The Royal Asiatic Society was founded on the 15th March 1823, so this week marks its 194th birthday. Its inaugural meeting was held in the Thatched House Tavern on St James Street, London, and the chair was taken by Henry Thomas Colebrooke, who is now considered as the Society’s founder. Colebrooke had previously been chairman of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta from 1806-1815, and on his return to England he was keen to create a similar Society. A group of gentlemen had first met at Colebrooke’s house on 8th January 1823, to “consider the expediency of instituting a Society for the encouragement of science, literature and the arts in connection with India, and other countries eastward of the Cape of Good Hope”. These gentlemen included George Staunton and Alexander Johnston, who along with Colebrooke would feature prominently in the Society in its earliest years.
In truth, it is the the birthday of the Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. In June 1823, it was announced that the King would grant the Society a Royal Charter and the actual charter us dated 11 August 1824.
Many of the first members were very generous with their donations to the Society of items which they had brought back from Asia. The first Librarian was Colonel James Tod who presented a number of Sanskrit Manuscripts to the Society including a complete Mahābhārata. Many other items collected by Tod were presented to the Society after his death in 1851 including a large collection of watercolours and drawings which had been used fir his publication: Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan. Here are a couple of examples:
The tradition of having a Librarian has continued throughout the history of the RAS. Other Librarians included Sir Graves Haughton, Edwon Norris, Richard Pankhurst, and more recently Michael Pollock, Kathy Lazenblatt, and the current Librarian, Ed Weech. To this was added the position of Archivist, to which I, Nancy Charley, was appointed in 2014. Both Ed and I feel privileged to be able to work with the RAS Collections and on Tuesday 14th March, we were delighted to lecture on some of the characters for whom the Society holds Personal Papers.
Ed chose to talk about Thomas Manning, the China scholar and the first Englishman to Lhasa, who was appointed as Honorary Chinese Librarian to the RAS when Sir George Staunton donated his large collection of Chinese books. We acquired the majority of our Papers of Thomas Manning in 2015 and Ed is currently using them to research his PhD.
I chose to speak about the Personal Papers of Richard Burton – a Collection that the Society has held since 1939.
The Richard Burton Collection was owned by Oscar Eckenstein and in the talk I explored the lives of Richard Burton, his wife Isabel, and Oscar Eckenstein.. The connection between Eckenstein and Richard Burton has been explored in an earlier blog. We have much to be grateful for the passion with which Eckenstein collected Burton material – of both Richard and Isabel. Because of him we hold an almost complete collection of the Burton’s works.
If you would like to discover more about Manning, the Burtons or Eckenstein, then the podcast is available here
So, if you are out for a drink in the next few days, raise a glass to toast the 194th birthday of the RAS. We are already beginning to plan for its 200th anniversary in 2023 and we are hoping to hold many events in which our Collections will be highlighted.