PRINSEP, James. London 20/29.8.1799 — London 22.4.1840. British Civil Servant, Numismatist and Epigraphist in India. Son of John Prinsep (1746–1830), an industrialist who had been in India in as soldier 1771-88, and Sophia Elizabeth Auriol, brother of —> H. T. P. Went to India in 1819 and served as Assistant Assay-Master at Calcutta Mint. In 1820-30 Assay-Master at Benares Mint, constructed there a new mint and a church, repaired the minarets of Aurangzib’s Mosque and conducted a statistical survey. From 1830 deputy and in 1832-38 Assay-Master at Calcutta Mint, succeeding H. H. Wilson in this as well as in the secretarship of the Asiatic Society. He completed the building of the Hooghly-Sundarbans canal, started by his deceased brother, the engineer Captain Thomas Pr. Married 1835 Harriet Sophia Aubert, one daughter. In November 1838 he left for England, where he soon “died from softening of the brain caused by overwork” (Buckland).
JPr had many interests, including chemistry, mineralogy, meteorology, numismatics, epigraphy, and archaeology. He succeeded in deciphering the Gupta, Brāhmī and Kharoṣṭhī scripts and thus gave a decisive contribution to the research of Indian history opening the Maurya, Indo-Greek and Kuṣāṇa periods. Most of his work, including mineralogical and meteorological studies, where published in the JASB, which he founded and edited. In epigraphical work he gained valuable assistance from Pandit Kamalākānta.
His work on numismatics and epigraphy was started in 1832 with Roman, Greek and Persian coins. Soon he took the Kuṣāṇa coins, too, and in 1833 read Kaniṣka as “Kanerko”. Further Kuṣāṇa articles were published in 1834 and 1835 and one on Hindu coins in 1835. In 1837-38 he explained Kṣatrapa coins, in 1835 and 1838 Gupta coins. Epigraphical work was started with the Gupta inscription on Allahabad Pillar in 1834 and 1837. With Aśokan inscriptions he dealt in 1834, and the final decipherment of the Pillar Edicts followed in 1837. In 1838 he dealt with the Rock Edicts and found the names of Hellenistic rulers. In 1838 he also published the inscription of Rudradāman and the decipherment of coin Kharoṣṭhī. Another contribution in 1838 dealt with the early history of numbers.
Publications: Views and Illustrations of Benares. Lithogr. 1825 (own drawings).
– numerous articles in the JASB 1832–38, e.g.: “On the Ancient Roman Coins in the Cabinet of the Asiatic Society”, JASB 1, 1832, 402-404; “Bactrian and Indo-Scythic Coins”, JASB 2, 1833, 405-416; On Aśoka, JASB 6, 1837, 451ff.; “Discovery of Name of Antiochus the Great, in Two of the Edicts of Aśoka, King of India”, JASB 7, 1838, 156-167; “On the Edicts of Piyadasi, or Aśoka, the Buddhist Monarch of India, Preserved on the Girnar Rock in the Gujarat Peninsula, and on the Dhauli Rock in Cuttack; with the Discovery of Ptolemy’s Name therein”, JASB 7, 1838, 219-282.
– Essays on Indian Antiquities, historic, numismatic and palaeographic, to which are added his Useful Tables, Illustrative of Indian History, Chronology, Modern Coinages, Weights, Measures & c. Edited by E. Thomas. 1-2. 16+435, 7+224 p. L. 1858.
Sources: JRAS 6, 1841, Annual Report 5-9; .J.A[rbuthnot], D.N.B. 46, 395f.; Buckland, Dictionary; P. Thankappan Nair, James Prinsep. Life and Works. 1. Background and Benares Period. 15+279 p. 16 pl. Calcutta 1999; *H. T. Prinsep in Essays… 1858, i-xvi; *V.A. Smith, East and West July 1906; Windisch 98-112; Wikipedia with medal and two portraits (by Emily Prinsep and C. Grant); painting by G. Chinnery in Ch. Allen, The Buddha and the Sahib. 2002.