Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Arthur, George
ARTHUR, Sir GEORGE, baronet (1784–1854), lieutenant-general, the youngest son of John Arthur, of Norley House, Plymouth, entered the army in the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders on 25 Aug. 1804. Having been promoted to a lieutenancy in the 35th foot, he served with that regiment in Sir James Craig's expedition to Italy in 1806, and in the following year proceeding to Egypt with the force under the command of General Fraser, he was engaged in the attack upon Rosetta, and was severely wounded. In 1808 he served as a captain in Sicily under Sir James Kempt, and in 1809 in the expedition to Walcheren, where, in command of the light company of his regiment, he was employed in the attack upon Flushing, and was again wounded, he with his single company taking prisoners five officers and three hundred men. For his services on this occasion Captain Arthur was thanked in general orders, and was appointed on the field deputy assistant adjutant-general. On his return to England he received the freedom of the city of London and a sword. A similar distinction was conferred upon him by his native town of Plymouth. He subsequently served as military secretary to Sir George Don, the governor of Jersey, and having obtained his majority in the 7th West India regiment in 1812 joined that regiment in Jamaica, and was shortly afterwards appointed assistant quartermaster-general of the forces in that island. Major Arthur was subsequently appointed, in 1814, lieutenant-governor of British Honduras, which office he held with the rank of colonel on the staff, exercising the military command, as well as the civil government, until 1822. During this period Colonel Arthur suppressed a serious revolt of the slave population of Honduras. His despatches on the subject of slavery in the West Indies attracted the attention of Mr. Wilberforce, and of Mr. (afterwards Sir James) Stephen. Returning to England on leave of absence in 1822 for the purpose of furnishing the government with further information on the subject of emancipation. Colonel Arthur was appointed, in 1823, to the lieutenant-governorship of Van Diemen's Land, together with the command of the military forces in that colony, then our principal penal settlement. The ill-regulated system of transportation which was in force had led to terrible abuses, and the object of Colonel Arthur's appointment was the introduction of an improved system. His strong good sense and humanity indicated the possibility of a middle course between the extreme severity of the system which would make transportation simply deterrent, and the over-indulgence of the system which aimed at reforming the convict by gentle treatment. He held that it was possible to make transportation a punishment much dreaded by criminals, whilst offering every facility for reform to those who were not hardened in crime; but he entertained no quixotic expectations of frequent reformation. His plans were never allowed a fair trial. The colonists and their friends in England were bent on putting an end to the transportation system, and their views ultimately prevailed. Colonel Arthur's administration of Van Diemen's Land lasted for twelve years, and was marked throughout by a rare combination of humanity with firmness and courage, and, above all, by a shrewd common sense and practical judgment, which secured for him alike the respect of the colonists abroad and the confidence of statesmen at home. While holding this government Colonel Arthur discerned the advantage which would accrue to the Australian colonies from adopting a system of confederation. It is believed that he was the first person to suggest this important colonial reform.
On his return to England in March 1837 Colonel Arthur received the Hanoverian order, and at the end of that year was sent to Upper Canada as lieutenant-governor, with the military rank and command of a major-general on the staff. The state of Canada at that time was such as to demand the services of a firm and judicious administrator. Both the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada had recently been the scene of attempts to subvert the authority of the British crown. These had been suppressed, but Lord Durham's mission and the lenity with which the rebels were treated, had caused much dissatisfaction among the loyal section of the population in both provinces, and especially among the militia in Upper Canada. On the eve of Lord Durham's departure a fresh revolutionary attempt had been made in Lower Canada, and shortly after Sir George Arthur had taken charge of his government, Upper Canada was invaded by bands of American sympathisers. Sir George Arthur's arrangements for the defence of the colony were well planned, and were perfectly successful; but his difficulties were great. ‘I much fear,’ he wrote, ‘from the discontent prevailing among many of the militia, that even the most loyal of them will feel a reluctance to come forward until the very hour of emergency, and when it may be too late to prevent a great deal of mischief.’
In 1841 the two provinces were united under a governor-general, in the person of Lord Sydenham, at whose special request Sir George Arthur continued for a time to conduct the administration of Upper Canada as deputy governor, but upon his own express stipulation that he should receive no emolument or remuneration whatever for that duty. Sir George Arthur's services in Canada were rewarded with a baronetcy, which was conferred upon him shortly after his return to England in the summer of 1841. The general election, which resulted in Sir Robert Peel's return to power, was then in progress, and Sir George Arthur received from two constituencies ofters to return him to parliament free of expense; but he declined both these offers, and shortly afterwards entered upon an entirely new sphere of duty, having been appointed governor of the Indian presidency of Bombay, which office he assumed on 8 June 1842. Reference has already been made in the memoir of Sir George Anderson [see Anderson, Sir George, K.C.B.] to the critical position of affairs in India at the time when Sir George Arthur entered upon his new duties, and to the responsibilities which devolved upon the government of Bombay in connection with our military forces in Afghanistan, Beluchistan, and Sind. A few years previously, under the provisions of the East India Company's charter act of 1833, a material change had been made in the relations of the minor governments of Madras and Bombay with the supreme government of India. Previous to the passing of that enactment, although in all matters of imperial policy the governor-general was supreme, the two minor governments had retained a large share of administrative independence. The increase in the statutory powers of the governor-general and his council was speedily followed by minute interference on the part of the supreme government with administrative details which had been previously left to the discretion of the governments of Madras and Bombay. The result was frequent and constantly increasing friction between the supreme and local administrations. These difficulties were experienced in an intensified form by Sir George Arthur, succeeding, as he did, at a crisis which required considerable power of independent judgment and yet loyal obedience by the local governments to the final decisions of the governor-general. Moreover, the unavoidable difficulties of the situation were greatly increased by the individuality of Lord Ellenborough, who had recently assumed the governor-generalship. Lord Ellenborough had studied Indian questions as president of the board of control, and had formed an exaggerated view of the weakness and defects of the company's government. Arriving in India at a juncture when the Indian administration seemed stunned and paralysed by the loss of the greater portion of the army in Afghanistan, he found himself in hopeless discord with many a time-honoured institution and recognised principle of Indian administration. Sir George Arthur had before his appointment to Bombay won the confidence of Lord Ellenborough, which he never afterwards lost. Still, to avoid friction with the government of India under such circumstances was not easy, and it is much to Sir George Arthur's credit that during that brief but eventful period he succeeded in retaining the esteem of the court of directors and of his own colleagues in the government of Bombay, as well as that of Lord Ellenborough, who recorded the name of Sir George Arthur upon a monument which he erected in England to those who had best seconded his efforts for the maintenance and extension of the British empire in India.
It would be beyond the scope of this memoir to discuss the policy of Lord Ellenborough in connection with Afghanistan. Sir George Arthur was entirely opposed to the measure, at one time contemplated by the governor-general, of withdrawing the garrisons from Candahar and Jellalabad without striking a blow for the rescue of the prisoners in the hands of the Afghans, or for the reestablishment of our military reputation. Eventually the beleaguered garrison of Jellalabad was relieved, Cabul was reoccupied, the captives were released, and conclusive proof was afforded that it was not owing to want of power that we evacuated Afghanistan and allowed Dost Mahomed to return as ruler to the realm from which he had been driven.
The withdrawal of the troops from Candahar involved the return of the Bombay portion of the Candahar garrison through Sind, and was followed in the course of a few months by the annexation of that country and the deposition of its rulers, the Talpur amirs. Sir Charles Napier, then commanding a division of the Bombay army, had been selected by the governor-general to command the troops in Sind. He arrived in that country greatly prejudiced against the amirs. Nearly the whole of the troops in Sind belonged to the Bombay army, the general commanding was a major-general on the staff of that army, and up to that time the troops in Sind had been practically as well as theoretically under the orders of the government of Bombay; but from the date of Sir Charles Napier's appointment to the Sind command the governor-general departed from the established practice of sending orders through the government of Bombay, and entered into a direct correspondence with Sir Charles Napier. Such a state of things could hardly have failed under any circumstances to produce official and departmental friction, even if the policy of the governor-general and of the general commanding in Sind had been in accordance with the views of the Bombay authorities and of the court of directors. But the reverse was the fact, and the antagonism was intensified by the differences which arose between Sir Charles Napier and Major (afterwards Sir James) Outram. Throughout this embarrassing juncture Sir George Arthur kept himself studiously aloof from all personal partisanship, and, ignoring the irregularity of Lord Ellenborough's proceedings, rendered a loyal obedience to the decisions of the governor-general and a cordial and energetic support to Sir Charles Napier in his difficult task of establishing British rule in Sind; whilst he retained the respect and esteem of Outram and of the many other Indian officials who regarded the annexation of Sind as an unjustifiable act.
The military operations against Gwalior, which took place not long before the close of Lord Ellenborough's government, indirectly affected the presidency of Bombay by leading to an outbreak of hostilities in Kolapur, a small southern Mahratta state, the head of which was closely connected by marriage with Gwalior. The suppression of this insurrection, which, but for Sir George Arthur's judicious and prompt measures, might have assumed serious proportions, and that at a time when so large a portion of the Bombay army was employed in Sind, was by no means an easy task.
Lord Ellenborough, having been recalled by the court of directors, was succeeded by Sir Henry Hardinge, upon whom it devolved in the succeeding year to repel the invasion of British India by the Sikhs, The arduous struggle which then took place, when the governor-general deemed it his duty to offer his services to the commander-in-chief as second in command, led Sir H. Hardinge to recommend to the home authorities the appointment of a provisional governor-general. His choice fell upon Sir George Arthur, and, the recommendation having been approved by the court of directors and the ministry, Sir George Arthur received in due course his appointment as provisional governor-general in the event of the death or departure from India of Sir Henyy Hardinge. But he was not destined to assume the office for which he was thus selected, being compelled by ill-health to leave India before Sir Henry (then Lord) Hardinge vacated the governor-generalship.
The principal measures of internal administration which engaged Sir George Arthur's attention at Bombay were the Deccan survey, the object of which was to equalise and lighten the pressure of the land assessment upon the cultivators of the Deccan, and the improvement of the communications and means of irrigation. The first of these measures had been commenced before the arrival of Sir George Arthur at Bombay; but it was during his administration that the plan which has since been carried out was elaborated, and the rules which relieved the cultivators from arbitrary and excessive taxation were fixed.
The hindrances which the want of roads and of means of irrigation offered to the commerce and industiy of Western India had attracted the notice of Sir George Arthur's predecessor. Sir Robert Grant; but little progress had been made when Sir George Arthur arrived and took up the subject with characteristic energy. The project of a line of railway from Bombay to Callian, which was to be extended in the direction of Calcutta and through Central India to Hindustan, was suggested by Mr. G. T. Clark, a trusted assistant of Brunel, and received the cordial support of Sir George Arthur. This line may be regarded as the germ of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway. Other engineering questions, upon which the same engineer was employed by Sir George Arthur, were the improvement of the manufacture of salt by mechanical appliances, and the drainage and sanitary improvement of Bombay, both of which important works have since been carried out. Mr. Clark's report on the conservancy of Bombay was not only the starting point of such improvements in that city and in other cities in India, but was not without its influence on the sanitary improvement of our English towns, which about the same time was first taken up in earnest in this country.
Another material improvement, first projected during Sir George Arthur's administration, was the reclamation of the fore-shore of the island of Bombay. Sir George Arthur also took a great interest in promoting the education of the natives, which at that time, under the impulse given to it some years previously by Mr. Mountstuart Elphinstone, was somewhat more advanced in Bombay than in other parts of India.
Sir George Arthur retired from the Bombay government in 1846, and on his return to England was made a privy councillor and was honoured by the university of Oxford with the honorary degree of D.C.L. He received the colonelcy of the 50th Queen's Own regiment in 1853, and died in the following year. Sir George Arthur married in 1814 Eliza Orde Usher, second daughter of Lieutenant-general Sir John Frederick Sigismund Smith, K.C.B., and had five daughters and seven sons, of whom five survived him.
The career of Sir George Arthur is at once remarkable and instructive. Entering the army as a young man with little or no interest to push him on, he speedily established a reputation for bravery and sound judgment, which led to his being selected at a comparatively early age for civil employment. This he continued to hold until within a few years of his death, rising without solicitation from post to post, and in every position which he filled justifying by his administrative ability and capacity for government the confidence which had been reposed in him. Ultimately he was officially recognised as the fittest man to succeed at a time of difficulty and danger to the high and responsible office of governor-general of India, a post which he only failed to fill in consequence of his failing health. He was an eminently unselfish man, imbued with a deep sense of religion, and as much respected for his unswerving integrity in private as in public life.[Hart's Army List; Annual Register for 1838 and 1854; United Service Gazette, 30 Sept. 1854; Parliamentary Papers on Afghanistan, Sind, and the Southern Mahratta Country; Family papers.]