Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Cotton, Arthur Thomas

COTTON, Sir ARTHUR THOMAS (1803–1899), general and irrigation engineer, was son of Henry Calveley Cotton of Woodcote, Oxford [see Cotton, Richard Lynch, D.D., and Sir Sydney John]. He was born on 15 May 1803, and at fifteen years of age entered the East India Company's military college at Addiscombe, whence at the close of 1819 he obtained a commission in the Madras engineers, and after having served successively with the ordnance survey at Bangor and with the engineer depot at Chatham, he proceeded to Madras as an assistant engineer in 1821. On reaching India he was for a time employed inexamining the Pámbám passage, or channel, which divides the mainland of the Indian peninsula from the island of Raméshwaram off the north coast of Ceylon. Cotton's opinion was favourable to the practicability of deepening the channel, so as to render it navigable for ships of a considerable size; but nothing very material followed from his report, and the traffic is still mainly confined to coasting vessels, although there is some emigration by this route to Burma and the Straits settlements.

In 1824, upon the outbreak of the first war with Burma, Cotton joined the expeditionary force. In the course of the war he led the storming parties against seven forts and stockades, he served in the trenches against the great stockade at Donabew, was present at most of the actions in the war, and was mentioned in despatches at its close. In 1828 he was for the first time employed upon what became the most important duty of his life, viz. the improvement and extension of irrigation in Southern India. The works upon which he was employed, or which owe their existence to his initiative, were, first, the works on the Cávery and Coleroon rivers in the discticts of Trichinopoly, Tarijore, and South Arcot; second, the works on the Godávery river in the district of that name; third, the works on the Krishna river at Bézwada in the Krishna district. The earliest of these works were those on the Cávery and Coleroon rivers, the first of which rises in Coorg, passes through Mysore, and, skirting the British district of Coimbatore, a few miles above Trichinopoly, branches into two main streams. The larger of these streams, called the Coleroon, takes a north-easterly course and divides the districts of Trichinopoly and Tanjore, and then, skirting the southern divisions of the South Arcot district, falls into the Bay of Bengal to the south of Porto Novo; while the other branch, retaining the name of Cávery, passes through the centre of the Tanjore district, and, supplying in its course numerous irrigation channels, debouches into the sea, so much of it as remains, to the south of the French settlement of Káricál.

The Cávery had been used for irrigation from the earliest times all along its course, from its source in the Coorg mountains to its delta in the Tanjore district. In the delta it has many branches, the water-surface of which is generally higher than the surrounding country, and is kept from overflowing by artificial banks. Minor channels have been drawn from these branches, and the whole country is thus a network of streams. This system was in full operation when Tanjore became a British province; but in 1828 it was found that the system was seriously endangered by the increasing tendency of the Cávery waters to flow down the Coleroon, deserting the southern branch and its dependent branches and channels. In these circumstances Cotton, then a captain of engineers, was placed in charge of the works in Tanjore and the adjoining districts, with orders to suggest a remedy. The result of his investigations, prosecuted with great care and extended over several years, was completely successful. His plan embraced the construction of two dams or anicuts, the first at the head of the Coleroon, which had the effect of turning a portion of its waters into the Cavery on the right, and at the same time securing an abundant supply for the land in the Trichinopoly district on the left. The second was a still larger work, seventy miles lower down the Coleroon, which intercepted the water still flowing down that river and provided an adequate supply for the southern division of South Arcot.

These works, both of considerable magnitude, were built in the winter of 1835-6, in the brief season of the cessation of freshes in the river. They were built at a most critical time; for in 1837 a failure of the rains took place, which, without the new works, would have caused immense loss to the people and to the government. The great utility of the works was at once realised. The principal collector of Tanjore, writing to the board of revenue in 1838, declared that there was 'not an individual in the province who did not consider it (the upper anicut) the greatest blessing that had ever been conferred upon it,' at the same time expressing his conviction that 'the name of its projector would in Tanjore survive all the Europeans who had been connected with it.'

The financial returns of the works were such as have seldom resulted from any public undertaking. It appears from a report made forty years after the construction of the anicuts, that the annual profit on the capital expended was, in the case of the upper anicut, 69 per cent., and in that of the lower anicut nearly 100 per cent. The increased value of private property, due to the works, was equally large, while in seasons of scarcity not only have these districts been preserved from the horrors of famine, but they have been able to pour large supplies of food into the adjoining districts.

In 1845, or ten years after the construction of the Coleroon anicuts, Cotton laid before the Madras government a project for building an anicut across the Godávery river a few miles below the town of Rájahmundry. The Godávery district, then called the Rájahmundry district, was at that time in a most depressed condition. Not many years before it had gone through a terrible famine, the people were impoverished, and the revenue was always in arrears. The district was mainly dependent for its revenue upon a precarious rainfall, and upon tanks depending upon that rainfall.

Here again was a magnificent river flowing through the district, having its source in the western Gháts, fed by the almost unfailing south-west monsoon, and only needing the exercise of the genius which had brought prosperity to Tanjore and Trichinopoly, to convey its waters over the land on either side of it. The work was one of greater magnitude, and presented more serious difficulties, than the works on the Cávery and Coleroon. The total breadth of the river at the point at which it was decided to build the anicut was 6,287 yards, or more than three miles and a half. The stream, however, was divided by three islands, which reduced the length of those portions of the dams having their foundations in the bed of the river to 3,946 yards or 2¼ miles. Even so it was a stupendous work, the Dowlaishwaram branch of the anicut being alone of greater length than the two Coleroon anicuts put together. Moreover, unlike Tanjore and Trichinopoly, the Godávery district was comparatively destitute of irrigation channels, while in high floods the river overflowed its banks, and flooded the surrounding country.

The anicut which was begun in 1847 took five years to construct. It included, as a subsidiary work, an aqueduct built to conduct water over the tidal part of the river to a fertile island near its mouth.

The Godávery irrigation channels were to a considerable extent so constructed as to be available for navigation. At the present time the navigable channels in the Godávery delta are 528 miles long, while the total length of the distributive channels is 1,600 miles. The financial returns of the works, as represented by interest on capital, are, owing to their unavoidably greater cost, considerably less than those received from the Cavery and Coleroon works. They are variously computed at from 12•69 to 14•92 per cent., according to the method of calculation observed. This is by no means unsatisfactory as a return upon a public work, and in the far more important matter of the effect of the works upon the prosperity of the people the results are still more encouraging. The works irrigate upwards of 612,000 acres. They had raised the exports and imports of the district from 170,000l. in 1847 to 1,500,000l. in 1887. They have converted a district which in former times was continually in a state of extreme poverty and distress into one of the most prosperous districts in India. The people are now well- to-do and contented. The population has more than doubled.

The anicut on the Krishna river, in the district of that name, was projected by Cotton, but was actually planned by the late Colonel Sir Henry Atwell Lake,R.E., K.C.B. [q. v.], afterwards distinguished in the defence of Kars. Its construction, however, was carried out by the late Major-general Charles Orr, R.E., a very able officer who had received his training under Cotton on the Godávery, and in the absence of the latter, owing to ill-health, during a portion of the time that the Godávery works were in progress, had been in charge of those works.

The Krishna river, like the Godávery, has its rise in the western Gháts, and the district in which the works were constructed had suffered from time immemorial from very much the same causes which had impeded the prosperity of the Godávery district. Unlike the Godávery delta, the delta of the Krishna district begins comparatively near its embouchure, and the anicut being built across an undivided river is very much less in length than the Godávery anicut; but its section is very much greater. While the height of the Godávery anicut from the bed of the river is 14 feet, that of the Krishna anicut is 20 feet. The length of the Krishna anicut, on the other hand, is much less, being 1,300 yards against 6,267 yards, the extreme length of the Godávery anicut. The waters of the Krishna are distributed through 348 miles of navigable and 800 miles of unnavigable canals. The total cost of the anicut and the distributing canals was about 834,000l., and the number of acres irrigated is now about 400,000. The interest which the works yield upon the capital expended is put down at 7•14 per cent.

Of the three important irrigation works, of which a brief description is given in the preceding paragraphs, the first two may be regarded as the direct creation of Cotton, while, if it had not been for his enthusiastic advocacy, the construction of the third would probably have been postponed for many years. But these works do not by any means constitute the whole of the boon which has been conferred upon India by Cotton. He not only created great hydraulic works, but he founded a school of Indian hydraulic engineering which is still engaged in developing the resources of other Indian rivers. On the Pennár river in the Nellore district, on the Corteliár, on the Palár, Cheyár, and Vellár, in the districts of north and south Arcot and Chingleput, works have been constructed, which, if unavoidably less productive than those on the three larger rivers, still bear their share in increasing the food supply of the country.

And further south on the borders of the Madura district and the native state of Travancore there has lately been constructed the Periyár irrigation work, an irrigation work even more ambitious in its design, and presenting greater difficulties of construction than any irrigation work which has yet been constructed in India. Of this bold and apparently successful work it may be affirmed that it never would have been entertained if it had not been for Sir Arthur Cotton's previous labours.

The effect of Cotton's works in preventing or in mitigating famines is unquestionable. In the great famine of 1877 four million persons are supposed to have perished in the more or less unprotected districts of the Madras presidency. In the districts protected by the great irrigation works, viz. Godávery, Krishna, and Tanjore, there were no deaths from famine, and it is estimated that the surplus food exported from these districts was sufficient to save the lives of three million persons.

The eminent services rendered by Cotton had long been highly appreciated by the government under which he served. On 15 May 1858 the Madras government recorded their opinion of his work on the Godávery in the following words: 'If we have done our duty and have founded a system which will be a source of strength and wealth and credit to us as a nation, it is due to one master mind, which, with admirable industry and perseverance, in spite of every discouragement, has worked out this great result. Other able and devoted officers have caught Colonel Cotton's spirit, and have rendered invaluable aid under his advice and direction; but for this creation of genius we are indebted to him alone. Colonel Cotton's name will be venerated by millions yet unborn, when many who now occupy a much larger place in the public view will be forgotten; but, although it concerns not him, it would be for our own sake a matter of regret if Colonel Cotton were not to receive due acknowledgment during his own lifetime.'

Three years later, in 1861, on the recommendation of Sir Charles Wood, then secretary of state for India, Cotton received the honour of knighthood. In 1866 the second class of K.C.S.I. was conferred upon him. Although he survived for thirty-three years longer, he received no other public acknowledgment of his services.

Cotton retired from government service in 1862, but from 1863 onwards he was employed from time to time in investigating and reporting upon various irrigation projects, some suggested by himself, and others emanating from other sources. Among the former of these projects were the irrigation works in Karnul and Orissa, both of which were strongly advocated by Cotton, but were less successful in their results than the works which have been described in this article. This want of success was generally attributed to the fact that in both these cases the tracts of country which it was sought to irrigate were more under the influence of the south-west monsoon than the tracts previously dealt with by Cotton, and that consequently they did not need irrigation in ordinary years. Cotton's view was that the comparative failure was largely due to the omission of the district officers to impress upon the people the great benefit of irrigation in enabling them to cultivate more valuable crops than were possible without it.

In 1863 Cotton became engaged in a controversy with Sir Proby Cautley regarding the plan of the Ganges canal, which had been constructed by the latter. Cotton's criticisms, which had reference to the position of the canal head, were pronounced after full investigation to be well-founded, and the canal was partially remodelled at a cost, which, however, included extensions of work necessary in any case, of fifty-five lakhs of rupees [see article on Cautley, Sir Proby].

The importance of the water communications of India was a subject to which Cotton attached very great importance. He continually urged the expediency of utilising more extensively the rivers of India and the impolicy of developing the more expensive system of railway communication to the exclusion of the more economical system of canals. His views obtained little support, and his opponents declared that he had water on the brain. But there can be no question that there was much force in his arguments, and that both the revenues of India and the national wealth would have derived considerable benefit if his advice had been acted upon to a greater extent and at an earlier period. In 1878 Cotton was called upon to give evidence before a select committee of the House of Commons, which, after the disastrous famine which depopulated large tracts in the Madras and Bombay presidencies, was appointed to inquire into and report as to the expediency of constructing public works in India with money raised on loan, both as regards financial results and the prevention of famine. The attitude of some of the members of the committee was very hostile to Cotton's views, and the tenor of their report was regarded by him as unduly underrating the great importance both of irrigation and of cheap water communication. This antagonistic attitude is still maintained by some whose official positions give weight to their opinions; but the recent famine in Western India, unprecedented in its extent and virulence, has wrought a great change in public opinion, and in 1900 the viceroy (Lord Curzon of Kedleston) practically admitted in a speech in the legislative council at Simla the correctness of Cotton's views.

Cotton retired from the army with the rank of general in 1877 and settled at Woodcote, Dorking. Thenceforth he applied his ever-active mind to devising new methods for improving English agriculture. He had great faith in deep cultivation, and in a small plot of ground attached to his house at Dorking he carried out some remarkably successful experiments. To the end of his life, which reached to the great age of ninety- six, he maintained undiminished a keen interest in Indian afiairs. In a letter which he wrote to the author of this article in November 1896, after he had completed his ninety-third year, the following expressions occur: 'What delights me is that, in spite of all mistakes, God has blessed India under our rule far beyond any man's imagination. If any man had written, when I went out, expressing a hope of anything approaching the present state of things, he would have been thought the greatest fool in India.'

During his latter years he was afflicted by deafness, but in other respects he maintained to a great degree his remarkable vigour, both mental and physical. Throughout his life he was impressed by strong religious convictions, which he retained to the last. The end came peacefully and painlessly on 24 July 1899. Cotton married, in 1841, Miss Elizabeth Learmonth, who survives him. They had one son, who died before his father, and one daughter, Elizabeth, who married, first, Admiral Sir James Hope, K.C.B., and, secondly, T. Anthony Denny, esq., D.L.

Shortly after Cotton's death the secretary of state for India in council granted Lady Cotton a special pension of 250l. a year in recognition of her husband's distinguished services.

[India Office Records; paper contributed to the Royal Engineers' Journal by the late Colonel J. H. Bell, R.E.; Memoir of General Sir A. T. Cotton, K.C.S.I., contributed to the Royal Engineers' Journal by General F. H. Rundall, R.E., C.S.I., September 1899; Lecture on Agriculture by Sir A. Cotton, read before the Balloon Society, London, on 3 Feb. 1893; General Sir Arthur Cotton, R.E., K.C.S.I.: his Life and Work, by his Daughter, Lady Hope, with some Famine Prevention Studies by William Digby, C.I.E. 1900; Indian Engineering, 10 Nov. 1900; personal knowledge.]

A. J. A.