Alfred Percival Maudslay

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Alfred Percival Maudslay. Born 18 March, 1850, died 22 January, 1931.

Maudslay was born at Lower Norwood Lodge, of forbears distinguished in the history of British engineering. He was educated at Tunbridge Wells, Harrow and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and, after taking his degree in 1872, he embarked upon a life of travel, first as a diplomat and later as an independent field-archaeologist. In that year he took a trip to the West Indies, Central America and the United States, where he met his future wife, Miss Anne Cary Morris.

In 1873 he took a trip to Iceland, and next year was again in the West Indies, where he became Private Secretary to Sir William Cairns, the Governor, and followed him when he was transferred to Queensland in the same capacity.

Two years later he went with Sir Arthur Gordon to the Western Pacific, where, from Private Secretary, he became Acting Colonial Secretary to Fiji, Deputy Commissioner to Tonga and .Samoa, and Acting Consul-General for the Western Pacific.

At that time the Governments of Great Britain, Germany and the United States were each trying to obtain the Protectorate over Samoa. Sir Arthur had to go to England on official business, and Maudslay, by his personal tact and prestige, obtained the signatures of the Paramount Chiefs of Samoa to a document ceding the Islands to Great Britain. He met his chief on the warship on his return, waving the papers. Maudslay told me that Sir Arthur said, “Put that in your pocket, my boy. The day before I sailed the Cabinet decided that Britain would relinquish its claim to suzerainty in the Samoan Group.” So the young Maudslay lost the credit for a wonderful personal achievement.

In 1880 Sir Arthur went to New Zealand, and Maudslay, who had all his life suffered from a weak chest, decided to leave the Diplomatic Service, and returned to England. These years are chronicled, from his schooldays, in a charmingly intimate book, Life in the Pacific Fifty Years Ago; and it is interesting to note that at school he was regarded as a duffer because he could not take an interest in Classical Latin as taught in the Public School. What he learnt was outside the classroom, from the primitive psychologies of the tribes which constitute “forms.”

Hesitating between Ceylon and Central America, the West provided the stronger call, and he was led to Central America on what he always said was a voyage of curiosity. It was very comprehensive. Between 1880 and 1881 he had seen the ruins of Quiriguá in Guatemala, Copan in Honduras, and Tikal in the Peten, a difficult site to reach in those days. Thrilled by the monuments, he returned and asked at the Victoria and Albert Museum for literature on the subject (his ‘guide-book’ had been the treatise of Squier and Davis), and was referred to Mr. (later Sir) Wollaston Franks of the British Museum, who promptly referred him back again to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

So Maudslay decided to take up the matter himself. In all, he made seven exploring expeditions, covering large areas of British Honduras, the Republic of Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. His discoveries were most meticulously photographed, planned, and described, and he brought back moulds of the larger monuments, which he had cast and presented to the Nation. These casts, exhibited for a short time in the Victoria and Albert Museum, were dismantled and stored in cellars for thirty years until, in 1923, they were transferred to the British Museum and exhibited in a special saloon where they are now.

He was fortunate that, at the time his results were maturing, Mr. Ducane Godman and Mr. Osbert Salvin were publishing Biologia Centrali-Americana, and incorporated Maudslay’s results in an Archaeological appendix. This series of plates definitely laid the foundation of the study of Maya hieroglyphs, and constitutes, perhaps, the most adequately presented contribution to archaeology in the world.

In 1926 Mrs. Maudslay died, after a long illness, and in 1928 Maudslay married Mrs. Purdon of Fownhope, who survives him, and by whose kindness I have had access to his diaries, which will be preserved in the British Museum.

For all his work and his services to the Nation, Maudslay received little adequate recognition from his own country. In 1912 he was elected President of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and acted as Chairman of the organizing Committee when the International Congress of Americanists met in London in that year. On that occasion an Honorary D.Sc. was conferred upon him by Oxford University, and he afterwards received an Honorary Sc.D. from Cambridge, and, a few years later, an Honorary Fellowship of his own College, Trinity Hall. In 1915 he became one of the joint Honorary Secretaries of the Royal Geographical Society, and in 1926 was awarded the Rivers medal of the Anthropological Institute.

His fame will rest on his achievements, the Biologia and the casts which he secured in dense bush, and on certain suggestions which he made concerning the interpretation of Maya hieroglyphs which have proved true.

Major Clark has contributed an extended notice of Maudslay to Nature (1 March, 1931), and Dr. A. M. Tozzer a most generous appreciation in the American Anthropologist, Vol. XXXIII. Most of all I like the final sentence of Professor Morley’s appreciation of Maudslay’s work in his great monograph on the Inscriptions at Copan (p. 24). “Indeed, Maudslay’s indefatigable labours, covering many years in an adverse environment, easily constitute the most important field contribution to Maya Archaeology.”

That is the verdict of the greatest living expert in this particular sphere upon the work of a predecessor.

I, personally, had the great privilege of Maudslay’s intimacy over nearly thirty years. He belonged to a class of mankind which seems to be passing. He had the gentlest manner, but behind that lay the most rigid determination. I have never known him say an unkind thing about anyone. In any society he was just himself, and in anything he did he aimed at perfection as far as it can be attained. Possessing that perfect security of poise which belongs to a ‘chief,’ ‘sahib,’ or ‘gentleman’ (it does not matter what the word is), and a great human sympathy, he had the instinct of handling primitive peoples. That sympathy inhibited any form of jealousy in his mental outlook, and to the humblest of the younger enquirers he gave freely of his advice, his notes and his photographs. A great gentleman who died amongst his flowers in the terraced garden that he had created, who had enjoyed life, and, as the perfect host, stinted neither hospitality nor information, in an atmosphere of modest security.    


This obituary first appeared as: Joyce, T. A.. 1932. ‘Alfred Percival Maudslay’. Man Vol. 32, pp. 123-125. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

JOYCE, T. A.. 1932. ‘Alfred Percival Maudslay’. Man Vol. 32, pp. 123-125. (available on-line:


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