Alexander Johnston (1775–1849)

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Alexander Johnston
Sir Alexander Johnston.jpg
3rd Chief Justice of Ceylon
In office
6 November 1811 – 1819
Preceded byWilliam Coke
As Acting
Succeeded byAmbrose Hardinge Giffard
Puisne Justice of the Supreme Court of Ceylon
In office
Acting Chief Justice of Ceylon
In office
3 April 1806 – 5 April 1807
Preceded byCodrington Edmund Carrington
Succeeded byEdmund Henry Lushington
As Acting
2nd Advocate Fiscal of Ceylon
In office
7 August 1802 – 1806
Preceded byJames Dunkin
Succeeded byJames Dunkin
Personal details
Born(1775-04-25)25 April 1775
Carnsalloch, Dumfriesshire, Scotland
Died6 March 1849(1849-03-06) (aged 73)
London, United Kingdom
OccupationBritish privy councillor, founder and vice-president of the Royal Asiatic Society, lawyer, colonial official
Known forbeing the Chief Justice of Ceylon and founder of Royal Asiatic Society

Sir Alexander Johnston, PC, FRS (25 April 1775 – 6 March 1849), was a British colonial official who served as third Chief Justice of Ceylon and second Advocate Fiscal of Ceylon. He introduced a range of administrative reforms in Sri Lanka, introducing numerous liberal ideas and supporting the rights of natives. He was also an orientalist and along with Henry Thomas Colebrooke and others he was a founding member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.[1][2]

Early life[edit]

Johnston was born in Carnsalloch, Dumfriesshire in Scotland to Samuel Johnston and Hester Napier, daughter of Francis Napier, 6th Lord Napier. Johnston moved with his family when his father obtained a posting in Madurai under Lord Macartney in the Madras Presidency in 1781. Alexander received his early education from Christian Friedrich Schwarz, the missionary as well as under Sir Thomas Munro. He could speak Tamil, Telugu, and Hindustani languages from an early age.[3]

Colonial career[edit]

Portrait of Johnston

At the age of eleven, Alexander was offered a commission in the Dragoons but he chose instead to join the family to return to England in 1792. At the advice of Lord Macartney he studied law, initially at Göttingen and then at Lincoln's Inn. In 1799 he accepted a post as Advocate General in Ceylon in 1799 shortly after his marriage to Louisa Campbell (1766–1852), the daughter of Captain Lord William Campbell of the Royal Navy. He became a chief justice in 1805 and in 1809 he was asked to provide suggestions for the administration of Ceylon, many of which were included in the charter for the East India Company in 1813. He was knighted in 1811 and by 1817 he took up an honorary position as an admiralty judge.[3]

Johnston was responsible for bringing the Mahavamsa, Sri Lanka's historical epic, to European attention when he sent manuscripts of it and other Sinhala chronicles to Europe for publication during his tenure as Chief Justice.[4] Jonhston encouraged the translation of the Mahavamsa and other works in order to bring British colonial law into alignment with local traditions and values.[5]

The reforms that Sir Alexander Johnston made included universal public education, freedom of religious practice, abolishment of slavery,[6] employment of natives in government, and the codification of laws including the traditional views of Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists.[3]

Johnston returned to England in 1819.[3]


Johnston stood as a liberal representing the Dumfries burghs in 1840 but failed. After retirement Johnston founded the Royal Asiatic Society. He died on 6 March 1849 at London and was buried at Carnsalloch, Dumfriesshire.[3]


His son Alexander Robert Johnston was a colonial official in Mauritius and Hong Kong before going to England (and died in the United States in 1888).[3]


  1. ^ "Overview". Judicial Service Commission Secretariat. Archived from the original on 19 October 2013. Retrieved 19 October 2013.
  2. ^ Amerasinghe, A. Ranjit B. (1986), The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka: the first 185 years, Sarvodaya Book Pub. Services, ISBN 978-955-599-000-4
  3. ^ a b c d e f Keene, H. G. (2004). "Johnston, Sir Alexander (1775–1849)". In Stearn, Roger T. (ed.). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/14927. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ Harris, Elizabeth (2006). Theravada Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, Missionary and Colonial Experience in Nineteenth Century Sri Lanka. New York: Routledge. pp. 12. ISBN 0415544424.
  5. ^ Kemper, Steven (1992). The Presence of the Past: Chronicles, Politics, and Culture in Sinhala Life. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. pp. 96. ISBN 0801423953.
  6. ^ Sinnatamby, J.R. (1974). "Supplementary Comments on Slavery in Sri Lanka". Journal of the Sri Lanka Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. 18: 23–26.
Legal offices
Preceded by
William Coke
As Acting
Chief Justice of Ceylon
Succeeded by
Ambrose Hardinge Giffard
Preceded by
Puisne Justice of the Supreme Court of Ceylon
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Codrington Edmund Carrington
Chief Justice of Ceylon

Succeeded by
Edmund Henry Lushington
Preceded by
James Dunkin
Advocate Fiscal of Ceylon
Succeeded by
James Dunkin