Born in 1845 in the city of Kumbakonam (now in Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu) in the Madras region of India, to Indian-born parents of English descent, Joseph John Cotton (1813-1867) and Susan Jessie Minchin (1823-1888), he was educated at Magdalen College School in 1856, Brighton College in 1859, and King's College London in 1861. After he successfully passed the Indian Civil Service Examination, a tough entrance exam essential for a career in India he had joined the British India government. In 1867 in Freshwater, Isle of Wight, Cotton married Mary Ryan (1848-1914). The couple had four children - two sons and two daughters.
Arriving at at Midnapore, Bengal, Cotton worked under his immediate superior William James Herschel, then the local magistrate. From here, Cotton moved up the professional ladder with ease, each time proving his skill and ability to carry on his work with conviction.
In 1872 he was posted to Calcutta, and in the following year he became Assistant Secretary to the Bengal Government by Sir George Campbell, and later worked under Sir Richard Temple. In 1878 he became magistrate and collector at Chittagong; in 1880 he became Senior Secretary to the Board of Revenue in Bengal. He saw further progress in his career and this time, Cotton became Revenue Secretary to Government, Financial and Municipal Secretary, and then a member of the Bengal Legislative Council where he had a chance to interact with powerful people.
There was no stopping of his upward mobility in his professional career and his commitments to work helped him get a covetous job - Chief Commissioner of Assam (1896 to 1902), during which time Assam and other regions were struck by a powerful earthquake in 1897.With concerted efforts, he handled the emergency situation well.
Focusing his attention to the neglected field of education in the NE part of India, he committed himself to starting a college there. On November 3, 1899 in Guwahati, he made the announcement to establish a college in Assam, the records mention. In 1901, Cotton College was started and on May 27, 1901, Sir Cotton said that it was affiliated to Calcutta university. The college that began with 39 students and 5 teachers, now has become a leading institution with more than 5000 students and 244 teachers. Lately, it has become a state university.
|Home Rule exponents. Annie besant and Tilak YouTube|
In his 1885 book New India, or India in Transition (revised edition 1907) Henry Cotton openly supported Home Rule and advocated his cause. Indian home rule movement began in India in the back ground of World War I and in 1910s Annie Besant, freedom fighter of Irish descent and freedom fighter Bal Gangadra Tilak advocated Home Rule with only Indian participation. Sir Cotton was not happy the way the British ran the administration, paying least attention to the aspirations of the Indians for a Home land. He was quite sympathetic toward Indian struggle for freedom and his frequent interactions with Indian leaders gave him a chance to be the President of the Indian National Congress in 1904 - one of the few non-Indians to do so. For effective administration and efficiency Lord Curzon mooted the idea of partition of Bengal, which Sir Cotton opposed vociferously. The partition of Bengal took place on 16 October 1905 and it separated the largely Muslim eastern areas from the largely Hindu western areas. This irritated the Hindus who recognized it as a ploy to "divide and rule" policy. The invasion of Tibet (Dec.1903 to Sept. 1904) by the British under the Tibet Frontier Commission, again proposed by Lord Curson irked Sir Cotton.
After returning to England, he served as a Liberal Party Member of Parliament (MP) for Nottingham East from 1906 to January 1910 and continued to evince keen interest in India's freedom and never failed to give his support for it. There he formed a radical pro-Indian parliamentary group, and was highly critical of his own government's actions in India. Already in poor health, he was narrowly defeated in his attempt for re-election in 1910. In spite of his poor health and financial constraints he was an active writer and activist on behalf of Indian rights until the end of his life.
In 1911 he published his memoirs, Indian and Home Memories. Sir Henry Cotton died at his home in St John's Wood, London, in October 1915.
Guardian. Retrieved 25 July