The Lord Chalmers

by André Cluysenaar (1872-1939), 1920.
Oil on canvas, 68,5x49 cm.
Government Art Collection(GAC).
21st Governor of Ceylon
In office
18 October 1913 – 4 December 1915
MonarchGeorge V
Preceded byReginald Edward Stubbs
(Acting governor)
Succeeded byReginald Edward Stubbs
(Acting governor)
Permanent Secretary to the Treasury
In office
Preceded byT. L. Heath
Succeeded byWarren Fisher
Personal details
Born(1858-08-18)18 August 1858
Stoke Newington, Middlesex
Died17 November 1938(1938-11-17) (aged 80)
Spouse(s)Maud Piggott
Iris Florence

Robert Chalmers, 1st Baron Chalmers, GCB, PC (Ire) (18 August 1858 – 17 November 1938) was a British civil servant, and a Pali and Buddhist scholar. In later life, he served as the Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge.[1]

Background and education

Chalmers was born in Stoke Newington, Middlesex, the son of John Chalmers and his wife Julia (née Mackay). He was educated at the City of London School and Oriel College, Oxford with a BA in 1881. He eventually went on to become the Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, one of the most traditional and conservative Cambridge colleges.[2]


Robert Chalmers, 1st Baron Chalmers. Civil Servant and Pali scholar, in 1919.
Robert Chalmers, 1st Baron Chalmers. Civil Servant and Pali scholar, in 1919.

Civil Servant and Governor of Ceylon

He joined the Treasury in 1882 and served as Assistant Secretary to the Treasury from 1903 to 1907. He was then Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue between 1907 and 1911, and Permanent Secretary to the Treasury from to 1911 to 1913. In June 1913 Chalmers was appointed Governor of Ceylon,[3] a post he held from 18 October 1913 to 4 December 1915.

He was responsible for the Martial Law imposed on Sinhalese Civilians infamous as "Hundred days of Terror under the British" in Ceylon in 1915.

Ceylonese Barrister E.W. Perera braved submarine-infested seas to travel by ship with a petition concealed in his shoe to London where he succeeded in convincing the British Government the atrocities perpetrated under martial law in Sri Lanka. As a result, Governor Chalmers was recalled to England and a Royal Commission of Inquiry was appointed to probe the atrocities.[4]

Chalmers is frequently accused of having been anti-Buddhist. These accusations are unfounded, for before being appointed Governor of Ceylon in 1913, he was a prominent member of the Pali Text Society. As such, he had already translated many Buddhist texts into English, from Pali, a language he masters perfectly. Also, when he arrived in Ceylon, his fame as a scholar was greatly appreciated by dignitaries of Buddhism. One of the first official ceremonies he presided over was the presentation of the Vidyodaya Pirivena Awards, named after a famous Buddhist university in Colombo. He delivered his speech not in English, but in Pali, thus arousing the admiration of the scholars present.[5]

After the dramatic episode of martial law, he was then briefly Under-Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Lord Wimborne in 1916. He was admitted to the Irish Privy Council the same year. He then returned to the Treasury and served as Joint Permanent Secretary to the Treasury from 1916 to 1919.[2]

In 1919 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Chalmers, of Northiam in the County of Sussex.[6]

Pali and Buddhist scholar

From the beginning of his schooling at the City of London School from 1870 to 1877, he was very interested in ancient languages, especially Greek, Latin. He was also interested in Sanskrit and philology. He completed his studies at Oriel College, Oxford, where he obtained the Bachelor of Arts (BA) in 1881 [7] · [5] · .[2]

In 1882, when he began his career as a civil servant in Her Majesty's Treasury, he did not abandon his classical studies, as he wanted to perfect his knowledge of ancient languages.

Thus he attended the pāli classes of Thomas William Rhys Davids, whose enthusiasm won him over, and became a member of the Pali Text Society . From 1891 he published numerous articles in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (JRAS), translations into English from the pāli of texts mainly from the Majjhima Nikaya.[8]

In 1897, he made a presentation dealing with the pāli term Tathagata, at the Eleventh International Congress of Orientalists held in Paris[9] · .[8]

Under the direction of T.W Rhys Davids, he published between 1895 and 1902, the first English translation of the Sutta Pitaka, from the original texts written in Sinhala, Siamese and Burmese. This first version would be revised and expanded and published by the Pali Text Society in 1926-1927 under the title Further Discourses of the Buddha.[5]

From 1922 to 1925 he was president of the Royal Asiatic Society.[8]

In 1924, he was appointed professor at Peterhouse College of the University of Cambridge and taught there until 1931[2] · .[10]

At the same time he produced his ultimate work of scholarship: a translation of the Sutta Nipāta, published in 1932 , then considered remarkable for its style and literary accuracy.[5]

Assessment of his dual career

In almost forty years, he translated more than 2000 Buddhist texts. His erudition has made him a well-known and respected scholar. Unfortunately, his competence in this field was of no use to him in his other career, particularly in managing the riots of 1915, which ironically took place in one of the countries where the ancient texts he studied tirelessly for most of his life were written.[5]


Lord Chalmers married, firstly, Maud Mary Piggott, daughter of John George Forde Piggott, in 1888. After her death in 1923 he married, secondly, Iris Florence, daughter of Sir John Biles and widow of Robert Latta, in 1935. His two sons from his first marriage, Captain Ralph Chalmers and Lieutenant Robert Chalmers, were both killed in the First World War (within the same month). His daughter Mabel lived until the 1960s. Lord Chalmers died in November 1938, aged 80. As he had no surviving male issue the barony died with him. Lady Chalmers died in 1966.[2]


His health began to deteriorate in the summer of 1938. He died on 18 November of the same year, leaving no male heirs. As a result, he is both the 1st and the last Baron Chalmers.[11]


R. Chalmers has translated over 2000 Pali texts. It would be difficult to compile a complete list. Here are some of them, including two writings not related to Buddhism.



Writings not related to Buddhism


Chalmers was appointed a Companion (civil division) of the Order of the Bath (CB) in the 1900 New Year Honours list on 1 January 1900[22] (the order was gazetted on 16 January 1900[23]), and he was invested by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on 1 March 1900.[24] He was promoted to Knight Commander (KCB) of the order in 1908,[25] and to Knight Grand Cross (GCB) late in his career. He was admitted to the Irish Privy Council in 1916.


  1. ^ Padma Edirisinghe (23 September 2007). "Epistemological reflections of the Buddha". The Sunday Observer.
  2. ^ a b c d e Robert Chalmers, 1st and last Baron Chalmers
  3. ^ News report, The Straits Times of Singapore, 19 June 1913
  4. ^ Janaka Perera (6 October 2009). "Hundred days of terror under British ". Sri Lanka Guardian. Retrieved 26 June 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d e Dr. R.P. Fernando (16 March 2014). "Remembering Sir Robert Chalmers, Governor of Ceylon and Pali scholar". The Sundays Times. Retrieved 7 July 2021..
  6. ^ "No. 31308". The London Gazette. 25 April 1919. p. 5197..
  7. ^ Sir Thomas Heath and P.E. Mathason 1941, p. 2.
  8. ^ a b c Sir Thomas Heath and P.E. Mathason 1941, p. 10.
  9. ^ "Acts of the Eleventh International Congress of Orientalists, Paris-1897. The Tathāgata by Robert Chalmers (excerpt), pp.149-150". Retrieved 5 July 2021. (another reference appears in the "Works" section).
  10. ^ Sir Thomas Heath and P.E. Mathason 1941, p. 9.
  11. ^ Sir Thomas Heath and P.E. Mathason 1941, p. 12-13.
  12. ^ "The Parables of Barlaam and Joasaph". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (JRAS): 423-449 (27 pages). 1891. Retrieved 7 July 2021.
  13. ^ "Majjhima Nikāya 84. The Madhura Sutta concerning Caste". Royal Asiatic Society (JRAS): 341-366 (26 pages). 1894. Retrieved 7 July 2021.
  14. ^ " Letter from Robert Chalmers". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (JRAS): 386-387 (2 pages). 1894. Retrieved 7 July 2021.
  15. ^ "Majjhima Nikaya 123. « Acchariyabbhuta-suttam », The Nativity of the Buddha". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (JRAS): 751-771 (21 pages). 1895. Retrieved 7 July 2021.
  16. ^ " The Tathāgata". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society et Cambridge University Press: 103-115 (13 pages). 1898. Retrieved 7 July 2021.
  17. ^ "The King of Siam's Edition of the Pāli Tipiṭaka". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (JRAS): 1-10 (10 pages). 1898. Retrieved 7 July 2021.
  18. ^ Further dialogues of the Buddha, texts of the Majjhima-nikâya, read online: [1]. Retrieved 7 July 2021..
  19. ^ Buddha’s Teachings being the Sutta-nipāta or Discourse-Collection, read online: [2]. Retrieved 10 August 2021..
  20. ^ The 547 Sutta of The Jātaka or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births (6 volumes : 1895-1907) translated by R.Chalmers, E.B Cowell, H.T. Francis, R.A. Neil, W.H.D. Rouse: Jataka - volume I, vol. II, vol. III, vol. IV, vol. V, vol. VI.
  21. ^ A history of currency in the British colonies, read online: [3]. Retrieved 7 July 2021..
  22. ^ "New Year Honours". The Times (36027). London. 1 January 1900. p. 9.
  23. ^ "No. 27154". The London Gazette. 16 January 1900. p. 285.
  24. ^ "Court Circular". The Times (36079). London. 2 March 1900. p. 6.
  25. ^ "No. 28151". The London Gazette (Supplement). 23 June 1908. p. 4642.


Government offices Preceded bySir Henry Primrose Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue1907–1911 Succeeded by Preceded byReginald Edward Stubbsacting governor Governor of Ceylon1913–1915 Succeeded byReginald Edward Stubbsacting governor Academic offices Preceded byAdolphus Ward Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge1924–1931 Succeeded byWilliam Birdwood Peerage of the United Kingdom New creation Baron Chalmers1919–1938 Extinct