Lord William Bentinck and Utilitarianism

A common theme – or at least an oft-repeated one among some scholars – when discussing elements of British imperialism in India in the 19th century is that of the philosophy of Utilitarianism and its supposed influence on government policy and the men who made it.

Since Lord William Bentinck held office at that time, it is no surprise that he should be associated in some way with these ideas and this school of historical thought. It is rather frequently suggested that he was influenced by Utilitarian notions and the ideas of its founder, Jeremy Bentham.

One thing is for sure: Bentinck did express opinions which were considered liberal – perhaps even ‘radical’ – by many of his age. He was not a political conformist, and much of what he wrote and said about the need to protect ‘political liberty’ in countries like Italy and India seems decidedly ahead of its time.

In a similar way, the supporters of Bentham were perceived to be radical, too. They had ideas which were disdained by many or simply ignored; some of them were written off as amusing eccentrics, or boring obsessives, or even dangerous radicals. Theirs was not a big social circle; and though the influence of Bentham (and, of course, some of his acolytes) has been great, during their lifetimes this was not certain. After all, history remains unwritten – at least in many cases – until after the lives of its subjects have ended; and it would take clairvoyant skill to predict the scope and scale of post-mortem influence and esteem.

The debate over whether Bentinck subscribed to the tenets of Jeremy Bentham’s philosophical radicalism is an interesting one, and the notion that he did is something which has been repeated. The historians Bart Schultz and Georgios Varouxakis, in their book Utilitarianism and Empire, write of a scene which has been afforded a great deal of ex post facto significance.

Stokes relates an anecdote about Lord William Bentinck, who in 1827 had just been appointed governor-general of India. As James Mill delightedly reported to Bentham, Bentinck had told him at a farewell dinner, ‘I am going to British India; but I shall not be Governor-General. It is you that will be Governor-General.’

This story seems to have a definitive statement of intent; and it seems also to contain a real declaration of influence. Its usefulness lies in its directness, and in that alone it is almost too good to be true. While there is little use in debating the validity of the story, what can be certain is that Bentinck, despite possessing little in the way of tact and much familial prickliness, would have wanted to speak graciously; even a gruff old solider such as he occasionally spoke a little too grandly. In this case it seems reasonable to suggest that the above declaration was nothing more than politesse, gleefully seized upon as evidence of influence by a man who ought to know better.

In addition, as John Rosselli, author of Lord William Bentinck: The Making of a Liberal Imperialist, points out, one could have subscribed to general principles shared by the Benthamites without being one of them; these positions can be viewed ‘as part of a general movement of which the Benthamites were – at times eccentric – outriders’.

And even that is to an extent suspect; Bentinck was not – as evidenced by his lack of social graces – a clubbable man. He did not have much of a circle; naturally, therefore, he was not very close to new ideas in politics and philosophy and the social circles these things bred. (Though it must not be argued that he was an ignorant man, as he was well-read and reasonably educated, his apparent lack of intellectual refinement has occasionally been used to argue that he was a vessel through which the Benthamites sold their ideas to an initially unwilling governing class. Considering the aforementioned, this seems rather unlikely.)

According to Rosselli, any idea that Bentinck was influenced in any substantive way by the philosophy of Bentham is based on decidedly suspect testimony: ‘What is clear is that [Bentinck] was not a Benthamite in the narrow sense’. In addition, it seems that whatever existed in the way of connections between Bentinck and the Utilitarians was subsequently given greater weight than was warranted. Rosselli again:

His links with the inner group were tenuous; they were exaggerated by a hopeful old man (Bentham himself) and, much later, by a somewhat snobbish old woman with an inexact memory (Mrs Grote).

The wishful thinking of Mill and Bentham has become almost axiomatic. Bentinck, many say, was a Utilitarian, a keen student of the two of them; and these supposed beliefs are then read into his later actions. Uday Singh Mehta, for example, writes that Bentinck was ‘a self-avowed follower of Mill’, which does not seem right; and he also repeats the story of how Bentinck, as governor-general, apparently ‘went so far as to consider demolishing the Taj Mahal for the sake of its marble’ as part of his ‘disparagement of India’s historical legacy’, which seems also to be incorrect on both counts. (Bentinck in fact had great respect for India’s Mughal past; and, in addition, he never considered demolishing the Taj Mahal.)

In something of a final word on the subject, Rosselli surmises that ‘[i]t is by no means … clear that he had absorbed much of the specific Utilitarian doctrine’. And even if he had, there is very little evidence – aside, that is, for his broadly liberal approach to governing India in general – that he even gave that doctrine much thought.

In broader society, Utilitarians – the eccentric outriders – had something rather comic about them. They were odd; they believed strange things; and their demeanour was less than usual in many ways. Despite Bentinck’s aversion to fashion – in both the sartorial and social senses – he was not one to go for any set of ideas in spite (or even because) of their marginal or unpopular nature. Indeed, Bentinck’s ‘only recorded use of [the term ‘Utilitarian’] was as a joke’, as Rosselli has it.

Furthermore, ‘[t]he term was in the air; the doctrine had some general influence; knowledgeable disciples were few’. It barely needs mentioning that even possessing knowledge of what the Utilitarians wanted meant little in terms of actually believing the stuff – still less when deciding whether actually to implement it as a matter of policy. At one point it seems Mill approached Bentinck with ideas concerning the promise of a ‘Panopticon’, the notion of a prison where all inmates could be under constant observation, which was designed and championed by Bentham. Regardless of whether this information was received – gratefully or not – no such prisons were built in India, by Bentinck or any subsequent British governor-general.

In a similar vein, it is known that Bentham himself attempted to open up some kind of correspondence with Bentinck while he was in his post; the idea, one imagines, was to influence him intellectually and steer his thinking – and the subsequent direction of policy – in a direction more amenable to the Utilitarians. But the records of such a correspondence – if it ever occurred at all – simply do not exist. And it can be safely assumed that if some interchange of ideas did take place, and if it was consequential, it would have been preserved or in some way commemorated. As things stand it was not; and from that one can only deduce that what happened was of little consequence.

In summing up on the subject of his subject’s beliefs and influences, and with reference to Bentinck’s position at the beginning of his second Indian term, Rosselli writes that:

He went to Indian for the second time as an Evangelical Liberal of moderate political convictions, of radical temper, and of unusually wide sympathies for the son of a duke, determined to wipe out the trauma of his recall twenty years earlier, and to do good.

Amid this jostle of competing ideas, notions, interests and personal beliefs, the Utilitarianism of Mill and Bentham does not appear. This does not mean that Bentinck was not a reformer, or one who wanted to improve the material conditions of the territories he governed; and it does not mean that he did not possess and attempt to implement elevated ideas which were seen as somewhat unconventional in his own time. But it seems that among all of his personal views and the complexities which determined his individual motivations – his very perspective, in other words – the tell-tale signs of Benthamite influence are absent. He governed as himself; what Mill said did not come about.

What this means can be summarised rather succinctly: just because a fair few historians assert something as fact, this does not mean it is necessarily true; and furthermore, one cannot take for granted – and indeed construct entire historical narratives on the basis of – some excitable words shared at a party between two historically significant men. Sometimes what is said may be rather less vital – and rather less consequential – than could be suggested in retrospect.