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Mountstuart Elphinstone

Birth: 1779


Mountstuart Elphinstone (1779-1859) was a British governor of Bombay, fourth son of John, eleventh Baron Elphinstone, and his wife, Anne, daughter of Lord Ruthven, was born Oct. 1779, and passed his early years at Cumbernauld in Dumbartonshire. His father, a general officer, being appointed governor of Edinburgh Castle, Elphinstone spent some of his boyhood there, and attended the high school of the town in 1791-2, after which he was removed to a school at Kensington kept by a Dr. Thompson. Elphinstone obtained an appointment in the Bengal civil service by the interest of an uncle, who was a member of the court of directors, and landed at Calcutta 26 Feb. 1796. He was at that time a clever but not particularly studious youth, full of energy and high spirits, fond of desultory reading, and much disposed to sympathize with the principles of the French revolution. His earliest predilections had been for a military career, His brother being at Benares, Elphinstone was posted to that station by the favor of Sir John Shore, the governor-general. Here he served under Mr. Davis, the magistrate of the district, by whose influence and example he was first led to the study of Indian literature. He passed much of his time in repairing the defects of his school education, and laid the foundation for that love of the classics which ever afterwards formed the chief amusement of his leisure hours. In May 1798, Vazir Ali, who had lately been deposed from the nawabship of Oudh by Shore and made to reside at Benares, murdered the resident and attempted a general massacre of all the Europeans at the station. Elphinstone was only saved by the fleetness of his horse.

In 1801 he proceeded to Calcutta to attend the college of Fort William, then newly opened for the instruction of the young officers of the civil service. He joined on 1 Jan. 1801, and on 6 March set off on a circuitous land journey to join a new appointment as assistant to the governor-general's agent at the court of the peshwa at Poona; E. Strachey being at the same time appointed to the post of secretary. The young men travelled together, marching through 'the Northern Sircars' to Madras, and proceeding thence across the breadth of the Deccan. Elphinstone's journal abounds in interesting remarks upon the scenery and people of the countries traversed, and at the same time presents constant records of study. Then, as always, Elphinstone appears as the omnivorous recipient of the most varied mental food, extending from Horace, Anacreon, and Hafiz, to the writings of Bacon, Warburton, Hume, and Schiller, Timur's 'Memoirs,' Orme's 'Indostan,' and novels innumerable. He combined through life a love of books with a love of sport and a devotion to public business. Early in 1802 Elphinstone arrived at Poona. The then peshwa, Bajee Rao, representative of the Brahmin dynasty, who, from being minister at the court of Satara, had risen to the virtual head of the Mahratta confederacy, was an avowed poltroon. On Sindhia coalescing with the bhonsla of Berar in a manner which threatened the stability of Wellesley's arrangements, war was declared against him by the British. Lake was sent with an army into Hindustan, and Wellesley took the field in the Deccan, Elphinstone being attached to his staff. At the battle of Assaye, 23 Sept. 1803, he was by the general's side, and his letters contain animated pictures of the action. This was in September. Little more than two months after, Elphinstone took part in the battle of Argaum, where he charged with the cavalry. The campaign virtually ended with the siege of Gawilgarh, where Elphinstone mounted the breach with the storming party. On the restoration of tranquillity, Elphinstone was appointed, on the strong recommendation of the general, to the important post of resident at the court of the bhonsla at Nagpur. He owed this rapid advancement solely to his conspicuous services and merits. Not only did the general dwell upon these in despatches to his all-powerful brother, but on parting he paid Elphinstone what he doubtless intended for the highest possible compliment by saying that Elphinstone had 'mistaken his profession and ought to have been a soldier.'

At Nagpur Elphinstone remained four years and a half, during which his time was almost entirely divided between sport and study; but his diplomatic conduct, although not conspicuous in history, was evidently approved by his employers. In the middle of 1808 he was appointed ambassador to the Afghan court of Cabul, where Shah Shuja, afterwards Lord Auckland's unfortunate protege was on the precarious throne of that turbulent region. A French embassy was now at the court of Persia, with a justly suspected outlook towards India, and it was deemed of the highest importance to establish British influence in the Punjab, in Sindh, and in the Afghan country. Towards this purpose, however, Elphinstone's mission effected little. He was not allowed to penetrate further than Peshawur, where the Afghan ruler met him and engaged him in vain negotiations. Demands of aid, which was not within the scope of Elphinstone's instructions had to be resisted, however courteously. Before long Shuja's army met with a reverse in Cashmere. The fall of his power approached, and Elphinstone came away unsuccessful as an envoy, but stored with information, and already nursing that germ of frontier policy of which he was afterwards to be the fruitful founder and exponent. He also propounded schemes for acquiring the mastery of lands beyond the Indias, which met with disapprobation in the Calcutta council, though afterwards included in the defensive arrangements which have, for the most part, subsisted to the present day. Reflecting on his mission, a few years later, Elphinstone penned a masterly state paper, which it is not too much to call the foundation of all but continuous subsequent policy. In 1810 Elphinstone was appointed resident at Poona. The peshwa chafed under the British protectorate, when the dangers which had once made it acceptable seemed to have ceased. Four years passed quickly in Elphinstone's usual pursuits; but in 1815, during the course of negotiations with a neighbouring Mahratta chief, the peshwa connived at the murder of that prince's envoy. As all questions of the foreign relations of the state were placed by the treaty under the control of the British government, Elphinstone at once interfered. In a calm and courteous memorial he pointed out to the peshwa that all available presumptions and proofs pointed to his highness's favourite Trimbukjee Danglia as the ultimate criminal. Accordingly he demanded justice. The peshwa shuffled. Trimbukjee was sent into an illusory arrest, from which he soon escaped; and Elphinstone at once prepared for a struggle. On 10 May 1816 be received due instructions from Calcutta. On 13 June the peshwa signed a new treaty, ostensibly complying with the demands of the British government; and the next day Elphinstone had the mortification of finding himself superseded by Sir T. Hislop, the general commanding the army preparing in Central India. It was no doubt an advantage that the army organised by Lord Hastings to act against the Pindarrees was so near; but Elphinstone might fairly complain that the conduct of the operations at Poona was taken from his hands. Nevertheless complaint was not in his nature, and he fell as usual into his favourite literary occupations, with an exclamation of 'o? ??????? ??????????,' his favourite quotation from Herodotus. Not only was the general put over him, but the general confided the management of Poona affairs not to Elphinstone but to Sir John Malcolm, from whose interposition some trouble promised to arise. Yet Elphinstone continued to work honestly, though only in a subordinate capacity; and his friendly feelings for Malcolm suffered no interruption. The subsidiary force was ordered to take part in the general campaign against the Pindarrees, the irritated peshwa being at the same time allowed to make a large addition to his own forces, ostensibly for the same object, 'I think,' wrote Elphinstone to General Smith, 'we risk a good deal by sending all the troops out of this country, after encouraging the peshwa to put himself into a situation to profit by their absence... but I would rather run a good deal of riak... than have your force thrown out of the campaign and Sir T. Hislop's detained.'

The storm soon broke. The letter to General Smith was written on 5 Oct. 1817. On the 18th the peshwa began to hem in the residency, and Elphinstone ordered up reinforcements for its defence. On the afternoon of 5 Nov. the peshwa moved to the attack, and Elphinstone quietly evacuated the residency and retired to the camp at Kirkee. The Mahrattas fell upon the abandoned residency, which was burned with all that it contained, including Elpbinstone's beloved books and the whole of his private property. About sunset the small British force advanced, and, after a sharp contest, rolled back the surging tide of Mahratta bravado. Order was restored by the return of Smith with his column, but the honours of war fell by acclamation to Elphinstone. In moving for a vote of thanks in the House of Commons, Canning declared that Elphinstone had 'exhibited military courage and skill which, though valuable accessories, are talents we are not entitled to require as necessary qualifications for civil employment.'

Elphinstone was now, at last, invested with full power to conduct the war, and instructed to annex the peshwa's territory — a policy to which personally he was opposed. Ha installed the raja of Satara, however, and did all that lay in his power for the dwindled Mahratta state. While thus occupied he received the offer of the governorship of Bombay, which be accepted, though he did not join until he had taken all necessary steps for organising the administration of the newly acquired territory.

The period of Elphinstone's rule at Bombay, 1819-27, was one of a new sort of activity, for which he showed at first some distaste. But he left his mark there preparing a complete code of laws, which subsisted for forty years, and laying the foundation of a system of public education under which that portion of the empire has made enormous progpress. His retirement was marked by the people in a manner peculiarly acceptable to its recipient's taste and character. It was resolved to found a college in Bombay bearing his name, and endowed for the teaching of those subjects in which he took the deepest and most abiding interest. And when the proposal was notified to him he characteristically welcomed it, eagerly replying, 'Hoc mille potius signis.'

From November 1827 to May 1829 Elphinstone travelled, principally in Greece, then in the midst of her deliverance from Turkish domination. He visited Athens, still garrisoned by the Porte, and made the acquaintance of tne Greek leaders Capo d'Istria and Colocotroni. Wintering in Italy he passed through Paris in April, and finally returned to London, after an absence of thirty-three years. No 'honours,' in the vulgar sense of the word, awaited him. A baronetcy had already been declined by his friends, with his cordial acquiescence. His unambitious spirit shrank from a seat in parliament, and he declined the successive offers of the governor-generalship of India, the permanent under-secretaryship of the board of control, and a special mission to Canada. With chambers in the Albany and quarters in friendly country houses, he occupied the earlier years of his retirement in study, interrupted by visits to Italy. He moved in London society, becoming a member of the 'Dilettanti,' and attending occasionally at public dinners and meetings. He gave evidence before the lords' committee on Indian affairs, and wrote papers of full and valuable information and opinions whenever consulted on such subjects. His leisure was devoted to the composition of his well-known 'History of India,' which will probably continue the most popular work on that country. In 1847 he took a house in Surrey, and lived for twelve years more, a secluded but by no means idle invalid. He recorded his dissent from the annexationist policy which is connected with the name of Lord Dalhousie, and it appears certain that his opinions had great weight in the new departure which marked the administration of Indian affairs after the suppression of the mutiny. His latest writings evinced no sign of failing powers. The end came softly and swiftly. He was seized in his house of Hookwood by paralysis on the night of 20 Nov. 1859, and died soon after without recovering his senses. He was buried in the adjoining churchyard of Limpsfield, a statue being raised in his honour in St. Paul's Cathedral. Macaulay pronounced him 'a great and accomplished man' (Life, ii 404). It is hardly necessary to point out the extraordinary qualities displayed in the story thus briefly told. Elphinstone was apparently quite aevoid of those ardent religious feelings which have inspired so many Indian heroes. In one of his later journals he makes his one allusion to religion; it is an encomium on Pope's 'Universal Prayer.' His attitude through life was rather that of an ancient philosopher. It is remarkable that a man so sceptical, retiring, unselfish, and modest should be one of the chief founders of the Anglo-Indian empire; that a man in youth a student and a sportsman, in later life almost an anchorite, should have been nominated repeatedly for the higher offices of state, and consulted as an oracle by the rulers of his country, yet never derive the smallest personal advantage from his position. A posthumous volume on 'The Rise of British Power in the East' was brought out in 1887 under the able editorship or Sir E. Colebrooke. It is quite unfinished, and less important in all respects than his 'History of the Hindu and Muhamadan Periods,' but it shows his characteristic qualities of conscientiousness and impartiality. The fragment on the character of Clive is particularly fine.

[The chief materials for Elphinstone's biography are to be found in Sir Edward Colebrooke's Life, 1884. The events of his public career are related in James Mill's Hist. of India, continued by Wilson; and in Grant Duff's Hist. of the Mahrattas. An interesting sketch of him as provernor of Bombay will be found in Bishop Heber's Indian Journal.]


Henry George Keene, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 17. pgs. 326-328.

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