Spenser Buckingham St. John

Birth: 1825


Spenser Buckingham St. John (1825-1910), diplomatist and author, born in St. John's Wood, London, on 22 Dec. 1825, was third of the seven sons of James Augustus St. John by his wife Eliza Agar, daughter of George Agar Hansard of Bath. Percy Bolingbroke St. John and Bayle St. John were elder brothers, and Horace Stebbing Roscoe St. John and Vane Ireton St. John (see below) were younger brothers. After education in private schools, Spenser wrote 'innumerable articles' on Borneo, to which the adventures of Sir James Brooke, rajah of Sarawak, were directing public attention, and he took up the study of the Malay language (St. John's Life of Sir James Brooke, p. 129). He was introduced to Sir James Brooke on his visit to England in 1847, and he accompanied Brooke as private secretary next year, when Brooke became British commissioner and governor of Labuan. Lord Palmerston, an acquaintance of St. John's father, allowed him 'in a roundabout way 200l. a year' (ib. p. 130).

Thenceforth St. John and Brooke were closely associated. St. John was with Brooke during his final operations in 1849 against Malay pirates, and he accompanied Brooke to Brunei, the Sulu archipelago, and to Siam in 1850. Although St. John deemed some of his chief's dealings with the natives high-handed and ill-advised, he in a letter to Gladstone defended Brooke against humanitarian attack in the House of Commons. While the official inquiry into Brooke's conduct, which the home government appointed, was in progress at Singapore, St. John acted temporarily as commissioner for Brooke (1851-5), and visited the north-western coast of Borneo and the north-eastern shore, ascending the principal rivers. Appointed in 1856 British consul-general at Brunei, St. John explored the country round the capital, and penetrated farther into the interior than any previous traveller. He published his full and accurate journals, supplemented by other visitors' testimonies, in two well-written and beautifully illustrated volumes entitled 'Life in the Forests of the Far East' (1862; 2nd enlarged edit. 1863).

In November 1859 St. John revisited England with Brooke, and after returning to Borneo became charge d'affaires in Hayti in January 1863. He remained in the West Indies twelve years. During his residence in Hayti the republic was distracted by civil strife, and by a war with the neighbouring state of Santo Domingo, and St. John frequently took violent measures against native disturbers of the public peace. On 28 June 1871 he became charge d'affaires in the Dominican republic, and he was promoted on 12 Dec. 1872 to the post of resident minister in Hayti. His leisure was devoted to a descriptive history of the country, which was filially published in 1884 as 'Hayti; or the Black 'Republic' (2nd edit. 1889; French translation 1884). St John gave an unfavourable but truthful account of the republic and its savage inhabitants (cf. A. Bowler, Une Conference sur Haiti, Paris, 1888).

For nine years (from 14 Oct. 1874 till 1883) St. John was minister residentiary in Peru and consul-general at Lima. In 1875 he went on a special mission to Bolivia, and in 1880-1 witnessed the war between Peru and Chile. With the ambassadors of France and Salvador he negotiated an armistice in January 1881, and by his diplomatic firmness helped to protect Lima from destruction after the defeat of the Peruvians by Chile. He was created K.C.M.G. on 20 March 1881. In May 1883 St. John was sent to Mexico to negotiate the resumption of diplomatic relations with Great Britain. An agreement was signed at Mexico on 6 Aug. 1884, and was ratified, not without much opposition, mainly by his tact. He was appointed envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Mexico on 23 Nov. 1884, and remained there till 1893.

In 1886 a mixed commission was appointed to investigate British financial claims on the Mexican government, and in 1887 a long-standing dispute was equitably terminated under St. John's guidance. From 1 July 1893 to January 1896 St. John was at Stockholm as minister to Sweden. He was created G.C.M.G. in 1894. Retiring from the diplomatic service in 1896, St. John spent his last years in literary pursuits. He died on 2 Jan. 1910 at Pinewood Grange, Camberley, Surrey. He married, on 29 April 1899, Mary, daughter of Lieutenant-colonel Fred. Macnaghten Armstrong, C.B., of the Bengal staff corps, who survived him. St. John's chief work, besides those mentioned above, was his authentic 'Life of Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak' (1879). He also wrote 'Rajah Brooke' (1899) for the 'Builders of Britain' series. St. John drew upon his early experiences in the Malay archipelago in two vivacious volumes, 'Adventures of a Naval Officer' (1905) and 'Earlier Adventures' (1906), both of which he attributed to a fictitious Captain Charles Hunter, R.N. A final publication was a collection of sympathetic but rather colourless 'Essays on Shakespeare and his Works' (1908), edited from the MSS. and notes of an unnamed deceased relative.

St. John bequeathed his portrait of Brooke by Sir Francis Grant (1847) to the National Portrait Gallery.

Vane Ireton Shaftesbuby St. John (1839-1911), Sir Spenser's youngest and last surviving brother, pursued a literary and journalistic career. He was a pioneer of boys' journals, starting and editing the 'Boys of England' and similar periodicals. He was also the author of 'Undercurrents: a Story of our own Day' (3 vols. 1860) and of many story books for boys. He died at Peckham Rye in poor circumstances on 20 Dec. 1911. He was twice married, and had seventeen children.

[Burke's Peerage, &c.; Men of the Time, 1899; Who's Who, 1910; Haydn's Book of Dignities; Sir C. R. Markham's War between Chile and Peru, ch xvi.; Ann. Reg. (s.v. Mexico), 1884, &c.; The Times, and Morning Post, 4 Jan. 1910; Allibone's Dict. Engl. Lit. Suppl.; St. John's works.]

Gerald le Grys Norgate, Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement. pgs. 249-250.

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