Lord William Bentinck: A Historical Argument

Recently I have devoted a rather large amount of time to the study of Lord William Bentinck, whose career in diplomatic and military service during the Napoleonic Wars and afterwards was both dramatic and in many ways emblematic. He was a man who in some ways personified British imperialism; yet he also managed to transcend it – and some of his personal views and policies differed dramatically from what was considered orthodox in British governing circles at the time.

After some time engaged in soldiering (and a fairly unsuccessful term as Governor of Madras, which ended with ignominy and his recall) Bentinck was posted to Sicily, where he operated as commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean and assumed greater power within the Sicilian system, eventually becoming a kind of de facto dictator; finally, at the end of a long life, he attained the position of Governor-General of India, where his rule was widely considered wise, judicious and pragmatic. (This interpretation is certainly disputed, but the contrast remains, and it represents an interesting personification of a dichotomy to be found in British rule at that time: what Bentinck called ‘the bad British empire’ could give way to the good, or it could smother it.)

The major sources I have used in this endeavour – aside from Bentinck’s personal papers, which are plentiful and easily available in the Manuscripts and Special Collections archive at Nottingham University – have been two books by the late historian John Rosselli (Lord William Bentinck & the British Occupation of Sicily, 1811-1814, and Lord William Bentinck: The Making of a Liberal Imperialist, 1774-1839).

What I found when I examined Bentinck’s career was a sense of disconnect: initially earnest but inexperienced, Bentinck was forced into using extreme measures to protect and extend ‘political liberty’ as he saw it in Sicily; in India, however, his time in office has been seen by many historians to have been more effective, more consequential, and ultimately even more noble.

I owe a great deal of thanks to Dr David Laven, who gave me the opportunity to assist him with his research into Bentinck and whose willingness to discuss Bentinck’s character, achievements and rightful historical place gave me a real sense of perspective when engaging with this debate. He and I have come to different but not entirely irreconcilable positions on the man; in many ways this historical argument is one of great interest and real value, with the subject in question being nothing less than the way the British Empire and its servants are perceived in moral terms.

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C. H. Philips writes, in his introduction to an edited edition of Bentinck’s correspondence, that his subject’s ‘own contributions in trying to define the right direction and lines of social and economic policy and to improve race relations were positive, distinctive, and formative’. One area where Bentinck exhibited views which seem ahead of their time was that of race relations.

Bentinck wrote the following on matters racial:

The exclusion of the natives from a participation in the government, which I so condemn, was, I perfectly well know, most honestly determined by a belief in the utter worthlessness of the native character and of their unfitness for all charges of trust. Happily this prejudice is giving way rapidly to more liberal and enlightened principles on the part of the younger part of the service.

This sentiment is forward-looking – as can be seen with its optimistic invocation of ‘the younger part of the service’ – and noticeably more liberal in outlook than some of what Bentinck had said in Sicily. There, he not only dismissed Sicilian politicians and institutions – forcing the king, Ferdinand, to give up power and urging the queen, Maria Carolina, into exile – but also expressed largely derogatory opinions of Sicilians themselves. His correspondence with British officials and contemporaries is not exactly littered with insults directed at the Sicilian people, but he did think them unwilling or unsuited to operate in the way he deemed politically necessary.

What Dr Laven and I disagree about here is whether these were the thoughts of a man who had Sicily’s best interests (or what he perceived them to be) at his heart, or whether his perspective was not as noble or as rose-tinted as could be suggested. I largely fall into the former camp, with Dr Laven taking the other view. When we discussed it last month, a fundamental point of interest was the way Bentinck treated Sicilians in positions of power.

His decision to exile Maria Carolina was one which shocked even famously flinty British officials. Lord Castlereagh in particular thought it, along with his support of Sicily’s doomed ‘English constitution’, demonstrated that Bentinck had gone ‘Whig-mad’. In addition, an assessment of the correspondence of the Sicilian court at the time, much of which was stolen and reproduced in Bentinck’s papers, gives a fundamental justification for the distrust with which the queen was said to view the British: they were, after all, covertly opening her letters. (There is good reason to argue, as Dr Laven has done in a recent paper, that historians have been unfair to Maria Carolina, but it cannot be forgotten that the British did not act entirely out of a desire to be brutal; though their perceptions may have been wrong or magnified by misogyny, these were their perceptions – and they could do little else except act on them.)

At the same time, it must be said, Bentinck spoke with real zeal about ‘political liberty’. After initially treating the constitutionalists with cordial distance he took up their cause; and when they fell from office and influence it hurt him and shook his resolve. Similarly, a sojourn to the countryside, in which he observed classical ruins and developed a more romantic view of Sicily’s history, proved to be something of a turning point for Bentinck; he wanted to help the people he met – and he thought them worthy of his help. This is not, I would argue, the work of a man who held Sicilians in contempt; and despite the slightly uncomfortable talk of national characteristics and archetypes – and the cruel treatment by the British of the queen – Bentinck was unhappy to leave Sicily when he did, and the crushing of Sicilian liberty and later Italian national sentiment was something he challenged in Parliament after Napoleon’s abdication.

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In India things were different. Most obviously, the exigencies of continental war no longer strained British resources and forced its government to make difficult and uncomfortable decisions; the nature of India’s position at the time undoubtedly assisted Bentinck in shaping the nature of British rule. It was not a time of war, of relentless expansion; and it was not Bentinck’s role to fight outsiders or to resist mutiny. Instead, he was free, in Philips’ words, ‘to face squarely the question of how far and when the British should embrace a deliberate policy of modernizing and westernizing Indian society’. This modernisation took the form of infrastructure projects – Bentinck saw himself as a ‘chief agent’ to the ‘great estate’ of India – and a slow but certain attempt to bring the isolated British elite into contact with Indians, and what Indians most wanted out of British rule. Bentinck’s great idea was to ‘found British greatness on Indian happiness’.

Yet in this Bentinck was, though not unique, isolated; pace Philips, ‘[u]nfortunately, his just and humane attitudes towards Indians and their potential role in the new India did not gain general acceptance among British ruling groups either in India or Britain’. This could to some extent be seen to confirm Bentinck’s more pessimistic opinions of the ‘bad’ British Empire failing its Indian subjects.

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Bentinck himself attracts different assessments, which Philips elucidates well. For some Indians he is viewed as an essential and largely benign figure whose place in history resides in tales of the modernisation of their country: ‘[h]is reputation, especially in Bengal, where his memory is kept green, is that of a great governor-general, an original thinker and far-sighted social reformer, and a considerable man of affairs with solid contributions as a ruler to his credit’. Following that, Philips glosses Rosselli’s work on Bentinck in Sicily:

On the other hand, a detailed research study by Dr. John Rosselli on a relatively short period of Bentinck’s career between 1811 and 1814, when he was Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean and virtual governor of Sicily, has presented a very different picture of a politically rash, often short-sighted ruler, sometimes impractical, and apparently possessing few of the qualities for which elsewhere he has been so highly praised.

In addition, Philips writes that his time in Sicily

was a situation demanding of great skill and a cool head, but Bentinck soon proceeded to set his masters, the allied governments, by the ears with one plan after another for the establishment of popular governments in Sicily and among the states of Italy.

In addition, Philips writes – with regard to his surprisingly unorthodox interventions against the suborning of Sicily by the restored King of Napes and the crushing  of Italy by Austria – in 1815 he was ‘one of the first men of high rank to profess ultra-radical opinions’. ‘Ultra-radical’ aside, it seems clear that Bentinck was in a way a pioneer. But the assessment of Bentinck’s time in Sicily in such a negative light can, of course, be met with a challenge of its own.

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Furthermore, according to Philips, the nature of his decision-making was impeded by Bentinck’s own personality:

Bentinck in the first phase of his career … emerged in public life as a man of great energy and forthrightness, yet he was impulsive to the point of rashness and, generally lacking in political insight and the art of the possible.

These personality issues were only exacerbated by the nature of the written evidence which has survived Bentinck’s period in the Mediterranean: ‘[h]is [private writings] seem deliberately or perhaps unconsciously to avoid self-analysis and reveal little of his motivations, his hopes and fears’. In my conversations with Dr Laven, a similar theme has arisen; Bentinck in Sicily can be seen to exhibit the worst of imperial arrogance, a kind of paternal attitude which subordinates the hopes and aspirations of entire nations beneath the needs and wants of the great power. (Although it can also be said that Bentinck, in common with many government functionaries the world over, was simply doing his job in a way which was expected, and that this does not typify British imperial policy as arrogant and aloof.)

In India Bentinck’s personal coldness did not help his standing with the East India Company’s workers; in his immediate institution of cost-cutting measures, which were sufficiently severe to earn him (whose family had come over to England with the future William III) the mocking sobriquet ‘the Clipping Dutchman’, Bentinck ‘[b]y his hasty action had conjured up an image of himself as a governor-general under strict orders from London, who in the most clumsy and unsympathetic way was bent on economy at all costs’.

This clumsiness – or the perception of it – is something which can also be read into Bentinck’s time in Sicily, where he had to act rapidly and sometimes opportunistically to prevent the king from marching into Palermo and reclaiming the power he had disclaimed.

Regardless of the view taken of his Sicilian service, it can be stated with some confidence that Bentinck’s was a cooler head during his time as governor-general. As regards the possibility of a catastrophic Russian invasion of British India, he repeatedly avowed that ‘[i]n my time the storm will not gather’. He was proven right in that regard, and it is to his credit.

In the final reckoning, Philips’ judgement of Bentinck’s uniqueness deserves serious consideration; it seems clear that Bentinck was a man of contradictions, whose private nature often exhibited traits which were not reflected in his public actions; and the differences in how he acted as he aged and grew more experienced – between Sicily and his second term in India – exacerbate this trend. It is not lightly that Philips writes that ‘Bentinck in his day was the man who did the greatest honour to Europe in Asia’. Perhaps this conclusion is reached with some justification.

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