Munro, Thomas (DNB00)
|←Munro, Innes||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 39
MUNRO, Sir THOMAS (1761–1827), major-general, baronet, K.C.B., governor of Madras, was the son of Alexander Munro, a Glasgow merchant trading with Virginia. He was born on 27 May 1761, and educated at the grammar school and at the university of Glasgow. He appears not to have been particularly studious at school, but was an adept at all athletic sports, a good swimmer and boxer. At the university he developed a taste for reading, history—especially military history—mathematics, and chemistry being his favourite subjects. He also studied political economy, and the French, Italian, and Spanish languages. He began the business of life in a mercantile firm at Glasgow, but, owing to family reverses, was compelled to accept an appointment in the mercantile marine service of the East India Company, which, however, he never joined, having been appointed a cadet of infantry at Madras, where he arrived on 15 Jan. 1780. A few months after his arrival in India the regiment to which he was attached formed part of the force sent against Hyder Ali, and he was present at all the operations under Sir Hector Munro [q. v.] and Sir Eyre Coote [q. v.] in 1780 and the three following years. He early attracted the notice of Coote, who appointed him quartermaster of a brigade when he was still an officer of less than two years' service. In August 1788 he was appointed to the intelligence department under Captain Read, and served in most of the operations under Lord Cornwallis, including the siege and capture of Bangalore. Some of the letters which he wrote during these years to his father, describing the military operations, are quoted by Wilson in his annotations to Mill's ‘History of British India’ as embodying the most accurate accounts available of some of the engagements with Hyder Ali. He also in those early days formed very clear views on the political situation, recognising the paramount importance of subverting the powerful and dangerous government which Hyder had founded in Mysore, the strength of which he deemed to be far more formidable than that of the Mahrattas. He was also an attentive observer of European affairs and of the French revolution, which he regarded as fraught with danger to the maintenance of British superiority. He strongly held the opinion that the territorial possessions of the East India Company must be extended if the company was to continue to exist as a territorial power. After the peace with Tippoo in 1792 Munro was employed for some years under Captain Read in forming and conducting the civil administration of the Baramahal, one of the districts ceded by Tippoo. It was there that he gained his first insight into civil duties, and especially into those connected with the land revenue, and it was there that he formed the opinions in favour of the system of landed tenures which, under the designation of the ryotwár system, has always been identified with his name. His employment in the Baramahal terminated in 1799, when, on the renewal of the war with Tippoo, he rejoined the army, and after the fall of Seringapatam was employed as one of the secretaries to a commission appointed by Lord Wellesley to arrange for the future administration of Mysore, Captain (afterwards Sir John) Malcolm being the other secretary. While serving on this commission Munro was brought into close intercourse with the future Duke of Wellington, then Colonel Wellesley, with whom he contracted a lasting friendship. Munro appears to have been much opposed to the resolution of the governor-general to set up another native dynasty, differing on this point from Colonel Wellesley, who supported his brother's policy, and regarded Munro's views respecting the political expediency of increasing the company's territories as somewhat hazardous. In one of his letters to Munro about this time he wrote: ‘I fancy that you will have the pleasure of seeing some of your grand plans carried into execution’ (Wellington Despatches, i. 254); and in another: ‘This is expensive, but if you are determined to conquer all India at the same moment, you must pay for it’ (Selections from the Minutes and other Official Writings of Sir T. Munro, Introductory Memoir, p. lxix). In the ‘Wellington Despatches’ ii. 338, there is an interesting letter written by General Wellesley to Munro after the battle of Assye, explaining his tactics, and commencing with the remark: ‘As you are a judge of a military operation, and as I am desirous of having your opinion on my side,’ &c. Munro's reply is characteristic, modest, cordial, and friendly, but frank in its criticism, and affording evidence of considerable strategic ability on the part of the writer (ib. p. cxi).
Munro's employment upon the commission at Seringapatam was followed by his appointment to the administrative charge of Canara, a district on the western coast of India, which, like the Baramahal, had been brought under the company's rule in 1792, but which from various causes had given a good deal of trouble. Owing to the unruly character of the inhabitants the duty was an arduous one, but in a very few months Munro, by his firm and wise rule, put down crime and rebellion, and substituted settled government for anarchy and disorder. He was then transferred to a still more important charge, viz., that of the districts south of the Tungabhadra, comprising an area little short of twenty-seven thousand square miles, and including the present districts of Ballári, Cuddapah, and Karnúl, and also the Palnád. This large tract of country had been a scene of excessive misrule for upwards of two centuries. It was full of turbulent petty chiefs, called poligárs, some of whom had to be expelled, while those who remained were forced to disband their armed retainers, and to abstain from unauthorised exactions from the cultivators of the soil. Munro spent seven years in the ceded districts. It was probably the most important period in his long official life. In the Baramahal his position had been a subordinate one. In Canara, where for the first time he was invested with an independent charge, his tenure of office had been too short to admit of his doing more than to suppress disorder, and to lay down principles of administration which his successors could work out. In the ceded districts he remained long enough to guide and direct the development of the system which he introduced, and to habituate the people to the spectacle of a ruler who, with inflexible firmness in securing the just rights of the state and in maintaining law and order, combined a patient and benevolent attention to the well-being of all classes. To this day it is considered by the natives in the ceded districts a sufficient answer to inquiries regarding the reason for any revenue rule that it was laid down by the ‘Colonel Dora,’ the rank which Munro held during the greater part of his service in those districts. It was while holding this charge that Munro thoroughly worked out the ryotwár system of land tenure and land revenue which prevails throughout the greater part of the Madras presidency and also in Bombay. This may be described as a system of peasant proprietors paying a land tax direct to the state, as distinguished from the system of large proprietors, called Zemindars, which obtains in Bengal and in parts of Madras. In introducing the ryotwár system Munro was cordially supported by the governor of Madras, Lord William Cavendish Bentinck [q. v.], but encountered serious opposition from the authorities in Bengal and from some of the higher officials at Madras, an opposition which so far prevailed that shortly after Munro left the ceded districts the ryotwár method of settlement was superseded by a system, first of triennial, and subsequently of decennial leases, under which the revenue of an entire village was farmed to the principal ryot, or, in the event of his refusing to accept the lease, to a stranger; but under both there were heavy losses of revenue to the state and much damage to the prosperity of the country, and, after eight years' trial of the plan of leases to middlemen, a recurrence to the ryotwár system was ordered by the court of directors.
Munro left India in October 1807, carrying away with him warm encomiums from the government of Madras, and much regretted by the natives of the districts which had been for seven years under his charge, and by the officers who had served under him. He remained in England for upwards of six years, during which time he was much consulted by the government and the court of directors on the various administrative questions which came under discussion in connection with the passing of the Company's Charter Act of 1813. The evidence given by him before the House of Commons produced a most favourable impression. It was mainly through his influence that the plan of applying the zemindári system of land tenure to the whole of India was finally abandoned, and that the ryotwár system was authorised for those districts in the Madras and Bombay presidencies which had not been already permanently settled, and his views on the judicial system and on the police were so highly approved that in 1814 he was sent back to Madras on a special commission for the purpose of preparing on the spot a scheme for giving effect to them.
It was not, however, exclusively upon questions of internal Indian administration that Munro's opinion was sought at this time by the home authorities. On the question of the company's trade, which it was then proposed to throw open, and especially upon the question of extending it to the outports, as well as to London; on the question of the demand in India for European manufactures, as to the probable extent of the import trade from India, as to the policy of withdrawing the restrictions then in force upon the admission into India of Europeans not in the service of the company, and on the question of the military organisation best adapted for India—on all these questions Munro's opinion was sought, and was given in language so clear and straightforward as to compel the admiration even of those who on some points held different views. He evinced little sympathy with the outcry raised against the company's monopoly, which in his opinion had been the source of many great national advantages, enabling it to acquire the extensive dominions then under British rule in India. His views on the organisation of the Indian army were very similar to those which have been acted on since the mutiny of 1857. He regarded the establishment of English officers provided by the organisation of 1796 to be excessive, and he disapproved of the plan of appointing young officers to native regiments on first obtaining their commissions. His opinion was that every officer on first entering the service should be employed one or two years with a European regiment until he had learnt his duty, and, by making himself in some degree acquainted with the character of the natives, had become qualified to command and to act with sepoys. He deprecated a proposal to abolish the company's European regiments, and, on the contrary, like Lord Canning fifty years later, was in favour of adding to their number both in infantry and cavalry.
Before returning to India Munro married Jane, daughter of Richard Campbell of Craige House, Ayrshire, a beautiful and accomplished woman, whose picture, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, hangs in the drawing-room of Government House at Madras. Accompanied by his wife, he returned to Madras early in the autumn of 1814, and at once entered upon the duties of his commission. Mr. Stratton, one of the judges of the chief court of appeal of the presidency, was associated with him on the commission. At the outset it encountered many obstacles from the local authorities, but after a time Munro's patience and firmness triumphed, and in 1816 a series of regulations was passed involving organic changes in the judicial and police departments of the administration. The new regulations transferred the superintendence of the police, and also the functions of magistrate of the district, from the judge to the collector. They expressly recognised the employment of the village officials in the performance of police duties, and empowered the head men of villages to hear and determine petty suits. They extended the powers of native judges, they simplified the rules of practice in the courts, and legalised a system of village and district pancháyats, or courts of arbitration, to which, as being adapted to native habits and usages, Munro attached special importance.
The work of framing these regulations had not been fully completed when the outbreak of the second Mahratta war led to Munro's re-employment for a time in a military capacity. Although he had been employed for a good many years upon civil duties, his military ability, as evinced in the earlier part of his Indian career, was well known and fully recognised by the highest military authorities, and before the war began he had been placed in military as well as civil command of certain districts recently ceded to the Peshwa. As soon as hostilities commenced he was invested with the rank of brigadier-general and with the command of the reserve division, formed to reduce the southern Mahratta country and to oppose the forces of the Peshwa, who, after his unsuccessful attack upon the Poona residency, had moved southwards. The campaign which followed, conducted with an extremely small force and attended with brilliant success, at once established Munro's capacity as a military commander, and subsequently drew forth from Mr. Canning the panegyric that ‘Europe had never produced a more accomplished statesman, nor India, so fertile in heroes, a more skilful soldier.’
On the termination of the war Munro, whose eyesight had suffered from the work and exposure he had gone through, returned to England. But shortly after his arrival he was nominated to succeed Mr. Elliot as governor of Madras, and re-embarked for India in the latter part of 1819. He had previously been created a knight commander of the Bath. Munro's government of Madras, which lasted seven years, more than maintained the reputation which he had previously achieved. His thorough knowledge of Indian district administration, and his command of the native languages, were great advantages. He made frequent tours throughout the country, travelling by short stages, and making himself thoroughly accessible to the people. At the end of each tour he embodied the results of his observations in a minute, which formed the basis of the orders subsequently issued. With his colleagues in council he was always on the best of terms, treating them with invariable frankness; and, while there never was an Indian government in which there was less friction between the governor and the council, it may be affirmed that there never was a government which was more essentially the government of the governor than the Madras government was while Munro presided over it. His minutes on the tenure of land, on the assessment of the revenue, on the condition of the people, on the training of civil servants, on the advancement of the natives in the public service, on the military system, on the press, are state papers which are still often referred to as containing lucid expositions of the true principles of administration. He entertained and expressed very strong opinions in favour of the policy of more largely utilising native agency, and of fitting the natives of India by education for situations of trust and emolument in the public service. But on this, as on all other subjects, his views were eminently practical. He was entirely opposed to any measures which might endanger British supremacy in India. He was altogether opposed to the establishment of a free press in that country, and was responsible for the famous dictum that ‘the tenure with which we hold our power never has been and never can be the liberties of the people.’ The first war with Burmah occurred while Munro was governor of Madras, and, although the operations were carried on under the direct orders of the governor-general, Lord Amherst [see Amherst, William Pitt, Earl Amherst of Arracan], the success of the war was much facilitated by the assistance rendered by Munro, who was created a baronet for his services in connection with it. Munro died of cholera on 6 July 1827, when making a farewell tour through the ceded districts on the eve of his retirement from the government. His death was mourned as a public calamity by all classes of the community. By the English members of the civil and military services, as well as by non-official Englishmen in India, he was regarded as a man who by his great and commanding talents, by the force of his character, by his extraordinary capacity for work, and by the justness and liberality of his views, had done more than any man in India to raise the reputation of the East India Company's service. By the natives he was venerated as the protector of their rights, familiar with their customs, and tolerant of their prejudices, ever ready to redress their grievances, but firm in maintaining order and obedience to the law. In a gazette extraordinary issued by his colleagues, on the receipt of the intelligence of his death, testimony was borne in language of more than ordinary eulogy to his public services and personal character, and to the universal regret which was felt at his death. An equestrian statue by Chantrey stands in a conspicuous position on the road from Fort St. George to Government House, and an excellent portrait by Sir Martin Archer Shee is in the Madras Banqueting Hall; another by Sir Henry Raeburn was in the third loan collection of national portraits, the property of Campbell Munro, esq.
[The Rev. G. R. Gleig's Life of Major-general Sir Thomas Munro, Bart., K.C.B., 1830; Selections from the Minutes and other OfficialWritings of Major-general Sir Thomas Munro, Bart., K.C.B., Governor of Madras, with an Introductory Memoir and Notes by the writer of this article, 1881; the introductory memoir in the last work was issued separately, with a new preface and some revision, under the title of 'Major-general Sir Thomas Munro, Bart, K.C.B., Governor of Madras: a Memoir,' 1889. A biography of Munro by John Bradshaw appeared in the 'Rulers of India' series in 1894.]