Smith, Robert Murdoch (DNB01)
SMITH, Sir ROBERT MURDOCH (1835–1900), major-general, archaeologist, and diplomatist, second son of Hugh Smith, medical practitioner at Kilmarnock, and Jean Murdoch, was born at Kilmarnock on 18 Aug. 1835. He was educated at Kilmarnock academy and at Glasgow University (where he was a pupil of Lord Kelvin), and in 1855 he was one of the first to obtain by open competition a commission in the corps of royal engineers. In 1856-9 he commanded the party of sappers which accompanied the archaeological expedition under (Sir) Charles Thomas Newton [q. v. Suppl.] to Asia Minor, the principal results of which were the discovery of the mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the acquisition under a firman of the Porte for the British Museum, of the magnificent sculptures with which that monument was adorned. It was Smith who hit upon the real site of the mausoleum, and discovered the key to its restoration, as appears from his report on the subject to Newton and his drawings of the restored building (Parl. Papers, 1857-8, lx. 694-709). The excavations are described by Newton in his 'Discoveries at Halicarnassus, Cnidus, and Branchidæ,' 1862.
In November 1860, along with Lieutenant E. A. Porcher, Smith started on another adventurous expedition, at his own expense but under government sanction, to explore the ancient cities of the Cyrenaica in North Africa. For a year the two officers conducted excavations at and about Gyrene, and returned with many valuable examples of Greek sculpture and inscriptions, which they placed at the disposal of the government, and which are now in the British Museum. The story of the expedition is told in the 'History of the recent Discoveries at Cyrene' (London, 1864, fol.), written by Smith, and illustrated from drawings by Porcher.
After a period of employment on fortification duties in the war office, Smith was selected in August 1863 for special service on the Persian section of the proposed line of telegraph from England to India.' Permission to construct the line through Persia had only been obtained after much difficulty and delay, and the officers entrusted with the task had to contend not only with great physical difficulties, but with the hostility and distrust of Persians of all classes, from the shah downwards. All these difficulties, however, were overcome in time, and the line was successfully completed. Smith acted first as superintendent of the Teheran-Kohrud section of the line. In 1865 he succeeded Major (afterwards Sir) John Bateman Champain [q. v. Suppl.] as director of the Persian telegraph at Teheran. He filled this post with conspicuous ability and success for twenty years. Under his direction the working of the line reached a high standard of efficiency, and he was specially successful in conciliating native feeling. "An excellent Persian scholar, he won the personal esteem and trust of the Persian ministers and princes with whom he had to deal, and not least of the late shah, Nasr-ed-Din, who in 1885 presented him with a sword of honour.
When in Persia Smith devoted much time and attention to the acquisition of the valuable collection of Persian objects of art now in the South Kensington Museum. In 1885 he was offered and accepted the directorship of the Science and Art Museum at Edinburgh, and returned to this country. In 1887 he became director-in-chief of the Indo-European telegraph department on the death of Sir John Champain. In the same year he was sent on a special mission to Persia to adjust the differences that had arisen with the Persian government in relation to the occupation of Jashk by British-Indian troops. This question was settled to the satisfaction of both governments. Other questions were also discussed, and Smith succeeded in obtaining a prolongation to 1905 of the two existing telegraph conventions, which would otherwise have expired in 1888 and 1895 respectively. On leaving Teheran he was presented by the shah with a diamond snuff-box, and on his return to England he was gazetted K.C.M.G. (10 Jan. 1888) in recognition of his services in Persia.
Shortly afterwards the office to which Smith had been appointed in 1887 was (on his own recommendation) abolished as an unnecessary expense to the public. He had retired from the army in December 1887 with the rank of major-general. Henceforward his work lay in the Edinburgh Museum. Under his direction it was greatly enlarged, the administration was improved, and many valuable objects, especially in the department of eastern art, were added to its contents.
He was a member of the board of manufactures in Scotland and chairman of the committee of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Among his minor writings were the treatise on Persian art, issued by the science and art department in 1876, a paper on ‘The Strategy of Russia in Central Asia’ (Journal of the United Service Institution, xvii. 212-22), and a lecture to the Society of Arts on ‘The Karun River as a Trade Route’ (Journal of the Society of Arts, xxxvii. 561-7), for which he was awarded the society's silver medal. This paper was described by Vambéry as ‘perhaps the best paper hitherto published on the subject.’
In February 1899 the magistrates of his native town (Kilmarnock) presented him with the freedom of the burgh. Smith died at Edinburgh on 3 July 1900, and was buried in the Dean cemetery.
In 1869 he married Eleanor, daughter of Captain John Robinet Baker, R.N. (she died in Persia in 1883). Of nine children, seven died in Persia—three on three consecutive days at Kashan—and he was survived by two daughters.
[Life of Major-general Sir Robert Murdoch Smith, by his son-in-law, W. K. Dickson, Edinburgh, 1901; obituary notice in the Scotsman, 5 July 1900; Lord Curzon's Persia, passim; Goldsmid's Telegraph and Travel; Scottish Geographical Mag. v. 5, 484-5; Scotsman, 26 Oct. 1896 (‘An Archaeological Expedition to Asia Minor Forty Years ago’); Royal Engineers Journal, September 1900 (‘Sir R. M. Smith,’ by Major-general Sir Charles Wilson); private information.]