Henry Thomas Colebrooke, an English orientalist, born in London, June 15, 1765, died there in March, 1837. He was the son of Sir George Colebrooke, who in 1769 was appointed chairman of the board of directors of the East India company. His early education was conducted by a private tutor. In 1782 he was appointed to a writership in the East India company, and in 1783 he arrived in Madras. He soon went to Calcutta, and was employed in the company's board of accounts. In 1786 he was appointed assistant collector of revenue in Tirhoot. In the mean time he had devoted much attention to the study of Sanskrit, but his interest in it does not seem to have been so much literary as scientific, his love of astronomy and mathematics leading him to desire to ascertain what' the Hindoos knew in regard to these sciences. In 1789 he was transferred to Purneah, and in 1793 to Nattore. He had now become interested in the religion, philosophy, and laws of the Hindoos. In 1794 he presented to the Asiatic society his first paper, "On the Duties of a Faithful Hindoo Widow." At the same time his views on commerce and finance were far in advance of his age; and though a servant of the East India company, he favored the withdrawal of its special privileges, and advocated free trade between India and England. Just after the death of Sir William Jones in 1794, Colebrooke was transferred from the financial to the judicial branch of the service.
The code of laws compiled under the direction of Warren Hastings, and published in 1776, being very imperfect, at the solicitation of Sir William Jones the government had determined to have a more extensive and accurate compilation made. This was performed chiefly by a learned pundit, Jagannatha, and was to have been translated by Jones, but the task was committed to Colebrooke. The work was published under the title, "A Digest of Hindu Law on Contracts and Successions, with a Commentary by Jagannatha" (4 vols. 4to, Calcutta, 1797-8). From that time until his death Colebrooke stands forth as the first of European Sanskrit scholars. While occupied with this work he had resided at Mirzapore, near Benares, the chief seat of Hindoo learning. In 1798 he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Nagpore, the capital of Berar; in 1801 he returned to Mirzapore, and shortly after was summoned to Calcutta, and appointed a member of the court of appeal. He was also appointed professor of Sanskrit in the college then recently established at Fort William, but he took no active part in teaching, acting rather as a director of the course of studies and as an examiner.
In the same year appeared his essay on the Sanskrit and Prakrit languages, which showed that he was bringing within the range of his studies every part of Hindoo literature. In 1805 he became president of the court of appeal. During this interval from 1801 to 1805 he worked on the supplement to his "Digest of Laws," and at deciphering ancient inscriptions, assisted Roxburgh in the. preparation of his "Flora Indica," wrote the first volume of his "Grammar of the Sanskrit Language," and prepared several essays. The first volume of his " Sanskrit Grammar "was published in 1805, and though it was never finished, it forms the best existing introduction to the study of the native grammarians. In the same year he published his famous essay "On the Yedas or Sacred Writings of the Hindus," which will always be regarded as a landmark in the history of the study of Sanskrit literature by Europeans. In 1806 he became president of the Asiatic society, and he contributed to its volumes essays "On the Sect of Jina," "On the Indian and Arabic Divisions of the Zodiac," and various others. The highest honor of a civilian in the service of the East India company, a seat in council, was conferred upon him in the same year.
In 1810 he published translations of two important treatises on the Hindoo law of inheritance. In 1815, after having resided in India 33 years, he returned to England. The remainder of his life was devoted almost uninterruptedly to the prosecution and promotion of Sanskrit studies. In 1817 he published "Algebra, with Arithmetic and Mensuration, from the Sanskrit of Brahmagupta and Bhas-kara," preceded by a dissertation on the state of the sciences as known to the Hindoos. In the following year he presented to the East India company his collection of MSS., one of the most valuable ever brought to Europe. . Pecuniary matters compelled him to spend a year at the Cape of Good Hope, and on his return to England in 1822 he was elected president of the astronomical society,. succeeding Sir William Herschel. He also exerted himself to found the royal Asiatic society, of which he declined the presidency, but became its most active member; and for several succeeding years he contributed to its volumes essays upon the philosophy of the Hindoos, the value of which is yet unimpaired. These were his last contributions to the study of oriental literature. Many of his works yet remain unpublished.
A collection of his miscellaneous essays was published in London in 1837; a second edition appeared in 1858; and in 1872 a third, in 3 vols. 8vo, including a selection from his correspondence, and a biography by his son, Sir Edward Colebrooke.