Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Arbuthnot, Alexander John
ARBUTHNOT, Sir ALEXANDER JOHN (1822–1907), Anglo-Indian official and author, third son of Alexander Arbuthnot, Bishop of Killaloe, by his second wife, Margaret Phoebe, daughter of George Bingham, was born at Farmhill, co. Mayo, on 11 Oct. 1822, a younger brother (b. 1824) being General Sir Charles George Arbuthnot [q. v. Suppl. I]. Sir Alexander's great grand-uncle was Dr. John Arbuthnot [q. v.], poet and wit, and his father's brothers included Charles Arbuthnot [q. v.], General Sir Robert Arbuthnot [q. v.], and General Sir Thomas Arbuthnot [q, v.]. His father died suddenly towards the close of 1828, leaving his widow ill provided for. She settled at Rugby in order that her two boys might be educated under Dr. Arnold. Alexander entered Rugby as a foundationer in April 1832, his contemporaries and friends there including Arthur Stanley, Tom Hughes, and Matthew Arnold. His last two years were spent in the sixth form, and he retained through life the impressions made upon his mind by the great headmaster.
It was an unsolicited testimonial from Arnold which secured for him nomination to a writership for the East India Company. He accordingly studied at the East India College, Haileybury, from ,23 Jan. 1840 to Christmas 1841, winning distinction in classics and Telugu. Leaving England on 24 May 1842, he sailed round the Cape and landed at Madras on 21 Sept. In the following June he earned the honorary reward of 1000 pagodas for proficiency in Telugu and Hindustani. After serving as assistant collector in Chingleput and then in Nellore, he was appointed early in 1845 head assistant to the registrar of the Sadr court and Foujdari Adalat, the forerunners of the chartered high court. In 1851 he completed the compilation of a selection of reports of criminal cases in the Sadr court between 1826 and 1850, with an historical preface. He similarly compiled and summarised the papers relating to public instruction in the Madras province from the time that Sir Thomas Munro [q. v.] took charge in 1822. With his Sadr court appointment he combined the secretaryship of the so-called university board, which had charge of what later became the presidency college.
The memorable education despatch of the court of directors in 1854 led to Arbuthnot's appointment in March 1855 as the first director of public instruction for Madras, In this capacity he established the education department on the basis still maintained, organising an inspecting staff, opening district schools, and int ducing the grant-in-aid system. He also worked out the details of the scheme under which the university was incorporated 1857, He was one of the original fellows, and was vice-chancellor in 1871-2, filling the same position in the Calcutta University in 1878-80. A warm supporter of the policy of fitting Indians for situations of trust and emolument in the public service, he always strongly defended from attack the government's educational system, which proved more successful in Madras than elsewhere in India, owing in part at any rate to Arbuthnot's wise control of its early years.
In October 1862 Arbuthnot was appointed chief secretary to the Madras government, becoming ex officio member of the local legislature. From October 1867 he was a member of the executive council, and as senior member he acted as governor from 19 Feb. to 15 May 1872, when on the assassination of Lord Mayo (8 Feb. 1872) Lord Napier of Merchiston went to Calcutta temporarily to assume the viceroyalty. He was created C.S.I., but with characteristic independence he declined the decoration, on the ground that it was an inadequate recognition of his office and services. Next year (24 May) he was gazetted K.C.S.I. At the close of his council term (28 Oct. 1872) he came home on furlough, and two years later, on expiry of leave, he resigned the service. In the spring of 1875 he went back to India, on the invitation of Lord Salisbury, the secretary of state, as a member of the governor-general's council He joined the council on 6 May, serving first with Lord Northbrook and then, from April 1876, with Lord Lytton. In September 1876 Lytton nominated him for the lieutenant-governorship of Bengal in succession to Sir Richard Temple [q. v. Suppl. II], but the law member of the India council, Sir H. S. Maine [q. v.], advised Lord Salisbury that, as Arbuthnot had resigned the civil service, he was statutoilly ineligible, and to his severe disappointment he was passed over. Already in 1871 the same office, in the event of its being declined by Sir George Campbell [q. v. Suppl. I], had been destined for Arbuthnot (Buckland's Bengal under the Lieutenant-Governors, vol. i.).
As home member of the governor-general's council Arbuthnot was largely responsible for the measures dealing with the great southern India famine in 1877-8. He took part in the proclamation durbar at Delhi on 1 Jan, 1877, and his name headed the list of 'Counsellors of the Empress,' a new order intended but never actually constituted to form an Indian privy council. A year later he was created C.I.E.
Great as was Arbuthnot's attachment to Lytton, he never hesitated to exercise his independent judgment. In December 1877 he strongly dissented, in the gloomy financial circumstances, from the reduction of the duties on salt in Bengal and northern India. He was always opposed to proposals for the reduction of the cotton duties, proposals which he assigned to political pressure from Lancashire. In March 1879, when he voted with the majority of his colleagues against a reduction, Lord Lytton exercised the rarely used power of overruling his council. The governor -general's action was only confirmed by the council of India in London on the casting-vote of the secretary of state, Lord Cranbrook (East India Cotton Duties, white paper, 1879). Arbuthnot endeavoured to prevent Sir Louis Cavagnari [q. v.] from going to Kabul with a small escort, and on 22 Oct. 1879 he minuted against what he regarded as the unduly aggressive spirit of Lytton's Afghan policy. Arbuthnot had the unanimous support of his colleagues in his conduct of the Vernacular Press Act, 1878, and he viewed with great disfavour its repeal, after he had left India, by Lord Ripon's government (19 Jan. 1882).
Returning to England on the expiry of his term in May 1880, Arbuthnot settled at Newtown House, Hampshire, where the rest of his life was spent. He was a generous benefactor of the locality, building a parish room and handing over the ownership of the village school, after enlargement, to the National Society. A strong conservative and churchman, he was for many years a member of the Winchester diocesan conference and chairman of the Andover division conservative association. But India still held the foremost place in his thoughts. In the spring of 1883 he accepted the chairmanship of the London committee to resist the famous 'Ilbert Bill' of Lord Ripon's government, and both by speech and pen he brought the issues to the notice of the public. On the nomination of Lord Cross he joined the India council on 1 Nov. 1887, and there, during his ten years' term, showed his old strength and independence. In 1894-5 he steadfastly deprecated, as concessions to Lancashire interests, the opposition to the reimposition of cotton import duties in India. He was most assiduous in his attendance at the India office, and spoke very frequently in the council discussions. When he retired, on 31 Oct. 1897, his service of the Crown had extended over fifty-five years, throughout which he showed unusual administrative powers and combined tact and courtesy with a spirit naturally somewhat despotic and impatient of control. He died in London of heart failure on 10 June 1907, and was buried in the churchyard at Newtown.
While at the India office Arbuthnot largely suspended the journalistic and literary work in which he had engaged on leaving India. But he remained a regular contributor to this Dictionary from the first volume, published in January 1885, writing in all fifty-three articles, including those on Clive, Wellesley, Canning, and Sir Thomas Munro. In 1881 he compiled a selection of the minutes of Munro whom in many points he resembled and wrote an introductory memoir, which was re-published separately in 1889. He also wrote a biography of Clive, published in 1898, for Mr. H. F. Wilson's 'Builders of Greater Britain' series. The recollections he was compiling at the time of his death were completed by his widow, and were published in 1910 under the title of 'Memories of Rugby and India.'
Arbuthnot married on 1 Feb. 1844 Frederica Eliza, daughter of General R. B. Fearon, G.B. She died in 1898, and on 6 June 1899 he married Constance, daughter of Sir William Milinan, 3rd bart., niece of Robert Milman, bishop of Calcutta. There were no children of either union.
[Memories of Rugby and India, 1910; Lord Lytton's Indian Administration, 1899; The Times, 12 June 1907; Winchester Dioc. Chron., July 1907; Minutes of Dissent; unpublished sketches by Sir Charles Lawson, and private papers kindly lent by Lady Arbuthnot.]