Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Rawlinson, Henry Creswicke
RAWLINSON, Sir HENRY CRESWICKE (1810–1895), Assyriologist, born at Chadlington, Oxford, on 11 April 1810, sprang from an old north Lancashire family, and was the second son of Abram Rawlinson, a noted breeder of racehorses, who married a Gloucestershire lady, Miss Creswicke, and, selling his Lancashire property, bought the house at Chadlington in 1805. Educated at Wrington and Ealing, Rawlinson was nominated to a military cadetship in the East India Company's service, and had the good fortune to set sail for Bombay in July 1827, round the Cape, in the same ship as the governor, Sir John Malcolm [q. v.], the well-known diplomatist and oriental scholar, whose stimulating influence revealed itself in Rawlinson's later studies. He quickly distanced all competitors in the acquisition of Persian and the Indian vernaculars, and in less than a year was appointed interpreter, and, before he was nineteen, paymaster to the 1st Bombay grenadiers, with whom he served five years, and enjoyed great popularity, admired alike as a smart officer, a fine horseman, and a remarkable linguist. From 1833 to 1839 he was employed in Persia, with other English officers, in reorganising the Persian army, and rendered considerable services, not only by raising several excellent infantry regiments among the frontier tribes, but notably by a famous forced ride of 750 miles in 150 consecutive hours, which he made in order to warn the British minister at Tehrân of the presence of the Russian agent Vikovich at Herât. When the Afghan difficulty compelled England in 1838 to abandon her tutorship of Persia, Rawlinson returned to India by way of Sind, and was shortly afterwards appointed assistant to Sir W. Macnaghten in Afghanistan. He here narrowly escaped the fate of Conolly, whose expedition to Bokhâra he would have joined, but was detained by disturbances in the Ghilzai country. In October 1840 he was appointed political agent at Kandahar for Lower Afghanistan. Having already drawn up a detailed report on the state of the country for Macnaghten, and entirely mistrusting the optimistic views of the Indian authorities, whom, indeed, he had warned of the hostility of the Afghans towards Shujâ-al-mulk (‘Shah Soojah’), the troubles of 1841–2 did not find Rawlinson unprepared. He not only co-operated in every possible way, as resident, with the general in command of the army of Kandahar, Sir William Nott [q. v.], in repressing intrigue, disarming and expelling the Afghan population, and keeping the city quiet, but himself raised and trained a body of Persian cavalry. At its head he achieved notable distinction in the battle outside Kandahar of 29 May 1842, and was mentioned in despatches. After taking a brilliant part in the defence of the city, he in August accompanied Nott and the garrison in the march to Ghazni, assisted in its capture, went on to join Pollock at Kabul, and thence returned with ‘the avenging army’ to India. Rawlinson thus served through the whole Afghan movement, and he came out of it all with an enhanced reputation. For these services he was rewarded with the companionship of the Bath on 9 April 1844, besides the Persian order of the Lion and Sun, first class, and the third class Durrâni order. Here his military career ended, and the career of oriental research, with which his name is most closely associated, began in earnest.
Throughout his period of military command in Persia Rawlinson had never lost the habit of study. As early as 1837 he had written an account of a tour he made in Susiana in 1836, and afterwards of a journey through Persian Kurdistân in 1838, for the Royal Geographical Society, which awarded him its gold medal in 1839 for his explorations. Nothing had attracted his attention more than the celebrated cuneiform inscription of Darius Hystaspes on the rock-face at Behistun, near Kirmânshah. It was partly with a view to prosecuting his researches there that he accepted, in 1843, the post of political agent of the East India Company in Turkish Arabia, to which was added that of consul at Baghdad on 5 March 1844, a post which had been held by a series of distinguished scholars and soldiers, and which was important alike politically and archæologically. The voluminous but as yet unpublished correspondence which Rawlinson carried on with the ambassador at the Porte, Sir Stratford Canning [q. v.], contains abundant proof of the ability displayed by the consul at Baghdad in watching over British interests on the Turco-Persian frontier. That the government appreciated his vigilance is shown by their raising him to the rank of consul-general on 22 Nov. 1851.
But side by side with his official duties the fascination of cuneiform research absorbed the balance of his vigorous energies. He had begun to copy the undeciphered Behistun inscription as early as 1835, and the task was resumed with renewed enthusiasm on his return as consul at Baghdad. A large part of 1844–5 was devoted to the great inscription, and at last, in 1846, at considerable personal risk, and after no trifling exercise of patience and endurance, the complete copy was finished and the decipherment carried to a triumphant conclusion. Rawlinson sent home a full text, translation, and notes of ‘The Persian Cuneiform Inscription at Behistun,’ which was printed, with numerous plates, in the ‘Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society,’ in 2 vols., 1846 (Appendices, 1850 and 1853). By a singular coincidence, Dr. Edward Hincks [q. v.] of Killyleagh, co. Down, had simultaneously, and quite independently, arrived at similar philological results by his signal discovery of the Persian cuneiform vowel system, which he published in vol. xxi. of the ‘Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy.’ The accuracy of the new decipherment was afterwards tested by submitting an undeciphered inscription of Tiglath Pileser I separately to Rawlinson, Hincks, Oppert, and Fox Talbot, whose independent translations, on examination by a mixed committee, including Horace Hayman Wilson, William Cureton, Sir Gardner Wilkinson, Whewell, Milman, and Grote, were found to resemble each other so closely that no further doubt could be entertained. The importance of the discovery for philology and ancient history is only paralleled by Young and Champollion's decipherment of the Rosetta stone, and it is natural that there should be some competition for priority in so momentous a discovery. Many scholars, from Grotefend downwards, and notably Hincks, contributed towards the elucidation of the problem of cuneiform discovery; but, while their claims and merits must not be undervalued, it is indisputable that, at least so far as the decipherment of the Persian class of cuneiform writing is concerned, Rawlinson's accurate transcription of the Behistun inscription, with his scholarly interpretation of the text, is the most important contribution to the subject; and his claim to be the first successful decipherer of cuneiform was soon admitted in Germany. Dr. Oppert said well of him: ‘Rawlinson était un homme d'un génie prime-sautier, et ce qui est encore plus rare, il avait le don de tomber juste’ (Cordier, Éloge, Soc. de Géogr. de Paris, 1895). As a general Assyriologist, as a philologist and man of learning, he has been surpassed by others; as a discoverer and bold instinctive interpreter of an undeciphered language, perhaps by none.
Rawlinson returned to England in 1849. The signal importance of his discovery was recognised on all hands, and inspired further research. The trustees of the British Museum made him a grant of 3,000l. for excavations in Babylonia, and by his energy and skill many valuable sculptures were added to the museum collections. Rawlinson resigned his consulship on 19 Feb. 1855, and, returning home, was made a K.C.B. on 4 Feb. 1856. He received the rank of honorary lieutenant-colonel on 25 March, and was appointed a crown director of the East India Company in the same year. In 1857 he unsuccessfully contested the representation in parliament of Reigate as a conservative, but on a second contest was returned on 4 Feb. 1858 to the House of Commons, where he spoke frequently on eastern questions, especially on the transfer of India from the company to the crown; and on 12 Sept. 1858 became one of the first members of the newly created India council, resigning at the same time his seat in parliament. He left the council in 1859, however, on being appointed, on 16 April, minister-plenipotentiary to Persia, with the army rank of major-general; but it soon appeared that the legation at Tehrân offered little attraction to a man of his political insight and pronounced views on Russian aggression. He resigned in less than a year, on 20 Feb. 1860, not, however, before he had established friendly personal relations with the shah. He again sat in the House of Commons for three years, for Frome, from August 1865 to 1868, and took the lead in advocating a vigorous anti-Russian policy in Central Asia. He was once more appointed a member of the India council on 9 Oct. 1868, a post which he held till his death. His wide knowledge of the East, natural sagacity, high intellectual powers, and commanding personal influence and reputation gave extraordinary weight to his counsels. His other official duties comprised attendance on the shah of Persia during his visits to England in 1873 and 1889, and service as royal commissioner for the Paris exposition of 1878 and the India and colonial exhibition of 1886, and as trustee of the British Museum from 1876 till his death. He was given the grand cross of the Bath on 23 July 1889, and created a baronet on 6 Feb. 1891, on Lord Salisbury's recommendation, ‘in recognition of his distinguished service to the state, stretching over a long series of years.’
In his last years Rawlinson was much occupied in the work of learned societies. Of the Royal Asiatic Society, before which he read numerous papers, he was elected director for life in 1862, and was also president from 1878 to 1881. He was likewise president, in 1871–2 and 1874–5, of the Royal Geographical Society, of which he had been a member since 1844; and he frequently contributed to its ‘Journal’ and ‘Proceedings.’ In 1874 he was president of the London Oriental Congress. As trustee of the British Museum he lent his influence to the support of the numismatic collections, and himself possessed a cabinet of Greek and Bactrian coins, some of which were published by W. S. W. Vaux in the ‘Numismatic Chronicle’ (vol. xiii. p. 70, cp. xiii. 11, xviii. 137). Besides honours already mentioned, he received the Prussian Order of Merit, and the honorary degrees of doctor of laws of Oxford (1850), Cambridge (1862), and Edinburgh; was a correspondent (1875) and afterwards (1887) foreign member of the French Académie des Inscriptions, and honorary member of the Vienna Academy of Sciences and the Munich Academy.
Personally, Rawlinson was a fine specimen of the old school of Anglo-Indian officials, a survival of a great tradition—soldier, scholar, and man of the world. To strangers he was in manner somewhat imperious and abrupt; to his friends he was large-hearted and generous. He died on 5 March 1895. He married Louisa, daughter of Henry Seymour of Knoyle, Wiltshire (she died on 31 Oct. 1889), and left two sons, of whom Henry Seymour succeeded him in the baronetcy.
A large photograph of Rawlinson is in the Royal Asiatic Society's rooms in Albemarle Street, London.
While still a consul he had revised, for the British Museum (1851), the second half of the early cuneiform texts discovered by Layard, and after his return home he prepared for the trustees of the British Museum, with the assistance, in succession, of Edwin Norris [q. v.], George Smith, and Mr. T. G. Pinches, the six volumes of the ‘Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia’ (1861–80, 2nd edit. of vol. iv. 1891).
His valuable papers in the ‘Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society,’ some of which were issued separately, include, besides the Behistun volumes of 1846–53: ‘Inscriptions of Assyria and Babylonia’ (chiefly the Birs Nimrud), 1850; ‘Outline of the History of Assyria, as collected from the Inscriptions discovered by A. H. Layard,’ 1852, of which Rawlinson wrote that it was drawn up ‘in great haste, amid torrents of rain, in a little tent upon the mound of Nineveh, without any aids beyond a pocket bible, a notebook of inscriptions, and a tolerably retentive memory’ (letter to the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, Nineveh, 11 April 1852); it was translated into German in 1854; ‘Notes on the early History of Babylonia,’ 1854; ‘The Birs Nimrud Inscription,’ 1861; ‘Bilingual Readings, Cuneiform and Phœnician,’ 1865.
His chief papers for the Royal Geographical Society were: ‘Notes on a March from Zoháb, at the foot of Zagros, along the mountains to Khúzistán (Susiana), and from thence through the province of Luristan to Kirmánsháh, in the year 1836’ (Journal, ix. 26, 1839); ‘Notes on a Journey from Tabriz through Persian Kurdistán, to the Ruins of Takhti-Soleïman, and from thence by Zenján and Tárom to Gilán, in October and November 1838; with a Memoir on the Site of the Atropatenian Ecbatana, Map’ (Journal, x. 1, 1840); ‘Notes on the Ancient Geography of Mohamrah and the Vicinity’ (Journal, xxvii. 185, 1857; map, vol. xxvi. 131); ‘Observations on the Geography of Southern Persia, with reference to the pending Military Operations’ (Proceedings, old ser. i. 280, 1857); ‘Notes on Moham'rah and the Chaab Arabs, &c.’ (Proceedings, i. 351, 1857); ‘Notes on the Direct Overland Telegraph to India’ (Proceedings, v. 219, 1861); ‘Observations on two Memoirs recently published by M. Veniukof on the Pamir Region and the Bolor Country in Central Asia’ (Proceedings, x. 134, 1866); ‘On Trade Routes between Turkestan and India’ (Proceedings, xiii. 10, 1869); ‘Monograph on the Oxus’ (Journal, xlii. 482, 1872); ‘Notes on Seistán,’ map (Journal, xliii. 272, 1873); ‘On Badakhshán and Wakhán’ (Proceedings, xvii. 108, 1873); ‘The Road to Merv,’ map (Proceedings, new ser. i. 161, 1879).
Rawlinson contributed learned notes to his brother Canon George Rawlinson's ‘Herodotus’ (1858) and to Ferrier's ‘Caravan Journeys’ (1856). In 1875 he published ‘England and Russia in the East,’ which provoked much controversy by its outspoken views and unquestionable knowledge of the facts of Central Asian diplomacy.
[Personal knowledge; information from Canon George Rawlinson; Athenæum, 9 March 1895; Times, 6 March 1895; R. N. Cust in Annual Report of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1895; Sir F. J. Goldsmid in Geographical Journal, v. 490–497; Cordier's notice in Compte rendu of Paris Société de Géographie, 1895; Sir John Evans in Numismatic Chronicle, 3rd ser. vol. xv., Proceedings, pp. 26–8.]