I am happy that you are using this web site and hope that you found it useful. Unfortunately, the cost of making this material freely available is increasing, so if you have found the site useful and would like to contribute towards its continuation, I would greatly appreciate it. Click the button to go to Paypal and make a donation.

Edward Law, Earl of Ellenborough (1790-1871)

This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1892

Edward Law, Earl of Ellenborough, governor-general of India, eldest son of Edward, baron Ellenborough and chief justice of England, by his wife Anne, daughter of Captain Towry, R.N., was born 8 September 1790. He was educated at Eton and at St. John's College, Cambridge, where he graduated M.A. in 1809. He was the author of the prize ode on the house of Braganza, published in the ‘Musæ Cantabrigienses,’ but he seems to have conceived the lowest opinion of the tutors of Cambridge generally. His tutor was John Bird Sumner, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, whom in 1828 he successfully recommended to the Duke of Wellington for the bishopric of Chester. After leaving college he made a tour in Sicily, and was ambitious of a military career, but by his father's desire he entered parliament as member for St. Michael's, Cornwall, in the tory interest in 1813, and gratified his military passion by specially devoting himself to army questions. As the best means of obtaining political influence appeared to him to be oratory, he assiduously cultivated his strong natural gifts of rhetoric. While supporting the tory administration he reserved, however, his independence on the catholic question.

In 1813 he married Lady Octavia Stewart, and was thus brought into close relations with her brother, Lord Castlereagh, visited him at Vienna during the congress, and became familiar with foreign affairs. Castlereagh offered him a post on the commission for carrying into effect the transfer of Genoa to Sardinia, but Law, whose sympathies were with Genoese independence then and with Italian unity in 1860, declined the offer, and in debates both on the treaty of Vienna and on the Six Acts he criticised with some freedom the proposals of the government. At the end of 1818 he succeeded his father in the peerage, and after Canning's appointment as foreign secretary he spoke not unfrequently in opposition, actively attacked the ministerial policy with regard to the French intervention in Spain in 1823, and complained of the slight to Spain, England's old ally, which he thought was implied in Canning's recognition of the new South American republics. On 24 April 1823 he even proposed an address of censure upon the ministry for its policy in regard to the congress of Verona and the negotiations at Paris and Madrid. When Lord Liverpool resigned early in 1827, Ellenborough openly avowed his hostility to Canning's administration, and, inclining to a junction with Grey, endeavoured to induce him to join the Duke of Wellington.

In the Wellington administration of 1828 he accepted the office of lord privy seal, which, as he was anxious for work and responsibility, soon became irksome to him. He desired promotion to a higher post, but he had opposed the third reading of the King's Property Bill in 1823, and had consequently become personally obnoxious to the king. The foreign office was his especial ambition; he piqued himself on his capacity for business, diligently studied foreign affairs, and took a considerable share in the business of the foreign office, partly as a personal friend of the foreign secretary, Lord Dudley, partly as an unofficial assistant of the Duke of Wellington, who highly esteemed him for his talents and was generously tolerant of his failings. Accordingly he was bitterly disappointed when, in May 1828, Dudley was succeeded by Aberdeen. He drew up his resignation, but withheld it out of loyalty to the duke, then in great difficulties. His sympathies were strongly with Turkey in the dispute with Russia which culminated in the war of 1828; he pressed for the despatch of the English fleet to the Bosphorus, and in office would probably have carried matters with a high hand against Russia. His general position in the cabinet had been that of an anti-Canningite, and he was in particular a personal opponent of Huskisson. Although favourable to free trade, so far as it seemed compatible with political necessities, he was anxious to see the cabinet cleared of Huskisson and his friend — the ‘Canning leaven,’ as he called them. Yet, in spite of this antipathy, he disappointed the expectations of the whigs by proving himself a tractable member of the government, and a useful debater in the House of Lords; and at length on 5 September was transferred to the presidency of the board of control, where he found an ample field for his energies, and began his connection with Indian affairs.

His administration was energetic, and he was popular with the permanent officials. The question of the revision of the East India Company's charter was approaching. He was strongly against any continuation of the monopoly of the China trade, and viewing India not as a commercial speculation, but as an administrative trust, he complained of the slowness of the company's mode of doing business, and the difficulty of getting the directors to realise that they were in truth the rulers of a state. Already he was for transferring the government of India directly to the crown. Apprehensive of the tendency of Russian policy, he was impressed with the general ignorance of the geography of Central Asia, a deficiency which might prove disastrous in the event of a Russian march towards India. His policy was to meet such an advance by a counter advance. He was also already eager to open up the Indus as a highway of commerce, to which it was then closed by the ameers of Scinde. Accordingly he despatched Alexander Burnes on a mission to Lahore, nominally to convey a present of English horses to Runjeet Singh, in fact to explore the Indus, and subsequently the passes of Cabul and the countries of Central Asia. Negotiations were entered into with the ameers for the opening of the Indus to trade, and although the passage of troops and munitions of war was refused, the ameers were induced to concede free passage to the trade of Hindostan. During even this, his first, term of office his unguarded language brought on him a fierce attack. Writing privately in 1829 to Sir John Malcolm, governor of Bombay, who was engaged in a dispute with the supreme court there, Ellenborough advised that two puisne judges should be appointed to sit with the chief justice, Sir J. P. Grant, and keep him in check, ‘like a wild elephant between two tame ones.’ Malcolm's secretary, by mistake, treated this letter as a public despatch, and about a year later it found its way into the ‘Times,’ as was supposed through the agency of Joseph Hume. To reform the disorderly system of Indian finance Ellenborough proposed to send J. C. Herries to India, and to appoint him to a post specially created, as a general chancellor of the exchequer to the governor-general, but Herries declined the offer. Ellenborough remained at the India office until the Wellington administration fell in 1830.

After quitting office he vigorously opposed Lord Grey's measures, and especially the Reform Bill and the Corporation Bill. He returned to the board of control during Peel's ‘hundred days’ (December 1834 to April 1835), but did not figure prominently in politics again until the formation of Peel's second administration in September 1841, in which he for the third time held the office of president of the board of control. On 20 October 1841 he was almost unanimously appointed by the court of directors to succeed Lord Auckland as governor-general of India. He set out for India resolved upon a peace policy, a policy which, at a farewell dinner given to him by the directors on 3 November 1841, he summarised in the words ‘to restore peace to Asia.’ The whole of his term of office in India was, however, occupied in wars, one a war of vengeance and two wars of annexation and aggression.

After a tedious voyage of five months on board the frigate Cambrian, he found himself, on 21 February 1842, off Madras. The first news he had received since leaving England was signalled to him from shore. It announced the massacre of Cabul and the sieges of Ghuzni and Jellalabad, and going ashore he found that the sepoys of Madras were on the verge of open mutiny. So serious a crisis had not occurred in India for many generations. To increase the difficulty of the position, neither in the Punjab nor in Nepaul was peace secure, and the government was committed to extensive operations in China, which tended to drain India of troops. Ellenborough at once set himself, by his personal intervention, to restore the discipline of the Madras sepoys. He increased the force intended for China, and refused, on grounds of policy, to allow the disasters in Afghanistan to curtail the programme of operations already decided upon for China. The original design of the government had been to operate by the Yang-tsze-kiang [Yangtze River] , which was subsequently changed for a movement by the Peiho. Ellenborough, convinced by the information of Lord Colchester that the Chinese empire was most vulnerable along the line of the former river, on his own responsibility reverted to the original scheme, pressed forward the reinforcements from India, and by the summer of 1842 was able to report to the cabinet the successful conclusion of the Chinese war.

Meantime he had set himself vigorously to work upon the further conduct of the Afghan war. Reaching Calcutta on 28 February, he at once induced the council to invest him with all the authority it had power to confer upon him, and hastened to Allahabad. His general policy he set forth in a despatch to the commander-in-chief, Sir Jasper Nicholls, dated 15 March 1842. The conduct of Shah Soojah, and his inability to perform his obligations under the tripartite treaty, had absolved the company also from its obligations, and henceforth the British policy in Afghanistan must be guided by military considerations alone. Separated from the Khyber by the whole width of the Sikh kingdom, then in a state of merely untrustworthy alliance with England, the company's government could not hope permanently to maintain any Afghan conquest. This Ellenborough felt strongly, though he did not as yet openly avow a policy of withdrawal. He aimed at rescuing the garrisons, and rehabilitating our lost prestige by dealing the Afghans some signal blow. He has been charged with timidity and vacillation in his Afghan operations, and with indifference to the fate of the English captives. After hearing of the defeat of General Richard England at Hykulzye, and of the fall of Ghuznee on 28 March, he despatched to General Nott (19 April) orders to fall back upon Quetta as soon as he had withdrawn the garrison from Khelat-i-Ghilzai, and ultimately to withdraw to the Indus. At the same time he directed Pollock to retreat to Peshawur at the earliest opportunity.

Want of transport, however, and the approach of the hot season necessarily postponed the execution of these orders. It is said, but this is more than doubtful, that Pollock on his own responsibility directed Nott to disobey the order for retreat. At any rate the retreat was not begun, and on 4 July Ellenborough sent fresh directions to Nott, giving him permission, if he thought fit, to retire from Candahar by way of Cabul and Peshawur. ‘Nothing has occurred,’ he wrote, ‘to change my first opinion that the measure commended by considerations of political and military prudence is to bring back the armies now in Afghanistan at the earliest period at which their retirement can be effected consistently with the health and efficiency of the troops’¾a phrase which has been fastened upon as conclusive proof of an attempt to reverse his previous policy under the disguise of adhering to its object and only varying its details. This, however, is unjust. He saw that the readiest mode of recovering the captives was to restore the English military superiority, and that this must be a work of time. Much he was obliged to leave to the discretion of the officer in command in the field, but his vigour inspired new energy in the disheartened armies, and it was upon the lines which he laid down that the victory was eventually won.

After the successful termination of the war he indulged in grandiose displays, which have been universally ridiculed. He arranged to receive the returning armies at Ferozepore on 17 December, with more than oriental pomp; they were to march beneath a triumphal arch and between double lines of gilded and salaaming elephants, but the arch was a gaudy and tottering structure, and the ill-tutored elephants forgot to salaam and ran away. He had ordered the sandal-wood gates of the temple of Somnauth, said to have been carried off by Mahmoud to Ghuzni, to be brought back by the army to India, and issued a proclamation, 6 October 1842, to the princes of India, whom he addressed as ‘my brothers and friends,’ and congratulated on the restoration of the gates to India, and declared that ‘the insult of eight hundred years is at last avenged’.

Ellenborough seems to have sincerely thought that he would thus appeal to the oriental imagination, and would conciliate the Hindoos, whom he conceived to be our true friends in India, as the Mohammedans were, he believed, our irreconcilable foes. But it was doubtful if the gates had been carried away from India at all, and the temple of Somnauth, to which they were said to belong, had long been a deserted ruin; while their removal from a Mohammedan mosque might well offend the Indian Moslems, and would certainly be indifferent to the Brahmins, who, on the assumption that they were genuine, had forgotten their removal eight or nine centuries before. Finally, the recovered gates were found to be made of deal, and not of sandal-wood, and to be much later in date than the eleventh century. They were carried no further than Agra, and remain there still in a lumber-room in the fort. Another proclamation, published on 1 October 1842, referred to Lord Auckland's administration, and boasted that ‘disasters unparalleled in their extent, unless by the errors in which they originated,’ had been avenged in one campaign — terms alike unwise in Lord Auckland's successor and ungenerous in his personal friend.

Ellenborough, however, has not yet had justice done him with regard to the Afghan campaign. On his arrival in India a ‘political’ agent was attached to each commander on the frontier, and in charge of every frontier district there was a separate officer, sometimes incapable, and generally anxious for decisive measures at all hazards. By this division of the responsibility, the military chief became lax and the political agent irresponsibly bold. Ellenborough to a large extent superseded the ‘politicals.’ The political functions of Rawlinson and Macgregor were transferred to the military chiefs, Pollock and Nott. This he was all the more glad to do because the ‘politicals’ as a body brought severe pressure to bear upon him to advance precipitately into Afghanistan, and to annex fresh territory in the direction of Candahar, contrary to his settled convictions. But such a general supersession, however honest an exercise of his powers of appointment, carried with it some appearance of harshness, notably in the case of Captain Hammersley, political agent at Quetta, and Ellenborough's unquestionable ill opinion of civilians generally and preference for military men excited an hostility from which his reputation as an Indian administrator has never recovered. Those, however, who have had access to special papers of Ellenborough, and have had military experience to inform their criticisms, speak in the highest terms of his knowledge of every detail of military administration, and of the zeal and energy with which from his position in the north-west he supported the armies in Afghanistan. His military dispositions one and all had the cordial approval of Wellington, and Greville records how the storm of censure which raged against him in England on the first news of his Afghan policy was, except as to the proclamations, completely allayed upon the publication of the despatches in the Afghan Blue Book. Still, he had alienated almost every powerful interest in India except the army. His supersession of the ‘politicals’ offended both the civil service and the directors, who saw their field of patronage thus seriously reduced. Ellenborough for military reasons declined to adopt Lord Auckland's practice of favouring the Indian press with constant official communiqués, and of allowing his council to freely make known to it official matters. By a circular dated 26 May 1842 he enjoined all officials to preserve inviolable secrecy, and he even, from June 1842 till the capture of Cabul, kept all his correspondence with Nott and Pollock from the knowledge of his own council, because he could not trust them not to betray the secret. His council was highly indignant, the Indian press was furious, and English opinion in the press, in parliament, and among the directors of the company was prepared to expect the worst of Ellenborough, and to misconstrue all he might do.

His next measures were certainly questionable. He annexed Scinde, and he invaded Gwalior. With a view to the Afghan war, Lord Auckland had concluded treaties with the ameers of Scinde, by which free navigation of the Indus and the right to occupy certain points at its mouth and on its lower waters was secured to the East India Company. With the conclusion of the Afghan war these positions would be lost. Ellenborough had long coveted the complete opening, if not the possession, of the Indus. In the uncertain temper of the subjects of the ameers, it was doubtful if the troops could be withdrawn from their cantonments and the fact of evacuation be thus made patent, without provoking an outbreak and an attack. It was feared that the troops, if withdrawn at all, must cut their way out. Ellenborough seized on the fact that the ameers had not in all points fulfilled the treaty with Lord Auckland, and tendered to them fresh and more stringent terms. They were accused of treachery to the company, of which the guilt was doubtful and the evidence shadowy. Ellenborough found in Sir Charles Napier the weapon that he required. Sir Charles, in a campaign of the most brilliant temerity, conquered the whole country, and the governor-general annexed Scinde at a stroke, 26 August 1842. This proceeding has been generally treated as an act of sheer rapine. It is pronounced to have been a war of aggression, resting upon no grounds of justice, and prompted by no motive but that of territorial greed. There is, however, no doubt of the value of the Indus as a highway for sea-going vessels into the heart of the Punjab, at a time when railway communications in India were still undreamt of, and sooner or later Scinde must have been occupied. The advocates of Ellenborough, like Sir William Napier, justify his policy on the ground that, however unjust Lord Auckland's treaties may have been, the ameers had broken them, and that therefore Ellenborough had nothing to do but to enforce submission at any cost. Others defend him on the ground of the bad government of the ameers.

In Gwalior the death of the maharajah on 9 February 1843 had been followed, according to Mahratta custom, by the adoption by his widow of a successor, in the person of a child of eight years of age. For some weeks the new prince and Mama Sahib, the regent who carried on the government, were accepted without dispute; but in May the ranee's intrigues culminated in the downfall of the regent, and the state of Gwalior, well armed, and situated in the very heart of India, was on the verge of civil war. In November 1843 Ellenborough, who, after almost a year's absence from the seat of government, had at length taken up his residence at Calcutta, not in obedience to the complaints of the directors, but probably in deference to a private hint from Wellington, again proceeded up country to Agra, and joined the army under the command of the commander-in-chief. He laid down the doctrine, since generally accepted by all the successive governments of India, that the English government, as the paramount power of the peninsula, is concerned in the internal order even of independent states, and may justifiably interfere in the interest of the general peace, to repress misgovernment and disorder. War with the Punjab was imminent, and at the distance of only forty miles, Agra, one of the most important arsenals and military stations in India, was too near for safety to the turbulent Mahratta army, forty thousand strong. The English forces entered the Gwalior territory anticipating only a prompt submission. The Mahrattas boldly took the field, and only yielded after being defeated at Maharajpore on 28 December. In this battle Ellenborough was not only present, but, by an accident, and not as his enemies asserted, from mere hardihood, was exposed to the hottest fire, and narrowly escaped. By the treaty of 13 January 1844, Gwalior, though not formally annexed, was virtually subjugated; the Mahratta army was disbanded, and the Gwalior contingent of ten thousand men, commanded by British officers and controlled by the British resident, though paid by the native government, became in truth an English garrison.

By this time the patience of the directors was exhausted. Ellenborough's despatches to them had been haughty and disrespectful. They had no control over his policy. With the civil servants, from whom their information was derived, he was in the worst odour, and he had undoubtedly violated the regulation approved by himself in 1830, and had expended large sums on barracks and other military objects without obtaining the sanction of the court of directors. They at length, in spite of ministerial protests, resolved to exercise their undoubted but most extreme powers. Since November 1842 Ellenborough had been prepared to receive his recall by every mail. In June 1844 it came. He left Calcutta by the Tenasserim on 1 August, having restored the English military prestige in Afghanistan, enlarged the bounds of the empire, improved the condition of the army, and systematised the methods of the various civil departments of state. For these services he was, on his return in October, created Earl of Ellenborough and Viscount Southam. He had previously received the thanks of parliament. The whigs, who had acceded to this honour, inconsistently attacked his administration in two debates in February and March 1843. His policy was successfully vindicated in the two houses by the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, and the attack of the opposition failed.

When Sir Robert Peel's cabinet was reconstituted in 1846, Ellenborough entered it as first lord of the admiralty, and he resigned with Peel in the summer of that year. During the Crimean war he fiercely attacked the administration of the army in the House of Lords on 12 May 1855, but he was defeated by a majority of 120. He was anxious that Lord Derby should attempt the formation of a government in that year, and offered him his support. In 1858 he took office with him as president of the board of control, for the fourth time. The opposition which the tories had offered to Lord Palmerston's Government, of India Bill obliged the new administration to introduce a substantive scheme of their own. This bill was the work of Ellenborough in its original form. His complicated plan for electing an Indian council by the votes of a variety of interests and classes, commercial, official, and popular, excited so much opposition that the bill was postponed. Meantime the proclamation which Lord Canning had issued after the fall of Lucknow, declaring the confiscation of the soil of Oudh, arrived at the India office. While it was in course of post the change of ministry had occurred. Lord Canning accompanied it by no official statement of his motives and policy, but in a private letter to Vernon Smith, Ellenborough's predecessor, he promised his reasons by the next mail, when he would be more at leisure. This private letter Vernon Smith kept to himself. Ellenborough, having before him no explanation of Canning's reasons, immediately addressed to him a caustic despatch, in which he strongly censured the proclamation, and at once allowed the terms of his despatch to be known. Both proclamation and despatch were published in the ‘Times’ of 8 May. He had not consulted his colleagues, who heard of his act from the newspapers; he had not submitted a draft of the despatch to the queen. The queen complained of the discourtesy; questions were asked in the House of Commons about the despatch, and Disraeli, in laying a copy on the table, disavowed it on behalf of the government. Cardwell gave notice of a motion for a vote of censure in the commons, Lord Shaftesbury in the lords. The passage of the vote would have been fatal to the government. Ellenborough wisely took the whole responsibility upon himself, and on 10 May resigned. The motion in the House of Lords was defeated by a narrow majority of nine, that in the commons was withdrawn after four nights' debate, and the Indian Government Bill was entirely recast.

From this time Ellenborough, though almost the foremost orator in the House of Lords and a frequent speaker, remained out of office. He spoke repeatedly on national defences and on the Danish question in 1864. In 1868 he was in favour of concurrent endowment of the Roman catholic church in Ireland, and in 1869, as the last survivor of the cabinet which passed the Catholic Relief Act, he was prepared to speak against the Disestablishment Bill; but he did not rise, as his argument was forestalled by the Bishop of Peterborough. His health then failed, and on 22 December 1871 he died, and was buried at Oxenton Church, near Cheltenham. He held till his death a sinecure place given him by his father, the office of joint chief clerk of the pleas in the queen's bench, which is said to have been worth £7,000 a year.

Ellenborough's talents, both as a military authority and as an orator, were conspicuous, and time has justified many of his acts which were in their day most condemned. He was vain, and often theatrical, and was too masterful and self-confident to be a good tenant of office; but his follies and failures are now seen to have been relatively insignificant, and the brilliancy of his abilities, which was never doubted, remains almost undimmed. He was twice married, first, in 1813, to Lady Octavia Stewart, youngest daughter of Robert, first marquis of Londonderry (she died 5 March 1819); and secondly, 15 September 1824, to Jane Elizabeth, daughter of Rear-admiral Henry Digby, from whom he was divorced by act of parliament in 1830 for her adultery with Prince Schwartzenburg in 1828. She was a woman of great beauty and linguistic and artistic talents. After an adventurous but dubious career in Europe she married at Damascus the Sheikh Mijwal of the tribe Mezrab, a branch of the Anazeh Bedouins. She subsequently resided for many years in camp in the desert near Damascus. His only child, a son by his second wife, died in 1830, and, as he left no issue, the earldom became extinct on his death. He was succeeded in the barony by his nephew, Charles Edmund.

Meet the web creator

These materials may be freely used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with applicable statutory allowances and distribution to students.
Re-publication in any form is subject to written permission.

Last modified 12 January, 2016

The Age of George III Home Page

Ministerial Instability 1760-70

Lord North's Ministry 1770-82

American Affairs 1760-83

The period of peace 1783-92

The Age of the French Wars 1792-1815 Irish Affairs 1760-89

Peel Web Home Page

Tory Governments 1812-30

Political Organisations in the Age of Peel

Economic Affairs in the Age of Peel

Popular Movements in the Age of Peel

Irish Affairs
Primary sources index British Political Personalities British Foreign policy 1815-65 European history
index sitemap advanced
search engine by freefind