principles on which the Government subsidies should be allotted to the different colleges that had been established by English initiative since Warren Hastings founded the first of them 'the Calcutta College' in the year 1781. The main principle at stake was the question of the language in which instruction should be given, and the difference between the opposing
parties has been summed up thus : —

'Half of the Committee called the ‘‘Orientalists’' were for the continuation of the old system of stipends tenable for twelve or fifteen years, to students of Arabic and Sanskrit, and for liberal expenditure on the publication of works in these languages. The other half, called the “Anglicists,” desired to reduce the expenditure on stipends held by “ lazy and stupid schoolboys of 30 and 35 years of age,” and to cut down the sums lavished on Sanskrit and Arabic printing. At this juncture, Government requested the Committee to prepare a scheme of instruction for a college at Agra. The Committee were utterly unable to agree on any plan. Five members were in favour of Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit learning, and five in favour of English and the vernacular, with just so much of the Oriental learned languages as would be necessary to satisfy local prejudices.’

Macaulay on arriving in India was appointed President of this Committee, but he refused to act as such until the Governor-General had decided upon the language of instruction. In his capacity of Legislative member of Council, however, he was neither diffident nor inactive, and when the question was brought before Council by the rival parties, who addressed their arguments in the form of letters, dated aist and January, 1835, respectively, he expressed his views on the matter in dispute in a masterly minute, dated 21st and 22nd February of that year, and from which we must quote the following paragraphs, as it is impossible to describe the points in dispute in clearer or more expressive language : —

'It does not appear to me that the Act of Parliament can by any art of construction he made to bear the meaning which has been assigned to it. It contains nothing about the particular languages or sciences which are to be studied.
.... It is argued, or rather taken for granted, that by literature the Parliament can have meant only Arabic and Sanscrit literature, that they never would have given the honourable appellation of ‘‘ a learned native '' to a native who was familiar with the poetry of Milton, the metaphysics of Locke, and the physics of Newton ; but that they meant to designate by that name only such persons as might have studied in the sacred books of the Hindus all the uses of kusa-grass and all the mysteries of absorption into the Deity. This does not appear to be a very satisfactory interpretation. To take a parallel case ; suppose that the Pasha of Egypt, a country once superior in knowledge to the nations of Europe but now sunk far below them, were to appropriate a sum for the purpose of ‘reviving and promoting literature and encouraging learned natives of Egypt,’' would anybody infer that he meant the youth of his Pashalic to give years to the study of hieroglyphics, to search into all the doctrines disguised under the fable of Osiris, and to ascertain with all possible accuracy the ritual with which cats and onions were anciently adored ? Would he be justly charged with inconsistency, if instead of employing his young subjects in deciphering obelisks he were to order them to be instructed
in the English and French languages, and in all the sciences
to which those languages are the chief keys ? . . ,

‘The admirers of the Oriental system of education have used another argument which, if we admit it to be valid, is decisive against all change. They conceive that the public faith is pledged to the present system, and that to alter the appropriation of any of the funds which have hitherto been spent in encouraging the study of Arabic and Sanskrit would be downright spoliation. It is not easy to understand by what process of reasoning they can have arrived at this conclusion. The grants which are made from the public purse for the encouragement of literature differ in no respect from the grants which are made from the same purse for other objects of real or supposed utility. We found a sanatorium on a spot which we suppose to be healthy. Do we thereby pledge ourselves to keep a sanatorium there if the result should not answer our expectations ? We commence the erection of a pier. Is it a violation of the public faith to stop the works if we afterwards see reason to believe that the building will be useless ? The rights of property are undoubtedly sacred. But nothing endangers those rights so much as the practice now unhappily too common of attributing them to things to which they do not belong. . . .

‘All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific informations and are moreover so poor and rude that until they are enriched from some other quarter it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. It seems to be admitted on all sides that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be effected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them. What then shall that language be ? One half of the Committee maintain that it should be the English. The other half strongly recommend the Arabic and Sanskrit. The whole question seems to me to be which language is the best worth knowing ? I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanskiit works. I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues, I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the Committee who support the Oriental plan of education. It will hardly be disputed, I suppose, that the department of literature in which the Eastern writers stand highest is poetry. And I certainly never met with any Orientalist who ventured to maintain that the Arabic and Sanskrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations. But when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same.

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Yes, this is Lord Bentinck and not Macaulay. The fake WhatsApp quote that went viral even got the picture wrong. :(

I don't know why we're parroting all this condescending British propaganda. Do we need an outsider to tell us what we are? Why not publish the reverse commentary - what Indian authors had to say about what was happening at that time?

For those who might be interested, a more recent biography of Bentinck than the one above ( and as far as I know, the < only > modern biography) is : 'Lord William Bentinck : The Making of a Liberal Imperialist 1774- 1839 ' by John Rosselli (Chatto & Windus, 1974) The book is long out of print but is available for purchase via the usual online sources. Bentinck laboured for several years to bring the budget deficit of Colonial India into something approaching balance -- and was known for his cost-cutting practises. He also eschewed much of the pomp and the more grandiose trappings associated with his position as Governor-General -- exemplified in a famous satiric quote by Victor Jacquemont , the French naturalist who spent several years on the sub-continent in the 1830s - viz : " Lord William Bentinck on the throne of the Great Mogul thinks and acts like a Pennsylvanian Quaker ... You may easily imagine that there are people who will talk loudly of the dissolution of the Empire , when they behold their ruler riding on horseback, plainly dressed and without escort, on his way to the country with his umbrella tucked under his arm. "

William Bentinck