The 201st Anniversary of the Royal Asiatic Society

Last year, 2023, we celebrated the Society’s bicentenary – celebrations that are continuing into 2024. However today, 15th March 2024, marks the 201st anniversary of the inauguration of the Society. Therefore I thought it appropriate within the blog to look at some of the Society’s beginnings, celebrate some of the bicentenary activities and highlight some events of this year.

Before the Society’s inauguration a series of preliminary meetings were held, beginning on 9 January 1823 when fifteen men attended with Henry Thomas Colebrooke, the initiator, in the Chair. From this initial meeting it was resolved that a Society should be “instituted for the promotion of literature, science and the arts as connected with India and other countries lying to the eastward of the Cape of Good Hope”.

Minutes of the preliminary meeting on 9 January 1823

These preliminary meetings culminated in the augural meeting of the Society at the Thatched House Tavern on 15 March 1823, and the rest, you might say, is history… The Society has continued to operate throughout the 200 years since its beginning. Throughout this time, current research in Asian studies has been promulgated through the Transactions and Journal of the Society, and also through its lecture programme, held for many years in the form of General Meetings at which papers were read and, in later times as annual  Lecture Series. The Society has also hosted conferences, symposiums and study days. (The links take you to the catalogues of the archives associated with these activities.) The Society has also freely made its collections available to researchers and the collections have benefitted from the generosity of many of its members. As with any organisation the Society has gone through good times and leaner ones. Over the last few weeks I have been working on the archives associated with the Finances of the Society and therefore have had the opportunity of seeing first hand some of the decisions made to enable to Society to continue.

And so, in 2023, the Society reached its bicentenary. We hosted a number of special lectures and events to mark the occasion, including lectures by members of sister and  allied societies, the presentation of the RAS Medal to Robert Irwin, and of the Bicentenary medal for Exceptional Service to the Society to Dr Gordon Johnson and Professor Francis Robinson. We also curated the Bicentenary Exhibition: Extraordinary Endeavours at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, using our collections to tell the history of the Society within the broader context of Asian studies. Many people came to the opening ceremony and in the following two months the exhibition had a constant stream of visitors, many of whom expressed their appreciation within the visitors’ comment book. If you missed it, I will post some photos below, but also a film of the exhibition, with a commentary by our Director, Dr Alison Ohta, is in the final stages of production and we look forward to making that available for viewing.

Image of the wall and case 4, ground floor.


Image of wall and case 5, ground floor.


Case 8a, lower ground floor


Lower ground floor wall showing image of Lhasa

Lieutenant-Colonel James Tod, the Society’s first Librarian, was not only featured within the Exhibition, but also celebrated with a limited edition re-issue of his Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’han, with a new Companion Volume by Norbert Peabody (co-published by the Society and Yale University Press in December 2023). Copies are still available and more details can be found on our website. We celebrated this magnificent publication with a lunch evening at the Exhibition with Maharaj Kumar Sahib Dr Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar of Udaipur in attendance. Norbert Peabody spoke about the project to republish the Annals and a recording of this can be found on our YouTube channel.

Besides the republication of the Annals, others went walking in the footsteps of James Tod on a Bicentenary Tour of Tod’s Rajasthan brilliantly organised by Dr Liz Driver. Participants visited many of the locations described by Tod including the Palace at Udaipur, Saheliyon Ki Bari a delightful garden with a pavilion where Tod packed his luggage as he prepared to leave India in the Spring of 1822, and the Royal Cenotaphs of Mewar at Ahar. Liz Driver subsequently gave a lecture describing their adventure and this too can be found on our YouTube channel.

And our activities continue. This week saw two lectures by Ann Wilks (CBE) discussing her new publication, Britain’s Man on the Spot in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by Dr Juan de Lara  on  Qaryat al Fāw: An Emporium Between the Classical and Islamic World.  Both lectures were much appreciated.

Ann Wilks
Juan de Lara

Next week we welcome Dr David W. Kim, On Thursday 21 March, 6.30 pm, who will lecture on A South Asian Neutral Power: India of the United Nations on the Korean Peninsula (1947-1955). Dr Kim is a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University, Associate Professor of History, Kookmin University, Seoul, Korea, and Honorary Lecturer in the School of History and Research School of Social Science, Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, a mission specialist at the ANU Institute for Space, and the editor of a book series in East Asian religions and culture (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK). All are welcome to attend.

Alongside our busy lecture programme we are also looking forward to other ways of continuing to celebrate the Society’s history. The film of the exhibition is forthcoming as is a special bicentenary edition of the Journal later this year. Fellows from the Society will visit Norwich on 24th May for guided tours of the Sainsbury Centre Art gallery and Museum, the Nara to Norwich Exhibition at the Forum, and the South Asia Collection. If you are a member and would like to register your interest for this trip please contact Matty Bradley, And on 30 May, 6.30 pm. the Society, in conjunction with Trinity College, Dublin and the Chester Beatty, will host a lecture by Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin,  at the Trinity Long Room Hub. The lecture is open to all and we look forward to seeing you there. The Society is eager to celebrate its long connection with Irish scholars working on Asia while publicising its prizes among students at Irish universities. The event has been made possible by the generous support offered by Dr. Anna McSweeney of Trinity College, Dublin and Dr. Moya Carey and Dr. Ai Fukunaga of the Chester Beatty. More details to follow shortly.