Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Taylor, Meadows

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TAYLOR, MEADOWS, whose full name was Philip Meadows Taylor (1808–1876), Indian officer and novelist, was born in Liverpool on 25 Sept. 1808. His father, Philip Meadows Taylor, was a merchant in Liverpool, and his grandfather, Philip Taylor, was grandson of John Taylor of Norwich (1694–1761) [q. v.]; his mother was the daughter of Bertram Mitford of Mitford Castle, Northumberland. A few years after his birth his father's affairs became involved, and, after a short and uncomfortable experience as clerk in a mercantile firm, Meadows, at the age of fifteen, was sent out to India to enter the house of Mr. Baxter, a Bombay merchant, with the promise of being made a partner when he should come of age. On arriving he found that the condition of Baxter's affairs had been much misrepresented, and embraced with satisfaction the offer of a commission in the nizam's service, procured for him (in November 1824) by Mr. Newnham, chief secretary to the Bombay government, a relative of his mother's. After a short period of military service he obtained civil employment, and, to qualify himself for the efficient performance of his duties, taught himself surveying, engineering, Indian and English law, botany, and geology. Ere long, however, he was obliged to revert to the army, and was promoted adjutant in the nizam's service in 1830. Much to his regret, his military duties prevented him from anticipating Colonel (Sir William Henry) Sleeman [q. v.] in the detection and suppression of Thuggism, which he had begun to investigate. He turned his inquiries to account, however, in his first novel, ‘The Confessions of a Thug’ (London, 1839, 3 vols. 12mo; 1858 and 1873), which was published on his return to England on furlough, and proved a great success. Returning to India, after marriage in 1840, he acted as a ‘Times’ correspondent in India from 1840 to 1853. Meantime at Hyderabad, in 1841, the great chance of his life came to him. He was commissioned by the resident to pacify the state of Shorapore, where the regent, the widow of the late raja, showed a disposition to set the British government at defiance. Though almost without troops, by a mixture of tact and daring Taylor procured the abdication of the ranee and the instalment of her infant son, he himself being charged with the administration of the principality during the minority. An attempt to remove him was frustrated by the interposition of John Stuart Mill. Under his judicious rule, Shorapore soon became a model state, and so continued until the accession of the raja, a youth of weak dissipated character, in 1853. Taylor was then transferred to one of the five Berar districts recently ceded by the nizam—the smallest, but the most difficult to administer. The revenue was in an unsatisfactory condition, a survey was needed, roads had to be made, and the district was visited by famine. Taylor coped successfully with these difficulties, and all was going on well when, upon the outbreak of the mutiny, he was despatched to the district of Booldana in North Berar. ‘Two millions of people,’ wrote the resident at Hyderabad, ‘must be kept quiet by moral strength, for no physical force is at my disposal.’ Without any troops Taylor kept perfect order in the country, and when at length the British forces reappeared, he was able to supply General Whitlock's Madras division with the means of transport which enabled it to capture the Kirwee treasure, subsequently the object of so much litigation, and out of which Taylor himself never received a rupee. In the same year (1858) he was appointed commissioner of his old district of Shorapore, which his former pupil, the raja, had forfeited by rebellion against the British government. The narrative of the raja's tragic death, in strange fulfilment of a prediction, makes one of the most stirring chapters in Taylor's autobiography. In 1860 his health failed, and he returned to England amid the liveliest demonstrations of regret from all quarters of India. After an interval of enforced rest from a temporary impairment of brain power, he resumed the pen, and wrote five more novels, ‘Tara, a Mahratta Tale’ (London, 1863 and 1874), ‘Ralph Darnell’ (1865 and 1879), ‘Seeta’ (1872 and 1880), ‘Tippoo Sultaun, a Tale of the Mysore War’ (1840 and 1880), and ‘A Noble Queen,’ published in the ‘Indian Mail’ and posthumously in book form (London, 1878 and 1880), all descriptive of eventful periods in Indian history. He also, besides the autobiography published after his death, wrote the letterpress for illustrated descriptions of the temples of Beejapore, Mysore, and Dharwar (1866), and for ‘The People of India’ (1868), as well as ‘A Student's Manual of the History of India’ (London, 1870, 1871, and 1896), and delivered many addresses and lectures on Indian topics. He was made a companion of the Star of India in 1869. In 1875 his sight failed, and by advice of physicians he determined to spend the winter in India, where he was further debilitated by an attack of jungle fever. He died at Mentone, on his way home, on 13 May 1876.

The only important authority for Meadows Taylor's life is his autobiography, one of the most transparently truthful documents ever penned. It was published in two volumes under the title ‘The Story of my Life,’ edited by his daughter, Miss A. M. Taylor, and with a preface by his old friend and kinsman Henry Reeve [q. v.] (London, 1877, 8vo; 1878 and 1882). With perfect simplicity and sincerity, and only because he could not help it, the author has drawn in his own person a portrait of the chivalrous officer, the laborious and philanthropic magistrate, and the man of versatile accomplishment, able on an emergency to turn his hand to anything. Had he been in the employment of the crown or the company, whether as soldier or civilian, he must have left a name second to few; but his situation in the employment of a native prince, even though at the same time responsible to the British resident, impaired his chances of promotion, and cramped his opportunities of distinction. He was, however, able to demonstrate in this narrow sphere the lesson he chiefly wished to enforce, ‘that ability, happiness, and success in the great work of ruling India depend very much upon the estimate formed of the native character, and on respect and regard shown to the natives in the several ranks of society.’ As a man of letters, Taylor occupies a unique position among Anglo-Indian writers. Many excellent pictures of Indian life have been given in fiction, but no one else has essayed to delineate the most critical epochs of Indian history in a series of romances: ‘Tara’ treats of the establishment of the Mahratta power, 1657; ‘Ralph Darnell’ of the conquests of Clive; ‘Tippoo Sultaun’ of the conquest of Mysore; and ‘Seeta’ of the mutiny. They are one and all brilliant books, rich in striking character and picturesque incident, and displaying the most intimate acquaintance with native life and habits of thought. ‘Confessions of a Thug,’ the most entertaining of Taylor's fictions, owes everything to his observation, being literal fact in the garb of imaginative narrative.

[Meadows Taylor's Story of my Life, 1877.]

R. G.