1902 Encyclopedia > The Honourable Mountstuart Elphinstone

The Honourable Mountstuart Elphinstone
Indian statesman
(1779-1859)




THE HONOURABLE MOUNTSTUART ELPHINSTONE, (1779-1859), an eminent Indian statesman, fourth son of the eleventh Baron Elphinstone in the peerage of Scotland, was born in 1779. Having received an appointment in the civil service of the East India Company, of which one of his uncles was a director, he reached Calcutta in the beginning of 1796. After filling several subordinate posts, he was appointed in 1801 assistant to the British resident at Poonah, at the court of the Peishwa, the most powerful of the Mahratta princes. Here he obtained his first opportunity of distinction, being attached in the capacity of diplomatist to the mission of Sir Arthur Wellesley to the Mahrattas. When, on the failure of negotiations, war broke out, Elphinstone, though a civilian, acted as virtual aide-de-camp to General Wellesley. He was present at the battle of Assaye, and displayed such courage and knowledge of tactics throughout the whole campaign that Wellesley told him he had mistaken his profession, and that he ought to have been a soldier. In 1806, when the war closed, he was appointed British resident at Nagpore. Here, the times being uneventful and his duties light, he occupied much of his leisure in reading classical and general literature, and acquired those studious habits which clung to him throughout life. In 1808 he was placed at the head of a most important political mission to Central Asia, being appointed the first British envoy to the court of Cabul, with the object of securing a friendly alliance with the Afghans in view of a possible French invasion. The negotiations, protracted and difficult, resulted in a treaty securing what the English wished ; but it proved of little value, partly because the danger of invasion had passed away, and partly because the Shah Shuja was driven from the throne by his brother before it could be ratified. The most valuable permanent result of the embassy was the literary fruit it bore several years afterwards in Elphinstone's great work on Cabul. After spending about a year in Calcutta arranging the report of his mission, Elphinstone was appointed in 1811 to the important and difficult post of resident at Poonah. The difficulty arose from the general complication of Mahratta politics, and especially from the weak and treacherous character of the Peishwa, which Elphinstone rightly read from the first. While the mask of friendship was kept up Elphinstone carried out the only suitable policy, that of vigilant quiescence, with admirable tact and patience; when in 1817 the mask was thrown aside and the Peishwa ventured to declare war, the English resident proved for the second time the truth of Wellesley's assertion that he was born a soldier. Though his own account of his share in the campaign is characteristically modest, one can gather from it that the success of the English troops was chiefly owing to his assuming the command at an important crisis during the battle of Kirkee. When Poonah fell he humanely exerted himself with almost complete success to prevent a seemingly inevitable sack of the town by the incensed soldiers. The Peishwa being driven from his throne, his territories were annexed to the British dominions, and Elphinstone was nominated commissioner to administer them. He discharged the responsible task with rare judgment and ability. The characteristic feature of his policy was his scrupulous regard for the customs, interests, and wishes of the native population, in so far as these were compatible with the British supremacy. Recognizing the deep-seated conservatism of the Hindu character, he avoided needless change, and sought rather to develop what reforms seemed essential from within than to impose them from without. With this view he preserved as far as possible tho native system of administration of justice, and maintained the landholders and chiefs in the possession of their rights and privileges. His conciliatory administration not only drew to him personally the attachment of all classes, but was of the utmost benefit in confirming the British authority in the newly annexed territory, which might easily have been brought by a different policy to throw off the yoke.





So high was Elphinstone's reputation for administrative ability, that, when the lieutenant-governorship of Bombay fell vacant in 1819, the Court of Directors appointed him to the position in preference to two candidates of distinguished merit who were both his seniors. He entered upon his new duties in 1820, and discharged them until 1827, when he was succeeded by Sir John Malcolm. The period was tranquil, and the governor devoted himself to internal reforms with that happy combination of zeal and discretion which always distinguished him. His principal achievement was the drawing up of the Elphinstone code, which for comprehensiveness, clearness, and equity takes a high rank among works of its class. He faithfully carried out the policy of retrenchment prescribed by the East India Company, and it may be noted as characteristic that he commenced his economic reforms by reducing the Government House establishment. His efforts to promote native education, however, had probably more beneficial and far-reaching results than any other department of his activity. He may fairly be regarded as the founder of the system of state education in India, and he probably did more than any other Indian administrator to further every likely scheme for the promotion of native education. Adhering to the policy he had adopted at Poonah of respecting the customs, opinions, feelings, and even—wherever possible— the prejudices of the native population, he won their attachment in quite an exceptional degree. Bishop Heber, who specially admired his zeal in the cause of education, spoke of him as one of the most extraordinary men and certainly the most popular governor that he had fallen in with. Of his popularity remarkable proof was afforded both by natives and Europeans when he resigned his post. The farewell addresses which poured in upon him were almost innumerable; and his connection with the presidency was most appropriately commemorated in the endowment by the native communities of the Elphinstone College, and in the erection of a statue in marble by the European inhabi-tants of the presidencies.

Elphinstone spent nearly two years on the journey home, visiting Egypt and Palestine, and many of the scenes in Greece and Italy with which he was already familiar as an ardent student of classical literature. On his arrival in England the choice was open to him of a distinguished career in home politics or the highest place in the management of Indian affairs. But he was deficient in ambition, and his health had suffered so much from his residence in India that he deemed himself dis-qualified for public life. Accordingly, although the governor-generalship of India was twice offered to him in the most flattering terms within a few years of his return, he declined it on both occasions; and he resisted with equal firmness all attempts to induce him to enter the home parliament. It is understood that he declined the offer of a peerage. The retirement in which he spent the last thirty years of his life, however, was far from being either indolent or dishonourable. He kept up the habit of study he had acquired in India, he made contributions of the highest value to literature, and he preserved until his death the liveliest interest in the affairs of the great empire which had been the scene of his activity. His advice was always taken and generally followed in difficult questions of Indian policy, and he kept up constant communication by correspondence and otherwise with leading Indian administrators, so that his personal influence continued to be an important factor in the government of India almost to the day of his death. He had long before his return from India made his reputation as an author by the work on Cabul already mentioned, which was published in 1815 with the title An Account of the Kingdom of Cabul and its Dependencies in Persia and India. Soon after his arrival in England he commenced the preparation of a work of wider scope, a history of India, which was published in 1841. It embraced the Hindu and Mahometan periods, and is generally regarded as a work of the highest authority. Its chief features are thoroughness of research, judicious use of materials, and condensation of style.

Mr Elphinstone died at his residence at Limpsfield, in Surrey, on the 20th November 1859. (w. B. S.)








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