Who was John Leyden?

The manuscript "Tales of the Peries" was collected by a Scottish physician, author, and linguist named John Leyden. This section details Leyden's life, his connections to other major figures in the Scottish literary establishment and in the British East India Company, and links to further readings about Leyden's life and works.

Born in 1775 to poor Scottish farmers, John Leyden arrived in Madras (Chennai) in August 1803, an assistant surgeon hired by the East India Company (EIC). Originally trained as a clergyman, Leyden’s great facility with languages and passion for traditional folktales and ballads brought him into contact with many prominent figures of the Scottish literary establishment, particularly Sir Walter Scott. Faced with few opportunities for liturgical employment, several of Leyden’s friends used their connections with prominent figures in the EIC to secure Leyden his medical position in Madras. After satisfying the requirements for a medical degree in a mere six months, Leyden sailed for India. After working as a surgeon for some months, he was hired as a physician and naturalist for a surveying expedition to newly acquired EIC territory around Mysore, in southern India. During his eight years in the region, Leyden traveled throughout modern southern India, Bengal, Malaysia, and Java, acquiring languages almost as easily as he acquired diseases; he died from disease, probably either malaria or dengue, in 1811, having learned (at a conservative count) Tamil, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Hindi, and possibly Pashto. He was employed at different times by the EIC as a physician, naturalist, surveyor, translator, judge, professor of Hindi, bandit-hunter, and Collector of the Calcutta Mint. He also came into contact with a number of notable public figures in the EIC, including Lord William Bentinck, governor of Madras; James Anderson, a distinguished naturalist; Sir John Malcolm, the EIC representative at Mysore; Thomas Stanford Raffles, governor of Java and founder of Singapore; Philip Dundas, governor of Penang, Malaya; and Sir Gilbert Elliot, Lord Minto, the governor-general of India.

These connections greatly facilitated Leyden’s journeys, and his ability to make these connections was heavily dependent on his domestic connections in the Scottish antiquarian literary establishment. Leyden’s original posting to India was secured by a friend in Scotland; his first acquaintance of Lord William Bentinck, who was the governor of Madras during Leyden’s time there, was made in the literary salons in London. Furthermore, many of Leyden’s manuscripts were subsequently published by friends like Raffles following Leyden’s early death. The dissemination of a manuscript like “The Tales of the Peries” was made possible by Leyden’s friends in the EIC, who had the ability to transport documents between Britain and south Asia, and to also ensure their publication or at least preservation in Britain.

Leyden's Grave
A photo of Leyden's Grave.

Further reading:

Leyden bibliography--secondary and primary works.

Leyden's Political Connections

Leyden and Language