William Marsden

Marsden, William, F.R.S., a distinguished oriental scholar, was born in Dublin, 16th November 1754. Obtaining an Indian appointment in 1771, he broke off his theological studies at Trinity College, and went out to Bencoolen, Sumatra, as secretary to the British representative. His duties were by no means arduous, and he devoted his leisure to the study of the Malay language, and was enabled to lay up the stock of oriental knowledge that was afterwards given to the world in his various publications. After eight years' residence abroad, he returned to England in 1779, with an income of a few hundred pounds a year, determined to devote himself to literature. Before long he became acquainted with Sir Joseph Banks and the leading literary men of the day, and was elected a member of the Royal Society and other learned bodies. His History of Sumatra was published in 1782 — according to Southey, "a perfect model of topographical and descriptive composition."

Having declined several offers of lucrative employment in India, in 1795 he was appointed Second Secretary of the Admiralty, and in due time became Chief Secretary, with a salary of,£4,000 per annum. He discharged the duties of this office for twelve years eventful to the British navy, much to his own honour and the public advantage. In 1807 his health began to suffer from overwork, and he retired on a pension of £1,500. The first fruit of his labour in retirement was the publication, in 1812, of his Grammar and Dictionary of the Malay Language, thirty-three years after he had collected the materials. In 1817 appeared a translation of the Travels of Marco Polo. According to MacCulloch, "this is incomparably the best translation of the celebrated Travels of Marco Polo,... and is in all respects one of the best edited books that have ever been published." Several other works followed — notably Numismata Orientalia. In 1831, from feelings of patriotism, he voluntarily resigned his pension. He died of apoplexy, 6th October 1836, aged 81, and was buried in Kensal-green. He bequeathed his collection of oriental coins and medals to the British Museum, and his library to King's College, London.


16. Authors, Dictionary of British and American: S. Austin Allibone. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1859-'71.

40. Biographical Division of English Cyclopaedia, with Supplement: Charles Knight, 7 vols. London, 1856-'72.