HALHED, Nathaniel Brassey (1751-1830), of West Square, Southwark, Surr.
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Family and Education
b. 25 May 1751, s. of William Halhed, dir. Bank of England, of Noke, Herefs. by Frances née Caswall of Oxford. educ. Harrow c.1765; Christ Church, Oxf. 1768. m. c.1781, Helena née Ribaut, da. of Dutch gov. Chinsura, Bengal. suc. fa. 1786.
Writer, E.I. Co. (Bengal) 1772, Persian translator 1774-6; alderman, Calcutta 1774; commissary-gen. 1776; jun. merchant 1780, home 1782, res. 1785; chief asst. revenue and judicial depts. E.I. House 1809-19.
Halhed befriended Richard Brinsley Sheridan* at Harrow school and they collaborated in a translation of Aristaenetus. At Oxford he studied Arabic and proceeded in the Company service to India, where, at the suggestion of Warren Hastings, he translated the Gentoo code. In 1778 he published a Bengali grammar, having under Hastings’s patronage set up a printing press at Hooghly, the first in British India. He showed himself to be a pioneer of Indo-European philology. On his return to England in 1782, he acted as agent for the nawab of Oudh until 1786, when the court of directors prohibited it. As a trusted friend of Warren Hastings, he took his part in East India House debates, and kept him informed of attempts there and in Parliament to secure his recall from Bengal. He was no mere tool of Hastings, and in 1784, announcing to him his intention to return to Bengal whenever a vacancy in the committee of revenue occurred, stressed that he wished for ‘an appointment conferred by the sole authority of my immediate employers, unconnected with any party influence or interposition’.1 Nothing came of the project then.
At the election of 1790 Halhed was an unsuccessful candidate at Leicester. On 21 June there was a newspaper report of his coming in for a vacancy caused by the return of the Hon. Edward James Eliot* for two seats (both on the family interest), but he did not do so.2 Instead he was returned on the Burrard interest for Lymington a year later, probably as a paying guest. On 26 May 1791 he made a speech in defence of bringing up the report on East India finance, and on 6 June sided with Pitt against Sheridan in the debate on finance. He also supported Pitt’s Russian policy, 20 Feb., and was in favour of stipendiary magistrates for Westminster, 18 May 1792.
The day before this last speech occurred an event which determined Halhed’s political fate. Richard Brothers,3 a self-appointed ‘nephew of the Almighty’, was ejected from Parliament when he arrived to warn the House that the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel was about to be fulfilled. According to Halhed, he first read Brothers’s prophecies on 5 Jan. 1795 and met him five days later. Henceforward, having been promised the government of India when Brothers entered into his kingdom, he frequented his gatherings, not the only Member who did so, but alone in his conviction that Brothers had something to say to the nation. Canning, who with Lord Morpeth visited Brothers on 25 Feb. 1795,
could not prevail upon him to let me know if his convert Mr Halhed meant to favour the House of Commons with a viva voce warning—which I should really have been very glad to learn: as I had remarked Mr H. two or three days since in the House, watching the Speaker’s eye with great earnestness and anxiety, as if he was bent upon seizing the first opportunity of indemnifying himself for the long silence which he has so unwillingly preserved for these three years.4
On 4 Mar. Brothers was arrested on suspicion of treason. Steeped in oriental vaticination, Halhed wrote a pamphlet commentary on Brothers’s work, with an admonition to Pitt to take heed and a curious hint that Fox, leader of the opposition, might be called upon to save the country from the terrible defeat in war envisaged by Brothers. If this was Halhed’s way of indicating that he had changed sides, it was a curious one. On 24 Mar. 1795 he voted for Fox’s censure motion. On 27 Mar. Brothers was pronounced a criminal lunatic. On 31 Mar. Halhed, alleging that he had maintained a ‘uniform and respectful silence’ since he had been in Parliament and had made ‘some sacrifices both on the score of friendship and interest’ in separating himself from those he used to act with, insisted on Brothers’s innocence. He moved that his prophecies, with his own commentaries, be laid on the table of the House. He found no seconder. Canning called it ‘altogether one of the most extraordinary performances that was ever heard in Parliament—perfectly sober, accurate and unanswerable in argument, supposing the premises to be sound and true—but in those premises, to be sure, perfectly mad, inasmuch as they went to prove Brothers not so’.5 On 21 Apr. Halhed tried again. He moved for the proceedings against Brothers to be laid before the House. He admitted that he had to eat his words in a printed paper he had distributed in the House, in which he alleged that Brothers had been prejudged a lunatic. Once again he found no seconder.
Halhed voted indiscriminately in the minorities for Wilberforce’s peace motion, 27 May 1795, for Sumner’s amendment on the Prince of Wales’s financial settlement, 1 June, and for Foster Barham’s motion criticizing the Martinique proclamations, 2 June. When he next surfaced in debate, 10 Nov. 1795, his language was still portentous. Eschewing party attachments, he said he judged measures on their merits. He thought that the alarm about sedition in 1792 was justified; but the events of the past year had shown that further repression was not. The treason trials had misfired hopelessly and Pitt’s present proposals to curb sedition were tantamount to political dictatorship: he meant to pack the House at the next election. Halhed himself was listed ‘con’ in the Treasury survey at that time, with an indication that he was not to expect re-election for Lymington. On 24 Nov. 1795 he was a defaulter. He voted for peace negotiation, 15 Feb. 1796, and for the abolition of the slave trade a month later, but was silent in his last session.
Out of Parliament from 1796, Halhed became disillusioned with Brothers, but his fortune was damaged by investment in French assignats. In July 1809 he obtained an India House appointment which tided him over until 1819. By then he was forgotten; Thomas Moore, who wished to trace him for his biography of Sheridan, supposed that he was ‘if living, in a state of wretched mental imbecility’. It does not appear that he was. He reverted to his interest in oriental literature. He died 18 Feb. 1830, worth £18,000.6 A new edition of his Bengali grammar was projected in Calcutta in 1978.7
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: J. W. Anderson / R. G. Thorne
- 1. DNB; Cornwallis Corresp. i. 253; Add. 29155, f. 350; 29162, f. 12.
- 2. Public Advertiser, 21 June 1790.
- 3. DNB.
- 4. Harewood mss, Canning jnl.
- 5. Gent. Mag. (1795), i. 227; Canning jnl. 31 Mar. 1795.
- 6. C.H. Philips, E.I. Co. 340; Moore Letters ed. Dowden, i. 462; HMC Hastings, iii. 373; PCC admon. act bk. 1830.
- 7. By Dr M. P. Saha of the Asiastic Society.