Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Lyall, Alfred Comyn
LYALL, Sir ALFRED COMYN (1835–1911), Anglo-Indian administrator and writer, born on 4 Jan. 1835 at Coulsdon in Surrey, was second son in the family of seven sons and four daughters of the Rev. Alfred Lyall. His father and two uncles, William Rowe Lyall, dean of Canterbury [q. v.], and George Lyall [q. v.], chairman of the East India Company; are already noticed in this Dictionary. Lyall's mother was Mary, daughter of James Broadwood of Lyne, Sussex. His younger brother. Sir James Broadwood Lyall, was at one time lieutenant-governor of the Punjab. The families of both father and mother had originally lived on the Scottish Border ; but, on the mother's side, there was also a Swiss derivation from the Tschudis of Glaras, and a Highland from the Stewarts of Appin.
Lyall passed his childhood and early youth with his family first at Godmersham and then at Harbledown in East Kent. He was at Eton as a foundation scholar from 1845 to 1852. In 1853 he obtained a nomination for the Indian civil service at Haileybury College. Arriving in India on 2 Jan. 1856, he held his first appointment at Bulandshahr in the Doab. This district borders on the Meerut and Delhi districts, so that when the Mutiny broke out at Meerut on 10 May 1857 Lyall found himself near the heart of the troubles, and one of his early Indian experiences was that of riding away from his own bungalow, fired at by the rebels. Lyall then joined at Meerut a corps of volunteer cavalry, and fought in several minor actions, in one of which his horse was killed under him. On the day after the storming of Delhi (20 Sept. 1857) he rode into that city with Sir George Campbell [q. v. Suppl. I]. Later in the month he joined Greathed's column, which was charged with clearing the road to Agra, and took part, together with Frederick (afterwards Lord) Roberts and (Sir) Henry Norman [q. v. Suppl. II], in an action near Bulandshahr, where he remained in his civil capacity in a district still seething with disaffection when the column marched on. In 1858 he volunteered for the campaign in Rohilcund and on the borders of Oudh. He was noticed for these services in Lord Canning's Minute of July 1859, and received the Mutiny medal.
Subsequently Lyall rose rapidly in the Indian civil service. He was sent to the Central Provinces in 1864. In 1865 he was appointed to act as commissioner of Nagpur, and in 1867 he was made commissioner of West Berar. His 'Statistical Account or Gazetteer of Berar' was considered to be an excellent piece of work, and was one of the earliest, if not the first, of its kind. In 1873 Lyall was appointed by Lord Northbrook [q. v. Suppl. II] to be home secretary to the government of India, but in 1874 was made the governor- general's agent in Rajputana. Here, amid other work, he carried out important negotiations with native states relative to the salt treaties, and again distinguished himself with his pen by drawing up the 'Statistical Account or Gazetteer of Rajputana.'
In 1878 Lyall was appointed by Lord Lytton [q. v.] to the very important post of foreign secretary to the government of India, and held this office during the critical period of the Afghan war and the subsequent settlement, serving under Lord Lytton until the resignation of that viceroy in April 1880, and then under the Marquis of Ripon [q. v. Suppl. II]. Both viceroys testified to the value of his services. Lyall visited Kabul early in 1880, when the negotiations which led to the accession of Abdur-rahman to the Afghan throne were in progress, and was sent by Lord Ripon to Kandahar in the autumn of the same year, when it was a question whether the plan of Lord Lytton to make the province of Kandahar a separate state under the Wali Sher Ali should be maintained or abandoned. On Lyall's report of the Wali's weakness and desire to leave Kandahar, and in view of other considerations of policy, that scheme was abandoned. Lyall was a strong advocate of the retention of Quetta and the Sibi and Pishin districts, a step which, after some delay, was sanctioned by the imperial government. On retiring from the foreign secretaryship in 1881 Lyall wrote a note strongly advocating the policy of a definite treaty with Russia with regard to the position of Afghanistan, a policy which eventually prevailed, and led up to the convention of 1907 between England and Russia, with results beneficial to both Asia and Europe. In recognition of his services he was made C.B. in 1879 and K.C.B. in 1881.
In 1881 Lyall was appointed lieutenant-governor of the North-West Provinces and Oudh, now called the United Provinces, and entered upon that office in April 1882. 'During nearly six years' (in the words of Sir William Hunter) 'he laboured with unflagging devotion for the welfare of the people. It fell to him to introduce Lord Ripon's scheme of local self-government in towns and districts. He carried out, by means of the supreme legislative council, a reform of the land laws in Oudh, for the protection of tenants. . . . Through his influence a separate legislative council was created for what are now the United Provinces, and a new university was founded at Allahabad' (The Times, April 1911). These institutions were intended, Lyall wrote 'to be important steps towards a kind of provincial autonomy, which I hold to be one of the cardinal points of our constitutional policy in India.' His administration was also marked by an extension of railways and other public works.
Lyall retired from the Indian civil service in Dec. 1887, and immediately on his return to England was appointed to be a member of the India Council in London. This post he held for the unusually long period of fifteen years, being re-appointed in 1897 by the secretary of state at the close of the ten years which then formed the usual term. In the India Council he adhered consistently to his views both as to Indian foreign policy and as to the extension of local self-government, or devolution of powers, in India. Lord Knutsford, then colonial secretary, offered him in 1888 the governorship of Cape Colony, but this he declined. In Feb. 1887 he had been been made a K.C.I.E., and in 1896 he was promoted to be a G.C.I.E. On his retirement from the India office in 1902 he was made a privy councillor by King Edward VII.
During the twenty-three years between his return from India. and his death Lyall was one of the best-known and most distinguished men in English society. His many-sided character brought him into relation with statesmen, soldier, officials, philosophers, historians, and poets, and he was also the friend of many cultivated women; he belonged to such dining clubs as The Club, the literary Society (1888), Grillion's, as well as to Grant Duff's Breakfast Club (1890), and was also a member of the Athenæm Club. He was one of the earliest members of the Synthetic Society formed in Jane 1890, with a view to the discussion of religions and philosophic questions. The members included E. S. Talbot, then bishop of Rochester, Mr. Arthur Balfour, Frederic Myers, Lord Rayleigh, R. H. Hutton, Canon Scott Holland, and others. His social position was due to his original genius, his singular personal charm, and to the wide range of his interests. In a rare way he united the faculty for, and experience of, the active life with a philosophic mind tinged by melancholy, a poetic imagination, and the power of vivid and realistic expression. Lyall's cousin, the Countess Martinengo di Cesaresco, in her 'Outdoor life in Greek and Roman Poets' (1912), recognised in Lyall a counterpart of the Roman public servant, who could both think and do. 'He was the only man I have ever known,' the countess writes, 'who gave me the idea that he would have been at home in the Roman world.'
From an early period in his Indian career Lyall had made himself known by occasional poems and by essays upon Indian subjects contributed to the London reviews. Both the poems and the essays revealed an imaginative genius by which he was to enter into the minds and feelings of men of remote races. The poems after a period of private circulation were published in 1889 in a volume called 'Verses' written in India,' and, with some later additions, have gone through several editions. The sixth edition was published in 1905. The best known and most popular of these poems were, perhaps, those entitled 'The Old Pindaree,' 'Theology in Extremis,' 'The Rajput Chief,' and the 'Meditations of a Hindu Prince.'
Lyall's chief prose essays were collected in 1882 under the title of 'Asiatic Studies,' of which the first essay had appeared in the 'Fortnightly Review' under John (afterwards Viscount) Morley's editorship in Feb. 1872. Hindu religion and custom were here treated by an administrator who had seen how these things actually worked out in real life. 'He drew attention,' it has been said, 'to the necessity of examining Hinduism not only from the evidence in the Sacred Books, but as a popular religion actually existing and undergoing transformation before our eyes.' A second series of the 'Asiatic Studies' was published in 1899. This series included the Rede lecture, 'Natural Religion in India,' which Lyall delivered at Cambridge in 1891, and also three 'letters' originally published under the pseudonym of Vamadeo Shastri. Lyall represented the author to be 'an orthodox Brahmin, versed in the religion and philosophy of his own people, who is chiefly interested in the religious situation, and who surveys from that standpoint the moral and material changes that the English rule is producing in India.' This series also includes an interesting chapter on the relations between history and fable.
'Asiatic Studies' is mainly a masterly contribution to the comparative study of religions. History came next to that study in Lyall's intellectual interests. His 'Rise and Expansion of the British Dominion in India' (1893), which was developed in successive editions, is, like Seeley's 'Expansion of England,' a luminous essay upon determining causes and their results rather than mere narration. Other books were the short life of Warren Hastings (1889) in the 'English Men of Action' series; a critical appreciation in the 'Men of Letters' series (1902) of Tennyson, of whom he had been a friend from 1881 until the poet's death; and the 'Life of the Marquis of Dufferin' (2 vols. 1905). In 1908 he delivered the Ford lectures on Indian history at Oxford, and he gave an address at Oxford in the same year to the 'Congress of Religions' over which he presided. He was a frequent contributor to the 'Edinburgh Review' upon subjects connected with Indian history and philosophy, and with general literature. In recognition of his position as both a distinguished public servant and a man of letters and of philosophic intellect he received the D.C.L. degree from Oxford in 1889 and the LL.D. degree from Cambridge University in 1891; and he became an honorary fellow of King's College, Cambridge in 1893, a fellow of the British Academy in 1902, and a member of the Academic Committee of the Royal Society of Literature in 1910. He was a governor of Dulwich College from 1891, and became chairman of that board in April 1907. He was appointed a trustee of the British Museum in 1911.
In home politics Lyall was a liberal unionist, a strong free trader, and an active opponent of the movement for extending the suffrage to women. In his last years he took an active part in the central administration of the Charity Organisation Society.
Lyall died suddenly from heart disease on 10 April 1911 at Farringford in the Isle of Wight, where he was on a visit to Lord Tennyson, the son of his friend the poet-laureate. He was buried at Harbledown near Canterbury, the home of his boyhood, after a funeral service in the cathedral. He married in 1863 Cora, daughter of P. Cloete of Cape Colony, and left two sons and two daughters.
Of four portraits in oils, one, by J. J. Shannon, R.A. (1890), is at Allahabad University; a second, by Mr. Christopher Williams (1908), is at Dulwich College; and two, respectively by Lady Stanley (1889) and by Lady Walpole (1896), are in Lady Lyall's possession. A memorial tablet is to be affixed in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral.
[The Times, 11 April 1911; Sir C. P. Ilbert in Proc. of British Academy, vol. v. 1911; Dr. G. W. Prothero in Proc. of Academic Committee of Royal Soc. of Lit. 1912; Grant Duff, Notes from a Diary, 1886–1901; private information. A Life by Sir Mortimer Durand is in preparation.]