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Sir John Bowring (1792-1872)

This article was written by George Barnett Smith and was published in 1885

Dr (Sir) John BowringSir John Bowring, linguist, writer, and traveller, was born at Exeter on 17 October 1792. He was descended from an ancient Devonshire family, which gave its name to the estate of Bowringsleigh, in the parish of West Allington. For many generations the Bowrings had been engaged in the woollen trade of Devon, and in 1670 an ancestor coined tokens for the payment of his workmen bearing the inscription, with a wool-comb for a device, ‘John Bowring of Chulmleigh, his half-penny.’ Sir John was the eldest son of Mr. Charles Bowring, of Larkbeare. He was first placed under the care of the Rev. J. H. Bransby, of Moretonhampstead, and subsequently under that of Dr. Lant Carpenter.

Bowring entered a merchant's house at Exeter on leaving school, and during the next four years laid the foundation of his linguistic attainments. According to the brief memoir written by his son, he learned French from a refugee priest, Italian from itinerant vendors of barometers and mathematical instruments, while he acquired Spanish and Portuguese, German and Dutch, through the aid of some of his mercantile friends. He afterwards acquired a sufficient acquaintance with Swedish, Danish, Russian, Serbian, Polish, and Bohemian, to enable him to translate works in those languages. Magyar and Arabic he also studied with considerable success, and in later life, during his residence in the East, he made good progress in Chinese. In 1811 Bowring became a clerk in the London house of Milford & Co., by whom he was despatched to the Peninsula. He subsequently entered into business on his own account, and in 1819-20 travelled abroad for commercial purposes, visiting Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Russia, and Sweden. In France he made the acquaintance of Cuvier, Humboldt, Thierry, and other distinguished men. On his return from Russia in 1820 he published his ‘Specimens of the Russian Poets.’

In 1822 he was arrested at Calais, being the bearer of despatches to the Portuguese ministers announcing the intended invasion of the Peninsula by the Bourbon government of France. He was thrown into prison and passed a fortnight in solitary confinement. The real object of his imprisonment was to extort from him admissions which would enable the Bourbon government to prosecute the French liberals. Canning, then British foreign minister, insisted upon an indictment or a release. Bowring was eventually released without trial, but as he had been accused of complicity in the attempt to rescue the young sergeants of La Rochelle, who were executed for singing republican songs, he was condemned to perpetual exile from France. Lord Archibald Hamilton brought the illegality of the arrest before the House of Commons, but Canning explained that the proceedings, however despotic, were warranted by the then existing laws of France. Bowring published a pamphlet entitled ‘Details of the Imprisonment and Liberation of an Englishman by the Bourbon Government of France’ in 1823. In 1830, Bowring was the writer of an address from the citizens of London congratulating the French people on the revolution of July. He headed the deputation which bore the address to Paris, was welcomed at the hôtel de ville, and was the first Englishman received by Louis-Philippe after his recognition by the British government.

Bowring's intimate friend and adviser, Jeremy Bentham, founded, in 1824, the ‘Westminster Review,’ intended as a vehicle for the views of the philosophical radicals. The editorship was first offered to James Mill, but declined by him on the ground of the incompatibility of the post with his official work. Bowring and Southern eventually became the first editors of the ‘Review,’ the former taking the political and the latter the literary department; but subsequently the management passed into Bowring's hands alone. Bowring not only wrote many of the political articles, but also papers on the runes of Finland, the Frisian and Dutch tongues, Magyar poetry, and a variety of other literary subjects.

In 1824 Bowring issued his ‘Batavian Anthology’ and ‘Ancient Poetry and Romances of Spain;’ in 1827 appeared his ‘Specimens of the Polish Poets,’ and ‘Serbian Popular Poetry;’ in 1830 ‘Poetry of the Magyars;’ and in 1832 ‘Cheskian Anthology.’ He published Bentham's ‘Deontology’ (1834) in two volumes, and nine years subsequently he edited a collection of the works of Bentham, accompanied by a biography, the whole consisting of eleven volumes. The university of Groningen conferred upon him, in 1829, the degree of LL.D.

In 1828 Bowring was appointed a commissioner for reforming the system of keeping the public accounts, by Mr. Herries, then chancellor of the exchequer; but his appointment was cancelled at the instance of the Duke of Wellington, who objected to Bowring's radical opinions. He was, however, authorised to proceed to Holland, for the purpose of examining the method pursued by the financial department of that country. He prepared a report, the first of a long series on the public accounts of various European states. It was during this visit to the continent that he translated ‘Peter Schlemihl’ from the German at the suggestion of Adelung.

During a stay in Madrid Bowring had published in Spanish his ‘Contestacion à las Observaciones de Don Juan B. Ogavan sobre la esclavitud de los Negros,’ being an exposition of the arguments in favour of African slavery in Cuba. At a later period he translated into French the ‘Opinions of the Early Christians on War,’ by Thomas Clarkson. His ‘Matins and Vespers’ (1823) went into many editions, both in England and the United States, and his ‘Minor Morals’ (1834-9), recollections of travel for the use of young people, were likewise very popular. For his ‘Russian Anthology’ he received a diamond ring from Alexander I, and for his works on Holland, some of which were translated into Dutch, a gold medal from the king of the Netherlands.

In 1831 Bowring — who had sought official employment in consequence of commercial disasters — was associated with Sir H. Parnell in the duty of examining and reporting on the public accounts of France, ‘a task which was so satisfactorily performed that he was appointed secretary to the commission for inspecting the accounts of the United Kingdom.’ Bowring visited Paris, the Hague, and Brussels, and examined the finance departments of their various governments. The first report made by the commission led to a complete change in the English exchequer, and was the foundation of all the improvements which have since been made. The second report, dealing with the military accounts, was carried into immediate effect. Bowring and Mr. Villiers (afterwards Earl of Clarendon) were appointed, in 1831, commissioners to investigate the commercial relations between England and France, and presented two elaborate reports to parliament.

On the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832 Bowring appeared as a candidate for the representation of Blackburn, but, though popular with the mass of the people, he lost the election by thirteen votes. He now went over to France, where he made close investigation into the silk trade; and in 1833 he visited Belgium on a commercial mission for the government. His exertions in the south of France in the succeeding year led to a free-trade agitation in the wine districts. In 1835 he went through the manufacturing districts of Switzerland, and reporting to parliament on the trade of that country, he showed the great advantages that had been reaped from the system of free trade. He was in Italy in the autumn of 1836, when he reported to parliament o