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Marsden was the son of a Dublin merchant. He was born in Verval, County Wicklow, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. Upon obtaining a civil service appointment with the East India Company at sixteen years of age, he was sent to Benkulen, Sumatra, in 1771. He was promoted to the position of principal secretary to the government, and acquired a knowledge of the Malay language and the country. After returning to England in 1779, he was awarded the Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L.) degree by Oxford University in 1780 and published his History of Sumatra in 1783.
Marsden was elected to membership in the Royal Society in 1783. He had been recommended by James Rennell, Edward Whitaker Gray, John Topham, Alexander Dalrymple, and Charles Blagden.