Torrens, Henry Whitelock (DNB01)
TORRENS, HENRY WHITELOCK (1806–1852), Indian civil servant, was the eldest son of General Sir Henry Torrens [q. v.], and was born at Canterbury on 20 May 1806. He was educated at a private school at Brook Green, and afterwards at the Charterhouse and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was admitted student in 1823, and matriculated on 16 Dec.; he had the honour to be rusticated along with the Duke of Wellington's sons for painting the doors of the college red. After graduating B.A. in 1828 he began to read for the bar, a profession entirely unsuitable to his mercurial and ebullient temperament. A clerkship in the foreign office was procured for him, but was almost immediately exchanged for an Indian writership, which he was induced to accept by a promise of patronage from Lord William Bentinck, then (1828) on the point of proceeding to India as governor-general. So far as Lord William was concerned the undertaking was redeemed, but kings were to arise who knew not Joseph. It was also most unfortunate for Torrens to have entered the service without having imbibed its spirit and traditions by a previous course at Haileybury. He seemed, however, fully to justify his appointment by his general ability and his rapid progress in the oriental languages, especially Arabic, Persian, and Hindustani. His first appointment was that of assistant to the collector at Meerut, July 1829. By January 1835 he had worked his way into the secretariat, and in 1837 he was in a position, according to Sir John Kaye, to aid Macnaghten and Colvin in bringing about the Afghan war by his personal influence as one of the secretaries in attendance upon Lord Auckland, who was then at Simla, remote from the steadying influence of his council at Calcutta. Torrens denied the imputation; it seems clear, however, upon his own showing, that he did recommend interference in the affairs of Afghanistan, although he had not come to the point of advocating an actual British invasion. A recent publication of documents, nevertheless, has proved that Lord Auckland's prudent reluctance was not overcome by the advice of his secretaries, which advice he rejected somewhat cavalierly, but by what he conceived to be an imperative instruction from home (see Sir Auckland Colvin's Life of J. Russell Colvin).
In 1838 Torrens published that firet volume of a translation of the 'Arabian Nights' which chiefly preserves his name as a man of letters. In 1840 he edited C. Lassen's 'Points in the History of the Greek and Indo-Scythian Kings' (Calcutta, 1840, 8vo), and in the same year he was made secretary to the board of customs at Calcutta, and in this capacity effected important reforms in the excise department. In April 1847 he was officially shelved as agent to the governor-general of Murshidabad. This virtual extinction of one of the most brilliant men in the service was attributed to the jealousy of a clique, but no further explanation seems necessary than the fact, admitted by Torrens's biographer, that he disliked his vocation and made few friends among his colleagues. If another reason is required, it may be found in the indiscretion of which his writings afford sufficient proof. Among them, for instance, is a squib in the style of Blackwood's 'Chaldee Manuscript' on an occurrence which had created much stir in Calcutta, extremely clever and amusing, but which must have made an enemy of one of the most influential personages in Bengal, supposing that he had not been made one already. In his latter days Torrens turned as much as he could from official life to literature, producing 'Madame de Malguet' (London, 1848, 3vols. 12mo), a novel founded on youthful experiences in France, so greatly admired by the veteran Miss Edgeworth that she wrote to the publishers to ascertain the author; and 'Remarks on the Scope and Uses of Military Literature and History,' a book highly eulogised by his biographer; it began to appear in the 'Eastern Star' in January 1846, and was subsequently reissued in book form. No copy of it is in the British Museum Library, but copious extracts are reprinted in the 'Collected Writings' (ed. Hume). He also contributed a number of papers to the Royal Asiatic Society's Journal. He died at Calcutta from the effects of climate on 11 Aug. 1852.
Torrens's dispersed literary remains were collected and printed at Calcutta, and published in London by J. Hume in 1854. They justify his character for wit and brilliancy, but are too slight and occasional to survive, and the unquestionable merits of his novel have not preserved it from oblivion. His literary reputation must rest on his translation of the 'Arabian Nights,' unfortunately unfinished, but pronounced superior to all later versions in virtue of 'that literary instinct and feeling which is more necessary even than scholarship to the successful translator' (Nation, New York, 1900, ii. 167).
[Torrens's Works in Brit. Museum Library; Memoir by J. Hume, prefixed to his edition of Torrens's literary remains; Kaye, History of the War in Afghanistan, vol. i.; Gent. Mag. 1852, ii. 546; New York Nation, 30 Aug. and 6 Sept. 1900.]