Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Colvin, John Russell

COLVIN, JOHN RUSSELL (1807–1857), lieutenant-governor of the north-western provinces of Bengal, second son of James Colvin of the well-known mercantile house of Colvin, Bazett, & Co. of London and Calcutta, was born in Calcutta in May 1807, educated until near the age of fifteen at St. Andrews in Fifeshire, and, after remaining a short time with a private tutor, highly distinguished himself as a student at the East India College at Haileybury, whence he passed as a writer on 30 April 1825. He went to Bengal in the following year, and, after receiving his certificate from the college of Fort William, was on 21 Sept. 1826 gazetted extra assistant to the registrar of Sudder Dewanny and Nizamut Adawlut, and was promoted to be third assistant on 15 Feb. 1827. His next appointment was as second assistant to the resident at Hyderabad on 14 Dec. 1827. In 1830 Lord William Bentinck created the office of assistant-secretary in each of the government departments at Calcutta, on the model of the English under-secretaryships, and Colvin was selected on 4 Jan. 1831 to be assistant to the secretary of the judicial and revenue departments. In these departments he remained some years, having become the deputy secretary, 18 Sept. 1832. He was appointed secretary to the Sudder board of revenue, Lower Provinces, 13 March 1835, and in the following year became private secretary to Lord Auckland, the governor-general of India. In this post he served for six years, obtaining the entire confidence of the governor-general, and ' bringing (in Lord Auckland s words) to his duties an extensive and accurate knowledge of the interests of India, in its history, and in the details of its administration.' Colvin (with Henry Torrens) is generally credited with having induced Lord Auckland to undertake the first expedition into Afghanistan (cf. Kaye, Hist. of War in Afghanistan (1874), i. 351). He returned to England with Lord Auckland, and after a furlough of three years recommenced his Indian career. He held for a short time in 1845 the post of resident in Nepaul, and was then in 1846 transferred to the commissionership of the Tenasserim Provinces, where his administration gave much satisfaction both to the government and to the public. He was next promoted to the Sudder court in 1849, where he became facile princeps, so much so that it was generally said that the pleaders had sometimes to be reminded that they ought to address the court and not Mr. Colvin. As he had not had a regular judicial training, and his knowledge of law was chiefly derived from the vigour with which he had applied to the study of it at the time, this was justly considered as a remarkable proof of his intellectual superiority. When, therefore, he was appointed lieutenant-governor of the north-western provinces on the death of Mr. James Thomason in 1853, there was no man in the service whose name stood higher for activity, ability, and force of character, and he had already been marked out as a fit man for the council. As lieutenant-governor he exhibited an industry and mastery of details which were quite astonishing. In the suppression of crime he took an especial interest, and kept the whole machinery of the police on the alert. In the revenue department he did much for the settlement of the Saugor and Nerbudda territories, then recently attached to his government, and gave great attention to the department of public works. Under his rule the Ganges canal was prosecuted to completion, and road-making was everywhere advanced. In education, while developing the scheme of primary education introduced by his predecessor, Mr. Thomason, he inaugurated the more comprehensive system prescribed by the home authorities in 1854. It was sometimes said that he over-governed, and such was his conscientious anxiety to make himself acquainted with even the minutest details, that the accumulation of business was almost too great for his secretaries, and he himself suffered from constant and unwearying labour. From works of peace and improvement Colvin was suddenly called to face the military insurrection of 1857. His position was very perilous. Of British troops he only had at his disposal a weak regiment of infantry and a battery of artillery, while the officer commanding the brigade at Agra proved to be singularly inefficient. Unlike Lawrence in the Punjab, Colvin had no warning, and the mutiny had actually broken out within his government and the rebels were in possession of Delhi before he could begin to act; but he promptly and vigorously did what was in his power. He held a parade of the troops at Agra, when he tried to disabuse the minds of the native troops of the prevalent delusions as to the government's intention of interfering with their religion or caste. On 24 May he issued a proclamation offering a pardon to the soldiers who had engaged in the disturbances, with the exception of those who had committed heinous crimes. This proclamation did not receive the approval of the governor-general, and was at the time a subject of much discussion. Colvin was ordered to modify its terms, which he did; but he defended his policy with much ability. On 1 June he disarmed the two native regiments at Agra; subsequently organised a corps of volunteer horse for service in the neighbourhood, and a foot militia for the protection of the city; strengthened the fort and made arrangements for the reception within its walls of the entire Christian population of the cantonment and city. On 5 July a battle with the mutinous regiments of the Kota contingent ended in the retreat of the British force just atthe moment when the natives had exhausted their ammunition and were about to retire. The garrison and the Christian population had taken refuge in the fort. Colvin's first attack of illness immediately preceded his entry into the fort. He lived, however, to be transferred to the cantonments, where he died on 9 Sept. 1857, and was buried inside the fort on the following morning. The governor-general announced his death in a public notification, describing him as 'one of the most distinguished among the servants of the East India Company,' and bearing testimony to his 'ripe experience, his high ability, and his untiring energy.' He married Emma Sophia, daughter of the Kev. W. Sneyd, by whom he was father of Sir Auckland Colvin, K.C.M.G. and C.I.E.

[Times, 25 Dec. 1857, p. 10; Gent. Mag. February 1858, pp. 212–19; Annual Register, 1857, Chronicle, pp. 363–6; Letter from Indophilus (Sir Charles Trevelyan) to the Times, 23 Nov. 1857.]

G. C. B.