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Charles Hamilton (1752 - 1792):
Orientalist and translator

Charles Hamilton was an employee of the East India Company, noted particularly for his translation of significant legal texts forming al-Hedāya, one of the most significant texts in the history of Islamic jurisprudence.

Hamilton was born in Belfast in 1752 or 1753; it is not entirely clear which of Charles or James Hamilton (the latter a merchant in Belfast) was his father though the general tenor is that his father was the former; a sister (of two) was the writer Elizabeth Hamilton (who wrote under the pseudonym “Almeria”). He may have been educated by the celebrated teacher David Manson. He spent two years in a Dublin mercantile house before joining the East India Company in Bengal, becoming a lieutenant in 1778 and taking part in military action against the Afghan Rohilla tribes, who had settled in northern India and were held to have owed a debt to Shuja-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Awadh, an ally of the British. Hamilton produced a history of the Rohillas using original native texts which, an enthusiast for local languages, he translated himself; the resulting work was published in London in 1787. He had also produced a verse tragedy taken from the Italian, The Patriot, in 1784

He then embarked on a translation of al-Hedāya, which had been produced in Persian by the prominent Islamic jurist Burhan al-Din al-Marghinani (1135 – 1197). Hamilton was given five years’ leave of absence by Warren Hastings, Governor-General of Bengal, to produce this work, which was of much importance for the legal administration carried on in India by the British (he used the expression “Mussulman” in the original title). It was published in 1791, Hamilton receiving some assistance from his sister Elizabeth in London, where he died of tuberculosis in 1792 while preparing to return to India as Resident at the court of the Grand Vizier of Oudh. He was interred at Burnham Fields, London. His sisters had a memorial erected to him in the vestibule of First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary Street, Belfast where their uncle had been a Minister, Rev Thomas Mackay, installed in 1756 as assistant to Rev Thomas Drennan, the father of United Irishmen founder Dr William Drennan.

Born: 1752
Died: 1792
Richard Froggatt
Kate Newmann: Dictionary of Ulster Biography (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1993); Dictionary of Irish Biography (vol 4, p 380; Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, 2009/Cambridge University Press);; Burhan al-Din al-Marghinani [Charles Hamilton, translator]: The Hedaya : commentary on the Islamic laws (Karachi 1989); information from Raymond O’Regan, Queen’s University, Belfast