Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Prinsep, Henry Thoby
PRINSEP, HENRY THOBY (1792–1878), Indian civil servant, was the fourth son of John Prinsep, The latter, having gone out to India as a military cadet during the period which intervened between the retirement of Clive from, and the appointment of Warren Hastings to, the government of Bengal, had resigned the military service and made a considerable fortune in trade. He trafficked chiefly in indigo, of which industry he may be regarded as the founder, and introduced into Bengal the printing of cotton fabrics. He returned to England in 1788 and settled at Thoby Priory in Essex; he was M.P. for Queenborough, 1802-6, and an alderman of the city of London. He published in 1789 'A Review of the Trade of the East India Company,' London, 8vo, and this was followed by pamphlets upon the cultivation of the sugar-cane in Bengal and upon other East Indian topics (cf. Watt, Bibl. Brit.) In his later life, after considerable losses in trade, his city influence procured his appointment as bailiff to the court of the borough of Southwark, with a salary of 1,500l. a year (cf. Pantheon of the Age, 1825, ii. 187). He married, while in India a sister of James Peter Auriol, secretary to the government of Warren Hastings.
His son, Henry Thoby, was born at Thoby Priory on 15 July 1793; he commenced his education under a private tutor, and at the age of thirteen joined Mr. Knox's school at Tunbridge, where he was at once placed in the sixth form. In 1807, having obtained a writership to Bengal, he entered the East India College, then recently established at Hertford Castle, and, leaving the college in December 1808, arrived at Calcutta on 20 July 1809, at the age of sixteen. After passing two years in Calcutta, first as a student in Writers' Buildings, where he was much thrown with Holt Mackenzie, and afterwards as an assistant in the office of the court of Sadr Adálat, be was sent to Murshidábad, where he was employed as assistant to the magistrate, and also as registrar, a judicial office for the disposal of petty suits. After serving in the Jungle Mehuls and in Bákarganj (Backirgunge), Prinsep was appointed, in 1814, to a subordinate office in the secretariat, and in that capacity became a member of the suite of the governor-general, Lord Moira (afterwards Marquis of Hastings), whom he accompanied in his tour through Oudh and the North-Western Provinces. He was subsequently the first holder of the office of superintendent and remembrancer of legal affairs—an office established for the protection of the interests of the government in the courts in the provinces. His tenure of the post was interrupted by summonses to join the governor-general's camp during Lord Hastings's more prolonged tours, which embraced the period of the Nepal and Pindári wars, and of the third war with the Mahrattas. In the two latter the governor-general, who was also commander-in-chief, exercised the chief command. At the close of the Mahratta war, Prinsep obtained the permission of the governor-general to write 'A History of the Political and Military Transactions in India during the Administration of the Marquis of Hastings,' i.e. from October 1813 to January 1823. Prinsep sent the completed manuscript to his elder brother, Charles Robert Prinsep [see below]. A letter to Canning, president of the board of control, from Lord Hastings, recommended that the publication of the work should be sanctioned. Canning, without reading the manuscript, prohibited the publication. Charles Prinsep, however, decided to publish on his own responsibility, and placed the manuscript in the hands of John Murray, who brought out the book in 1823. The proofs were sent to the board of control, where they were seen by Canning, who, on reading them, approved of the work, and evinced no displeasure at the violation of his prohibition. The book is generally considered to be the best and most trustworthy narrative of the events of that time. The original edition (1 vol. 4to) was revised and republished in two octavo volumes, when the author was in England on leave, in 1824.
In 1819 and 1820, while still holding, as his permanent appointment, the office of superintendent and remembrancer of legal affairs, Prinsep was employed upon more than one special inquiry. The most important was an investigation into the condition of the land tenures in the district of Bardwán and the adjoining country. The principal landowner in these districts was, and is, the raja of Bardwán, who paid over forty lakhe of rupees, representing in Prinsep's time over 400,000l. sterling, as annual revenue to the government. The raja had introduced the system of letting his estates in large blocks, called patni taluks, to tenants who were called patnidárs, on payment of large sums of money as bonus: these again sublet them to undertenants called darpatnidárs, by whom they were again further sublet; so that there were sometimes five or six middlemen between the rájá and the cultivating ryot. The tenure of the patnidárs was, by stipulation, perpetual and hereditary, and gave to them all the rights and authority of the rájá over the subtenants; the result was much confusion and litigation, difficulty in collecting the rájá's dues, and risk to the government revenue. Prinsep, after a thorough inquiry, came to the conclusion that there was no security for the government revenue, and no remedy for the existing confusion, unless a law were passed that, on default of the patnidár, all the middlemen who derived their rights from him should fall with him. He accordingly drafted a regulation, which was passed into law as Regulation 8 of 1819, and is in force at the present day, not only in the districts originally dealt with, but throughout Bengal.
From that time Prinsep was recognised as one of the ablest men in the service, and his promotion to high office was assured. On 16 Dec. 1820, before he had been twelve years in India, he was appointed Persian secretary to government on a salary of three thousand rupees a month; and except on two occasions, when he was compelled by the state of his health to leave India for a time, he never left the secretariat until he was appointed a member of council, first during a temporary vacancy in 1835, and five years later, when he was permanently appointed to the office. He finally retired from the service and left India in 1843.
During his long service Prinsep was brought into close contact with a long succession of governors-general, including Lords Hastings, Amherst, William Bentinck, Auckland, and Ellenborough. Many years afterwards, in 1865, he wrote a valuable autobiographical sketch of his official life (still unpublished), in which he recorded his impressions of each of these men. Of Lord Minto, with whom he does not appear to have had any direct intercourse, Prinsep had a poor opinion, although he gives him credit for the firmness he displayed in the operations against Java. He regarded Lord Hastings's administration, extending over nine years, as 'a glorious one,' which had 'nearly doubled the revenues and territories of the East India Company, and established its diplomatic influence over the whole peninsula of India.' Lord Amherst he describes as a courteous gentleman, and a ready and fluent speaker, but he 'lacked confidence in his own judgment and was by no means prompt in decision,' and 'had extraordinary notions of the importance of a very punctilious ceremonial.' He had a high admiration for John Adam [q. v.], who was acting governor-general for seven months in 1823, and on his death in 1825 wrote a memoir of Adam at the request of his family, which was published in the 'Asiatic Journal' for 1825.
The governor-general upon whom Prinsep is most severe is Lord William Bentinck. He regarded him as addicted to change for the mere sake of change, as unduly suspicious of those who worked under him, and too much addicted to meddling with details; but he gives Lord William credit for honesty of intention, especially in the distribution of his patronage. The two men differed essentially in character. Lord William was a strong liberal, while Prinsep was a conservative to the backbone. On the education question Prinsep was strongly opposed to the policy, initiated by Macaulay and supported by Bentinck, of substituting English for the ancient oriental languages as the medium of instruction. The policy ultimately adopted was a compromise in deference to Prinsep's opposition. Later on, during the interregnum in which Sir Charles Metcalfe [q. v.] officiated as governor-general, Prinsep, while not opposing the act for giving freedom to the press of India, predicted, with a foresight which subsequent events have justified, that 'the native press might become an engine for destroying the respect in which the government is held.' Prinsep's remarks on this occasion were quoted forty-three years afterwards in support of the act passed in 1878 for the better control of publications in oriental languages in India.
With Lord Auckland, Prinsep appears to have been on very friendly terms throughout his administration, but he regarded him as deficient in promptitude of decision, and influenced by an overweening dread of responsibility. He entirely disapproved of Lord Auckland's Afghan policy, and foretold the failure of the policy of supporting Shah Soojah on public grounds as well as on account of the weakness of his character. With Lord Ellenborough Prinsep only served a year. In the autobiographical sketch he tells the story of the despatches which were sent by Lord Ellenborough to Pollock and Nott during the Afghan war.
On his return to England in 1843 Prinsep settled in London, where he had been already elected a member of the Carlton Club and also of the Athenæum Club by election of the committee. His ambition at that time was to enter the House of Commons, and he contested no less than four constituencies as a conservative candidate, the Kilmarnock Burghs, Dartmouth, Dover, and Harwich. At the last of these places he was returned by a majority, but was unseated by petition on technical grounds connected with his qualification which were immediately removed by the House of Commons. He then canvassed for a seat in the court of directors of the East India Company, to which he was elected in 1850. He took a prominent part in the discussions at the India House, and when the number of directors was diminished under the act of 1853, he was one of those elected by ballot to retain their seats. In 1858, when the council of India was established, he was one of the seven directors appointed to the new council.
In the council of India, in which Prinsep held office for sixteen years, only retiring in 1874, when failing sight and deafness disqualified him for the post, he displayed the same activity which had characterised his whole official life. He recorded frequent dissents from the decisions of the secretary of state. He was much opposed to some of the measures adopted after the mutiny. He emphatically disapproved of the abolition of the system of recruiting British troops for local service in India, and joined on that occasion with thirteen other members of the council in a written protest against the course taken by the cabinet in deciding this question before the council of India had been consulted on it. He also disapproved of the original scheme for the establishment of staff corps for India, and especially of that part of it which provided for the appointment of officers from the line for Indian service. He was much opposed to the re-establishment of a native government in Mysore, after the country had been administered for thirty years by British officers. On financial grounds he deprecated the prosecution of the works undertaken to improve the navigation of the Godavery river, which subsequently, owing to their enormous cost, had to be abandoned. In his last year of office he recorded a protest against the adoption of the narrow, or metre, gauge for Indian railways.
Busy as was Prinsep's official life, he found time to write—besides his history of Lord Hastings's administration—works on the origin of the Sikh power in the Punjáb (1834), on the historical facts deducible from recent discoveries in Afghanistan (1844), on the social and political condition of Thibet, Tartary, and Mongolia (1852), and in 1853 he published an exhaustive pamphlet on the India question, when the so-called Charter Act of that year was under discussion. He also, when in India, brought out Ramachandra Dasa's 'Register of the Bengal Civil Servants 1790-1842, accompanied by Actuarial Tables' (Calcutta, 1844), a subject to which he had given a good deal of attention. At the same time he was a facile verse-writer. Quite in his old age he printed for private circulation a little volume entitled 'Specimens of Ballad Poetry applied to the Tales and Traditions of the East.' He kept up his classical studies to the end of his life. When failing health entailed upon him sleepless nights, he often whiled away the time by translating the 'Odes of Horace' into English verse. He was a keen mathematician. Only a few days before his death he worked out a new method of proving the forty-seventh proposition of the first book of Euclid, which was favourably reported on by so competent a mathematician as Professor Clifford.
In private life Prinsep was greatly beloved. Always genial and kindly, he was generous in the extreme. Some five or six years after his return from India he settled at Little Holland House, a roomy old house in Kensington, with a large garden, the site of which is now occupied by Melbury Road. There he cultivated the society of artists, more than one of whom are largely indebted to his help and encouragement for their success in life. Mr. G. F. Watts, R.A., was one of his most attached friends, and had his home with Prinsep at the old Little Holland House for twenty-five years. Another was Sir Edward Burne-Jones, who, when a young and struggling artist, attracted Prinsep's notice and assistance.
Prinsep died on 11 Feb. 1878, at the house of Mr. Watts at Freshwater in the Isle of Wight. His wife, Sara Monckton, daughter of James Pattle,died on 15 Dec. 1887, leaving three sons: the present Sir Henry Thoby Prinsep, a judge of the high court at Calcutta; Valentine Cameron Prinsep, Royal Academician, and Arthur Haldimand Prinsep, a major-general (retired) of the Bengal cavalry, and C.B. He also left one daughter, who married Mr. Charles Gurney.
Prinsep was a man of commanding presence, with a remarkably keen eye and a pleasant expression of countenance. There are two portraits of him, both by Watts. One drawn in crayons in 1852 belongs to the Hon. Mr. Justice Prinsep; the other in oils, painted twenty years later, belongs to Mr. Leslie Stephen. There is an excellent photograph by his sister-in-law, Mrs. Julia Margaret Cameron [q. v.] Watts also painted a portrait of Mrs. Prinsep.
Of Prinsep's numerous brothers one, James, is separately noticed. Another, Charles Robert Prinsep (1789-1864), was admitted a pensioner of St. John's College, Cambridge, 23 May 1806, and proceeded B.A. 1811 and M.A. 1814. He was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in Trinity term 1817, and was the author of 'An Essay on Money,' London, 1818, 8vo, and of a translation of J. B. Say's 'Political Economy, with Notes,' 2 vols. 8vo, 1811. He was created LL.D. in 1824, received the appointment of advocate-general of Bengal, and died at Chiswick on 8 June 1864 (Gent. Mag. 1864, ii. 124; Allibone, Dict. of English Lit. ii. 1691).
[This article has been based largely upon the autobiographical sketch to which reference is made in it, and on information furnished by a member of Prinsep's family and by friends. Prinsep's works have also been consulted.]