of the British Period to 1947
Robert Hyde Colebrooke (1762?-1808)
Robert Hyde Colebrooke was the eldest son of a distinguished and wealthy family of scholars, bankers and diplomats. He was born at Chilham Castle in Kent, England in 1762 or 1763, shortly after his father Robert Colebrooke had left to take up his post as British ambassador to the Swiss Confederacy (1762- 1764). The family had many and close connections with India, including Robert Hyde's uncle, a Chairman of the East India Company whose son was the famous Sanskrit scholar and pioneer of Indian studies, Henry Thomas Colebrooke (1765-1837).
The young Colebrooke went out to India in 1778 to join the Bengal Infantry and was made Lieutenant the same year. He is first reported engaged in a military survey of the eastern route along the coast between Calcutta and Madras. In 1787 he surveyed Penang under Captain Kyd and followed this 1789-1790 with a survey of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, again under Captain Kyd and together with fellow-Lieutenant Archibald Blair.
His Andamanese survey was a relatively minor incident in a crowded life but it has earned Lieutenant Colebrooke the lasting gratitude of all Andamanologists. Somewhat surprisingly, his main contribution lies not so much in his survey but in the field of linguistics. Colebrooke had some contact with Andamanese in the north around Port Cornwallis as well as in the south. He never realized that he was dealing with two quite different groups - for him there were only Andamanese. In fact, no one would ever have known of his friendly contacts with the dreaded Jarawa of the south if he had not published an Andamanese vocabulary, the first ever to have been published. Colebrooke's word list was a mystery for a century for it did not seem to match any language known, Andamanese or otherwise. It was M.V. Portman who discovered on closer inspection in the 1890s that it was a list of Jarawa words with a spelling reflecting a strong Scottish accent! Colebrooke did not come of Scottish stock so perhaps someone else actually wrote down these notes. The Jarawa are an Andamanese group who had been thought to have "always" been inaccessible and hostile. The list is reproduced in the linguistic chapters of this book.
After his expedition to the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Colebrooke surveyed during the second Mysore War (1791-1792) under combat conditions. He did so well that in the following year he was left to look after the Surveyor General's office at Calcutta, to be appointed Surveyor General himself later.
Although the new Surveyor General habitually put work before everything else and cannot be said to have been much of a family man, he nevertheless took out sufficient time from his duties to marry Charlotte Bristow at Calcutta 1795. Thirteen years later his wife survived him with 9 children, some of whom later played prominent parts in Calcutta's Anglo-Indian society.
Many more surveys followed, most notably of the Ganges and Hooghly rivers. From 1804 until 1807 Colebrooke was trying to draw a map of India which he never completed. He does not seem to have been particularly robust physically and yet he laboured tirelessly under the most unhealthy climatic conditions. As he wrote himself in 1804, he found
his own personal exertions... unequal to the quantity of work in hand... Excuse this scrawl as I write by candle light, and my eyes are beginning to fail me.
Colebrooke did not like office work and despite failing health and the ever-present threat of picking up infectious tropical diseases, he continued to go on surveying missions. Most of the 30 years given to him after his 1778 arrival in India were spent on surveying work. Colebrooke never returned to England, not even on leave. He was an acute observer and his painstaking reports and cartography, often illustrated with charming sketches, were highly valued by his superiors and by all who had cause to use them. He was an excellent, highly professional surveyor and obsessive worker. For Colebrooke, his work came before anything else, before his family, his health and even his own life.
In early August 1808, after sending his family on leave to England, he went on what was to be his final survey. On the Ganges plain Colebrooke fell ill, and not for the first time, with dysentery. True to form, after only a few days' rest at Kanpur (Cawnpore) in Uttar Pradesh he went on down the Ganges river. Colebrooke's journal breaks off on 14th September and he died in Bhagalpur, Bihar, on 21st September 1808.
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Last changed 14 January 2001