Hunter’s Rulers of India

May 16 2007

One of the series which (I’d bet) absorbed Toynbee in his youth.

William Wilson Hunter was a Glaswegian member of the Indian Civil Service who was posted to a remote district of lower Bengal in the 1860s and, in the truest Victorian tradition, published a book called The Annals of Rural Bengal. Also A Comparative Dictionary of the Non-Aryan Languages of India, two volumes on Orissa, and a historical introduction to India which was used in Indian schools.

In 1869 the Viceroy, Lord Mayo, asked him to submit a scheme for a comprehensive statistical survey of the Indian Empire. Twenty volumes appeared on Bengal alone (1875-7). Its offshoot was The Imperial Gazetteer of India, 9 volumes, 1881, growing in subsequent editions. Which is partly online at the Digital South Asia Library. He became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calcutta.

He retired from the Service in 1887, was knighted, and went to live near Oxford. He began a large history of the British in India, but completed only two volumes before he died in 1900. “A delightful story, The Old Missionary (1895),” says the 1911 Britannica, “and The Thackerays in India (1897), a gossipy volume which appeals to all readers of The Newcomes, may be regarded as the relaxations of an Anglo-Indian amid the stress of severer studies.” (Who now reads Thackeray’s The Newcomes, that “loose, baggy monster”?) And he was commissioned by OUP to edit a series of short studies called Rulers of India, parts of which were in print in India at least until the ’70s. Here is a list of titles, probably not complete, with only Asoka present from ancient Indian history:

Akbar, GB Malleson (Mughal)

Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, Lewin B Bowring (Mysore wars, Muslim)

Asoka, VA Smith (Mauryan)

Aurangzeb, Stanley Lane-Poole (Mughal)

Babar, Stanley Lane-Poole (Mughal)

Lord Clive, GB Malleson (East India Company)

Lord Dalhousie, Sir William Hunter (Governor-General)

Warren Hastings, LJ Trotter (first Governor-General)

Lord Mayo, Sir William Hunter (Viceroy)

Thomas Munro, John Bradshaw (Governor of Madras)

Madhava Rao Sindhia, HG Keene (Maratha wars, Hindu)

Ranjit Singh, Sir Lepel Griffin (Sikh wars)

The Marquess Wellesley, WH Hutton (Governor-General)

The adventures of Babar in Samarkand, Kabul and Delhi enthralled Victorian children, as did those of Wolfe in Quebec and Kitchener in Khartoum, though this isn’t a series for children. There was no absolute dividing line between this kind of history and the fictional adventures told by writers such as GA Henty or Karl May or even Kipling. Toynbee, the romantic, did not disparage it: there was a continuum with him, too. Mughal India was an especially colourful and fantastic place even if those who were enthralled by it are now disparaged as orientalists in the sense in which that word was redefined by Edward Said. And don’t rich modern city-dwellers occasionally catch themselves thinking of pre-modern history as having been played out in some kind of vast darkness and dustiness? Pre-modern history as their third world.

Two opening paragraphs.

“‘In the month of Ramazan [sic] of the year eight hundred and ninety-nine [June, 1494], I became King of Farghana.’ Such are the opening words of the celebrated Memoirs of Babar, the first of the ‘Moghul’ Emperors of Hindustan.”

“There is, perhaps, no more notable and picturesque figure among the chiefs who rose to power on the ruins of the Mughal Empire than Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the short-lived Sikh kingdom of Lahore. In the stormy days at the beginning of the century, amid a fierce conflict of races and creeds, he found his opportunity, and seizing it with energy, promptitude, and genius, he wielded the turbulent and warlike sectaries who followed the teaching of Govind Singh into a homogeneous nation. Under his strong and remorseless rule, the Sikhs, trained and disciplined on a military system more perfect than had before or that has been since employed in the native States of India, were rapidly converted into a formidable fighting machine, which only broke in pieces when the folly and weakness of the great Maharaja’s successors persuaded them to use it against the English.”

You can even see Toynbee’s style there.

“One of Babar’s best sketches is that of his uncle Ahmad, the King of Samarkand, who so nearly swallowed up his nephew’s inheritance […].”


Cover from a 1971 edition by S. Chand & Co; Chand is described as being at: Delhi – New Delhi – Jullundur – Lucknow – Bombay – Calcutta – Madras – Hyderabad – Patna

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