Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Phayre, Arthur Purves

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PHAYRE, Sir ARTHUR PURVES (1812–1885), first commissioner of British Burma, born at Shrewsbury on 7 May 1812, was son of Richard Phayre, esq., of Shrewsbury, by his wife, daughter of Mr. Ridgway, publisher, of 169 Piccadilly. Colonel Phayre of Killoughram Forest, co. Wexford, was his grandfather. He was educated at Shrewsbury School, and became a cadet in the Bengal army in 1828. He was transferred to Maulmain in 1834, was promoted lieutenant in 1838, and accompanied the expedition against the Wa-lien tribe in 1841. He was nominated in 1846 principal assistant to the commissioner of the Tenasserim provinces of Lower Burma, and thus formed his first connection with that country, with which his later life was mainly associated. He rejoined his regiment, and accompanied it to the Punjab in 1848; but in 1849 he returned to Burma as captain and commissioner of Arakan, and as assistant to Captain (afterwards Sir Archibald) Bogle. In Arakan he was well trained in the details of civil administration, and his spare time was employed in acquiring an intimate knowledge of the Burmese language. He was transferred in 1852 to the commissionership of Pegu (in Lower Burma) on its annexation after the second Burmese war. The province flourished under his rule, and his success was emphatically acknowledged by Lord Canning in 1856. During his tenure of this office in 1854 he accompanied as interpreter the mission sent by the king of Burma to the governor-general of India, and in 1857 was sent to Amarapúra in charge of a mission to the Burmese court with Dr. John Forsyth, of Afghanistan and Jalálábád fame, and Thomas Oldham [q. v.], superintendent of the Geological Survey of India, and Captain (afterwards Sir Henry) Yule as secretary. The desired treaty was not obtained; but information of much value concerning the country, the people, and their government was collected (see Yule's Report). Phayre was promoted major in 1855, and lieutenant-colonel in 1859. In 1862 the province of British Burma was formed by combining the divisions known as Arakan, Iráwadi, Pegu, and Tenasserim, and Phayre was appointed chief commissioner. He was made C.B. in 1863. His success attracted the favourable attention of Sir John Lawrence, who, when Phayre contemplated departure on sick leave, wrote on 2 Feb. 1867 expressing his deep regret, and recommended him for the distinction of K.C.S.I. Phayre left Burma in the course of that year, and never returned. His successor, Colonel Albert Fytche, justly reported that his administration was throughout conspicuously wise and conscientious.

During his absence on leave (February 1868) he declined Sir Stafford Northcote's offer of the post of resident at Haidarábád, one of the best appointments in India. Next year he travelled to India, visited Kashmir, China, Japan, and America, and, returning home in 1870, settled at Bray, near Dublin, for four years. He was promoted major-general in 1870, and lieutenant-general in 1877. In 1874 he was appointed by Lord Carnarvon to be governor of the Mauritius. His administration was both successful and popular, and he held office till the end of 1878, when he retired from the army and was created G.C.M.G. Settling again at Bray, he employed himself in compiling the ‘History of Burma,’ which he published in 1883. The book is an excellent piece of work, founded chiefly on the ‘Mahárájáweng,’ or ‘Chronicles of the Kings of Burma,’ and on other Burmese authorities. One of his last public acts was to write a letter to the ‘Times’ (13 Oct. 1885) intimating his approval of the annexation of independent Upper Burma. He died unmarried at Bray on 14 Dec. 1885, and was buried at Enniskerry.

Phayre was tall, dignified in bearing, and excessively courteous in manner. By his firmness, justice, and liberality he built up the great province of Burma, where his name became a household word.

There is a portrait of Phayre in uniform, painted by Sir Thomas Jones, P.R.H.A., in the coffee-room of the East India United Service Club, and a statue has been erected to his memory in Rangoon.

Phayre's publications, besides the ‘History of Burma,’ are ‘Coins of Arakan, of Pegu, and of Burma’ (part of the ‘International Numismata Orientalia’), 1882, 4to, and many papers detailed in the ‘Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society’ (1886, p. 111).

[Information kindly furnished by his brother, Sir Robert Phayre, K.C.B.; Yule's Narrative of Major Phayre's Mission to the Court of Ava (Calcutta, 1856); Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, 1886, viii. 103–12, obit. notice by Colonel Yule.]

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