Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Hunter, William Wilson
HUNTER, Sir WILLIAM WILSON (1840–1900), Indian civilian, historian, and publicist, was born on 15 July 1840. His father was Andrew Galloway Hunter, a Glasgow manufacturer, who came from Denholm in Roxburghshire. His mother, Isabella, was a younger sister of James Wilson (1805–1860) [q. v.], and he was thus connected with Walter Bagehot [q. v.], who married a daughter of James Wilson. He was educated at Glasgow, first at the academy and afterwards at the university, where he graduated B.A. in 1860. He then spent some months in study at Paris and Bonn, acquiring (among other things) a useful knowledge of Sanskrit. At the open competition for the Indian civil service in 1861, he came out at the head of the list.
On arriving in India in November 1862 Hunter was posted to the lower provinces of Bengal. His first appointment was that of assistant magistrate and collector in the remote district of Birbhum. Here, in addition to his official duties, he ransacked old records and collected local traditions, in order to obtain materials for publication. It is characteristic alike of his industry and his ambition that his first literary venture took the form, not of a slight magazine article, but of a considerable historical work, intended to be the precursor of a series, entitled 'The Annals of Rural Bengal.' On its publication in 1868, this was received with universal eulogy, for it was immediately recognised that India had now found a voice to make the dry details of administration not only intelligible but attractive. The book has since passed through six editions. In 1872 followed a yet more important work, in two volumes, on 'Orissa,' a province which will always be interesting for its far-famed temple of Jagannath, and which at that time had drawn special notice as the scene of a disastrous famine. Another publication of these early days was 'A Comparative Dictionary of the Non-Aryan Languages of India and High Asia' (1868), being a glossary of 139 dialects based mainly upon the collections formed by Brian Houghton Hodgson [q. v. Suppl.], with a political dissertation on the relations of the Indian government with the aboriginal tribes. Of this work it should be observed that the author subsequently withdrew some of the linguistic inductions, and went so far as to describe it as one 'for which my opportunities and my knowledge were then inadequate.'
Meanwhile, Hunter had been selected by Lord Mayo to organise perhaps the most gigantic literary enterprise that has ever been undertaken by any government — a statistical survey of the Indian empire, such as Sir John Sinclair [q. v.] attempted one hundred years ago for Scotland. At this distance of time it is difficult to realise the density of the ignorance that then prevailed with regard to the fundamental facts upon which good administration must be based. No general census had been taken, and the wildest estimates of population found acceptance. Each of the provinces remained isolated in respect of its knowledge of the rest, and the supreme government possessed no information to enable it to exercise the duty of supervision or (if need should arise in case of famine) of assistance. So far back as 1867 the government had resolved that a gazetteer should be prepared for each of the twelve great provinces of India. But there was no guarantee for uniformity in the execution of the work. In July 1869 Lord Mayo placed Hunter on special duty 'to submit a comprehensive scheme for utilising the information already collected, for prescribing the principles according to which all local gazetteers are in future to be prepared, and for the consolidation into one work of the whole of the materials that may be available.' This task occupied the next twelve years of Hunter's life. His first duty was to travel over the whole of India, so as to put himself into communication with the local officials, and see things with his own eyes. These tours, often repeated, gave him an acquaintance with every corner of the peninsula such as few others could boast. As was to be expected, he encountered some opposition and not a little personal criticism, directed chiefly against the uniform system of spelling place-names which it was necessary to introduce. But his enthusiasm and diplomacy finally triumphed over all obstacles. The Hunterian compromise, based upon a transliteration of vernacular names, without any diacritical marks but with a concession to the old spelling of places that have become historical, has gradually won acceptance even in English newspapers.
In September 1871 the new post of director-general of statistics to the government of India was created for Hunter, who was further privileged to spend long periods in England for the greater convenience of the work. In addition to supervising the local editors and drawing up the scheme of the 'Imperial Gazetteer,' he took upon himself Bengal, the largest and least known province in India, and also Assam, which then formed an integral part of Bengal. 'The Statistical Account of Bengal' was published in twenty volumes between 1875 and 1877. The city of Calcutta is omitted, but the last volume contains a valuable appendix on fishes and plants. 'The Statistical Account of Assam' followed, in two volumes, in 1879. The other local gazetteers compiled in India raise the total number of volumes to 128, aggregating 60,000 pages. Meanwhile the task of condensing this enormous mass of material into 'The Imperial Gazetteer of India' was going on apace. The first edition, in nine volumes, appeared in 1881 ; and a second edition, which was augmented to fourteen volumes, incorporating the latest statistics and the results of the census of 1881, appeared in 1885-7. It is not too much to say that this will rank among the monumental works of reference which our generation has produced. Hunter, of course, did not accomplish all this single-handed. Among his many gifts was that of getting their best work out of his assistants, who were content to merge themselves in his identity. But his was the mind that planned the whole, and his the energy that caused it to appear with such promptitude. The stamp of his own special handiwork may be found in the article on 'India,' which was reissued in 1895 in a revised form under the title of 'The Indian Empire : its Peoples, History, and Products,' forming a volume of 852 pages. Here he has given a summary of his opinions about many vexed questions in the ethnical and religious history of early India, which he had at one time hoped to treat at greater length. Specially valuable is the account given from original sources of the growth of Christianity in Southern India. A condensation of this important work for school use, entitled 'A Brief History of the Indian Peoples' (1880), has sold to the number of nearly ninety thousand copies, and has been translated into five vernacular languages.
In 1881, after the first edition of the 'Imperial Gazetteer' had passed through the press, Hunter returned to India as an additional member of the governor-general's council. This appointment, which is equivalent to a seat in the legislature, was twice renewed, making a term of six years. During this period his most important duty was to preside over the commission on education, appointed in 1882 to regulate the divergent systems that had grown up in the several provinces. The report of the commission, drafted by Hunter's hand and almost wholly accepted by the government, marks a new departure in the increased attention paid to the elementary instruction of the masses, and in the recognition of private enterprise, whether displayed by missionaries or by the people themselves. All subsequent improvement in education has been upon the lines of this report. Hunter was also a member of the commission on finance that sat in 1886, and he was sent to England in 1884 to give evidence before a committee of the House of Commons on Indian railways. Another post that he filled was that of vice-chancellor of the university of Calcutta (1886).
In 1887 Hunter finally retired from the service at the early age of forty-seven, to devote the remainder of his life to working up the materials he had accumulated for a great history of India. During his previous visits to Great Britain he had resided at Edinburgh, where he went so far as to build himself a house, which afterwards passed into the occupation of Professor John Stuart Blackie [q. v. Suppl.] He now resolved to settle at Oxford. After spending a few years in the city and being initiated into academical life, he bought a plot of ground about three miles out on the Eynsham road, on the slope of the Witham Woods, commanding a view over the Valley of the White Horse. Here he built a comfortable house, which he called Oaken Holt, with accommodation for his library and also for his horses and his dogs. The superabundance of his energy found vent in many forms, especially in travel ; but he never allowed pleasure to interfere with work. In former times he had written much for the 'Calcutta Englishman.' He now became a regular contributor to the 'Times,' where his weekly articles on Indian affairs exercised great influence. One of the first things that he did after settling at Oxford was to arrange with the delegates of the Clarendon Press for the publication of a series of little volumes called 'The Rulers of India.' These were intended as historical retrospects rather than personal biographies, their object being to awaken popular interest in the spectacle afforded by the gradual growth of our eastern empire. He opened the series, which now consists of twenty-eight volumes, with a model memoir on the administration of Lord Dalhousie (1890), and followed it up with 'Lord Mayo,' condensed from a full-length biography which he had previously written in two volumes (1875). That biography of Lord Mayo is notable for containing an admirable analysis of the machinery of the supreme government in India which controls the local administrations. In a book entitled 'Bombay, 1885 to 1890' (1892), Hunter supplemented this by a detailed examination of the administration of the Western Presidency, under the governorship of Lord Reay. He had at one time hoped to write the life of Sir Bartle Frere [q.v.], the greatest of recent governors of Bombay ; but this project fell through. Instead, he took up the biography of Brian Houghton Hodgson, the veteran orientalist, who had first aroused his interest in the races and languages of India. Other publications of this period were 'The Old Missionary' (1895), an idyll which makes one regret that he did not more often indulge his lighter vein ; and 'The Thackerays in India' (1897), which is worthy of its subject. He also compiled a bibliography of books about India, which, out of the abundance of his own library, he contributed to James Samuelson's 'India Past and Present' (1890).
All these books, and not a few others, might be called 'Chips from an Anglo-Indian Workshop.' They represent the overflow of his literary activity, while his mind was none the less bent on executing the project of a history of India, which he had formed long ago during his first years of service in Birbhum. How thorough were his early researches may be seen from the three volumes of 'Bengal MS. Records,' which he calendared at that time, though he did not publish them till 1894, with a dissertation on the permanent settlement. He also compiled a catalogue of 380 historical manuscripts in the library of the India office. Hunter was not destined to carry his original design to completion. He was reluctantly compelled to realise that no individual, however laborious, could compass the entire field. He therefore abandoned the early period of Hindu and Muhammadan dynasties, and devoted himself to tracing the growth of British dominion. This limited design, on the scale sketched out by the author, would have filled five volumes. Only one appeared in his lifetime (1899), which barely opens the subject, for it stops with the massacre of Amboyna in 1623, before the English company had founded its first settlements on the mainland of India. A second volume, continuing the narrative to the close of the seventeenth century, was published in November 1900. The sample given is sufficient to enable us to realise what the bulk would have been, and how great the loss caused by the author's premature death. By his painstaking investigation of contemporary documents, often hidden in Portuguese and Dutch archives, Hunter satisfied the most austere standard of an historian's duty. By his wide generalisations and his recognition of the influence exercised by national character and sea power, he shows himself a representative of the modern school of historical writing. The vigour and picturesqueness of his literary style are all his own.
In the winter of 1898-9 Hunter was called upon to undertake the tedious railway journey across Europe to Baku on the Caspian, to sit by the sick-bed of a son. On his return influenza seized him, and ultimately affected his heart. He died at Oaken Holt on 6 Feb. 1900. He was buried in the churchyard of Cumnor, his funeral being attended by representatives of the university of Oxford, by many distinguished Anglo-Indian friends, and by a crowd of villagers who mourned their benefactor.
Hunter was appointed C.I.E. in 1878, C.S.I, in 1884, and K.C.S.I. on his retirement from India in 1887. In 1869 his own university of Glasgow gave him the degree of LL.D. When he first settled at Oxford, in 1889, the university conferred upon him the exceptional distinction of M.A. by decree of convocation, which carried with it full rights of suffrage. Cambridge made him an honorary LL.D. in 1887. He was a vice-president of the Royal Asiatic Society, and member of many learned bodies both in England and on the continent. He was also proud of being elected by his neighbours as county councillor for the Cumnor division of Berkshire. On 4 Dec. 1863 Hunter married Jessie, daughter of Thomas Murray (1792-1872) [q. v.] She accompanied him in many of is journeys, and shared his literary toils. She survives him, together with two sons, of whom the elder is a captain in the army.[Private information. An authorised biography of Sir W. W. Hunter is being written by F. H. B. Skrine, formerly of the Bengal Civil Service.]