Cooper, Thomas Thornville (DNB00)

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COOPER, THOMAS THORNVILLE (1839–1878), one of the most adventurous of modern English travellers, the eighth son of John J. Cooper, coalfitter and shipowner, was born on 13 Sept. 1839, at Bishopwearmouth. He was educated at the Grange School, Bishopwearmouth, under Dr. Cowan, who by his judicious sympathy helped to foster his innate love of travel. He was then sent to a tutor in Sussex, where his health failed, and he was advised to take a voyage to Australia. On the voyage the crew mutinied, and Cooper had to take it in turns with the captain to stand guard, pistol in hand, at the cabin door. On arriving at St. George's Sound he decided to remain in Australia and make several journeys into the interior of the country. In 1859 he proceeded to India, and obtained employment at Madras in the house of Arbuthnot & Co. In 1861 he threw up his appointment and went to Scinde on a visit to a brother who was resident there. In the following year he visited Bombay and thence went by way of Beypore and Madras to Burmah. At Rangoon he devoted himself to the study of Burmese, and had made considerable progress in the language, when in 1863 he took ship to rejoin his brother, who was now established at Shanghai. He joined the Shanghai volunteers and took his share in the protection of the city against the Taiping rebels. On the suppression of the rebellion, the question of opening up the country to foreign commerce was brought prominently forward, and in 1868 Cooper, at the invitation of the Shanghai chamber of commerce, undertook an attempt to penetrate through Tibet to India. On 4 Jan. he left Hankow and travelled by way of Ch'êng-tu, Ta-tsien-lu, and Lit'ang to Bat'ang. From this point he had hoped to reach Roemah on the Lohit Brahmaputra in eight days; but the Chinese authorities positively forbade him to continue his journey westward. He therefore decided to take the Talifu route to Bamò. He struck southwards, following the valley of the Lan-ts'ang and reached Tse-ku on the western bank of that river—the most westerly point that has been reached by any traveller from China in the region of the great rivers north of Bamò. At this point he was within a hundred miles of Manchi, on the Upper Irawadi, which was visited by Wilcox from India in 1826. Still continuing his journey southward he arrived at Wei-si-fu, nearly due west of Li-kiang-fu, where he obtained passports for Talifu. At a distance of three days' journey from Weisi, however, he was stopped by a tribal chief, who refused to allow him to proceed. He was compelled, therefore, to return to Weisi, where he was imprisoned and threatened with death by the civil authorities on suspicion that he was in communication with the Panthay rebels of Yunnan. For five weeks he was kept a close prisoner, and was afterwards (6 Aug.) allowed to depart. Finding it impossible to prosecute his exploration further, he returned to Ya-chow, and proceeding down the Min river he struck the Yang-tsze at Sui-fu, and thence descended the river to Hankow, where he arrived on 11 Nov. 1868. Almost immediately afterwards he returned to England and published an account of his travels in a valuable work entitled ‘A Pioneer of Commerce.’ Having failed to reach India from China, he attempted in 1869 to reverse the process, and to enter China from Assam. On this journey he left Sadiya in October of that year, and passing up the line of the Brahmaputra, through the Mishmi country, reached Prun, a village about twenty miles from Roemah. Here he again met with such determined opposition from the authorities, that he was obliged to turn back. The history of his adventures on the journey he published in ‘Mishmee Hills.’ Shortly after his return to England he was appointed by the India Office to accompany the Panthay mission which had visited London to the frontier of Yunnan. On arriving at Rangoon, however, he learned that the rebellion had been crushed, and his mission was therefore at an end. He was appointed by Lord Northbrook political agent at Bamò. Unfortunately ill-health obliged him to return almost immediately to England, where he was attached to the political department of the India Office. In 1876 he was sent to India with despatches and presents to the viceroy in connection with the imperial durbar of Delhi, and was subsequently reappointed political agent at Bamò. While there (1877) he had the satisfaction of welcoming Captain Gill after his adventurous journey through China. Gill, in his ‘River of Golden Sand,’ speaks of his reception with lively gratitude. There also he was treacherously murdered on 24 April 1878 by a sepoy of his guard, whose enmity he had aroused by the infliction of a slight punishment. Cooper was a man of great physical powers, and was endowed with the calm courage essential for a successful traveller. Under a somewhat reserved demeanour he possessed a warm and generous nature, and won the regard and affection of all who knew him by his singleness of heart and his unaffected modesty.

[Yule's Geographical Introduction to the abridged edition of Gill's River of Golden Sand, &c.]

R. K. D.