Happy Birthday Alexander Johnston

Tomorrow (25th April) marks the 240th birthday of Sir Alexander Johnston (1775-1849), President of the Council of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and a founding member of the Royal Asiatic Society. He was born in Scotland but taken to Madras at the age of five when his father obtained a post under the Macartney administration. Johnston became fluent in Tamil, Telugu and Hindustani languages from an early age.

He returned to England in 1792 and studied law at Gottingen and London. In 1802 he travelled to Sri Lanka to take up the position of Advocate-General. He became Chief Justice in 1805, concerned with the setting up of trial by jury. He returned to England in 1809 to lobby for the abolition of slavery in Sri Lanka. He was knighted in 1811 and returned to Sri Lanka as President of the Council.

In 1819 he retired to England, when, amongst other pursuits, he helped to found the Royal Asiatic Society in 1823.

Alexander Johnston was a generous benefactor to the Society, not only giving of his time and wisdom, serving on the Council and becoming a Vice-President, but also donating many items to the RAS collections. As I have begun to draw together the early archival material, I have come across several letters relating to his donations. Some of these items still remain in the collections, other not:

This letter, dated 21st June, 1828, states “I have the honour to present to the Society 250 Specimens of the different descriptions of wood, which are produced on the island of Ceylon and a short account of the social purpose for which each description is used on that island.” We certainly no longer have the specimens of wood. Other letters detail donations of :

 “Three brass figures of Buddha, a Cyngalese painting on linen and a book on Palm Leaves in the Pali language” (dated 5th November, 1827):

“48 Maps and Charts relative to different parts of the Island of Ceylon and its coast”, (dated February 21, 1829):

And “the originals of some very curious Cingalese drawings… upon the subject of Buddhism, Astrology and the worship of Demons”, (dated March 7, 1829):

And here are photographs of some of these pictures (Head Catalogue reference 087):

The signs of the Zodiac (087.007)

Saman, guardian god of Adam’s Peak (087.010)

Four of the 27 Asterisms (087.008)

Image of Asuragirirakse surrounded by Hindu representations of the planets (087.013)

What a fantastic gift that we can still study and enjoy 186 years later.  So happy birthday to Alexander Johnston for tomorrow. If you are out for a drink over the weekend, raise a glass to this generous benefactor.