Atkinson was a surgeon, artist and Persian scholar. Born in Darlington, County Durham, England, the son of a wool comber he showed at an early age a remarkable gift for languages and portraiture and was enabled by the kindness of a friend to study medicine at Edinburgh and London. He first sailed to India in 1802 as Surgeon’s Mate on an East India Company ship. On his second trip in 1805 he was appointed Assistant Surgeon in the Bengal service of the Company and placed in medical charge of the station of Backergunj near Dacca in present-day Bangladesh. It was during his stay at Backergunj that he began his study of Persian and other oriental languages. He became a close friend of Sir Charles D’Oyly who was the Collector of Dacca (1808–1812) and a keen amateur artist. George Chinnery stayed with D’Oyly during this period and both D’Oyly and Atkinson became his pupils becoming heavily influenced by his passion for painting Indian landscapes and village life.
It was Atkinson’s proficiency with languages that brought him to the attention of Lord Minto, the Governor General of India, who invited Atkinson to Calcutta in 1812 where he was appointed Assistant to the Assay Master at the Calcutta Mint. The Assay Master was Horace Hayman Wilson, orientalist and Secretary to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, who published the first Sanskrit to English dictionary in 1819. For most of 1820 while Wilson was setting up the new Mint at Benares Atkinson worked alongside James Prinsep, the antiquarian and numismatist, at the Calcutta Mint. He published a ‘free’ translation of the poem Soohrab an extract from the Sha Nameh by the Persian poet Firdausi in 1814; Hatim Ta’ee, an old romance in the Persian language in 1818 for the use of the students at Fort William College where he held the Deputy Chair of Persian for that year; in 1819 The Aubid an eastern tale and in 1824 The City of Palaces, a collection of poems, the title of which became the epithet for Calcutta during the period of British rule. Atkinson was a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta and sat on the committee of the Chowringhee Theatre.
In 1829 Atkinson he left India after a disagreement with the newly arrived Governor General. In 1833 he returned to India resuming his former profession of Surgeon with the East India Company. In 1838 he was appointed Superintending Surgeon of the Army of the Indus, Bengal Division. He proceeded with the Army under Sir John Keane on its ill-fated expedition into Afghanistan to replace the unpopular and weak, but pro-British, Shah Shoojah-ool-Moolk on the throne and oust Dost Mohamed Khan who had been making political overtures to the Russians. Atkinson was present at the storming of Ghuznee in July 1839 and the eventual capture of Kabul shortly after in the First Afghan War.
Atkinson published his journals of his involvement in the campaign in 1842 in The Expedition into Afghaunistan, including a background to the conflict, his own journey across northern India to join the Army and his return, the hardship endured by the Army and its followers through the harsh terrain of Afghanistan beset by Beloochee tribesmen and also of the time he spent in Kabul. He writes of the history of the land, its buildings and people, having met and painted many of the protagonists in the campaign, including both Shah Shoojah-ool-Moolk and Dost Mohammad Khan. He realised the impossibility of controlling a country like Afghanistan in his line “Like Sisyphus, we have rolled up the huge stone to the top of the mountain, and if we do not keep it there, our labour will be lost”
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