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Sir  William Wilson Hunter (1840–1900), by Barraud, pubd 1893Sir William Wilson Hunter (1840–1900), by Barraud, pubd 1893
Hunter, Sir William Wilson (1840–1900), administrator in India and historian, was born on 15 July 1840, the son of Andrew Galloway Hunter, a Glasgow manufacturer from Denholm, Roxburghshire, and his wife, Isabella Wilson, a younger sister of James Wilson (1805–1860). He was educated at Glasgow, first at the academy and later at the university. After graduating in 1860, he spent some months as a student in Paris and Bonn, acquiring a useful knowledge of Sanskrit. In the open competition for the Indian Civil Service in 1861, he passed at the head of the list.

Hunter arrived in India in November 1862, and was posted to Birbhum district in the lower provinces of Bengal as assistant magistrate. On 4 December 1863 he married Jessie, daughter of . They were to have two surviving sons. He began to show an interest in historical research, studying old records and collecting local traditions. His first literary venture, The Annals of Rural Bengal (1868), was a considerable historical work and was intended as the precursor of a series. It was well received, due to Hunter's ability to make the details of administration both intelligible and attractive. Less successful was another publication of the same year, A Comparative Dictionary of the non-Aryan Languages of India and High Asia, which was a glossary based mainly on the collections of Brian Houghton Hodgson, with a political commentary on the relationship between the Indian government and the indigenous people. Hunter later withdrew some of the linguistic inductions, and acknowledged the inadequacy of his research. Hunter recognized the atmosphere of tension created by the Wahabis in northern India in the early 1870s, and in his book The Indian Mussalmans (1871) he announced that the Muslims in India formed a source of chronic danger to British power, as they were ‘seditious masses in the heart of an Empire’. He added that they had good reasons for their profound sense of grievance. Lord Mayo's government, which was more optimistic in its assessment, considered proscribing the book, but soon abandoned the idea. Meanwhile, in 1869 Mayo had selected Hunter to organize a statistical survey of India, a task which was to occupy the next twelve years of his life. His first duty was to travel over the whole of India, in order to see things for himself and talk with local officials. These tours, which he often repeated, gave him an unrivalled knowledge of every corner of the subcontinent. He encountered some opposition and personal criticism, directed chiefly against the introduction of a uniform system of spelling place names. His enthusiasm and diplomacy finally triumphed, and his compromise, based on the transliteration of vernacular names without any diacritical marks but with a concession to the old spelling of place names of historical significance, gradually won a general acceptance which survived until the British withdrawal from India in 1947.

In September 1871 the post of director-general of statistics to the government of India was created for Hunter, who thereafter spent considerable periods in Britain for the furtherance of his work. He drew up the scheme for the Imperial Gazetteer of India, one of the largest and most influential exercises in imperial information gathering undertaken in the nineteenth century, and supervised the work of the local editors in gathering statistical and other data. Moreover, he undertook the volumes on Bengal and Assam himself: the former were published as The Statistical Account of Bengal (excluding Calcutta) in twenty volumes between 1875 and 1877; The Statistical Account of Assam (1879) comprised a further two volumes. The other local gazetteers brought the total number of volumes to 128. At the same time, the work of condensing this mass of information into the Imperial Gazetteer went ahead. The first edition appeared in nine volumes in 1881, and a second edition of fourteen volumes, incorporating the latest statistics and the results of the 1881 census, was published in 1885–7. By the time of the final edition in 1931 the Gazetteer had expanded to twenty-six volumes. Of course, Hunter was not personally responsible for the entirety of this monumental achievement, but his was the mind which conceived the whole plan, and his the energy which caused it to appear so promptly; he also had the gift of motivating his assistants. His own special contribution was the introductory article, which was re-issued separately in an expanded form as The Indian Empire: its Peoples, History and Products (1895). In this work he gave a summary of his opinions about many controversial questions in the ethnic and religious history of early India. Of continuing interest is his account of the growth of Christianity in southern India. A version of this work produced for schools in England and India and published under the title A Brief History of the Indian Peoples (1880) sold widely in many editions and was translated into several Indian languages.

In 1881 Hunter was appointed an additional member of the executive council, which seat he retained for six years. In 1882 he was appointed president of the commission on education, which was intended to regulate the divergent systems which had grown up in the several provinces. The viceroy, Lord Ripon, believed that it was the duty of the state to provide education for all the people of India, and that while those able to do so should provide for their own education, the state should devote its attention and resources to the spread of primary education among the masses. By contrast, official policy had been clearly élitist: over 80 per cent of public funding for education had been spent on less than a sixth of the total number of students. Any change of policy was likely to generate considerable opposition and be interpreted as a triumph for the Christian missionaries' priorities. The report of the commission, drafted by Hunter and accepted almost in its entirety by the government, affirmed that, without checking higher education, the provision, extension, and improvement of elementary education for the masses should be the priority of the state. As funds were limited, once a district had an efficient high school, the state should do no more than bestow grants-in-aid. With free scope and cordial encouragement, private enterprise might produce satisfactory results: private agencies—but not missionary bodies—should therefore be encouraged to take over higher education. The recommendations also provided for the withdrawal of a child from religious instruction if a denominational school was the only one of its class available in the locality, for the preparation of a moral textbook, based on the fundamental principles of natural religion, to be used in all colleges, and for lectures to be given on the duties of citizenship.

These principles generally pleased Indian opinion, and indeed, in 1949, the first university commission of free India made very similar recommendations. However, the Hunter commission's ‘conscience clause’ was resisted by missionaries. They were formally prepared to concede it when the institution was the only one of its kind in the locality, but the author of the clause, Dr William Miller, a leading missionary in south India, informed the viceroy that he did not wish the government to act on his recommendation. In England too there was considerable resistance to the ‘baneful idea’ that the highest form of education was compatible with the entire absence of religious culture. As a result, matters were left as they were, despite the fact that the viceroy considered the decision judicious, but mistaken.

In 1884 Hunter gave evidence in London before a House of Commons committee on Indian railways; in the same year he was made a CSI. In 1886 he was a member of the commission on finance, and also in that year served as vice-chancellor of the University of Calcutta. He finally retired from the Indian Civil Service in 1887, at the early age of forty-seven, and was promoted KCSI. He devoted the remainder of his life to working up the materials he had accumulated for an authoritative history of India. He moved from Edinburgh, where he had previously spent his time in Britain, to Oxford, where he eventually built himself a house on the slopes of Wytham Woods. He became a regular contributor to The Times, writing weekly articles on Indian affairs. He also arranged for the publication of the Rulers of India series by the Clarendon Press, initiating the series himself with a memoir of the administration of Lord Dalhousie (1890); this was followed by a biography of Lord Mayo, a précis of his full-length study of 1875. In Bombay, 1885 to 1890 (1892) he examined in detail the administration of Bombay presidency under the governorship of Lord Reay. He had hoped to write a life of Sir Bartle Frere, but instead wrote a biography of the veteran orientalist Brian Houghton Hodgson (1800–1894). His other publications included, in a lighter vein, The Old Missionary (1895) and The Thackerays in India (1897), and a bibliography of books about India which he contributed to James Samuelson's India Past and Present (1890).

Despite all this literary activity, Hunter still hoped to execute the projected history of India he had planned during his early years of service at Birbhum. Bengal Ms. Records, three volumes of records which he had calendared at that time, were published in 1894 with a dissertation on the permanent settlement of the revenue. He also compiled a catalogue of 380 historical manuscripts in the India Office Library. But he reluctantly came to realize that he could not cover the entire field of Indian history, and confined himself to tracing the period of British rule. Even this limited design, as sketched out by Hunter, would have taken five volumes; only two were completed.

In the winter of 1898–9 Hunter undertook the long rail journey across Europe to Baku on the Caspian Sea, where one of his sons was ill. On his return he fell victim to influenza and died at his home, Oaken Holt, at Cumnor, near Oxford, on 7 February 1900. He was buried in the churchyard at Cumnor, Berkshire. He was survived by his wife, who edited a volume of his essays published under the title The India of the Queen (1903).

J. S. Cotton, rev. S. Gopal


F. H. Skrine, Life of Sir William Wilson Hunter (1901) · S. Gopal, The viceroyalty of Lord Ripon, 1880–1884 (1953) · S. Gopal, British policy in India, 1858–1905 (1965) · DNB


Barraud, photograph, pubd 1893, NPG [see illus.] · W. H. Thornycroft, bronze bust, 1900, Indian Institute, Oxford

Wealth at death  

£34,298 0s. 8d.: probate, 24 April 1900, CGPLA Eng. & Wales