In 1846, a ship crashed into the sandbanks of River Hughli just as it was approaching the Calcutta harbour. On board the ship was a 21-year-old New Yorker in search of his runaway brother. The young man escaped with his life, only to be left stranded in Calcutta. Fortunately for him, he had a felicity with languages and a love for tracing the origins of common English words and phrases.

In this alien land, Fitzedward Hall fell into the company of English Orientalists and members of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. In no time, he was studying Sanskrit, Persian, Hindustani and Bengali. Within months, he was editing texts in Sanskrit and translating others into Hindustani. And years later, with the Vedanta treatises Ātmabodha and Tattvabodha, he became the first American to edit a Sanskrit text.

Fortuity turned what was intended to be a short layover into a residence of 16 years in India. During this time, Hall became a key figure among the Orientalists, a group engaged in serious study of eastern languages and culture. Like William Jones, James Prinsep, Horace Hyman Wilson and others, his abiding interest in, and interpretation of, old Indian texts helped kindle a greater interest in the western world for the “Orient”.

A portrait of Fitzedward Hall from The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans Volume V, 1904. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Journey to India

Hall was born on March 21, 1825, in Troy, an important commercial centre in upstate New York. His father Daniel Hall was a wealthy lawyer, while his mother Anjinette Finch came from a family with old colonial connections. Hall was the eldest son among six children. He studied engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic in New York before enrolling in Harvard University, which, as the story goes, he left to look for a runaway brother.

In a later article, Hall recollected the unpleasant sea voyage to India: the terribly named “Captain Coffin” exhibited “blundering seamanship” and the “weevilly biscuits” he had to subsist on made the experience all the worse.

We learn about Hall’s life in India from three long essays he wrote for popular magazines, including the Lippincott’s Quarterly and The Century, in the 1870s. In these he recounted his association with members of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, who he called “Pandits”. Not only were these men his teachers but also his companions in travel, hunting and fishing. Hall remained in Calcutta for three years, studying Sanskrit and Persian, and involving himself with the Asiatic Society of Bengal’s activities. His first teacher in Sanskrit was the scholar-reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who he encouraged to read Shakespeare.

In 1849, prompted by medical advice after prolonged illness, he left for the north. In a later essay titled Early Traveling Experiences of India (1875), he wrote of his journey by palanquin, accompanied by servants. He described the lawlessness in places not under East India Company control, the presence of Robin Hood-like brigands, the hospitality of a British indigo planter, and the shooting of birds, nilgais and the occasional tiger.

About Avadh under nawab rule, he wrote:

“The taxes, exorbitant as apportioned at the court, were farmed by merciless wretches who made them more exorbitant still, and who collected them, for the most part, at the point of the sword. Open robbery, deadly brawls and private assassination had become matters of perpetual occurrence.”  

Literary collaborators

After a few months in Ghazipur, Hall moved 75 miles west, to Benares, where he was made a tutor at the Government Sanskrit College. Collaborating with Orientalists and pandits, he edited and translated texts from Sanskrit and English to Hindustani, and on occasion from Hindustani to English. With Vitthala Shastri, who had earned fame as a child prodigy, he worked on two texts related to the Sankyapravachana. In 1856, he edited Rajniti, A Collection of Hindu Apologues in the Braj Bháshá language, a work by Lallu Lal, a munshi who taught at Calcutta’s Fort William College.

This was followed by a collaboration with Bapu Deva Shastri, on the Suryasiddanta, a 5th century work on astronomy. Other works Hall was associated with included the Dasa Rupa, a work on dramaturgy, and Subandhu’s play Vasavadatta. He also translated into English, Nilkanta Nihemiah Goreh’s work in Hindustani, A Mirror of Hindu Philosophical Systems.

Bapu Deva Shastri teaching a class in Varanasi. Credit: Brajo Gopal Bromochary/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

“My Pandits were often my only companions,” Hall wrote in The Century magazine in 1873. “By reason of their imperturbable good nature and humor, their society was always welcome. From their countrymen in general they differed, principally, I repeat, merely as the select differ from the vulgar.”

To be sure, there was resistance among some pandits towards translating old Sanskrit texts into Hindustani, the more common language in the north. But the teachers at the Benares Sanskrit College, led by James Ballantyne, persisted. With Ballantyne, Hall worked on translating Tarkasangraha, an old work of analytical reasoning, from Sanskrit to Hindi. He edited Ballantyne’s Hindi Grammar, as well as a Hindi reader intended as a general study text for students at the college. He also penned the foreword of a book on Benares by the dissenting clergyman Matthew Sherring.

A letter sent by him to the Manchester Guardian in 1850 described the explosion in Benares after a fleet of boats carrying gunpowder inadvertently caught fire. The death toll, Hall said, was in the thousands and included some scions of the Mughal family whose houses were by the riverside. Hall himself had a narrow escape, having left the area a few hours ago.

In 1853, he was made professor in Anglo-Sanskrit at the Government Sanskrit College. But the very next year, he moved to Ajmer, and two years later, in December 1856, to the “Saugor and Nerbudda territories” in the Central Provinces as Inspector of Schools. While touring the areas under his jurisdiction and filing reports, he did not abandon his love for languages: on his travels, he would collect old manuscripts and decipher old land grants and inscriptions he sometimes came by. In between, in 1854, he married Amelia Warde Shuldman, daughter of the late Lt Colonel Arthur Shuldman, in Delhi’s St James Church.

Government Sanskrit College in Varanasi. Credit: Sidsudhir/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence].

During the revolt of 1857, when violence broke out, Hall and some companions found themselves besieged in Saugor Fort. The siege was lifted after Sir Hugh Rose arrived with his armies (following the battle with Lakshmibai of Jhansi). As a skilled rifleman, Hall made sorties against the rebels and witnessed horrors and atrocities. The revolt was brutally suppressed, and Hall described how the successor of the Gond dynasty was blown up by a cannon.

In 1862, Hall and his family left for London, where he taught Sanskrit and Indian jurisprudence at King’s College and became the librarian at the India Office. He succeeded Max Mueller as an examiner for languages, including Hindi, Persian and Sanskrit, for candidates in the Imperial Civil Service. In 1868, he was awarded a Diploma in Civil Law by Oxford University.

The next year, Hall found himself embroiled in a disagreement with Orientalist and scholar Theodor Goldstücker. Writer Simon Winchester notes in his book, The Professor and the Madman (1998), that differences between linguists and philologists could be petty, for they were mercurial and prone to holding grudges. Hall was accused of being a foreign spy and a drunk. Aggrieved, he gave up all his positions and retreated to a near-reclusive life with his family in the village of Marlesford, 100 miles northeast of London.

While the cause of the rivalry is murky, it is possible that it was related to their differences about the interpretation of Sanskrit texts. Both considered themselves heirs of Orientalist Horace Hyman Wilson. Goldstücker, professor of Sanskrit at University College, had worked on Hunter’s Sanskrit dictionary. Hall, for his part, was engaged in editing Wilson’s masterful rendition of the multi-volumed Vaishnava text of medieval times, the Vishnupurana.

From the 1880s, Hall was involved in the Oxford English Dictionary project, which won him gratitude and recognition. For nearly 20 years, he compiled records of words and their origins, answered queries, offered advice and remained the dictionary’s staunchest ally despite never meeting James Augustus Murray, the project’s primary editor. As Murray observed in the preface: “…we have to record the inestimable collaboration of Dr. Fitzedward Hall, whose voluntary labours have completed the literary and documentary history of numberless words, senses and idioms, and whose contributions are to be found on every page.”

In Suffolk, Hall spent time on the Vishnupurana, a medieval Vaishnava text, and continued his research on English philology. His Recent Exemplifications of False Philology (1872) was critical of American scholar Richard Grant White’s Words and their Uses. His Modern English on contemporary grammar and usage appeared in 1873, and in On English Adjectives in -able, he expounded on the origins of popular suffixed words.

He earned a reputation for being abrasive, arguing trenchantly with critics across the Atlantic over the usage of words and their origin. In the late 1880s, he donated his rich collection of manuscripts to Harvard University, and in 1895, the university awarded him a doctorate. He died on February 1 in 1901.

Many old associates remembered him fondly. Edward Byles Cowell, the first professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge University, wrote: “Hall was a little hasty in temper, but he was thoroughly kind at heart. I always admired his wide range of learning, though one could not help wishing that his language had been sometimes gentler in controversy.”

This article is part of a series on notable Americans who visited India before mid-20th century. Read the rest of the series here.