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By the letter. Trinity Library’s Ouseley Collection      

This is the third in a series of posts from our Visiting Research Fellow Dr Torsten Wollina looking into the history of Trinity’s collection of Arabic manuscripts.

William Ouseley (1767-1842) is certainly one of the ‘big names’ in the history of British engagements with Asia. Coming from an Anglo-Irish family, William, his younger brother Gore (1770-1844), and their cousin Gideon (1762-1839) would all seek their fortune abroad.

More than the others, William pursued scholarly pursuits. In 1787, when studying in Paris, he became interested in Persian literature. Following a stint as an officer in the British colonial army in India, he resumed his studies in Leiden from 1794 to 1796, after which he returned to England. Interestingly, a year later he received an LL.D. from Trinity College Dublin and an honorary Dr.phil. from Rostock University, Germany. In 1800, he was ‘knighted in recognition of his promotion of oriental studies’.1 At that point he had already published one monograph, three volumes of his collected writings, and two translations. 2

Perhaps equally important, and certainly more pertinent for this present account, were his efforts in acquiring manuscripts. His own collection, which he catalogued himself and sold off in 1830, numbered more than seven hundred items. His prominence in British Persian studies was, however, also owing to his role as an intermediary or broker in enlarging other collections of Persian manuscripts on the Hiberno-British Isles.

Trinity’s Library is one such collection. While it is a small collection with around seventy Persian manuscripts to its name, the so-called Ouseley collection, which was acquired around 1808, can be described as its core. This is not to say that the Library did not contain any Persian manuscripts prior to this – Robert Huntingdon had donated at least one Persian manuscript in 1682 – but with the purchase facilitated by William Ouseley, the number of Persian manuscripts was increased considerably so that from this point onwards we can speak of a collection.

TCD MS 2571 fol 2v: Letter from Ouseley to Vallancey

This purchase is partially documented in MS TCD 2571 (see above), a letter Ouseley wrote on 16 February1808 from Carlisle. Writing to antiquarian General Charles Vallancey (1713-1812) Ouseley suggests Vallancey should purchase the collection from an unnamed third party (‘my friends M.S.S.’). It is uncertain why Ouseley addressed the letter to Vallancey and not directly to the Board of Trinity College but he does his utmost to convince Vallancey to make the Board agree to the purchase, and quickly. Because he did not want to wait ‘to inclose you a long and bulky Catalogue’, instead he ‘thought it better to condense the essence of his Catalogue into this sheet than wait longer’. He repeatedly gives his expert opinion on the value of individual items and the requested payment for the entire collection (‘85 G[uinea]s which … must appear extremely moderate’).

The summary catalogue of the manuscripts Ouseley wanted Vallancey to buy

The collection to which Ouseley refers was eventually purchased by Trinity College, probably not long after this letter arrived. It contains 70 items overall. Among those are four Indian paintings, probably from the late 18th century. The remaining articles consist of 58 books in 66 volumes and a variety of languages including Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hindustani, Sanscrit, and Chinese. (The Chinese item is described as a printed book, on double leaves, containing 62 most curious pictures (or rather prints)). 

Dr. Torsten Wollina

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund Fellow

Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute 


1 Peter Avery, ‘Ouseley, William’, Encyclopedia Iranica (2004) (last accessed 9 April 2020) (

 2 Persian Miscellanies: An Essay to Facilitate the Reading of Persian Manuscripts, with Engraved Specimens, Philological Observations, and Notes Critical and Historical, (London: 1796); The Oriental Collections: Consisting of Original Essays and Dissertations, Translations and Miscellaneous Papers, Illustrating the History and Antiquities, the Arts, Sciences, and Literatures of Asia, (London: 1797-1800); Qāżi Aḥmad Ḡaffāri, Epitome of the Ancient History of Persia, ed. and trans. William Ouseley, (London, 1799), and Ebn Ḥawqal, Masālek al-mamālek:The Oriental Geography of Ebn Haukal, an Arabian Traveller of the Tenth Century, trans. from Persian by William Ouseley, (London, 1800).



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