Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Des Vœux, William

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DES VŒUX, Sir (GEORGE) WILLIAM (1834–1909), colonial governor, born at Baden on 22 Sept. 1834, was eighth of the nine children of Henry Des Vœux (1786–1857), who had given up clerical duty at home for foreign travel. The father was third son of Sir Charles Des Vœux (d. 1814), of Huguenot descent, who had held high office in the government of India and was created a baronet in 1787. His mother, his father's second wife, Fanny Elizabeth, eldest daughter of George Hutton—afterwards Hutton-Riddell—of Carlton, Nottinghamshire, died when William was two years old, and the father married in 1839, as third wife, Julia, daughter of John Denison of Ossington, and sister of Speaker John Evelyn Denison, first Viscount Ossington [q. v.]. Des Vœux always spoke with affection of his step-mother.

The family had returned to England from the continent in 1839, settling first in London and then at Leamington.

From a preparatory school William passed to Charterhouse (1845-1853) as a foundationer, and thence to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1854, but, unable to comply with his father's wish that he should take orders, he left Oxford in his third year without graduating. He went to Canada in 1856, originally intending to farm, but instead settled at Toronto, graduating B.A. at the university there, and also passing in law. After a brief practice at the Canadian bar, he in 1863 became a stipendiary magistrate and superintendent of rivers and creeks in an up-river district of British Guiana. Transferred to a coast district including extensive sugar estates, which were worked largely by means of East Indian and Chinese 'coolie' labourers, imported under a careful system of indenture and under close government supervision, Des Vœux, new to the conditions, and a somewhat ardent liberal, conceived that the 'coolies' were grievously oppressed by the planters. He was reluctant, as magistrate, to enforce 'the Draconic laws against the coolie indentured labourers,' and rather demonstratively took the part of the labourer against the employer, thereby incurring though not to the extent which he imagined the hostility of the planters and the distrust of the government. Relations became so strained that he asked for a transfer to another colony, and was sent as administrator to St. Lucia in 1869. From his new post he at once wrote to Lord Granville of what he regarded as the grievances of the 'coolies' in Guiana. He himself afterwards characterised his letter as 'defective,' 'written in great haste,' and 'without notes to refresh his memory.' 'The Times' described it as 'the severest indictment of public officers since Hastings was impeached.' A royal commission of inquiry was appointed and Des Vœux was recalled to Guiana to prove his case. The commission corrected certain genuine abuses in the labour system, but Des Vœux failed to prove what he afterwards admitted to have been an view.

Des Vœux returned to his duties in St. Lucia, 'depressed,' as he says, 'by a sense of personal failure,' although the colonial office did not condemn him. At St. Lucia he reorganised and codified the old French system of law in force there, put right the island finances, and started a central sugar factory.

In 1878 he left St. Lucia and acted for about a year as governor of Fiji during the absence on leave of Sir Arthur Gordon (afterwards Lord Stanmore). Des Vœux carried on with success Sir Arthur's task of creating the first British crown colony in the South Sea Islands, and after a visit home, during which he was appointed governor of the Bahamas (1880) but did not take up the post, he, on the retirement of Sir Arthur Gordon in 1880, returned to Fiji as actual governor and as high commissioner of the Western Pacific. These posts he filled with credit till 1885. He was governor of Newfoundland in 1886 and of Hongkong from 1887 till his final retirement from the service in 1891.

Thenceforth Des Voeux lived quietly in England, chiefly in London. He published his autobiography, 'My Colonial Service,' in 1903, a pleasant, gossipy book, containing much of interest on colonial administration. He was made G.C.M.G. in the same year. He died in London on 15 Dec. 1909.

Des Voeux, while on sick leave, married, on 24 July 1875, Marion Denison, daughter of Sir John Fender [q. v. Suppl. I], by whom he had two surviving sons and two daughters.

[Des Voeux, My Colonial Service, 1903; public records; personal knowledge.]

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