Sir William Jones, an English orientalist, born in London, Sept. 28, 1746, died in Calcutta, April 27, 1794. His father, an eminent mathematician, died when he was but three years old, and the care of his education devolved on his mother. When seven years old he was sent to the grammar school at Harrow, where he remained ten years, not only surpassing his associates in classical studies, but making some progress in Hebrew and Arabic, and applying himself to French and Italian during his vacations. In 1764 he was entered at University college, Oxford; and in 1765 he was invited to reside in the family of Earl Spencer, as tutor to Lord Althorp, then seven years of age, which office he held for five years, during which he was elected a fellow at Oxford. Meantime his fame for oriental scholarship had begun to extend, and in 1768 Christian VII. of Denmark requested him to translate into French a Persian life of Nadir Shah. This was published at London in 1770, in connection with a dissertation, also in French, on oriental poetry, containing translations of several of the odes of Hafiz. In the following year appeared his Persian grammar, which, as enlarged by subsequent editors, long remained the standard text book on the subject.
In 1770 he became a student at the Temple, and began to contemplate "the stately edifice of the laws of England," but was immediately called upon to defend his university against the aspersions of the French orientalist Anquetil-Duperron. His pamphlet (1771) was anonymous, in idiomatic and effective French, and was universally admitted to surpass the attack both in wit and learning. In the following year he published a small volume of poems, chiefly translations from the Asiatic languages, which was followed by the more important Poeseos Asiaticae Commentariorum Libri sex(1774; republished by Eichhorn, Leipsic, 1777), in which with equal skill and erudition he aimed to familiarize the European mind with oriental modes of thought and expression. Called to the bar in 1774, he left at Oxford all his oriental books and manuscripts, and applied himself exclusively to legal studies. He was ambitious of a seat in parliament, and in 1780 stood for the university of Oxford; but his liberal politics, and his condemnation of the American war and of the slave trade, deprived him of all chance of success, and he withdrew from the contest.
His political opinions were declared in several essays, as his "Inquiry into the Legal Mode of Suppressing Riots," "Plan of a National Defence," and "Principles of Government;" and he produced in 1781 a more elaborate work on the " Law of Bailments," which alone, according to Judge Story, would have given him " a name unrivalled in the common law for philosophical accuracy, elegant learning, and finished analysis." He resumed his oriental studies to produce a translation of the "Moallakat, or Seven Arabian Poems which were suspended in the Temple at Mecca" (1783). In 1783 he was married, knighted, and, through the influence of Lord Ashburton, appointed a judge of the supreme court of judicature at Fort William in Bengal. One of his first acts after his arrival was the founding of the Asiatic society of Bengal, or "society for inquiring into the history and antiquities, the arts, sciences, and literature of Asia." He was the first president of this body, and contributed to the first four volumes of its " Asiatic Researches" numerous treatises of great importance.
He undertook to make a digest of Hindoo and Mohammedan laws, similar to the codification of Greek and Roman law effected by Justinian. This task he did not live to complete, and it was finished under the superintendence of Mr. Colebrooke. He translated and published in 1794 the ordinances of Manu, the foundation of Hindoo jurisprudence. He also translated the Sakontala, or "The Fatal Ring," an Indian drama by Kalidasa; the Hitopadesa, the original of the famous fables of Bidpay; the tales and fables of Nizami; and portions of the Ramayana and the Vedas. He had decided to return to England, when he died suddenly. He was familiar with 27 languages. No predecessor had equalled his attainments in Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian. A collected edition of his works was published in 6 vols, in 1799; a life by Lord Teign-mouth was added in 1804; and the whole was reprinted in 1807, in 13 vols.