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Hand-coloured woodcut of St Jerome in his study ;

Marsden Collection

14 May 2020

The Marsden Collection comprises books from the library of William Marsden (1754-1836), orientalist and collector. Marsden worked for the East India Company in Sumatra before joining the staff of the Admiralty, where he rose to the post of first secretary. A great linguistic scholar and collector, he built up an important and extensive library of works on languages and linguistics

Fringe Crested Cockatoo from James Grant's Narrative of a voyage of discovery (London, 1803).

The collection covers travel, voyages of exploration and discovery, foreign language dictionaries and grammars, and printing and numismatics. It also holds a number of extremely rare Bibles, including the only recorded surviving copy of the Book of Genesis in an Algonquian language called Massachusett, printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1655.

Marsden presented his library of books and manuscripts to King’s in 1835. In 1918 about a third of the collection was transferred to other parts of the University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies for material in oriental languages and School of Slavonic and East European Studies for material in Slavonic languages).

First page of text from the Algonquin Genesis, printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1655. With decorative woodcut headpiece and initial letter.

William Marsden (1754-1836)

William Marsden was born on 16 November 1754 at Verval, Co Wicklow, Ireland, and received a classical education at schools in Dublin. His father was a shipping merchant and banker. In 1771, at the age of 16, he joined his eldest brother John at Fort Marlborough (Bencoolen) in west Sumatra to work in the service of the East India Company. From his appointment as a writer, he rose to the position of sub-secretary and then principal secretary to the company’s government. During his eight years in Sumatra, Marsden carefully observed and collected materials on the island and on the manners and language of the indigenous population, particularly of the Rejang people, which he drew on for his later works.

By 1778, at the age of 23, he contemplated moving to London, attracted by its scientific and learned societies. In his memoir he noted:

'I had heard and read much of the meetings, in London, of scientific and learned persons, of the attention paid to travellers who visited distant countries and communicated their observations, and especially of the enthusiastic spirit of curiosity excited, not in England only but throughout Europe, by the publication of the Endeavour’s voyage to the islands of the Pacific Ocean and round the world, compiled chiefly from the journals of Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander, the former of whom was soon elevated to the president’s chair of the Royal Society. The contemplation of these circumstances raised in my breast a longing desire to be allowed the opportunity of associating with such men, and to become a participator in their liberal pursuits.'

A year later Marsden resigned from his post in Sumatra and arrived in England in December 1779. He was first introduced to Sir Joseph Banks and his eminent circle in 1780 at Banks's House in Soho Square. Marsden later remarked:

'… the most important introduction, and which tended materially to influence the character of my future life, was that to Mr. (afterwards, in March 1781, Sir Joseph) Banks, the distinguished President of the Royal Society. His acquaintance had long been an object of my ambition ….'

Opening of William Marsden's 'Remarks on the Sumatran Languages', Archaeologia, 6, 1782.

Encouraged by Banks, Marsden wrote a paper on the languages spoken in Sumatra which was read at the Society of Antiquaries in 1781 and later published in Archaelolgia (6, 1782), his first published work. In the following years Marsden became a member of numerous learned societies and academies and received many honours. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1783 and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1785. He was a founding member of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. He received an honorary degree of DCL at Oxford in 1786. He was elected a member of the Royal Society Club in 1786 and its treasurer from 1787 to 1804.

In 1795 Marsden accepted the post of second secretary of the Admiralty and from 1804, until his resignation (due to ill health) in 1807, he held the position of first secretary. In August 1807 he married Elizabeth Wilkins, daughter of Sir Charles Wilkins. For the remainder of his life Marsden devoted himself to various literary pursuits, primarily relating to Oriental literatures and numismatics.

By the 1830s Marsden’s health had deteriorated. In July 1834 he offered his vast collection of coins, described in his Numismata Orientalia illustrata(London, 1823-5), to the British Museum. Taking into account that the British Museum already held copies of a considerable proportion of books in his own library, on 30 January 1835 Marsden presented his extensive library of books and manuscripts to the recently founded King’s College London.

Marsden died on 6 October 1836 at his home in Aldenham, Hertfordshire. Following his death his widow Elizabeth edited A brief memoir of the life and writings of the late William Marsden, D.C.L., F.R.S., &c. &c., written by himself, printed in 1838 ‘for private circulation only’.

History of Sumatra

In 1783 Marsden published his History of Sumatra, his most important work and the one that secured his academic reputation. His work was the first detailed account of Sumatra to be published in English, or in any European language. He approached the book in a rigorous and scientific manner and in it he established scientific categories of analysis and provided the basis for the development of Sumatran and Indonesian studies.

Title page of William Marsden's 'History of Sumatra' (London, 1784).

It won immediate recognition and was seen as a model that other writers should follow. A contemporary of Marsden, the historian John Crawfurd (1783-1868), wrote of Marsden that he was ‘of all the writers who have treated of the literature, history, or manners of the Archipelago, the most laborious, accurate, able and original’. The history of Sumatra was translated into German in 1785 and into French in 1788. A copy of the second edition, which was once owned by the British garrison on Malta, is held in our Rare Books Collection. A third, substantially revised edition was published in 1811.

A dictionary and grammar of the Malay language

While in Sumatra Marsden developed an academic interest in the Malay language and related tongues that was to last the whole of his life. He published both a dictionary and a grammar of the Malay language in 1812. These were his most significant and enduring linguistic works. Marsden’s original intention had been to publish the grammar and the dictionary as one volume. However, he was persuaded to publish them separately because ‘however convenient such an arrangement might prove to the private student, it must be otherwise in places of public education, where their separate use ... would be considered as indispensable.’ We hold a copy of Marsden's Grammar of the Malayan language in our Rare Books Collection.

The dictionary, in particular, broke new ground in terms of methodology. Unlike many previous dictionaries and word lists, Marsden used Arabic characters for the Malay words and arranged the entries following the alphabetical order of the Arabic characters. Another innovation is the inclusion of examples of phrases from native sources, many of which were taken from manuscripts in his collection.

Armorial bookplate of William Marsden.

Marsden’s circle

Marsden gave copies of his own works to his friends and fellow scholars. Likewise, Marsden’s collection of books was augmented by gifts from patrons, fellow scholars, friends and admirers. Sir Joseph Banks was a great patron of Marsden in his studies, as Marsden acknowledged in his memoirs when he wrote ‘Sir Joseph Banks considers me as a depository of everything respecting language that comes to his hands.’ The collection includes a vocabulary of the Islandic language in manuscript, compiled for Banks by Uno von Troil, a Swedish theologian, who accompanied him on an expedition to Iceland in 1772.

Sir George Staunton (1737-1801), a great friend of Marsden, gave the latter a copy of his two-volume work An authentic account of an embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China (1797). A note tipped into the front of volume one, dated 20 July 1797, reads ‘Sir George Staunton presents his respects to Mr. Marsden, and requests his acceptance of a copy of the authentic account of the late Embassy to China with a volume of plates relating to it.’

The Emperor Kien Long, from George Staunton's 'Authentic account of an embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China' (London, 1797).

This book is of note, not only because of the author’s friendship with Marsden, but also because Marsden drew parallels between Niccolo Polo presenting his son Marco to the Great Khan and Sir George Staunton presenting his son to the Emperor. He wrote that ‘it is impossible for those who have read the account of Lord Macartney’s embassy not to be struck with the resemblance between this scene and that which passed at Johol in 1793 when Sir George Staunton presented his son... to the venerable Kien Long.’

Marsden was introduced to various eminent Royal Society members including Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808), at Banks's House at Soho Square. Dalrymple became hydrographer to the Admiralty in 1795 and after his death his extensive library covering works on voyages and travels, atlases, charts, maps, and nautical papers was bequeathed to the Admiralty. Marsden, however, received Dalrymple’s oriental language books. The collection includes a manuscript volume on the Tagalog language spoken in the Philippines. It is not known how Dalrymple acquired it. What is known is that Dalrymple took part in the British occupation of Manila in 1762, when a number of churches and religious houses were desecrated, including the Augustinian Church. It seems plausible that it was acquired at this time.

Alexander Dalrymple’s bookplate reads: ‘This book is presented to William Marsden, Esq. on condition, that if his Collection of languages is separated, or sent out of England, it shall be returned to the Library of his affectionate Friend. High-Street, Marybone [sic]’. A note on the bookplate reads: ‘Afterwards bequeathed to me. W.M.’ Marsden commented that, ‘the beauty of the writing cannot be surpassed’. There is a paper label on the front of the manuscript, which reads ‘1697’. This number might be a date and the text corresponds to that of Arte, y reglas de la Lengua Tagala (the printed text is slightly fuller), by Tomas Ortiz. Ortiz is known to have been in the Phlippines in thee 1690s. However, the printed version first appeared at Manila in 1740. Given the large discrepancy between the two dates it could be argued that ‘1697’ might be a shelfmark or similar.

Marsden the collector

Marsden purchased most of his books. He had a keen eye for quality and for a bargain. He wrote:

'I never give a high price, but I look sharp after the catalogues, and it frequently happens that the booksellers who purchase old libraries are ignorant of the value of particular works, and in my line as much as any other.'

Not only did he frequent the shops of booksellers but he also attended the duplicate auctions of learned institutions and the sales of private libraries.

François Solier's 'Histoire ecclesiastiq[u]e des isles et royaumes du Japon' (Paris, 1627).

The image shown here is from François Solier’s Histoire ecclesiastiq[u]e des isles et royaumes du Japon (1627). Marsden bought this book from a sale of duplicates held by the British Museum in 1787. It belonged originally to Sir Hans Sloane, the renowned physician and collector and former President of the Royal Society. This book and several others now in the Marsden Collection can be identified as having once been Sloane’s by the presence of a distinctive black octagonal ownership stamp of the British Museum that was originally reserved for books with a Sloane provenance. This one also has a shelfmark on its title page similar to that used by Sloane. Other books in the collection have inscriptions on their title pages in the code using alchemical symbols that Sloane used to mark his books with the year of purchase and the prices he paid for them.

Part of the route of Marco Polo, from Marco Polo. 'The travels of Marco Polo, a Venetian, in the thirteenth century (London, 1818).

One of Marsden’s most enduring works is his translation of Marco Polo: The travels of Marco Polo, a Venetian, in the thirteenth century (1818). Marsden approached this translation with the same scholarly integrity with which he approached his other work. He examined the various manuscript traditions and wrote an eighty-page introduction and extensive footnotes based on information gathered from his contacts in the East. For example, when Marco Polo talks of the giant pears found in Quinsai, Marsden supplies a note in which he relates information received from Henry Browne, the head of the East India's factory at Canton, about giant pears from the province of Fo-kien.

It was well received at the time and received a favourable review in the Quarterly review, where it was compared favourably with another translation of Marco Polo published in the same year. However, while his translation has lasted well, being reprinted numerous times, his extensive notes were quickly overtaken by scholarship. When the translation was re-edited for re-publication in 1854 many of Marsden’s notes were left out and there were numerous corrections and alterations to the text in light of current scholarship. The translation has stood the test of time, however, and is still in print in a re-edited form.

General comparison of languages

Throughout his life, Marsden harboured the ambition of writing a general comparison of all languages. He never completed this undertaking, realising that it was too vast a project if he was to complete it in the manner it deserved. Also, he recognised that even though he had collected vast amounts of relevant material he had not collected enough. Furthermore, other authors had published works that partially covered this ground. Yet this idea of a general comparison of languages influenced both of the catalogues of languages that he published.

The first, published in 1796, entitled A catalogue of dictionaries, vocabularies, grammars and alphabets, endeavoured to list all published dictionaries, grammars and word-lists in every language except the Classical languages, Hebrew and the major modern European languages. The sub-title of the second, ‘catalogue of books and manuscripts collected with a view to the general comparison of languages, and to the study of Oriental literature’, the catalogue of his own library, reflects this idea even more clearly. The collection contains several copies of Bibliotheca Marsdeniana philologica et orientalis(1827), one of which is marked up and annotated in Marsden’s own hand.

Title page of volume one of the Complutensian Bible, showing Papal arms.

Marsden assembled a matchless collection of printed Bibles from all over the world. The collection includes a copy of the Complutensian Polyglot, the first of the great polyglot versions of the Bible. It was instigated by and produced at the expense of Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros (1436-1517).

The work of translating the Bible started in 1502 at the University of Alcalá, which Jiménez had founded. Working under the direction of Diego Lopez de Zuniga (Stunica), a group of scholars spent the next fifteen years editing and translating and only completed their work a few months before the death of Cardinal Jiménez in 1517.

The New Testament was ready for printing by 1514 but publication was delayed until the completion of the Old Testament in 1517. Publication was further delayed because, by this time, Erasmus had secured an exclusive privilege from Emperor Maximilian and the Pope for a period of four years for his Greek New Testament. Pope Leo X gave his sanction in 1520 but it is unlikely that the Bible was distributed widely before 1522.

The copy of the Complutensian Polyglot in the Marsden Collection is complete but has the unusual feature of lacking the Papal privilege that is normally present. This volume has an inscription at the top of the title page, which reads: "Col Soc Jesu Gandaui [i.e. Ghent] A5." "M B" is inscribed at the foot of the title page. This was bought by Marsden at one of the book sales of his friend Earl Spencer, held on 3 April 1802 for a price of £32 11s 0d.

The collection holds the only recorded surviving copy of the Book of Genesis in an Algonquian language called Massachusett, printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1655 by John Eliot (1604-90) and Samuel Green. Its survival was unknown until 1937, when American scholar Wilberforce Eames noticed a reference to a copy of Genesis ‘in the Algonkin [sic] language of North America’ in the catalogue compiled by Marsden to his personal library and realised that this did not refer to a fragment of the complete 1663 edition but to an earlier trial-piece. A digitised version is available to view online.

Hand-coloured woodcut depicting St. Jerome in his study, from the Halberstadt Bible (Halberstadt, 1522).

Many of the items from our 2011 exhibition 'To make a good one better’' translating the Bible were drawn from Marsden’s exceptional collection of printed Bibles. The exhibition is now available to view online. It includes the Halberstadt Bible (1522), a Low German Luther Bible (1578), Antonio Brucioli’s Italian Bible (1551), La Sacra Bibla - a Swiss Romansch Bible (1679), Ta Swehta Grahmata - the first Latvian Bible (1689), Leabhuir na Seintiomna - the first Irish translation of the Old Testament (1685), the first Tamil New Testament (1715) and the first Bengali New Testament (1801).

The Marsden Collection also includes the first book to be printed in the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez, Psalterium David et cantica aliqua in lingua Chaldea, issued from the press of Marcellus Silber in Rome in 1513. The Foyle Special Collections Library has recently participated in a project to digitise this work to mark the 500th anniversary of the book’s production and a facsimile is available to view online.

The Marsden Collection is particularly strong in works on description and travel, with over 175 travel works ranging in date of publication from the mid-16th century up to the year of Marsden’s death in 1836. Countries and regions covered include India, China, Indonesia, Philippines, Japan, Australia, North America, Canada, Greenland, West Indies, South America, France, Spain, Greece, Turkey, North Africa, Ethiopia, South Africa, Madagascar, Palestine, Syria, Iran, Russia, Siberia, the Arctic and the Antarctic. Numerous accounts are in English and French but works in Dutch, Latin, Italian, German, Danish, Spanish and Portuguese also feature.

Major accounts of voyages of exploration by William Dampier (1651-1715), Baron George Anson (1697-1762), James Cook (above) (1728-79) and Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) are represented.

'The Umla Baushee in his dress of office'. A 19th-century Afghani government official in uniform, riding a horse. From Elphinstone's Account of the kingdom of Caubul (London, 1815).

The plate shown here is from a first edition of Mountstuart Elphinstone’s Account of the kingdom of Caubul … (1815) which provides a rich account of the Durrani Empire in the early 19th century, with striking hand-coloured illustrations.

Using Library Search

The Marsden Collection is mostly catalogued and records are available through King's Library Search.

Being signed in to Library Search gives the best functionality for searching and the homepage gives advice on how to narrow down your searches by using scopes and by filtering searches you have made. For full instructions please see both the Library Search homepage and also our 'Catalogues' webpage, available by scrolling down to the menu on the Special Collections homepage.

Using scopes

You can limit your search to Foyle Special Collections Library items by using scopes.

If you select the ‘Library Resources’ scope, only the print and ebooks, audiovisual material and journals held by the campus libraries and Foyle Special Collections Library will be retrieved in your searches

Using filters

For finding material related to specific collections or former owners, use the ‘Library Resources’ scope in the drop down menu and then filter by ‘Former owner’ in the Advanced search criteria to display records from a specific collection.

You can also use the Location drop down menu on the left hand side of the screen to identify items from specific named special collections.

Please do contact us for further advice on identifying material which will assist you with your studies.

Related resources

A collection of Marsden’s manuscripts are held in the College Archives In 1918 about a third of the collection was transferred to other parts of the University of London (SOAS for material in oriental languages and SSEES for material in Slavonic languages).

Bibliography and further reading

John Bastin. The British in West Sumatra (1685-1825): a selection of documents, mainly from the East India Company records preserved in the India Office Library, Commonwealth Relations Office, London. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1965 [Maughan Library, Humanities books DS646.1 B29]

Andrew S. Cook. ‘Marsden, William (1754-1836)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 9 Sept 2013]

William Marsden. Bibliotheca Marsdeniana philologica et orientalis: a catalogue of books and manuscripts collected with a view to the general comparison of languages, and to the study of Oriental literature. London: Printed by J. L. Cox, 1827 [Foyle Special Collections Library, Special Collections Ref. Z7050.M36]

William Marsden. A brief memoir of the life and writings of the late William Marsden written by himself, with notes from his correspondence [edited by Elizabeth W Marsden]. London: Printed by J. L. Cox and Sons, 1838 [Foyle Special Collections Library, Special Collections Ref. Z989 M3]

William Marsden. The history of Sumatra. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986 [Maughan Library, LGF Humanities Books Store, DS646.129 MAR] A facsimile of the third edition of this work which was originally published in London by McCreery in 1811, with introduction by John Bastin.

Eames, Wilberforce. The discovery of a lost Cambridge imprint John Eliot's Genesis, 1655: being a note communicated in his behalf to the Annual Meeting of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts November 22, 1937. Boston: DB Updike, The Merrymount Press, [1937] [Foyle Special Collections Library, College History Collection BS1234.A4.E4 EAM]

Portrait of 'The Great Cham Emperor' Qing Emperor, Shunzhi (1638-1661). From Johannes Nieuhof's 'Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China (London, 1673).


We would like to acknowledge our former colleague Hugh Cahill, whose original research and text form the basis of this collection description.

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