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Lord William Bentinck (1774-1839)

This article was written by Alexander John Arbuthnot and was published in 1885

BentinckLord William Bentinck , governor-general of India, was the second son of the third duke of Portland and his wife, Lady Dorothy Cavendish (1750–1794), only daughter of William Cavendish, fourth duke of Devonshire. Bentinck was born on the 14th of September 1774 at Burlington House in London.

He entered the army in 1791 as an ensign in the Coldstream guards, and having been promoted in 1792 to a captaincy in the 2nd light dragoons, on 20 March 1794 was gazetted lieutenant-colonel of the 24th light dragoons. In the same year he served on the staff of the Duke of York in the Netherlands.

He was M.P. for Camelford (March-May 1796), for Nottinghamshire (1796-1803, 1812-14, and 1816-26) and for Lynn (1826-7). In May 1799 he was attached to the headquarters of Marshal Suwarrof's army in the north of Italy, and remained in that country throughout the campaign of 1799, and subsequently until 1801 with the Austrian forces, being present at the battles of the Trebbia, Novi, Savigliano, and Marengo, the passages of the Mincio and the Adige, the sieges of Alessandria and Coni, and various other affairs. In 1803 he was nominated governor of Madras, where he quarrelled with the chief justice, Sir Henry Gwillim, and several members of his council.

The event which led to his removal from the government was the mutiny at Vellore, when the sepoys of the native regiments quartered at that station rose upon their European officers and upon the British part of the garrison, killing thirteen officers and a considerable number of men. By some this catastrophe was attributed to a wide-spread plot instigated by the family of Tippoo, who were detained under surveillance in the fort at Vellore, the object of the plot being to restore Muslim rule in Mysore and in other parts of southern India. Others ascribed it to certain regulations recently introduced by the commander-in-chief at Madras and sanctioned by the government, prohibiting the sepoys from wearing, when in uniform, the distinctive marks of their caste, and from wearing beards, and prescribing a head-dress which was supposed by the sepoys to have been ordered with the intention of compelling them to become Christians. The latter was the view taken by the court of directors, who recalled Bentinck and also the commander-in-chief, Sir John Cradock.His name was considered at this time for the post of Governor General but Lord Minto was selected instead; and it was not until twenty years later that he succeeded Lord Amherst in that office.

When Bentinck took charge of the government, only four years had elapsed since, in consequence of the death of Tippoo and the downfall of his dynasty, the Madras presidency had received a large accession of territory. The question of the system of landed tenures and of revenue administration which should be applied to the newly acquired provinces and to other parts of the Madras presidency was hotly debated. The supreme government was strongly in favour of extending to the whole of Southern India the system of large landed proprietors, or zemindárs, which ten years previously had been adopted by Lord Cornwallis in Bengal.

On the other side Colonel (afterwards Sir Thomas) Munro was engaged in establishing the system of peasant proprietors, commonly known as the ryotwár system, in the ceded districts, and his views found an ardent supporter in the new governor. ‘It was apparent to him,’ Bentinck wrote in the third year of his government, ‘that the creation of zemindárs, where no zemindárs before existed, was neither calculated to improve the condition of the lower orders of the people, nor politically wise with reference to the future security of this government.’ At one time he appears to have contemplated making an extensive tour through the Madras provinces for the purpose of investigating the question in person, but this was prevented by the circumstances which led to his recall, and he was obliged to confine himself to assigning the investigation to Mr. Thackeray, a trusted assistant of Colonel Munro.

The recall was a severe blow to Bentinck, who complained bitterly of the want of consideration with which he had been treated, the orders of the court having been issued without awaiting the explanations of the functionaries whose conduct was impugned. Another point urged in his defence was that the innovations which were supposed to have aroused the suspicions of the sepoys had been introduced by the commander-in-chief into a compilation of military regulations, which the latter had obtained permission to codify, and had not been brought specially to the notice of the governor or of the members of council. On the other hand it is to be said that the outbreak at Vellore had been preceded by remonstrances on the part of the native troops, which ought to have received greater attention from the government. The massacre at Vellore took place on 24 July 1806. Early in the previous May the sepoys of one of the regiments at that place had remonstrated against the form of the new turban, and their remonstrance having been rejected by the commanding officer, some of the men had been tried and in two cases had received nine hundred lashes. This incident had been brought to the notice of the governor, who supported the commander-in-chief, and proclaimed his determination to enforce the obnoxious order. It is difficult, therefore, to resist the conclusion that a full share of responsibility for the action of the commander-in-chief devolved upon the governor.

Bentinck, on his return to England early in 1808, addressed to the court of directors a memorial in which he demanded reparation for the harshness with which he considered himself to have been treated; but the court declined to rescind or modify their decision, while recognising ‘the uprightness, disinterestedness, zeal, and respect for the system of the company’ with which Bentinck had acted in the government.

During his absence in India Bentinck had been promoted to the rank of major-general, and in August 1808 he was appointed to the staff of the army under Sir Harry Burrard in Portugal. He was subsequently sent on a mission to the supreme junta in Spain, in which capacity he was for some time engaged in endeavouring to evoke more vigorous action on the part of the junta, and in corresponding on the subject with his own government and with Sir John Moore. On the arrival of Mr. Frere he joined Sir John Moore, and having commanded a brigade at the battle of Corunna he was favourably noticed in the despatch of Sir John Hope, who had succeeded to the command on the death of Moore. Bentinck was next appointed, with the rank of lieutenant-general, to command a division in Sir Arthur Wellesley's army; but he appears shortly afterwards to have been sent to Germany to make arrangements for raising a German contingent, which was subsequently employed under his command in Sicily and on the east coast of Spain.

In 1811 he went as envoy to the court of Sicily and as commander-in-chief of the British forces in that island. During the greater part of the three following years he remained in Sicily, nominally as envoy, but practically as governor of the island, into which he introduced constitutional government, based in some measure upon the pattern of the British constitution. A German writer (Helfert, Queen Caroline), describing Bentinck's government of Sicily, characterises him as a man of a violent and haughty nature, imbued with English prejudices, and regarding the English constitution as the salvation of the human race. Bentinck's great difficulty during this period was the hostility of the queen, who resented his influence and disliked his policy. In 1813 Bentinck proceeded to the east coast of Spain in command of a mixed force of British, German, and Calabrian troops. Bentinck's diversion had the effect of detaining the French marshal, Suchet, in Catalonia, but the campaign does not appear to have added to Bentinck's military reputation.

On 12 September, at the pass of Ordal, he was defeated by the French marshal and forced to retreat. His strategy on this occasion was much called in question; but Napier, while attributing to him some errors, including a delay in reinforcing his brigadier-general, Adam, pronounces the position which Bentinck took up to have been very good, and lays the greater share of the responsibility for the defeat upon Adam's faulty arrangements. On 22 September Bentinck, with the sanction of Lord Wellington, re-embarked with the troops under his command for Sicily, influenced, it would seem, partly by apprehensions of an invasion of that island by Murat, and partly by some expectation of concluding a treaty with the latter, who at that time was coquetting with the allies, but whom Bentinck to the last regarded with distrust. It is tolerably clear that Wellington did not entertain a high opinion of Bentinck's judgment. In Napier's history there is a short correspondence regarding the apprehended invasion of Sicily, which ends with the following laconic letter from Wellington to Bentinck: ‘Huarte, 1 July 1813: My lord, — In answer to your lordship's despatch, I have to observe that I conceive that the island of Sicily is at present in no danger whatever’ (History of the Peninsular War, v. 435, edition of 1860). In 1814 Bentinck commanded a successful expedition against Genoa, where he issued two proclamations, which, anticipating by nearly half a century the establishment of Italian unity, caused some embarrassment to his government. He returned to Palermo, and quitted Sicily 14 July 1814. At the close of the war he remained at Rome, and was unemployed until 1827. He was made K.B. in1813, G.C.B. in 1815 and G.C.H. in 1817.

In July 1827 Bentinck was appointed governor-general of Bengal, and was sworn of the privy council. He did not assume office in India till July 1828. Although India was at peace, its finances were embarrassed by the prolonged war in Burma and by the siege of Bhartpur during Lord Amherst's government. There had been a series of heavy financial deficits, extending to the year in which Bentinck took charge of the government, when the expenditure still exceeded the income by more than a million. Bentinck's first duty was to devise means of reducing the expenses in every branch of the administration which was susceptible of reduction, and although in carrying out this duty he was merely obeying the repeated orders of the court of directors, the result for a time was much personal unpopularity. He appointed commissions to investigate the expenditure, both civil and military. He threw open to natives posts hitherto filled by Englishmen at a larger cost, and he gave effect to orders of the court, which had been twice reiterated, for the reduction of an allowance which, under the name of ‘battá,’ had for many years been given to the European officers of the army in addition to their pay. The result of Bentinck's financial measures was that the deficit which he found on his arrival was converted into a surplus, amounting at the time of his retirement from the government to two millions a year.

Financial reductions were not, however, the most important reforms which distinguished Bentinck's administration as governor-general. In the north-western provinces the settlement of the land revenue still remained upon a very unsatisfactory footing. Bentinck, after carefully investigating the question in consultation with the principal officers of the provinces concerned, set on foot a settlement which, carried on under the direction of Mr. Robert Merttins Bird, one of the ablest officers in the Indian service, and brought to a completion in nine years, was an enormous improvement on the previous state of things. It limited the public demand upon the land to a fixed sum for a period of thirty years, and provided a complete record of individual rights. Bentinck also established a separate board of revenue for the north-western provinces at Allahabad. In the judicial department the provincial courts of appeal and circuit, which had become proverbial for the dilatoriness and uncertainty of their decisions, were abolished, and there was substituted for them a civil and sessions judge in each district, the whole of the original civil business being transferred to native judicial officers. The north-western provinces were at the same time provided with a separate sudder, or chief court of appeal. An inquiry into the working of the inland transit duties, instituted under Bentinck's orders, resulted in the abolition of those duties after his departure from India.

The education of the natives also engaged Bentinck's attention. Here, acting upon the advice of Macaulay, who joined his council in the last year of his government, he issued a resolution which may be regarded as the first decisive step taken by the government of India towards raising up a class of natives educated in western literature and science. It prescribed that, without peremptorily abolishing the institutions for promoting oriental learning, all other available funds should be employed in imparting a knowledge of English literature and science through the medium of the English language. A closely allied question was that of the employment of natives of India in the public service. Bentinck was the first governor-general who seriously dealt with this question. He treated it in a liberal and comprehensive spirit, and by his measures for the employment of natives upon duties and in positions not previously entrusted to them, he greatly raised the status of the native official hierarchy throughout Bengal. Nor was he less zealous in promoting the settlement of unofficial Europeans in India, and the application of European capital to the development of the resources of the country. The employment of steam communication between England and India, and also on the Ganges and other Indian rivers, was another object which received his cordial support.

Bentinck's views in regard to the Indian press would seem either to have been misunderstood, or to have varied at different periods. The common impression is that, although he left it to his successor, Sir Charles Metcalfe, to pass the law which formally conferred freedom upon the Indian press, he fully shared the opinions upon which that measure was founded, and it is certainly true that during Bentinck's government there was no sort of interference in Bengal with the liberty of the press; but it is nevertheless the fact that in one of his latest minutes, written on 13 March 1835, when he was on the point of leaving India, he described the spread of knowledge and the operations of the press as among the dangers which threatened British rule in India. In the same minute, he put on record for (apparently) the first time the opinion that the advance of Russia in the direction of India was the greatest danger to which India was exposed, and he advocated various changes in the military organisation, some of which ran very much upon the lines of those introduced after the mutiny of 1857. The measure most constantly associated with Bentinck's tenure of the governor-generalship is the abolition of suttee, or widow-burning, which by a regulation passed on 4 Dec. 1829 was declared to be punishable as culpable homicide. In arriving at this decision Bentinck was supported by a strong body of official opinion; but after what had passed in his own case at Madras, it was by no means a light responsibility that he incurred in resolving upon a measure of this nature which none of his predecessors had ventured to carry into effect. The suppression of the Thugs, an alteration of the law of inheritance securing to converts from Hinduism and Muhammadanism their rights of property, and the admission of native christians to employment in the public service, were all measures of Bentinck's administration.

The political management of the native feudatory states under Bentinck's government was not satisfactory; but for this he can hardly be held responsible, inasmuch as a policy of strict non-intervention in the internal affairs of those states was strongly inculcated by the home authorities. He, however, assumed the administration of Mysore, which, owing to the misrule and oppression of the rájá, was verging on a condition of anarchy; and in the case of Oudh he intimated that unless matters considerably improved, the administration of the country would be taken over by the company's government. The only diplomatic measures in which he was engaged in relation to foreign states, were a treaty of alliance with Ranjít Singh, the ruler of the Panjáb, and a treaty of commerce with the Amírs of Sindh. The negotiation with Ranjít Singh was the occasion of an imposing ceremonial, when the maharaja and the governor-general met at Rupar on the banks of the Satlej.

Bentinck was still governor-general when the East India Company's Charter Act of 1833 was passed, whereby he became the first ‘governor-general of India;’ he and his predecessors having been ‘governors-general of Bengal,’ although vested with control in certain matters over the minor presidencies of Madras and Bombay. During the latter part of his government Bentinck's health became seriously impaired, and he was spending the hot season on the Nilgiris, the mountain sanatorium of the Madras presidency, when the change in the constitution of the supreme government took effect in India. He was there joined by Macaulay, the new law member of council, with whom he speedily contracted a warm friendship.

He resigned the government and embarked for England on 20 March 1835, much regretted both by Europeans and natives, with the former of whom his early unpopularity had yielded to a sense of his singleness of purpose, and of his earnestness and capacity as an administrator. After his departure a statue in his honour was erected at Calcutta bearing this inscription from the pen of Macaulay: ‘To William Cavendish Bentinck, who during seven years ruled India with eminent prudence, integrity, and benevolence; who, placed at the head of a great empire, never laid aside the simplicity and moderation of a private citizen; who infused into oriental despotism the spirit of British freedom; who never forgot that the end of government is the happiness of the governed; who abolished cruel rites; who effaced humiliating distinctions; who gave liberty to the expression of public opinion; whose constant study it was to elevate the intellectual and moral character of the nations committed to his charge, this monument was erected by men who, differing in race, in manners, in language, and in religion, cherish, with equal veneration and gratitude, the memory of his wise, upright, and paternal administration.’

Whatever may be thought of the foregoing eulogium, there can be no question that Bentinck's Indian administration must be regarded as a marked era in the history of Indian progress. He was the first British statesman entrusted with the government of India who declared and acted upon the policy of governing India in the interests of the people of that country. Of his numerous reforms some have been improved upon by his successors, but none have been abandoned. Two great qualities, perfect indifference to popular applause and high moral courage, he possessed in an eminent degree. Singularly simple and unostentatious in his habits, irreproachable in his private life, he and Lady William Bentinck set an example which, coming from persons placed in the high station which they filled in India, could not fail to inspire respect. It has been said that Bentinck too often exhibited mistrust of those who served under him, and that at times, in pressing forward his measures, he was unduly regardless of the interests of individuals. Of the first of these failings there are some indications in the letters of Lord Metcalfe, written when the two men first came into official relations; but it is evident that in this case the mistrust on the part of Bentinck, to whatever extent it may have existed, speedily disappeared, for nothing could have been more cordial than his subsequent friendship for Metcalfe, with reference to whom he used the memorable expression that ‘he never cavilled upon a trifle, and never yielded to me on a point of importance’.

By the three most eminent historians of British India Bentinck's government is characterised in terms of high praise. James Mill, writing to a friend shortly after Bentinck's return from India, describes him as ‘a man worth making much of, I assure you. When I consider what he is, and what he has done in a most important and difficult situation, I know not where to look for his like.’ Horace Hayman Wilson, who had been Bentinck's most formidable opponent in India on the question of the abolition of suttee, in his continuation of Mill's history, after reciting Bentinck's principal measures, affirms that ‘a dispassionate retrospect of the results of his government will assign to Lord William Bentinck an honourable place among the statesmen who have been entrusted with the delegated sovereignty over the British empire in the east.’ And Marshman says of Bentinck's administration that ‘it marks the most memorable period of improvement between the days of Lord Cornwallis and Lord Dalhousie, and forms a salient point in the history of Indian reform.’

Bentinck survived his retirement from the government of India little more than four years, dying at Paris on 17 June 1839. He was elected member for Glasgow in the liberal interest in Feb. 1836 and was re-elected at the general election of 1837, retaining the seat until a few days before his death. He had previously declined a peerage. He was married in 1803 to Lady Mary Acheson, second daughter of Arthur, first earl of Gosford, who survived him. He had no issue.

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