Saturday, 5 August 2017

Charles Eliot: languages, embassies, universities and nudibranch molluscs

It is difficult to believe that Sir Charles Eliot (1862-1931) who achieved great distinction in languages, culture and comparative religion and who served as a British diplomat and as vice-chancellor of two new universities developed as a hobby the study of nudibranch molluscs and published a number of authoritative papers on their taxonomy and phylogeny.





Knowledge stuck to him ‘like fly-paper’ and he came to have twenty-seven languages at his command, often acquired at amazing speed. He published a first grammar in English of Finnish. From Oxford, he joined the diplomatic service and served in Russia, Morocco, Turkey and the USA. He also served as British Commissioner in Samoa.

While Commissioner, Commander-in-Chief and Consul-General for the East Africa Protectorate Eliot had a strong disagreement with the Foreign Secretary over who should be allowed to buy land. He resigned by means of an open telegram. After that dramatic resignation from the diplomatic service he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the new University of Sheffield in 1905. In effect he was the first vice-chancellor but W.M. Hicks who was Principal of the university college that was to be a constituent of the new university did not want to become vice-chancellor but to continue as Professor of Physics. Hicks, because he had done all the work to establish the university, was persuaded to be named as Vice-Chancellor in the Charter but then to hand over to Eliot immediately afterwards. It is clear that to many observers, Eliot was not the ideal Vice-Chancellor. Shy and withdrawn other than with personal friends—and ‘given to formidable silences’—he left the administrative work to the Registrar and throughout each vacation travelled widely in the East. However, it is clear that his hands-off approach worked because the new university thrived.

In 1912, he took on another new university—this time Hong Hong and it had hardly reached the embryonic stage by the time of his arrival. There were only three full-time members of staff. Eliot’s diplomatic skills soon brought in money from the wealthy Chinese in Hong Kong and Malaya. He was noted as being completely ignorant of finances and had an aversion to mechanical devices; he refused to use the telephone. In Hong Kong, he had daily lessons in Mandarin. Again, such was his devotion to acquiring a language, he later translated into English three large volumes of Chinese Buddhist scriptures. Although he had no need to do so, he lectured and held tutorials such that he was popular with the students. A student hall of residence was named to commemorate his vice-chancellorship in 1914. The Hall lost its name after the landslide in 1966 when the three halls, built one above the other were combined into one. However, more recently it was retained when one of the halls was demolished and is now back as Eliot Hall.

He was recalled by the Foreign Office to the temporary job of High Commissioner in Siberia in 1918. He did not return to Hong Kong because he was appointed British Ambassador in Tokyo.

Throughout his life Eliot was a prolific writer on his observations during travel and on eastern religions. After his retirement from the embassy in Tokyo, he remained in Japan for five years. Suffering from heart disease he was returning to Britain by sea when his condition deteriorated. Advised to stay ashore when the ship reached Singapore from Kobe, he opted to continue. on 17 March 1931 he died on board the Japanese ship Hakone Maru approximately midway between Penang and Colombo. The captain of the ship conducted a burial at sea with, since there was no one on board to do otherwise, Buddhist rites. The ceremony was described in The Times of 7 April. Appropriately, it would seem, Eliot’s book Japanese Buddhism was published posthumously, in 1935.


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The story of Eliot’s interest in nudibranchs is that while in Samoa in 1899 he became fascinated by their beauty and behaviour. He quickly acquired sufficient knowledge to publish a paper on the Samoan nudibranchs. After that he worked on the local nudibranch fauna wherever he was posted as a diplomat and on collections from a number of expeditions, including the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-1904. What does not seem to have been picked up by his biographers is that Eliot appointed a key member of that expedition—Robert Rudmose Brown (1879-1957)—as lecturer in geography in Sheffield. In Sheffield, Eliot had his own laboratory to which he retired when not busy as vice-chancellor. I have already explained how Eliot resigned from the diplomatic service on a point of principle, He was no ‘yes’ man and his comment in a letter to another vice-chancellor shows his disgust for an early manifestation of the imposition of pseudo-accountability. He complained that the Board of Education:


…want to know how many hours the Professors lecture. Nothing so ungentlemanly has been done by the Government since they actually insisted on knowing at what time Foreign Office clerks arrive in Whitehall.

I have Eliot down as one of the good guys.




From Eliot's paper, On some nudibranchs from east Africa and Zanzibar.
Part VI. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London
1905 2, 268-298, plates 16-17


Blunden E. 1962. Sir Charles Eliot. In, University of Hong Kong. The First 50 Years, 1911-1961. edited by Brian Harrison. Hong Kong University Press.

Chapman AW. 1955. The Story of a Modern University. A History of the University of Sheffield. Oxford University Press

Mellor B. 1980. The University of Hong Kong. An Informal History. Volume 1. Hong Kong University Press

R.W. Obituary: Sir Charles Eliot, 1862–1931. Journal of Molluscan Studies 19, Issue 5, 224–226

A list of Eliot’s papers on nudibranchs can be found here.