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Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 5: Mornington and the Indian Scene

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The Indian Background:

Percival Spear’s History of India is excellent, though very concise, and P. E. Roberts’s History of British India is full and thorough, if a little old-fashioned, (better than his India under Wellesley).  Robert Frykenberg, writing in vol 5 of the Oxford History of the British Empire (the Historiography volume) describes it as ‘The single best general work, sound in scholarship and restrained in judgement’ (p 198).  The chapters in the Oxford History of the British Empire are interesting – Michael Duffy’s is characteristically excellent – but are too concise to describe events in great detail; while the old Cambridge History is distinctly musty, though still useful.   Lawrence James’s Raj which might have provided an up-to-date popular introduction, proved very disappointing largely because its emphasis is clearly on the later period).   Callahan’s East India Company and Army Reform is an excellent source, which extends well beyond its immediate subject, and sheds much valuable light on Cornwallis, Shore and the attitude of the British government to India.  India under Wellesley is, of course, a good introduction to Lord Wellesley’s tenure as Governor-General, if a little too indulgent; the background it gives is brief but helpful.   Philips The East India Company is helpful on relations between the Company and the Government, and Furber’s John Company adds richness to the background.

The Indian States:

Good material on Hyderabad is hard to find (other than on Raymond’s ‘French’ corps).   There is some in Wilks Historical Sketches of the South of India but otherwise the same handful of generalizations and points are recycled from one source to another.  (Since this was written William Dalrymple’s White Mughals has added greatly to our understanding of the state of affairs at Hyderabad).

But there is an abundance of material on the Marathas, most notably in Sardesai New History of the Marathas, but also the Bhattacharyya’s book on the British Residents at Poona.

Forrest’s Tiger of Mysore is excellent – well-written, based on wide reading, and eminently sensible.   Ali’s Tipu is a eulogy, but useful occasionally, and Brittlebank’s Tipu Sultan’s Search for Legitimacy is a highly academic monograph, valuable in its way but largely irrelevant to AW.

The prohibition against wars of Aggression:

It is curious that this is not referred to more often, and more explicitly.  It is quite difficult to find it quoted extensively: the most convenient source is in P. J.  Marshall  Problems of Empire: Britain and India 1757-1813 p 131-6, 167-70.  AW certainly did not disregard it: he refers to it in his ‘Observations Respecting Scindah’s position at Poona’  (WSD vol 1  p 68-71) and the relevant passage 1793 renewal act is quoted on p 68n.   It is not quite true to say that Mornington disregarded the act completely – it forced him to act in a roundabout fashion rather than more directly – but there is no doubt that the entire thrust of his period in office was in flagrant contravention of the spirit of the act.

The Ministers neglect of India:

This is important, given Edward Ingram’s argument that India was as important to Britain as Europe.   The best evidence here comes from Callahan’s East India Company and Army Reform, which discusses a period before the ministers were so pre-occupied by the war.   Philips reinforces the point, which can be seen in Dundas’s letters to Mornington, for example those of 16 June, 13 August and 29 December 1798 in Two Views of British India edited by Ingram.

Mornington’s appointment

AW was not surprised by Mornington’s arrival in India.   As early as the previous July Wesley had urged him to accept if offered the Governor-Generalship of Bengal, arguing that a few years in India would make Mornington’s reputation. (AW to Mornington, 12 July 1797, WSD  vol 1 p 12-17).  Yet a fair measure of luck was also involved.  When the ministers decided to recall both Shore and Hobart they offered Mornington only the junior post of Governor of Madras, intending that Lord Cornwallis should return as Governor-General.   Mornington accepted on condition that he succeed Cornwallis in Bengal.   The Directors of the East India Company then revived an old quarrel with Cornwallis, who used it as an excuse to resign the position which he had never wanted to accept.   For the next eight years the Directors were to repent their folly in not settling for the devil they knew, for Mornington’s policies were even less compatible with their outlook and interests than Cornwallis’s conscious rectitude.  (Richard A. Brashares  ‘The Political Career of Marquess Wellesley in England and Ireland’ (unpublished PhD presented to Duke University, 1968)  p 61-3;  Raymond Callahan  The East India Company and Army Reform p 204-5;  P. E. Roberts  India under Wellesley  p 19-21).

Even with this explanation the appointment of a thirty-seven year old, whose career had not so much stalled as never really started, and who had not held any significant executive office in his life, to supreme power in British India, appears rather strange.   But in fact the government found it extremely hard to find anyone, even with minimal qualifications, willing to go to India, especially when the war had created so many other interesting and important posts closer to home.   Shore’s perceived failure meant that the experiment of appointing a servant of the Company (that is, an official who had already served for many years in India) would not be repeated.  The new governor-general must be a man of rank and position, a statesman of wide views who would effortlessly enforce his authority, and who would be far above any suggestion of financial irregularities.   Cornwallis matched these criteria perfectly, but for that very reason there were many other equally important roles he might fill.  Henry Dundas, the President of the Board of Control (the Minister for Indian affairs) sometimes talked of taking the post himself, but Pitt could not spare him, for he was also Secretary of State for War and political manager of Scotland.   Compared to such figures Mornington was a minnow, but Pitt and Dundas believed that he had ability, and he certainly did not lack confidence.   Ideally he should have had a few years at Madras to prove himself under Cornwallis’s watchful eye, but when that plan was upset there was no obvious alternative but to let him go and hope for the best.  (Callahan  The East India Company and Army Reform  p 109-113; C. H. Philips  The East India Company 1784-1834 p 70, 93;  John Ehrman The Younger Pitt   [vol 3] The Consuming Struggle p 438-9).

Brashares  ‘Political Career’ p 90 cites Torrens for evidence that Mornington had not been a particularly effective or assiduous member of the Board of Control.

Difficulty of finding anyone suitable for the post:  Dundas had told Cornwallis in 1787 that there was general agreement that military men made the best governors – but very few soldiers, other than Cornwallis himself, were suitable.  (Callahan East India Company and Army Reform p 109).  Shore had only been appointed because ministers could think of no one else (other than Dundas whom Pitt would not release) and had accepted reluctantly  (Callahan East India Company and Army Reform p 112).  Cornwallis, too, had only accepted his first appointment with reluctance and because he needed the money  (Wickwire Cornwallis: the Imperial Years p 12-13, 18).

Following the decision to recall Shore and Hobart it was at first thought to send Edward Eliot, Pitt’s relative, as Governor-General, but a return of his poor health scotched the idea – he died soon afterwards.  (Wilberforce Life of Wilberforce vol 2  p 192-3; Stanhope Life of Pitt vol 2  p 226;  Brashares  ‘Political Career’ p 61).  Dundas toyed with the idea of going himself but was dissuaded – Ehrman The Younger Pitt [vol 3] the Consuming Struggle p 438-9, (although this may be a mix up with Dundas’s inclination to go to India when Shore was appointed.  Surely he didn’t really want to abandon the war effort in 1797?  Yet Ehrman is highly reliable, so it is presumably correct).

About Feb. 1797  the government decides to send Cornwallis back to Bengal, and Mornington to Madras (Brashares ‘Political Career’ p 61).  Mornington insisted on the same terms as Hobart i.e. the reversion to Bengal (Brashares ‘Political Career’ p 62) – this is spelt out nicely in Mornington to Mr Sullivan, 3 July 1797,  Buckingham  Memoirs … George III  vol 2  p 373-4.

13 April 1797  Mornington accepts Madras

26 July 1797 Mornington kisses hands for Madras, but already it is clear that he will go to Bengal.

7 November 1797  he sails for India  (Brashares ‘Political Career’ p 62-3)

Ingram Commitment to Empire p 121 states that Dundas and the EIC tried to block Mornington’s elevation from Madras to Bengal but that Pitt insisted; and this is supported by Ehrman vol 3  p 438-9.

Callahan (East India Company and Army Reform p 204-5) gives the best account of Cornwallis’s resignation – Cornwallis had demanded a free hand to reform the Company’s army, and the Directors rejected this, leading to Cornwallis’s resignation on 1 August 1797.  (Though the next point shows that Cornwallis’s resignation had been expected for some time).

Mornington tried to persuade Bathurst to accept Madras, with the reversion of Bengal, but Bathurst declined: Mornington to Bathurst, 5 July 1797, Wellesley Papers vol 1 p 31; see also Brashares ‘Political Career’ p 62-3.

George III and Mornington: The King to Pitt 22 Sept 1795 Later Correspondence of George III  vol 2  p 405  eager that Mornington should resign as MP for Windsor, as his neglect has offended the town.

Mornington’s British barony:

Pitt to the King, 3 Oct. 1797  Later Correspondence of George III  vol 2  p 626-7  urges that Mornington be granted a British peerage (rank unspecified)  Longford (p 54) claims that Pitt pressed for a marquessate, but cites only this letter which does not support the statement.

Portland to Mornington 5 Oct 1797 Wellesley Papers vol 1 p 38 announced the decision to create him a British barony and asked for his title.

3 Nov 1797 took oaths for a British Barony  (Brashares ‘Political Career’  p 63)

7 Nov 1797 he sails for India (ibid)

Longford  p 53-4 Mornington’s alterations to his arms and surname at this time.

Mornington’s voyage to India:

Butler Eldest Brother describes his departure and the voyage in considerable detail (p 93-121 – includes some good material).  There is also a letter from Mornington to Lord Auckland from Madeira, 25 Nov 1797 in Wellesley Papers  vol 1  p 44.

He arrived at the Cape on 28 January 1798 and sailed on 10 March  (Butler, p 108, 118).

There are good glimpses of him at the Cape in the letters of Lady Anne Barnard  (South Africa a Century Ago  p 145ff) and Forrest Tiger of     Mysore p 246 (this quoting from the Lives of the Lindsays ).

Mornington’s letters to Dundas from the Cape are printed in Two Views of British India p 16-45 and Wellesley Despatches  vol 1  p 1-34  (same letters)

He met Kirkpatrick there, but not Hobart who only sailed from Madras on 21 February 1798 (date from Wilks  vol 2  p 631n)

He arrived at Madras on 26 April 1798 (Two Views p 45) – Lushington’s Life of Harris (p 112-3) contains a first hand account of his reception there.

He left Madras probably on 9 May (states his intention of doing so in Two Views  p 46).

He arrived at Fort William on 17 May and assumed the reins of government on the 18th (Two Views  p 51).

Mornington and the Directors of the East India Company:

It would be easy to assume that Mornington felt nothing but contempt for the Directors from the outset; however the evidence does not support this conclusion, and points rather to an initial desire to conciliate them.  His later reactions suggest a sense of outrage at their lack of appreciation of his achievements.   Certainly some of their attacks on him were extraordinarily petty and ill-judged (such as the attacks on the appointment of Henry Wellesley, or of the College of Fort William) while he retaliated by raising the issue of free trade.

There is considerable evidence of Mornington’s growing irritation with the Directors, for example a letter to AW of 10 June 1799 he refers to the ‘vulgar insolence’ of their tone in writing to him (WP 1/16 phrase deleted from text printed in WSD vol 1 p 242n-44n) where he anticipates opposition from the Directors to his granting of the booty of Seringapatam to the army – which at least shows that he is disillusioned with them.   While by 1 August 1799 he was secretly proposing to Dundas that the Crown take over the government of India, assuring him that the Company was held in contempt in India (‘A Further Confidential Letter from Wellesley to Dundas’  ed by E. Ingram J. Indian History  vol 50  1972  p 15-20).   But this does not disprove that his original intention was to conciliate the Directors.

So long as Pitt and Dundas remained in office the disputes with Leadenhall Street was no more than an irritation for Mornington, but their resignation in 1801 left his position much less secure.

Mornington’s policies:

A balance needs to be struck here between those who apologize for all Mornington’s actions (like Roberts) and those who condemn him whatever he does (like Ingram, who even when he agrees with Mornington, still makes it sound like an accusation).    To put it crudely, it is hard to deny that Mornington’s policies were aggressive and expansionist, but equally that the level of justification varied from case to case.  The Treaty with Hyderabad was entirely unobjectionable by almost any criteria (though it may have contravened the strict meaning of the ban in Pitt’s act) – indeed Edward Ingram presents it as a triumph by the Nizam.   The war with Tipu could certainly have been avoided if Mornington chose not to act; but equally, Tipu’s actions provided more than sufficient justification for war, especially given the historical hostility between Mysore and the British.   Many of the later actions against dependent states are much harder to justify – although they are largely irrelevant to AW.   Finally, the Maratha War was surely a mistake, whether or not it was justified.   By late 1802 Wellesley ought to have realized that he lacked the support at home for another big adventure, and steered well clear of the Maratha morass – but it is not clear whether he was capable of such restraint.    What of the comparison with Napoleon’s limitless ambition?   There are similarities, at least on the surface, but a closer look shows that the contexts were very different.   India in the 1790s was much more inherently unstable than Europe, with few Indian states having the internal structures and strength to survive an unsuccessful war.   As for Mornington’s motives, there is no reason to doubt that he was perfectly sincere, but it was not in his nature to follow the quiet steady path laid out by Sir John Shore, and he had a great capacity for self-persuasion, so that it is unlikely that he felt any tension between the demands of ambition and the dictates of good policy.

Michael Duffy, in the Oxford History of the British Empire  vol 2 The Eighteenth Century  p 197  makes a good point:  “whether he brought any deliberate plan of Imperial expansion is debatable.  It has been suggested that the alarms he raised of French intrigue or invasion stimulating Indian revolt were simply a pretext for a nakedly expansionist policy [footnote to Ingram], but recent events in the Caribbean and Ireland had shown the frightening reality of such dangers and he looked to eliminate them while he still had the opportunity.   His initial objects were fundamentally defensive: to eradicate French influence before any French military expedition arrived to encourage rebellion against British power.”

Tipu and the French:

In February 1797, a French privateer arrived in Tipu’s port of Mangalore in poor condition.   Its commander Francois Ripaud claimed that he had been sent from Mauritius to make plans for combined operations and stated or implied that a large French armament had already arrived, or was at least expected shortly.   Tipu was delighted, for his prayers appeared to have been answered; he brushed aside the doubts of his advisers, and held lengthy discussions with Ripaud.   There were already a handful of French officers and soldiers serving as mercenaries in Mysore, and these now combined with Ripaud and his crew to establish a Jacobin club at Seringapatam whose proceedings were solemnly recorded.   The Tree of Liberty was planted and oaths were sworn in good republican fashion:

 Ripaud:  Citizens, Do you swear hatred of all kings except Tipoo Sultan the Victorious, the Ally of the French Republic, war against all tyrants and love towards your Country and that of Citizen Tipoo?

 All:        Yes, we swear to live free or die!

(Forrest Tiger of Mysore  p 248-53; quote on p 252)

We can only hope that at least some of those present could appreciate the rich comedy of the scene.

In December 1797 after months of delay and one false start, Ripaud sailed for Mauritius accompanied by two envoys from Tipu, who had strict instructions not to reveal their mission publicly or to draw attention to themselves.   However Ripaud boasted of their importance as soon as the pilot came aboard, and the Governor of Mauritius arranged a full ceremonial reception for them.   Even worse, there was no expedition ready at Mauritius and none was expected, for Ripaud was nothing more than an unscrupulous adventurer who had deceived Tipu by telling him what he wanted to hear.   But the final blow came from M. Malartic, the Governor, who made a public proclamation appealing for volunteers to assist Tipu, who, he told the world, ‘only waits for the moment when the French shall come to his assistance to declare war on the English, whom he ardently wishes to expel from India.’   This fatal appeal produced 99 volunteers, including a brigadier (Chapuy) and a naval captain (Dubuc), a number of junior officers, 36 European soldiers and 22 ‘soldiers of the second class, or half-caste’.   According to some accounts Malartic used the occasion to rid himself of all the more violent Jacobins and trouble-makers on the island, which at least provides a rational, if selfish, motive for his actions.  (Forrest Tiger of Mysore  p 253-55 (incl. both quotes);  additional details re Chapuy and Dubuc from Wilks Historical Sketches of the South of India…  vol 2  p 646.   S. P. Sen The French in India  p 552 makes Dubuc the soldier and Chapuy the sailor, but is explicitly corrected on this by Gates ‘Tipu Sultan of Mysore and the Revolutionary Governments of France, 1793-1799’ p 15.   The idea that Malartic used the occasion to rid the islands of some troublemakers was suggested at the time: Harris to Mornington  14 July 1798  in S. R. Lushington The Life and Services of General Lord Harris  p 125-9.)

Opposition to Mornington’s Policies from Madras:

There is abundant evidence for this: Lushington’s Life of Harris p 118 gives a first hand account of Webbe’s alarm and defeatism when he first learns of Mornington’s original intention to mount an immediate attack on Mysore.   The same source pp 120-22 gives Harris’s doubts and objections, clothed in a formal willingness to obey orders.   And p 150-2  quotes a letter from Mornington (to Harris, private, 16 July 1798  pp 144-154) which affects to take seriously the claims of Close and Webbe that the army couldn’t take the field for three, or even six months, even in a defensive campaign, and gently deplores that affairs should be in such a state (of course he is making fun of them).

Lushington’s Life of Harris p 136-7 gives Harris’s initial reaction to the instruction to detach the force to Hyderabad, which is to point out how difficult this will be, although in this case it is only fair to add that Harris went out of his way to overcome these problems, even advancing the required money from his own pocket (p 139) – as Mornington gracefully (if a little fulsomely) acknowledged ( p 163).

There is also plenty on this in Mornington’s letters in Two Views of British India esp. p 107 for Mornington’s indignant complaints).   And ibid  p 118-9  (Mornington to Dundas, 12 Jan. 1799) states that the opposition began to wane with the success at Hyderabad, and has now ceased completely.

The French Officers at Hyderabad and the Threat they Posed:

Mornington’s arguments cannot be accepted at face value, and talk of a French state on the banks of the Ganges was plainly exaggerated.   But that does not mean that one should go to the other extreme, and dismiss the French officers as of no significance.   By themselves they were most unlikely ever to pose a danger, nor were they likely to ally with Tipu; but it is too easy to assume that that is the end of the story.   Napoleon’s instructions of Decaen in 1802/3 show how events might have developed differently, and it is hard to condemn Mornington for eliminating the principal body of them when he could do so quickly and easily.   Indeed it might be more reasonable to condemn Sir John Shore for allowing the problem to arise.

Mornington, India and the Wider War against France:

Indian affairs were largely insulated from the fluctuations of the war with Revolutionary France.   The years 1796-1798 were among the worst of the whole war for Britain, as General Bonaparte drove the Austrians from northern Italy and forced them to make peace, leaving Britain without allies.   In February 1797 a financial crisis led to the Suspension of Cash Payments (Britain went off the gold standard and was forced to rely on paper currency), while a few months later came the naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore.   Then, in May 1798, Ireland burst into open insurrection.   Yet none of these events shook Mornington’s confidence, and he was much more alarmed by the possibility of a negotiated peace, fearing that the French would use it to re-establish their influence in India, while a reduction of armies in Europe would lead to the arrival of a flood of unemployed officers seeking their fortunes in the service of the Indian princes.  (Mornington to Dundas, 23 and 28 Feb 1798 , Two Views of British India  p 16-28, 28-43, esp 19, 40-1;  on the last point see also AW to Mornington 12 July 1797  WSD  vol 1  p 12-17 esp p 13).

To Mornington’s relief the peace talks failed.  General Bonaparte contemplated the invasion of England, but found the obstacle of the Channel too difficult and instead directed his attention towards Egypt.   On 19 May 1798 a French armada sailed from Toulon, first to Malta and then to Alexandria.  With hindsight it seems clear that Bonaparte’s principal objective was limited to the conquest of Egypt, which would be both a valuable colony in its own right, and provide a base from which the French could dominate the eastern Mediterranean if the Ottoman Empire collapsed.   It would also greatly facilitate the subversion of Britain’s Indian empire, but this was a long term goal. (A. B. Rodger The War of the Second Coalition (Oxford University Press, 1964) p 15-30 esp. 16-17;  Sen French in India  p 555-9).

However the British did not know this, and were alarmed by the scale of French preparations even before the fleet sailed.   There was some concern that part of the armament might sail direct for India via the Cape, or that Bonaparte might march overland to Suez and then embark in ships sent by Tipu to convoy it to India.  (This posed a significant danger in theory, but the practical problems of co-ordinating movements over such vast distances, and between two such different governments as republican France and Tipu’s Mysore, made it a two-o’clock-in-the-morning nightmare, rather than a serious strategic possibility). (Ingram Commitment to Empire  p 38-61, esp. 52, 59). Similarly, Dundas believed that there was a real risk that the French army would land on the Syrian coast and from thence march overland to India.   Grenville disagreed, pointing to the immense geographical and logistical obstacles to such a march, and he was surely correct, although the extraordinary success of Bonaparte’s Italian campaigns, (not to mention his future triumphs) provides some excuse for Dundas’s fears. (Ingram Commitment to Empire  p 47-49;  Ehrman The Younger Pitt  [vol 3] The Consuming Struggle  p 148 for Grenville’s view).   A naval squadron was dispatched from Britain to blockade the Red Sea, several thousand British infantry were scraped together to reinforce the army in India, and the Company was pressured into sending out an additional £1 million in bullion. (Naval squadron: Ingram Commitment to Empire  p 52-3, 293-6; troops: Fortescue  History of the British Army  vol 4  part 2  p 719-20;  bullion:  Philips East India Company  p 105-6 – although Ingram suggests a rather lower figure, op cit,  p 81, 99-100). News of Bonaparte’s expedition also combined with Malartic’s proclamation to dissolve any possible opposition in Britain to war with Tipu, and gave considerable plausibility to Mornington’s warnings of the danger posed by French officers serving in the native armies.

So long as the French remained in Egypt Britain’s position in India was under threat.  Peace would greatly increase, not diminish this danger, for it would enable the French to build and acquire large numbers of ships capable of crossing the Arabian sea, and to develop contact with Britain’s Indian enemies.   This threat was much more serious than that of an immediate overland march.  However it was also remote: the peace talks which had broken down at Lille had not been revived, and the British government had found fresh determination to carry on the war.  The Continental Powers were stirring and before the end of the year the Second Coalition had been formed.

By late 1798 Britain’s position in India was immensely strong: much stronger than most contemporaries realized.   The next few years proved that her armies were much superior to those of the Indian Princes, whether fighting in their traditional way or in regular battalions under the command of mercenary officers.  The threat posed by the French in Egypt, and by the French officers already in India, never really developed.   But this to be wise after the event, and Mornington and Dundas were not, by and large, being alarmist or hypocritical when they acted to avert dangers before they became critical.



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© Rory Muir

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