John MacGregor Murray (1745-1822): Persianate and Indic Cultures in British South Asia
The 4th Perso-Indica Workshop
This workshop proposes to examine European engagement with Persian language and textual culture in South Asia. In Mughal India (1526-1857) and in the Princely States emerging with the decline of Mughal central power, Persian language established itself as a lingua franca used by a large number of Muslim and Hindu literati, as well as by European adventurers and officials. During this period, Persian emerged as an important idiom for the expression and reception of Hindu knowledge and traditions. Persian was the official language of the Mughal government and remained so under the British rule until the late 1830s, and even until the last decades of the century in some Princely States. During the colonial period, British officials commissioned a considerable number of Persian works dealing with Indian religions, sciences, history and society. These studies and translations composed by Hindu and Muslim scholars and secretaries (munshi) played a key role in early British understanding of South Asian cultural and natural environment. However, these texts have never been perceived as a coherent corpus by researchers. Some of these texts were translated into English and contributed to the emergence of the field of Indian studies and Orientalism. The texts and the translations produced for the British appear chiefly over an eighty-year period, going roughly from the 1770s until the 1850s. These texts were written for members of the British administration, such as Warren Hastings, Governor-General of Bengal (1772-1785). They were also compiled for other Europeans, such as the French General Claude Martin (d. 1800), who served in the East India Company and under the Nawab of Lucknow.
This workshop will look at an emblematic and little-known figure, that of John MacGregor Murray (1745-1822). Born into a Scottish military family, John MacGregor Murray was educated in Scottish Law at Edinburgh University. Unable to make a living as a lawyer, John Macgregor Murray turned to India and obtained a commission as a cadet in the Bengal Army in 1770. He rose steadily through the ranks of the Bengal establishment until being named colonel and was conferred a baronetcy in 1795 as a reward for his service before leaving India in 1797. In the meantime, he had succeeded his father as head of the MacGregor clan. John MacGregor Murray was an avid commissioner and collector of Persian literature. From the late 1770s onwards, he gathered a vast collection of manuscripts, many of which were original texts. These manuscripts, mostly held at the Berliner Staatsbibliothek, have drawn very little attention but are exceptional in their span. Compiled by Hindu and Muslim munshis, they deal with matters such as Indian religions, customs, law, botany, medicine, agronomy, etc. These texts were based on written and oral sources in vernacular languages and Persian. Most strikingly, John MacGregor Murray was able to assemble a collection of Persian volumes dealing with the religion, law and ethnography of Buddhist Arakan, a region nowadays divided between Myanmar and Bangladesh. While in India he developed a keen interest for the Gaelic and Scottish historical and cultural heritage and was active in the foundation of the Highland Society of Scotland at Edinburgh in 1784. Standing on the threshold of different cultures, he was described by a contemporary as “a Highland Chieftain elevated by Oriental ideas”.