Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Elliot, Walter

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ELLIOT, Sir WALTER (1803–1887), Indian civil servant and archæologist, born on 16 Jan. 1803, was a son of James Elliot of Wolfelee, Roxburghshire, a member of a junior branch of the old border family of Elliot of Lariston. His early education was conducted partly at private schools and partly at home under a private tutor. In 1818 he was sent to Haileybury College, having obtained a writership in the service of the East India Company at Madras. Reaching India in 1821, he was appointed to the public service in 1823, first as assistant to the collector and magistrate of Salem, from which office he was shortly afterwards transferred to the Southern Mahratta country, then administered by the government of Madras. In the first year of his service in that part of India he was present at the insurrection at Kittúr, when the political agent, Mr. Thackeray, and three officers of a troop of horse artillery sent thither to maintain order, and a large number of men, were killed; Elliot and Stevenson, a brother assistant, being made prisoners, and detained for several weeks in the hands of the insurgents at great peril of their lives. In the latter part of Elliot's service in the Southern Mahratta country that territory was annexed to the Bombay presidency, and Elliot, in the ordinary course, would have been retransferred to a Madras district, but at the special request of Sir John Malcolm, then governor of Bombay, he was allowed to remain until he left India on furlough in 1833. Leaving Bombay on 11 Dec. in that year in company with Mr. Robert Pringle of the Bombay civil service, Elliot returned to Europe by way of the Red Sea, landing at Kosseir, and riding across the Egyptian desert to Thebes, whence, taking the Nile route as far as Cairo, he crossed into Palestine, and was present, in company with the Hon. Robert Curzon, the author of 'The Monasteries of the Levant,' at the exhibition of the holy fire in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, when so many people were killed (Curzon, Monasteries of the Levant, ch. xvi.) After visiting Constantinople, Athens, Corfu, and Rome, he reached England on 5 May 1835. In the autumn of the following year he again embarked for India as private secretary to his relative, Lord Elphinstone, who had been appointed governor of Madras, and the remainder of his Indian service was spent in the Madras presidency.

During the years immediately succeeding Lord Elphinstone's retirement from the government, which took place in 1842, Elliot was employed upon the ordinary duties of a member of the board of revenue; but in 1845 he was deputed to investigate the condition of Guntúr, one of the districts commonly known as the Northern Sirkárs, where there had been a serious falling off in the revenue and a general impoverishment of the people, caused, as Elliot's inquiries proved, by the wasteful extravagance and extortion of the zemindárs, and by the malversation of the native revenue officials. Elliot's recommendations, involving, among other matters, a complete survey and reassessment of the district and the permanent resumption of the defaulting zemiudáries, which had been already sold for arrears of revenue and bought in by the government, were sanctioned, although upon terms less liberal to the zemindárs than Elliot had proposed; and at the instance of the court of directors, who pronounced a high encomium upon his work at Guntúr, he was appointed commissioner, with the powers of the board of revenue in all revenue matters, for the administration of the whole of the northern sirkárs. In this responsible charge he remained until 1854, when he was appointed a member of the council of the governor of Madras. He finally retired from the civil service, and left India early in 1860.

As a member of council Elliot's duties, though not more arduous, were of a more varied character than those which had devolved upon him as a revenue officer. Besides the various revenue questions which came before the government there were many subjects of great public interest with which he was eminently qualified to deal. Among these were the question of native education, and such matters as the relations of the British government in India with christian missions on the one hand and with the religious endowments of the Hindus and Muhammadans on the other hand. With the natives he had throughout his service maintained a free and friendly intercourse. Native education was a subject to which he had long paid considerable attention. He had also been throughout his Indian life a cordial friend, and, in his private capacity, a generous supporter of christian missions. In connection with education he was a staunch advocate of the grant-in-aid system. While senior member of council it devolved upon him, owing to the illness of the governor. Lord Harris, to preside on the occasion of the public reading at Madras of the queen's proclamation issued on her majesty's assumption of the direct government of India.

In addition to his labours as a public servant Elliot devoted much time to investigations into the archælogy and the natural history of India. At a very early period of his residence in the Southern Mahratta country Elliot commenced his archæological inquiries. Working in concert with a young Brahman who was attached to his office, he mastered the archaic characters in which the old inscriptions were written, and during the remainder of his life in India employed much of his leisure in deciphering and translating the inscriptions found by him in various parts of the country. In zoology, ornithology, and botany he took the keenest interest. In 1837 he published in the 'Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society' a paper on 'Hindu inscriptions Inscriptions;' and from that time to the end of his life he was a frequent contributor to one or other of the journals which deal with the objects of his favourite researches. The journals named at the foot of this article all contain contributions, some of them numerous contributions, from his pen, the results of accurate and intelligent observation, recorded in a clear and popular style. His most important work is his treatise on the coins of Southern India, published in 1885, when the author was in his eighty-third year, which forms part ii. of the third volume of the 'International Numismata Orientalia,' and contains an interesting account of the ancient races and dynasties of Southern India, derived from the inscriptions and coins which have been discovered. A remarkable fact connected with this treatise, and with all Elliot's later compositions, is that when they were written the author, who had been extremely near-sighted all his life, was all but blind, latterly quite blind, and had to depend upon the pen of an amanuensis to commit them to paper, and upon the eyes of relatives and friends to correct the proofs. His collection of South Indian coins, about four hundred in number, and a collection of carved marbles belonging to a Buddhist tope at Amrávati, which he made when residing in the Guntúr district in 1845, are now deposited in the British Museum, where the marbles are placed on the walls facing, and on each side of, the grand staircase.

During the last twenty-four years of his life Elliot resided principally at his house at Wolfelee, taking an active part in parochial and county business. At his house, which was quite a museum, he was always glad to receive and instruct persons who were engaged in his favourite studies. He possessed a singularly calm and equable temper, and bore with unfailing patience and resignation a deprivation which to most men with his tastes and with his active mind would have been extremely trying. His intellectual vigour remained undiminished literally to the last hour of his life. On the morning of the day of his death, 1 March 1887, he dictated and signed with his own hand a note to Dr. Pope, the eminent Tamil scholar, stating that on the previous day he had read (i.e. heard read) with much appreciation a notice of Dr. Pope's forthcomingg edition of the 'Kurral,' and that, notwithstanding loss of sight and advancing years, his 'interest in oriental literature continues unabated,'and inquiring whether his correspondent could suggest any method of utilising certain 'disjecta fragmenta' connected with Francis White Ellis [q. v.], which he had collected many years before. In the evening he died with little or no suffering.

In recognition of his services in India Elliot was created in 1866 a K.C.S.I. In 1877 he was appointed a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1878 he received from the university of Edinburgh the degree of LL.D. He was a deputy-lieutenant and magistrate for Roxburghshire. In 1839 he was married at Malta to Maria Dorothea, daughter of Sir David Blair, bart., of Blairquhan, Ayrshire, who survives him (1888), and by whom he left three sons and two daughters.

Elliot's principal writings are contained in the following publications: 'Indian Antiquary,' vols. v. vi. vii. xii. xiv. xv. xvi.; 'Madras Journal of Literature and Science.' vols. vii. x. xi. xiii. xv. xix. xx. xxi.; 'Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society,' 1837; 'Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal,' 1851; 'Flora Andhrica,' 1859; 'Transactions of the Botanical Society,' 1862, 1871; 'Berwickshire National Club Journal,' 1867, 1872. 1873, 1874, 1878, 1881, 1887; 'Transactions of the International Congress of Prehistoric Archæology at Norwich,' 1868; 'Journal of the Ethnological Society,' 1869, vol. i.; 'Report of the British Association,' 1872; 'Proceedings of the Antiquarian Society of Scotland,' 1874, 1885; 'Athenæum,' '10 April 1875; 'Proceedings of the Zoological Society,' 1880; 'International Numismata Orientalia,' vol. iii. pt. ii.

[Obituary notice by the present writer in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society for July 1887, based partly upon information contained in the Records of the Madras Government, and partly upon personal knowledge.]

A. J. A.