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Fort William College (also called the College of Fort William) was an academy and learning centre of Oriental studies established by Lord Wellesley, then Governor-General of British India. It was founded on July 10, 1800 within the Fort William complex in Calcuttamarker. Thousands of books have been translated from Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Bengali, Hindi and Urdu at this institution.

The college

Fort William College aimed at training British officials in Indian languages and in the process it fostered the development of languages such as Bengali and Hindi. The period is of historical importance. In 1815, Ram Mohan Roy settled in Calcutta. It is considered by many historians to be starting point of the Bengal renaissance. The establishment of The Calcutta Madrassa in 1781, the Asiatic Society in 1784 and the Fort William College in 1800, completed the first phase of Kolkata’s emergence as an intellectual centre.

Teaching of Asian languages dominated: Arabic, Hindustani, Persian, Sanskrit, Bengali; and later Marathi and even Chinese were added. Each department of the college was staffed by notable scholars. The Persian department was headed by Neile B. Edmonstone, Persian translator to the government. His assistant teacher was John H. Harington, a judge of Sadar Diwani Adalat and Francis Gladwin, a soldier diplomat. For Arabic studies, there was Lt. John Baillie, a noted Arabist. The Hindustani language department was entrusted to John Borthwick Gilchrist, an Indologist of great repute. H.T. Colebroooke, the famous orientalist, was head of the Sanskrit department. William Carey, a non-civilian missionary and a specialist in many Indian languages, was selected to head the department of vernacular languages. While notable scholars were identified and appointed for different languages, there was no suitable person in Kolkata who could be appointed to teach Bengali. In those days the Brahmin scholars learnt only Sanskrit, considered to be the language of the gods, and did not study Bengali. The authorities decided to appoint Carey, who was with the Baptist Mission in Seramporemarker. He, in turn, appointed Mrityunjoy Vidyalankar as head pandit, Ramnath Bachaspati as second pandit and Ramram Bose as one of the assistant pandits.

Along with teaching, translations were organized. The college employed more than one hundred local linguists. At that time there were no textbooks available in Bengali. On 23 April 1789, Calcutta Gazette published the humble request of several Natives of Bengal for a Bengali grammar and dictionary.


It was located at the corner of Council House Street. The house was subsequently occupied by Messrs. Mackenzie Lyall & Co., and known as The Exchange. Still later, it housed the offices of Bengal Nagpur Railway. In those days, it was at one corner of the parade ground, now known as the Maidanmarker. The Raj Bhavanmarker (then known as Government House) was opened a little later.


For teaching purposes the College of Fort William accumulated a library of old manuscripts (from all over South Asia) and added multiple copies of its own imprints. The list of books recommended later for preservation includes many books of historical value. Subsequently, when the college was wound up, it gave away the magnificent collection in the library to the newly formed Calcutta Public Library, now the National Librarymarker.


The court of directors of the British East India Company were never in favour of a training college in Kolkata and as such there always was a fund crunch for running the college. Subsequently a separate college for the purpose, The East India Company College at Haileybury (England), was established in 1807. However Fort William College continued to be a centre of learning languages.

With the British settling down in the seat of power, their requirements changed. Bentinck announced his educational policy of public instruction in English in 1835, mostly to cater to the growing needs of administration and commerce. He clipped the wings of Fort William College and the Dalhousie administration formally dissolved the institution in 1854.

Eminent scholars

Fort William College was served by a number of eminent scholars. They contributed enormously towards development of Indian languages and literature. Some of them are noted below.
  • William Carey (1761–1834) was with Fort William College from 1801 to 1831. During this period he published a Bengali grammar and dictionary, numerous text books, the Bible, grammar and dictionary in other Indian languages.
  • John Borthwick Gilchrist (June 1759 - 1841)
  • Mrityunjay Vidyalankar (1762?–1819) was First Pandit at Fort William College. He wrote a number of text books and is considered the first ‘conscious artist’ of Bengali prose. Although a Sanskrit scholar he started writing Bengali as per the needs of Fort William College. He published Batris Singhasan (1802), Hitopodesh (1808) and Rajabali (1808). The last named book was the first published history of India. Mrityunjoy did not know English and as such the contents were possibly provided by the English-knowing scholars of Fort William College.
  • Tarini Charan Mitra (1772–1837), a scholar in English, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic and Persian, was with the Hindustani department of Fort William College. He had translated many stories into Bengali.
  • Lallulal (also spelt as Lalloolal or Lallo Lal), the father of Hindi Khariboli prose, was instructor in Hindustani at Fort William College. He printed and published in 1815 the first book of old Hindi literature, Tulsidas’s Vinaypatrika.
  • Ramram Basu (1757–1813) was with the Fort William College. He assisted William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward in the publication of the first Bengali translation of the Bible.
  • Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820–91) was head pandit at Fort William College from 1841 to 1846. He concetrated on English and Hindi while serving in the college. After discharging his duties as academician, and engagements as a reformer he had little time for creative writing. Yet through the text books he produced, the pamphlets he wrote and retelling of Kalidas’s Shakuntala and Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors he set the norm of standard Bengali prose.
  • Madan Mohan Tarkalankar (1817–58) taught at Fort William College. He was one of the pioneers of text book writing.


  1. Sarkar, Nikhil, Printing and the Spirit of Calcutta, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol. I, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, pp. 130–2, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195636961.
  2. Sengupta, Nitish, 2001–02, History of the Bengali-speaking People, p. 212, UBS Publishers’ Distributors Pvt. Ltd., ISBN 8174763554.
  3. Mukhopadhyay, Prabhatkumar, Rammohun O Tatkalin Samaj O Sahitya, 1965, pp. 47–51, Viswa Bharati Granthan Bibhag .
  4. Cotton, H.E.A., Calcutta Old and New, 1909/1980, p. 271, General Printers and Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
  5. Cotton, H.E.A., p. 544.
  6. Sengupta, Nitish, 2001/2002, History of the Bengali-speaking People, p236, UBS Publishers’ Distributors Pvt. Ltd., ISBN 8174763554
  7. Sengupta, Subodh Chandra and Bose, Anjali (editors), 1976/1998, Sansad Bangali Charitabhidhan (Biographical dictionary) Vol I, p. 112, ISBN 8185626650 .
  8. Acharya, Poromesh, Education in Old Calcutta, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol I, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, pp. 108–9, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195636961.
  9. Sengupta, Subodh Chandra and Bose, Anjali, p. 196.
  10. Sengupta, Subodh Chandra and Bose, Anjali, p. 64.
  11. Sengupta, Subodh Chandra and Bose, Anjali, p. 391.

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