The College of Fort William emerged as both a centre of research and a publication unit, a cradle of creativity as well as scholarship. Planned originally to train probationer British civilians in the languages and cultures of the subjugated country, the college rendered services tantamount to those of a university in promoting modern Indian literatures, Bengali in particular… Under the leadership of William Carey, the College could also claim credit for drawing together Sanskrit pandits and Perso-Arabic munshis to reshape Bengali prose… The variety of the College’s publication also deserve note. From colloquies and popular stories, chronicles and legends, to definitive editions of literary texts.
Fort William College aimed at training British officials in Indian languages and, in the process, fostered the development of languages such as Bengali and Urdu. The period is of historical importance. In 1815, Ram Mohan Roy settled in Calcutta. It is considered by many historians to be the starting point of the Bengali Renaissance.:212 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, Urdu, Persian, Sanskrit, Bengali. Later, Marathi and even Chinese were added. Each department of the college was staffed by notable scholars. The Persian department was headed by Neil B. Edmonstone, Persian translator to the East India Company's government since 1794. 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 Urdu department was entrusted to John Borthwick Gilchrist, an Indologist of great repute. Henry Thomas Colebrooke, 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 Calcutta 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 they did not study Bengali. The authorities decided to appoint Carey, who was with the Baptist Mission in Serampore. He, in turn, appointed Mrityunjoy Vidyalankar as head pandit, Ramnath Bachaspati as second pandit and Ramram Basu as one of the assistant pandits.
Along with teaching, translations were organized. The college employed more than one hundred local linguists. There were no textbooks available in Bengali. On 23 April 1789, the Calcutta Gazette published the humble request of several natives of Bengal for a Bengali grammar and dictionary.
The college was located at the corner of Council House Street and the parade ground, (now named Maidan). After the college closed the building had a series of occupancies. First it was The Exchange of Messrs. Mackenzie Lyall & Co., then offices of the Bengal Nagpur Railway,:271 and lastly the Raj Bhavan ('Government House').:544
The College library of Fort William was an important centre of learning and housed a magnificent collection of old manuscripts and many valuable historical books from across South Asia. Multiple MS copies were printed. When the college was dissolved in 1854, the books of the collection listed for preservation were transferred to the newly formed Calcutta Public Library, now the National Library.
The court of directors of the British East India Company were never in favour of a training college in Calcutta, and for that reason there was always a lack of funds 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. Lord William Bentinck announced his educational policy of public instruction in English in 1835, mostly to cater to the growing needs of administration and commerce.:236 He clipped the wings of Fort William College, and the Dalhousie administration formally dissolved the institution in 1854.
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 textbooks, the Bible, grammar and dictionary in other Indian languages.:112
Mrityunjay Vidyalankar (c. 1762 – 1819) was First Pandit at Fort William College. He wrote a number of textbooks 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 so the contents were possibly provided by other 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.:196
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820–1891) was head pandit at Fort William College from 1841 to 1846. He concentrated on English and Hindi while serving in the college.:64 After discharging his duties as academician, and engagements as a reformer he had little time for creative writing. Yet through the textbooks he produced, the pamphlets he wrote and retelling of Kalidasa’sShakuntala and Shakespeare’sA Comedy of Errors he set the norm of standard Bengali prose.
^Reader in Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University and Director of the Indian Cultural Centre at Suva, Fiji. Ref: Calcutta, the Living City, Vol. I, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, p. vii, Oxford University Press, ISBN0-19-563696-1.
^ abcSarkar, Nikhil, Printing and the Spirit of Calcutta, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol. I, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, pp. 130–2, Oxford University Press, ISBN0-19-563696-1.
^ abSengupta, Nitish, 2001–02, History of the Bengali-speaking People, UBS Publishers’ Distributors Pvt. Ltd., ISBN81-7476-355-4.
^ abcdSengupta, Subodh Chandra and Bose, Anjali (editors), 1976/1998, Sansad Bangali Charitabhidhan (Biographical dictionary) Vol I, ISBN81-85626-65-0(in Bengali).
^Acharya, Poromesh, Education in Old Calcutta, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol I, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, pp. 108–9, Oxford University Press, ISBN0-19-563696-1.
Bowen, John (October 1955). "The East India Company's Education of its Own Servants". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. New Series. London: The Royal Asiatic Society. 87: 105–123. doi:10.1017/S0035869X00114029.