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John Beames

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John Beames

John Beames
Born (1837-06-21)21 June 1837
Died 1 May 1902(1902-05-01) (aged 64)
Nationality England
Occupation Civil servant, author
Parents Rev. Thomas Beames

John Beames (21 June 1837 – May 1902) was a civil servant in British India and an author. The eldest son of Rev. Thomas Beames, preacher of St James's Church, Piccadilly and grandson of John Beames Esq., a barrister and later bencher of Lincoln's Inn, Beames was educated at Merchant Taylors' School and Haileybury College before leaving for India in 1858. He served in the Punjab from March 1859, to late 1861 and in Bengal from December 1861 until the conclusion of his service in 1893. Latterly, Beames was employed in the Bengal Presidency, becoming a permanent Collector in 1867 and a Commissioner in 1881. He thrice officiated as a Member of the Board of Revenue. By the time he retired from the ICS in March 1893, Beames had gained extensive knowledge of Indian life and in 1896 chose to set down in writing an account of his career. This account was first published in 1961 as Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian.

Early life

Beames was born in the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich, a few hours after the death of William IV and the consequent ascent of Queen Victoria to the English throne. He spent his formative years moving around England with his father's appointment to various parishes before being sent to Merchant Taylors' in 1847 and Haileybury in 1856. In his fourth term at Haileybury, Beames won the College's Classic, and Sanskrit prizes as well as the Persian Medal. This affinity with languages served him well in India and permitted him to excel in his early examinations in Calcutta.


Beames arrived in India in 1858 and served in the Punjab from March 1859 to late 1861. He was a member of the Indian Civil Service in British India. He was a District Officer and Collector of several districts in Bengal, and the Commissioner of Chittagong. He was also a scholar of Indian history, literature and linguistics. His great work was a comparative grammar of Indo-Aryan languages, published in 3 volumes in 1872–1879. In his autobiography, which was not published until 1961, he describes himself as "an obscure person – an average, ordinary, middle-class Englishman".

Career and scholarly contribution

Beames's scholarly contributions began early in his career. While at the district of Champaran, Bihar, he published essays in the Bengal Asiatic Society. These dealt with the question of retaining Arabic element in the official form of Hindustani. Treating Bishop Caldwell's Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Languages as a model, he commenced work on the counterpart of Aryan languages. To The Journal of the Bengal Asiatic Society, Beames contributed essays on Chand Bardoi and other old Hindi authors and studies on the antiquities and history of Orissa (1870–1883). In 1891, he published a pioneering volume Bengali Grammar, and after his retirement, he wrote for Imperial and Asiatic Quarterly Review. His reputation rightly rests on the Comparative Grammar of the Aryan Language of India, published in volumes in 1872, 1895 and 1879. He proceeded to serve as the Collector of Balasore and Cuttack, became an important interlocutor of local linguistic and cultural aspirations. Little known even in Orissa, his evocative "Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian" is generally confined to antiquarian circles. The classicists remember his celebrated "Comparative Grammar of the Aryan Languages of India" and essays in Indian Antiquary and Journal of the Bengal Asiatic Society. And yet, Beames remains foremost in his interventions for the survival of the Oriya language. He made outstanding contributions for regional formations in Eastern India.

Role in the survival of the Oriya language

The OriyaBengali language conflict had basically an economic origin. Language hegemony was deployed by sections of the Bengali colonial administration for the exercise of power by cornering government jobs. One of the earlier manifestations by resistance to the colonial administration in Odisha was the assertion of linguistic and cultural identity. .[1]

In 1867, for instance, Deputy Magistrate Rangalal Bandhopadhyaya spoke in public meeting of the primacy of Bengali over Oriya. Like wise, well-known Bengali scholar Rajendralal Mitra who came to study the temples of Cuttack declared that there was no need to have a separate language for a mere 2 million Oriya population. In fact, Mitra argued that Odisha was doomed to remain backward so long as it had a separate language. Pandit Kanti Chandra Bhattacharya, a teacher of Balasore Zilla School, published a little pamphlet named ‘Udiya Ekti Swatantray Bhasha Noi (Oriya not an independent language) where Mr. Bhattacharya claimed that Oriya was not a separate and original form of language and was a mere corruption of Bengali. He suggested British Government to abolish all Oriya Vernacular Schools from Odisha and to alter into Bengali Vernacular Schools.[2] Beames examines both the languages from close quarters and suggests that as a separate language “Uriya extends along the sea coast from Subarnarekha to near Ganjam.’ Landwards, its boundary is uncertain, it melts gradually into the Boud (Boudh) and other rude hill dialects and co-exists with them." Beames wrote three notes that remain supremely important in this regard. 'On the relation of the Oriya to the other modern Aryan language,' ‘On Oriya language, script and literature' and 'Urya.'[3] These refuted the claim that Oriya was a dialect of Bengali, specifically the conspiracy of Bengali intellectuals to abolish Oriya Language got dimmed Beames's exposition of the origin of Oriya language and study of its evolution brought him closer to the Oriya people who were battling then for the survival of their language.

John Beames represents perhaps the best face of British colonialism in Odisha. Educated, enlightened and well-meaning, he adapted to the land and its culture. While his contributions in the field of administration would be forgotten, his linguistic and cultural legacy remains historic. Beames empathised with the local culture and aspirations and made decisive interventions in the comparative study of languages. His support of the cause of Oriya was timely. It contributed vitally to community formation in Odisha during the 19th century.

Beames, who stayed for a considerable time in Odisha and worked for the survival of Oriya language quotes:

At a period when Oriya was already a fixed and settled language, Bengali did not exist. The Bengalis spoke a vast variety of corrupt forms of Eastern Hindi. It is till quite recent times that we find anything that can with proprietary to be called a bengali language.[4]
We may place the Hindi with its subsidiary forms Gujurati and Punjabi first fixing their rise and establishment as a modern languages distinct from their previous existence as Prakrut till the 12th or m13th century. Oriya must have quite completed its transformation by the end of the 14th century. Bengali was no separate independent language but a maze of dialects without a distinct national or provincial type till the 17th or beginning of the 18th century. It was not till the gradual decay of the central Mohamedan power of Delhi enabled the provincial governors to assume an independent position that Bengali severed itself from Hindi and assumed characteristics which now vindicate for its right to be called a separate language.[5]

Beames and Orissa

Beames' Memoirs records his stay in Orissa as a period of great happiness and productivity. Orissa had just recovered from a severe famine in 1866 when he arrived in Balasore in 1869. He learnt Oriya and wrote on its language, literature, temple iconography, fortresses and folklore. He identified with local sentiments for the preservation and promotion of the Oriya language. On a Copper Plate Grant from Balasore AD 1483, argued that Oriya script had developed from a southern variety of Kutila type. He wrote on the poetry of Dinahrushna Das pioneered comparative folk culture studies with the publication of his folklore of Orissa.


John Beames was not well known for his progressive views. A staunch representative of reactionary Anglo-Indian opinion, he sincerely believed that officers of a certain rank, not higher than District Magistrate and Collector, and belonging to the native population, should not be given salaries on par with salaries given to British officials in the ICS. This he clearly stated in a deposition to the Aitchison Committee which looked into the possibility of equalising the salaries of all officials, British and Indian, in the ICS at the time of the Ilbert Bill controversy in 1883. Beames was a die-hard conservative who also allowed his personal preferences to colour his judgements and interactions with his Indian juniors in the ICS. For example, while deposing before the Aitchison Committee, he insisted that one of his junior colleague in ICS, Brajendranath De, esq., then a Joint Magistrate of Hooghly, under the (Acting) Commissionership of Beames, should be told not to sit in his and other British committee members' presence. Beames' demand was not met by the committee members, and he was asked to leave the room while De, fully seated, was questioned by the members of the committee. Later De's views were also heeded in the committee's report.

See also


  • B. P. Ambashthya, editor, Beames' contributions to the political geography of the subahs of Awadh, Bihar, Bengal, and Orissa in the age of Akbar. Patna: Janaki Prakashan, 1976.
  • John Beames, A comparative grammar of the modern Aryan languages of India : to wit, Hindi, Panjabi, Sindhi, Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya, and Bangali. London: Trübner, 1872–1879. 3 vols.
  • John Beames, Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian. London: Chatto & Windus, 1961.
  • Henry Miers Elliot, Memoirs on the History, Folk-lore and Distribution of the Races of the North Western Provinces of India: Being an Amplified Edition of the Original Supplemental Glossary of Indian Terms, 2 vols. revised by John Beames. London: Trübner, 1869; New Delhi, Asian Educational Services, 2 vols. (2004) ISBN 81-206-1905-6
  • John Beames’s Essays on Orissa History and Literature : Edited by Kailash Patnaik, Published by Prafulla Pathagara, Jagatsinghpur, Cuttack, 2004

External links


  1. ^ Pritish Acharya, "Nationalistic Politics: Nature, Objectives and Strategy.” From Late 19th Century to Formation of UPCC,” in Culture, Tribal History and Freedom Movement, ed. P.K. Mishra, Delhi: Agam Kala Prakasham, 1989
  2. ^ Sachidananda Mohanty, “Rebati and the Woman Question in Odisha,” India International Centre Quarterly, New Delhi, Vol. 21, No.4, Winter 1994
  3. ^ John Beames's Essays on Orissa History and Literature : Edited by Kailash Patnaik, Published by Prafulla Pathagara, Jagatsinghpur, Cuttack, 2004
  4. ^ Beams, Comparative Grammar of four languages, Vol I, p. 119
  5. ^ Beams, Comparative Grammar of four languages, Vol I, p.120
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