Royal Asiatic Society Governance: Preliminary Correspondence

Scope and Content

Six letters from William Macbean George Colebrooke to Sir Alexander Johnston in which he corresponds, among other things, concerning the beginnings of the Asiatic Society in London.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Macbean George Colebrooke was educated at Woolwich, entering the Royal Artillery as a First Lieutenant on 12 September 1803, serving in India and Ceylon from 1805-1810. From 1811 he served in Java and was part of the conclusion of peace and return of Java to the Dutch in 1816. He served through the Third Anglo-Maratha War of 1817–8, and accompanied the expedition to the Persian Gulf in 1818. He returned to England in 1821. From 1822 to 1832 Colebrooke was one of the commissioners of what was known as the Colebrooke–Cameron Commission (Eastern Inquiry) investigating the administration and revenues of Ceylon, where he resided from 1825 to 1831.

In 1834 he became Lieutenant-Governor of the Bahamas. His first speech to the Assembly was on 7 April 1835. He administered the colony during the days when slavery gave way to the apprenticeship system prior to its final abolition. In 1837 he was gazetted as Governor of the Leeward Islands, being at the time on leave in England. He assumed the government of Antigua and the other islands on 11 May 1837, and one of his earliest official acts was the proclamation of Queen Victoria. In this government, as in the Bahamas, he tried to improve education and reform prison discipline; he also urged the restoration of the old General Council of the Leewards.

On 25 July 1840 he left Antigua for Liverpool, and after an extended leave was on 26 March 1841 made Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick. In November 1846 he became a Colonel in the army. In 1847 he was gazetted to British Guiana, but never took up the appointment, going instead in 1848, as Governor, to Barbados, where he also administered the Windward Islands. Colebrooke worked for the suppression of crime and the improvement of the prisons. He also suggested a federation of all the Windward Islands, anticipating later proposals. In 1854 the withdrawal of imperial troops from the smaller islands caused some apprehension, but the peace of the islands was not really disturbed.

He became a Major-General in 1854. In January 1856 he relinquished his government and returned to England. He was promoted to Lieutenant-General in 1859 and General in 1865. He died at Salt Hill, near Slough, Buckinghamshire, on 6 February 1870.

The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland was founded by the eminent Sanskrit scholar Sir Henry Thomas Colebrooke on the 15th March 1823. It received its Royal Charter from King George IV on the 11th August 1824 'for the investigation of subjects connected with and for the encouragement of science, literature and the arts in relation to Asia'. It continues as a forum for those who are interested in the languages, cultures and history of Asia to meet and exchange ideas.


The letters were arranged chronologically.

Access Information

Open. Please contact the archivist using the email address given here. The archive is open on Tuesdays and Fridays 10-5, and Thursdays 2-5. Access is to any researcher without appointment but it will help if an appointment is made via phone or email. Please bring photo ID

Acquisition Information

It is assumed that the letters were given by Sir Alexander Johnston to the Society.

Archivist's Note

This material was catalogued by Nancy Charley, RAS Archivist, in 2019.

Conditions Governing Use

Digital photography (without flash) for research purposes may be permitted upon completion of a copyright declaration form, and with respect to current UK copyright law.

Custodial History

Sir Alexander Johnston was heavily involved in the formation of the Society and its early development. He also donated many items to the Society. It is therefore assumed that he gave these letters to become part of the Society's records in its early years.

Related Material

Within the Royal Asiatic Society Governance: Minutes of Council Meetings (RAS GOV1) are the "Minutes: Preliminary Meetings: Establishment of the Asiatic Society" (RAS GOV1/1) which give details of the early meetings to organise the formation of the Society.

Geographical Names