Sir Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893), soldier and archaeologist, second son of Allan Cunningham (1784-1842) and brother of Joseph Davey Cunningham, Peter Cunningham (1816-1869), and Francis Cunningham, was born in Westminster on 23 Jan. 1814. Together with Joseph, he received his early education at Christ's Hospital, and both brothers were given Indian cadetships through the influence of Sir Walter Scott. After passing through Addiscombe, Alexander obtained a commission as second lieutenant in the Bengal engineers on 9 June 1831, and then, according to the custom of those days, spent six months at Chatham for technical training, landing in India on 9 June 1833. His first three years were passed with the sappers at Delhi and in other ordinary duties. Lord Auckland, on his arrival in India as governor-general in 1836, appointed him to be one of his aides-de-camp. For four years he served on the staff, and his identity can be detected under his initials in Emily Eden's pleasant book of gossip 'Up the Country.'
It was during this period that he paid his first visit to Kashmir, then almost a terra incognita. On his marriage in 1840 he was glad to accept the appointment of executive engineer to the king of Oudh. While laying out the new road from Lucknow to Cawnpore, he was called away in 1842 to his first active service. This was to assist in suppressing a rebellion in Bundelkhand, headed by the raja of Jaipur, who had risen on the news of British disasters in Kabul. He was next appointed to the new military station of Nowgong, in Central India. In December 1843 he was present at the battle of Punniar, fought against the rebellious troops of Gwalior, where he had the pleasure of turning the enemy's guns against themselves. For his services on this occasion he received a bronze star, six months' batta (extra pay), and the promise of brevet rank. During the next two years (1844 and 1845) he acted as executive engineer at Gwalior, where he left as a memorial a stone bridge of ten arches over the river Morar. In February 1846 he was summoned to join the army of the Sutlej, just before the decisive battle of Sobraon.
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His special work was to throw two bridges of boats across the river Bias for the passage of the troops, by which he established his reputation as a field engineer. As one of the results of the first Sikh war the entire tract between the Sutlej and Bias rivers was annexed and placed under the charge of John Lawrence, who nominated Cunningham to the responsible task of occupying the hill tracts of Kangra and Kulu. In reward for his successful conduct of this business, and probably also because of his previous acquaintance with the country, he was chosen to demarcate the frontier between the Kashmir province of Ladakh and independent Tibet, far amid the Himalayan ranges. At first he had to return, but ultimately he accomplished the task, in company with Sir Richard Strachey. In the meantime he had also settled the boundary between the Rajput state of Bikanir and the Muhammadan state of Bahawalpur, which meet in the Indian desert. The second Sikh war (1848-9) saw Cunningham again serving as field engineer, in command of the pontoon train.
He was present at the two battles of Chilianwala and Gujerat, was mentioned in dispatches, and received a brevet majority. On the restoration of peace he returned to Gwalior, and it was during this period that he explored the Buddhist monuments of Central India. In 1853 he was transferred to Multan, where he designed the monument to Patrick Alexander Vans Agnew and W. A. Anderson, whose treacherous murder formed the prelude to the second Sikh war. In 1856, now lieutenant-colonel, he was appointed to the higher post of chief engineer in Burma, which province was then freshly annexed. He had to extricate the accounts from confusion and organize a public works department. This he did within two years, finding time also to visit every out-station in the province from Toungoo to Tavoy. It was thus his fate to be absent from India during the mutiny. After its suppression he was appointed (November 1858) chief engineer in the North- Western Provinces, where similar work of reorganization had to be performed. He retired from the army with the rank of major-general on 30 June 1861, after a continuous Indian service of twenty-eight years.
In the very year of his retirement Cunningham commenced a new career of activity, by which he is better known than as a soldier or administrator. Lord Canning, having resolved to create the new post of archaeological surveyor to the government of India, found Cunningham ready to fill it. In his early days Cunningham had formed the acquaintance of James Prinsep, the founder of the scientific study of Indian coins and inscriptions. The first of his many contributions to the 'Journal of the Bengal Asiatic Society' consists of an appendix to Prinsep's paper in 1834, on the relics discovered in the Manikyala Tope, in the Punjab, then and long afterwards Sikh territory. In 1837 he excavated on his own responsibility as was the fashion of the time the group of Buddhist ruins near Benares, known as Sarnath, and made careful drawings of the sculptures. His visits to Kashmir and work on the boundary commission bore fruit in two monographs—'Essay on the Arian Order of Architecture as exhibited in the Temples of Kashmir' (Calcutta, 1848), and 'Ladakh: Physical, Statistical, and Historical' (1854), the latter of which, published at the expense of the court of directors, won the commendation of the French- Geographical Society. The results of his exploration in Central India with his friend Colonel Maisey, 'The Bhilsa Topes' (also 1854), forms the first serious attempt to reconstruct the history of Buddhism from its architectural remains. On his appointment to his new post of archaeological surveyor, Cunningham was therefore equipped not only with knowledge but also with a store of accumulated materials, which enabled him to produce four valuable reports within as many years.
In 1865, in a cold fit of parsimony, his department was abolished, and he came home to England. His leisure was occupied in writing 'The Ancient Geography of India,' Part i. 'The Buddhist Period' (1871), which he intended to follow up with another volume (never written) on the Muhammadan period. This book, which deals mainly with the campaigns of Alexander and the itineraries of the Chinese pilgrims, is absolutely indispensable to the historian. In 1870 Lord Mayo re-established the archaeological survey, and called Cunningham back to India with the title of director-general. For fifteen years more Cunningham energetically carried out the duties of his office. Every cold season he minutely explored some portion of the immense ruin-strewn plain of Northern India, from Taxila on the west to Gaur on the east. Of twenty-four annual reports, thirteen embody the results of his own personal discoveries, while the remainder were written by his assistants under his supervision. A useful index to the whole series was compiled by Mr. Vincent Arthur Smith (1871). It was also during this period that Cunningham published vol. i. of the 'Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum' (Calcutta, 1877), containing the first collected edition of the edicts of Asoka; 'The Stupa of Bharhut' (1879); and 'The Book of Indian Eras' (Calcutta, 1883), with tables for calculating dates. In September 1885 he finally retired.
After his return to England Cunningham worked at his favourite studies to the very last. In 1892 he brought out a magnificently illustrated volume on 'Mahabodhi,' the great Buddhist temple near Gaya in Bengal, which is to this day the most sacred goal of Buddhist pilgrimage. But the chief interest of his closing years was in numismatics. While in India he had taken advantage of his exceptional opportunities to form a collection of coins which has never been equalled either in extent or in the rarity of many of its specimens. His vast experience had given him an intuition about coins that was almost infallible, while his imagination enabled him to interpret their lessons for history. An example of his method of treatment may be found in the paper which he contributed to the Oriental Congress in 1892, on 'The Ephthalites or White Huns,' in which he first collects the literary evidence, and then illuminates the whole subject from his stores of numismatic learning.
In 'Coins of Ancient India' (1891) he unfolds original views about the origin of money, and maintains that coined money was known to the Indians before the invasion of Alexander. This was followed by a posthumous volume on 'The Coins of Mediaeval India' (1894), and by a series of papers in the 'Numismatic Chronicle' on the coins of the Indo-Scythians. It should be stated that a large part of his collection, chiefly copper coins, together with his papers and notebooks, had been unfortunately lost in the steamship Indus, which foundered off the coast of Ceylon in 1885. The gold and silver pieces escaped, having previously been shipped to England. During his own lifetime General Cunningham allowed the authorities of the British Museum to select the choicest examples and all those needed for the national collection, virtually at the price which they had cost him in India. After his death those which he had subsequently acquired were handed over on the same terms. In the medal room of the British Museum a tablet commemorates his generosity.
Cunningham died on 28 Nov. 1893 at his residence in Cranley Mansions, South Kensington, after a lingering illness; he was buried in the family vault in Kensal Green cemetery. He was appointed C.S.I, when the order of the Star of India was enlarged in 1871, C.I.E. in 1878, and K.C.I.E. when the jubilee honors were distributed in 1887. In 1840 he married Alice, daughter of Martin Whish, of the Bengal civil service, who predeceased him. He left two sons, one of whom followed his father into the Bengal engineers, while the other is in the Bengal civil service.
[Royal Engineers Journal, 1 March 1894.]
James Sutherland Cotton, Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement. pgs. 94-96.