George Staunton

Birth: 1737


STAUNTON, Sir GEORGE LEONARD (1737–1801), diplomatist, born at Cargin, co. Galway, on 19 April 1737, was the son of George Staunton (1700-1780), colonel of militia, of Cargin, and Margaret (d. 1784), daughter of John Leonard of Carra, co. Galway. In 1753 he was sent to France to complete his education. After studying about a twelve month at the Jesuit College, Toulouse, he joined the school of medicine at Montpellier, where he graduated M.D. in 1758. In October 1759 he arrived in London, and he attained some reputation as a writer on medical subjects. Among his friends at this time was Dr. Johnson, one of whose letters to him is quoted by Boswell. In 1763 he went to the West Indies, where he practised as a physician and held several official appointments, being at one time secretary to the governor of Dominica. Having acquired a large fortune, he purchased an estate in Grenada, and in 1770 returned to England. His interests being neglected by agents, he was obliged in 1772 to proceed again to the West Indies, where he remained till 1779, being for some time member of the legislative council and attorney-general for Grenada. In 1774 began his life-long friendship with George Macartney (afterwards Earl Macartney), appointed in that year governor of the Caribee Islands. When Grenada was attacked by the French in 1779, Staunton, as colonel of militia and aide-de-camp to the governor, took an active part in the defence, and after the capitulation was one of the hostages sent to Paris.

His plantations had been pillaged by the enemy, and he left the West Indies a ruined man. During his detention in France he negotiated an exchange of prisoners which released Lord Macartney from his parole; and when in 1781 that nobleman went out to Madras as governor, Staunton accompanied him as secretary.

The first important service he performed in India was a mission in 1782 to Calcutta, to confer with Warren Hastings, whose temper he found ‘somewhat affected by the long opposition he had met in council.’ In the following year, private information having been received from England of the near conclusion of peace with France, he was appointed to negotiate with the Marquis de Bussy and Admiral Suffren for a suspension of hostilities. In September 1783 he was charged with the duty of arresting General James Stuart, in command of the Madras troops, who had defied the governor's authority (Thornton, India, ii. 279). Later in the year he was appointed, with two other envoys, to treat with Tippu Sultan. After protracted negotiations, a treaty of peace with the ruler of Mysore was signed on 11 March 1784 (Thornton, ii. 285). Lord Macartney's appreciation of his secretary's services was conveyed in a letter to the court of directors dated Fort St. George, 28 July 1784, and in a private letter of the same date to Charles James Fox, in which the governor wrote: ‘His sagacity and singular talents for public business, his extensive knowledge of most parts of the world, his spirit, integrity, and fidelity, so fully experienced by myself, give me a right to speak of him in high terms.’

In 1784 Staunton returned to England with despatches. The court of directors on 11 April 1785 awarded him a pension of 500l. a year for life, while from the crown he received the honour of an Irish baronetcy (created 31 Oct. 1785). In the same year he entered into possession of his father's estate at Cargin, on paying the balance of the sum for which it had been conveyed for a term of years to Robert French.

Sir George Staunton remained in England without public employment till 1792. He was intimate with Edmund Burke, who sought his advice when threatened, as he wrote, by the malice of ‘the villains who in the India Office and in India have been labouring for the destruction of so large a part of mankind’ (Burke to Staunton, June 1785). In February 1787 Staunton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and on 16 June 1790 was made an honorary D.C.L. at Oxford.

In 1792 he was sent with Lord Macartney on a mission to China, being appointed secretary to the embassy and, provisionally, minister plenipotentiary in the event of the ambassador's death. It was also intended that he should eventually take up his residence at Pekin as British minister, but ill-health, on his return to England, prevented his acceptance of the post. In 1797 he published ‘An authentic account of the Earl of Macartney's Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China,’ London, 8vo.

The remainder of his life was saddened by prolonged ill-health, and he died at his London house in Devonshire Street, Portman Square, on 14 Jan. 1801. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, where a monument by Chantrey is erected to his memory. He married, 22 July 1771, Jane, daughter of Benjamin Collins, banker of Salisbury, and M.P. for that city. By her he had two sons: George, born 1775, died in infancy; and Sir George Thomas Staunton

A portrait of Staunton in conference with his chief, Macartney, by Lemuel Abbott, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London; an engraving from Engleheart's portrait painted in 1792 appears in the ‘Memoir’ mentioned below.

[Memoir of the Life and Family of the late Sir George Leonard Staunton, bart., edited by his son, Havant, 1823 (for private circulation); Gent. Mag. 1801, i. 183, 189.]

(Stephen Edward Wheeler) Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 54. pgs. 113-114.

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