Commemorating Frederick Marryat and his generosity to the Royal Asiatic Society

August 9th will mark one hundred and sixty-seven years since the death of Captain Frederick Marryat, a Royal Navy man who gained a reputation for jumping into the sea to save men who had fallen overboard. This makes you wonder whether he was one of the few sailors who could actually swim.

Marryat was born in London in 1792. One might guess that he didn’t much like home or school life because, on several occasions, he attempted to run away to sea. Finally his father decided that perhaps the Royal navy was the best career for his son and he joined HMS Imperieuse in 1806. Navy life took him to many places in the world including America and around the Mediterranean, and his vessel was responsible for bringing back to England the despatches from St. Helena announcing Napoleon’s death.

In 1823, commanding HMS Larne, he headed for the far East to take part in an expedition to Burma in 1824. He returned to England in 1826 but had one last sea adventure around Madeira and the Canary islands before finally resigning his commission in November 1830.

Marryat then took up writing as a career. Today he perhaps best remembered for the novels, Mr Midshipman Easy (1836) and Children of the new Forest (1847) but he was a prolific novelist and also edited The Metropolitan Magazine. During this time he visited America and Canada, but finally settled at Manor Cottage, Norfolk in 1843 and lived there until his death in 1848.

He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his invention of a lifeboat and of a new maritime flag signalling system. He was also a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, joining in 1828. On February 16th 1829, Marryat made a large donation to the Society of “Burmese curiosities”. I have found in the archive a catalogue of the collection that he deposited:

The catalogue lists 53 figures of Buddha donated by Marryat. We still have a few figures within the Collections but I have yet to establish whether these figures match any of the descriptions written here. The catalogue also list 93 “Miscellaneous” items. These include figures of elephants, a coconut drinking cup carved with the Zodiac and four Burmese daggers. Unfortunately these items are no longer in our collections, most ‘museum’ items having been relinquished a long time ago in the Society’s history.  The list also states that Marryat donated some Pali Manuscripts:

  • “A manuscript in the square Pali character written upon a sheet of ivory”
  • “Two MSS in the same character written upon the cadjan or palm leaf”
  • “Two Pali MSS written on plain leaves with the broad [Scastripe]

We still have many Pali manuscripts in the Collections. However, Marryat is not listed as a donor of Pali manuscripts in Jacqueline Filliozat’s survey of the Pali Manuscript Collection of the Royal Asiatic Society (JRAS 9:1, 1999). This is probably because this donation seems to have not been recorded in the Donations Register for this period. So, we have here the possibility of perhaps identifying the provenance of some more of the Pali manuscripts in the collection – if we still have them and if these brief descriptions are of any use in identifying the manuscripts!

There is, however, one donation from Captain Marryat that is noted in the  Donations Register for February 7th, 1829: “A large Chinese Painting”. This we definitely have. It hangs in the entrance hall of the Society’s buildings:

Mongolian Hunting Party and Encampment, c.1800 (Head Cat. 042.001)

This “large” painting is 90cm x 157cm and is painted on silk. The photograph above does not really do justice to the painting, so if you get the chance to visit the Society’s buildings, do take a moment or two to gaze on the painting and thank Captain Frederick Marryat for his generosity.

Written by Nancy Charley