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James Atkinson self-portrait c.1845, digital image (c) National Portrait Gallery, London 2009

James Atkinson (17 March 1780 – 7 August 1852) was a surgeon, artist and Persian scholar - "a Renaissance man among Anglo-Indians" [1]

Early lifeEdit

Atkinson was born in Darlington, County Durham, England, the son of a woolcomber. He showed at an early age a remarkable gift for languages and portraiture and was enabled by the kindness of a friend to study medicine [2] at Edinburgh and London.[3] He first sailed to India in 1802 as Surgeon’s Mate on board a ship of the Honourable East India Company (HEIC). On his second trip in 1805 he was appointed Assistant Surgeon in the Bengal service of the HEIC and placed in medical charge of the station of Backergunj near Dacca [3] in present-day Bangladesh.

It was whilst at Backergunj that he began his study of Persian and other oriental languages.[3] He became a close friend of Sir Charles D’Oyly who was the Collector of Dacca (1808–1812) and a keen amateur artist. George Chinnery stayed with D’Oyly during this period and both D’Oyly and Atkinson became his pupils becoming heavily influenced by his passion for painting Indian landscapes and village life.[4]


Suttee by James Atkinson 1831, digital image (c) British Library Board 2009 (F165)

It was Atkinson's proficiency with languages that brought him to the attention of The Lord Minto, the Governor General of India, who invited Atkinson to Calcutta in 1812 [3] where he was appointed Assistant to the Assay Master at the Calcutta Mint (appointed Deputy Assay Master in 1818).[3] The Assay Master was Horace Hayman Wilson,[5] orientalist and Secretary to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, who published the first Sanskrit to English dictionary in 1819. For most of 1820 while Wilson was setting up the new Mint at Benares Atkinson worked alongside James Prinsep, the antiquarian and numismatist, at the Calcutta Mint.[6]

The appointment at the Mint while not a sinecure as such afforded Atkinson a considerable amount of free time to pursue more academic pursuits. He published a ‘free’ translation of the poem Soohrab an extract from the Sha Nameh by the Persian poet Firdausi in 1814; Hatim Ta’ee, an old romance in the Persian language in 1818 for the use of the students at Fort William College where he held the Deputy Chair of Persian for that year; in 1819 The Aubid an eastern tale and in 1824 The City of Palaces, a collection of poems, the title of which became the epithet for Calcutta during the period of British rule.[7]

Atkinson was a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta and sat on the committee of the Chowringhee Theatre.

Government GazetteEdit

Atkinson was also Editor of the Calcutta Gazette, one of the earliest English language newspapers in India being founded in 1784. It was a weekly newspaper which had the exclusive rights of publishing Government announcements and advertisements affording it an increased circulation and the potential of increased advertising revenues from other sources. In 1815 the Government transferred these rights to the Bengal Military Orphan Society in order to provide an income for the charity as well as providing the orphans with a potential trade. The new paper was named the Government Gazette and was thenceforth printed from the Orphan Society’s Press. Atkinson became the Editor of the new Government Gazette in 1815 and in 1817 the Superintendent of the Press.[3]

Under Atkinson the Government Gazette continued to be a great success publishing two issues per week from 1823 and in 1827 it was the most widely circulated of all the English language newspapers in Bengal.[8] The Government Gazette included local and national news including extracts from English newspapers and those of Bombay and Madras, letters from correspondents, information on the customs and manners of the people of India as well as occasionally translations of Sanskrit hymns and Persian poetry.[9] For the years 1825-1828 Atkinson leased the Press and the Government Gazette from the Orphan Society for an annual fee of 40,000 rupees effectively becoming its proprietor to run as his own business.

Epic of KingsEdit

Laili and Majnun

In 1829 Atkinson left India after a disagreement with the newly arrived Governor General Lord Bentinck [1] concerning Atkinson’s role at the Government Gazette and he spent the next five years in England. It was at this time he took the opportunity to translate an abridged version of the Sha Nameh of the Persian poet Firdausi in prose and verse published in 1832 which won the gold medal of the Oriental Translation Fund. In the same year he published Customs and Manners of the Women of Persia, and their domestic superstitions, translated from the original Persian manuscript (Kitábi Kulsúm Naneh).

In 1833 he returned to India resuming his former profession of Surgeon with the HEIC, during which time he had published a translation of Nizami Ganjavi’s Laili and Majnun and Makhzan ul Asrar, the Treasury of Secrets by the Oriental Translation Fund in 1836.


In 1838 he was appointed Superintending Surgeon of the Army of the Indus, Bengal Division.[3] He proceeded with the Army under Sir John Keane on its ill-fated expedition into Afghanistan to replace the unpopular and weak, but pro-British, Shah Shoojah-ool-Moolk on the throne and oust Dost Mohamed Khan who had been making political overtures to the Russians. Atkinson was present at the storming of Ghuznee in July 1839 and the eventual capture of Kabul shortly after in the First Afghan War; for his part he was awarded the Order of the Dooranee Empire (3rd class). Atkinson was recalled to India in December 1840 to take up his post as Superintending Surgeon of the Cawnpore Division and thus avoided the fate of the remaining British garrison which was destroyed whilst attempting to withdraw to Jellalabad in the winter of 1841.

The Opening in to the Narrow Path above the Siri Bolan from Atkinson's Sketches in Afghaunistan

Atkinson published his journals of his involvement in the campaign in 1842 in The Expedition into Affghanistan, including a background to the conflict, his own journey across northern India to join the Army and his return, the hardship endured by the Army and its followers through the harsh terrain of Afghanistan beset by Beloochee tribesmen and also of the time he spent in Kabul. He writes of the history of the land, its buildings and people, having met and painted many of the protagonists in the campaign, including both Shah Shoojah-ool-Moolk and Dost Mohammad Khan. He realised the impossibility of controlling a country like Afghanistan in his line “Like Sisyphus, we have rolled up the huge stone to the top of the mountain, and if we do not keep it there, our labour will be lost”.[10] The same year Atkinson published Sketches in Afghaunistan, a folio of 25 tinted lithographed plates showing the topography and landscapes of Afghanistan and the Punjab creating an important record of “what was then an unexplored country".[3] Atkinson had planned a second volume but the 'worked up' paintings were lost at sea en route to his British publisher where they were to be engraved; the original sketches he had prepared on the spot however are in the British Library. [2]


Atkinson became a member of the Medical Board in Calcutta in 1845 and was made Inspector General of Hospitals, he retired two years later after 45 years in the Company’s service and returned to England. He died on 7 August 1852 and was interred at Brompton Cemetery, London.


Atkinson married Jane Bathie on 4 October 1815 at Fort William, Calcutta. Together they had four sons and one daughter: Frederick Dayot, Charles D’Oyly, George Francklin, Julia and James Augustus.


Rodolpho, a poetical romance; dedicated to Lady Charlotte Campbell printed by J Denovan for R Phillips & W Glendinning, Booksellers London. Edinburgh 1801

Soohrab, a poem, from the original Persian of Firdousee, being a portion of the Shahnama of that celebrated poet; published under the sanction of the College of Fort William. Printed for the author and sold by Smith, Elder & Co. London 1814

Antiquities of Dacca, with engravings by J Landseer from drawings by Sir C D'Oyly; published by John Landseer 1816. James Atkinson wrote the descriptive text.

Hatim Ta’ee, an old romance in the Persian language; edited, revised and published with the approbation of the College Council, for the use of the junior students in the College of Fort William, 1818

First Canto of Ricciardetto; Calcutta, 1818

The Aubid, an eastern tale; Printed for Black, Kingsbury, Parbury and Allen, Leadenhall Street, London, 1819

Ricciarda, a tragedy in five acts from the Italian of Ugo Foscolo; Calcutta, W M Thacker & Co, 1823

The City of Palaces, a fragment and other poems; printed at the Government Gazette Press, Calcutta, November 1824

Prospectus of The Calcutta Liberal – postscript; Calcutta 1 August 1824

La secchia rapita, or, The rape of the bucket an heroic-comical poem in twelve cantos. Translated from the Italian of Alessandro Tassoni, with notes; published by J M Richardson, Cornhill 1825. Printed by Botson and Palmer, Savoy Street, Strand.

Tom Raw, the Griffin: a Burlesque Poem in Twelve Cantos Illustrated by Twenty-Five Engravings Descriptive of the Adventures of a Cadet in the East India Company's Service, from the Period of His Quitting England to His Obtaining a Staff Situation; printed for R Ackermann, 1828, London. By a civilian and an officer on the Bengal establishment. The drawings were by Sir Charles D'Oyly and the verses by James Atkinson.

Description of The New Process of Perforating and Destroying The Stone in The Bladder; printed for S Highley, 32 Fleet Street and Webb Street, Maze Pond, Borough. Printed by J L Cox, Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s-Inn Fields. London, June 1831

The Sha Nameh of the Persian Poet Firdausi, translated and abridged in prose and verse with notes and illustrations; printed for the Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland. Sold by John Murray, Albemarle Street; and Parbury, Allen & Co Leadenhall Street, 1832

Customs and Manners of the Women of Persia, and their domestic superstitions, translated from the original Persian manuscript (Kitábi Kulsúm Nanch); Oriental Translation Fund. Printed by J L Cox and Son, Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s-Inn Fields. London October 1832

The Loves of Laili and Majnun, a poem, from the original Persian of Nazami; published under the superintendence of the Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by A J Valpy, MA publisher to the Oriental Translation Fund, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, London 1836

Makhzan ul Asrar, the Treasury of Secrets, a Poem; a translation from the poet Nazami, Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland, London 1836

The Expedition into Afghanistan: notes and sketches descriptive of the country, contained in a personal narrative during the campaign of 1839 & 1840, etc.; published by W H Allen & Co, London, 1842.

Sketches in Afghaunistan; published by H Graves & Co, London, 1842


  1. ^ p.185 The Raj, India and the British 1600-1947, various contributors edited by C. A. Bayly, Published by the National Portrait Gallery Publications 1990
  2. ^ p.341 The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Darlington, in the Bishoprick, various contributors, published by Darlington & Stockton Times, 1854
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  4. ^ pp 149 and 224 The Raj, India and the British 1600-1947, various contributors edited by C. A. Bayly, Published by the National Portrait Gallery Publications 1990
  5. ^
  6. ^ p. iii Essays on Indian Antiquities, Historic, Numismatic, and Palaeographic, of the Late James Prinsep, FRS, Edward Thomas (ed.), published by John Murray 1858
  7. ^ p.7 Calcutta, city of palaces: a survey of the city in the days of the East India Company, 1690-1858, J. P. Losty published by the British Library 1990
  8. ^ pp 43-44 History of English Press in Bengal 1780 to 1857, Mrinal Kanti Chanda, Published by KP Bagchi & Company, 1987 ISBN 81-7074-015-0
  9. ^ p. 115 A History of the Calcutta Press , P Thankappan Nair, Published by Firma KLM Pvt Ltd 1987
  10. ^ Preface vii, The Expedition into Affghanistan, James Atkinson, Published by W H Allen & Co 1842

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