Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Playfair, Robert Lambert

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PLAYFAIR, Sir ROBERT LAMBERT (1828–1899), author and administrator, born at St. Andrews in 1828, was the grandson of James Playfair [q. v.], principal of the university of St. Andrews, and the third son of George Playfair (1782–1846), chief inspector-general of hospitals in Bengal, by his wife Janet (d. 1862), daughter of John Ross. Sir Lyon Playfair, baron Playfair [q. v. Suppl.], was his elder brother. Robert entered the Madras artillery on 12 Jan. 1846. On 28 Sept. 1858 he attained the rank of captain, and on 18 Feb. 1861 he was transferred to the Madras staff corps. On 30 June 1863 he was given the local rank of lieutenant-colonel at Zanzibar, and on 12 June 1866 he was promoted to be major in the staff corps. He retired from the army as lieutenant-colonel on 1 Nov. 1867. From November 1848 to May 1850 Playfair was associated with Sir James Outram [q. v.] in a quasi-political mission to Syria. From 28 March 1852 till 26 Sept. 1853 he served as assistant executive engineer at Aden. In 1854, when Outram became first political resident there, he chose Playfair as his assistant. In this capacity under Outram and his successors Playfair remained at Aden from 8 July 1854 till 17 Dec. 1862. He acted as temporary political resident from 19 April 1860 till 30 Oct. 1861, and from 10 Jan. till 3 April 1862. While assistant resident he took a share in putting down the traffic in slaves between Arabia and Somaliland, and in the events connected with the British occupation of Perim in 1857. At the time of his appointment he had qualified as interpreter in the Arabic language, and he put the period of his residence to good account by making researches into the history of that part of Arabia. His work was published at Bombay in 1859 as No. 49 of the :new series of 'Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government,' under the title 'History of Arabia Felix or Yemen from the Commencement of the Christian Era to the Present Time.' It included an account of the British settlement at Aden. In 1860 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

On 17 Dec. 1862 Playfair was appointed political agent at Zanzibar, and on 13 July 1863 was nominated consul there. On 20 June 1867 he became consul-general in Algeria, where he remained during the rest of his diplomatic career. On 16 March 1885 he was made consul-general for Algeria and Tunis, and on 2 Aug. 1889 consul-general for the territory of Algeria and the northern coast of Africa. He acquired an extensive knowledge not only of Algeria, but of the Mediterranean countries generally, visiting among other places the Balearic Islands and Tunis, where in 1876 he explored the previously almost unknown Khomair country. In 1874 he contributed to Murray's series 'A Handbook for Travellers in Algeria;' a second edition including Tunis appeared in 1878, and a fifth in 1895. In 1881 he wrote for the same series 'A Handbook to the Mediterranean Cities, Coasts, and Islands,' which reached a third edition in 1890. During his residence in Algeria he studied the official archives of the consulate, and in 1884 issued 'The Scourge of Christendom' (London, 8vo), an interesting account of the British relations with that country till the time of the French conquest in 1830. His most valuable work, however, in connection with the Barbary states was of a bibliographical character. In 1888 he published 'A Bibliography of Algeria from the Expedition of Charles V in 1541 to 1887' (London, 8vo). This work, which originally appeared among the 'Supplementary Papers' of the Royal Geographical Society, was completed in 1898 by a supplement carrying the bibliography from the earliest times to 1895. In 1889 he brought out 'The Bibliography of Tripoli and the Cyrenaica' (London, 8vo), from the earliest times to 1889, which was also included among the 'Supplementary Papers,' and finally in 1892 he prepared, in conjunction with Dr. Robert Brown, 'A Bibliography of Morocco from the earliest Times to 1891' (London, 8vo). These works were of the most exhaustive character, comprising a list of articles and papers as well as of separate works. 'The Bibliography of Tunisia' (London, 1889, 8vo), which completes the series, was prepared by Henry Spencer Ashtoee [q. v. Suppl.]

On 29 May 1886 Playfair was nominated K.C.M.G. At the meeting of the British Association at Leeds in 1890 he presided over the geographical section. He retired from the diplomatic service on a pension on 1 Dec. 1896. In January 1899 he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from the university of St. Andrews. He died at his residence, Queen's Gardens, St. Andrews, on 18 Feb. 1899. In 1851 he married Agnes, daughter of Major-general Thomas Webster of Belgarvie in Fife. By her he had five sons and two daughters.

Besides the works already mentioned Playfair was the author of 'Travels in the Footsteps of [James] Bruce' [q. v.] (London, 1877, 4to), which was illustrated with facsimiles of Bruce's original drawings. He also published in 1886 in the 'Asiatic Quarterly' (ii. 141) 'The Story of the Occupation of Perim,' and in 1899 in 'Chambers's Journal' 'Reminiscences' of Aden and Algeria, an interesting series of papers which have not appeared in book form.

[Playfair's works; Geographical Journal, 1899, xiii. 439; Times, 20 Feb. 1899; Foreign Office Lists; Goldsmid's James Outram, 1881, ii. 90; Wemyss Reid's Memoirs and Corresp. of Lyon Playfair, 1899, p. 23.]

E. I. C.