Lord William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck was the archetypal second son, being born at Burlington House on September 14, 1774, into that condition, the child of the third Duke of Portland. The family was noble but not rich, and Bentinck was effectively aware of this situation all his life.
Though the Bentinck family – which formed an effective alliance with the Cavendish clan through the marriage of William Bentinck, Duke of Portland, and Lady Dorothy, the daughter of William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire – had status, it was not entirely secure in its Englishness; and it was certainly not sure of its Britishness, regardless of how one defined such a term.
Within the first few pages of Demetrius Charles Boulger’s book Lord William Bentinck, a biography of the man for the ‘Rulers of India’ series published by Oxford University Press, the reader is assured that ‘[t]he family of Bentinck, which has occupied in English politics and society a prominent and honourable position during the last two centuries, ranks among the noblest in the Netherlands’. This Dutch connection – and the relative recency of the family’s arrival – created some frisson in the small but influential social scene in which the family moved: the Bentincks themselves were no doubt aware of it, and many of the man’s later opponents made use of his family history to characterise him as ‘the Clipping Dutchman’, a comic foreigner bent on economy whose memory has not been entirely extinguished in military and diplomatic circles.
These circles – and their effect on the young man – were well described by John Rosselli, who wrote that the Duke of Portland’s son
was a Bentinck; a younger son; a member of the Whig aristocracy; born of a Prime Minister and party leader; in a personal and ideological crisis brought on by the French Revolution, a Portland Whig and ultimate follower of the younger Pitt; afterwards related, through his brother, to Canning, and through his wife to militant Evangelicals; involved, through his family, with the concerns of Nottinghamshire, and later, through his own activity, with those of the Fens and of Glasgow; increasingly identified, as time went on, with Evangelicals and other Westernising reformers in the East India Company; in his many sojourns on the post-Napoleonic Continent a member of the international liberal aristocracy of which his great friend King Louis-Philippe was for a time the exemplar.
These myriad connections in many ways defined Bentinck’s life; he was not a visionary, and thus his associations in many ways serve to exemplify the measure of the man. Many of his allies and friends were not inherited, however; they were in fact consciously selected and chosen, which gives the lie to the idea of Bentinck as a passive actor in this regard. These connections were hardly inauspicious, but in other ways his social life, with that of his family, proved a limiting factor, too – not least in political terms. Yet Bentinck rose, like his father, who was Prime Minister, to high office, and held the supreme position in the ruling of India as governor-general. In many ways this latter status presents a stark contrast to certain aspects of Bentinck’s early life.
Contrary to this strangely mixed upbringing – a concoction of high class birth and foreign status, of nobility and relative financial hardship – in some imperial and official circles Bentinck’s posthumous reputation has been notably positive. The first sentence of Boulger’s biography, after all, relates the fact that, in his words, ‘[t]he administration of Lord William Bentinck was one of peace’.
Rosselli writes of the status which Bentinck had acquired by the end of his life:
At his death Bentinck was remembered chiefly as Governor-General of India. His tenure was known to have marked important reforms: he had abolished widows’ self-immolation, begun to suppress the religiously dedicated murderers called Thags, brought forward Indians in the administration, and virtually freed the Indian press.
But this perception was not universally shared; and nor was a similar positivity embodied in other views of the man. Many others, perhaps those with vested interests, or other ideas as to how aspects of colonial life ought to be administrated, were considerably more critical of the man whose tenure was considered, as we have seen, to be uncommonly peaceful – though peacefulness is not the same as placidity, or even a peaceable ambiance.
‘At the same time’, Rosselli writes, ‘he had made himself deeply unpopular with British civil servants and officers in India by an economy drive which cut their allowances’. As has been mentioned above, many of those who took exception to this ‘nicknamed him – whose family had come over to England in 1688 with William of Orange – “the Clipping Dutchman”’; furthermore, pace Rosselli, ‘they openly wished he would drown in the Ganges or break his neck in the mountains.’ And, as if to cap these insults, ‘In the folk memory of the British services traces of the “clipping” with its attendant bitterness survived down to the Second World War’.
Therefore, in the press, a curious double standard developed.
The obituaries in the Calcutta press – written and read for the most part by Englishmen – uneasily mirrored this dual reputation. One the one hand the newspapers felt the need to apologise for Bentinck’s ‘failings’ – chiefly his zeal in putting through the economy drive; on the other hand the missionary papers praised him for having given Indians ‘the sense that their country was still their own, and their rulers were likewise their stewards’.
The same quotation goes on to read (though Rosselli does not quote this part of the obituary notice) that these stewards were those ‘who recognized their obligations to administer affairs for the general good, and not merely for the corporate or individual interests of Englishmen’.
Rosselli once again takes up the narrative to describe how ‘[i]n this interpretation the main themes of his career are two’. Bentinck’s life was the story of how ‘An able, energetic, not particularly intellectual man of high birth but no fortune grows from a youthful passion for ideological war against France of the Revolution and Napoleon to a liberalism advanced for his time and class’. And it could also be seen as the tale of how ‘[a] man who has fastened early on the idea of the nation united and independent tries to apply it, first in Italy, then in India, each time within a version of Britain as “imperial benefactor”’.
This, Rosselli continues, represents ‘the making of an early Liberal Imperialist’. It was this particular combination which makes Bentinck so interesting and so unique, but also so remarkably reflective of several currents of thought within his age. That he took things sufficiently seriously – for instance, the example of national identity and the status of nationhood – to put them into practice, with a soldier’s capacity to be a man of action, marks him out from many others. As the very fact of Boulger’s biography attests, Bentinck did hold power; and he did rise both to office and to these occasions.
Returning to the personal and the foundational, it can be seen that Bentinck, like his father, Portland, demonstrated ‘a great deal of irritable shyness’. This trait made him awkward in social situations, lacking the easy charm of many in the political milieu in which he moved, as well as the apparent appeal of some, for example the Prince of Belmonte in Sicily, who perhaps had less acumen than their skill with words would suggest. Despite this shyness, and his apparent status, it could be argued that Bentinck was not an archetypal second son after all: in his description of the family Bentinck, Rosselli writes of how ‘William, the second son, came – it appears – to play a role in which families often cast the eldest: the exemplary child, who does well, behaves well, feels responsible, and is consulted’.
Never going to university (a fact which, one can speculate, he regretted), Bentinck’s formative experiences of life found two sources: school and the army, which was to be the one constant in his later employment and life’s work. Of his schooling, it is enough write that it was conventional for someone of his background and era. His early military service – something a little less ordinary – took place in Ireland and the Low Countries, and throughout all this the background was one of war with Revolutionary France, which underwent its fateful embrace of republicanism when he was in his middle teenage years; later this enemy was to transmogrify into the Napoleonic foe Bentinck’s energies were to be so taken up with combating.
After a fairly ordinary time of things growing up, at least as far as one could generalise for someone of his class – at home, in school, and in his early military service in Ireland and the Low Countries – Bentinck’s ‘next task was unusual’. He was given an early opportunity to see the world and exercise his burgeoning diplomatic skills. Bentinck was sent to northern Italy to act as a liaison to the Austro-Russian forces fighting the French in 1799. One cannot express too much about how historical figures simply ‘must have felt’ (as, after all, one can simply never know), but one can assume that Bentinck, despite his relative youth, was fairly experienced for his age. His mother had died in 1794; his father’s political career appeared precarious and became fundamentally unstable at the same time; and he had already seen service both in the British Isles and elsewhere.
After this particular adventure, Bentinck travelled further, joining Sir Ralph Abercromby’s expedition to Egypt in 1801. What is perhaps more interesting than the details of this campaign – which eventually, through land and sea battles (the latter featuring, in 1798, Horatio Nelson’s victory at Aboukir Bay), defeated the French expeditionary force – is the nature of Bentinck’s reaction to the wider world which this expedition give him an opportunity to explore. Travelling back through the Ottoman Empire, Rosselli writes that Bentinck was ‘deeply impressed with the civil effects of despotism’, with the man himself writing of witnessing ‘no law, so no order, much oppression, and much poverty’.
Again, it is folly to speculate as to the exact effect such things had on the young man; but if they had any effect at all, it is likely that Bentinck would have picked up some instinctive distrust of dictatorship (something which can be observed in his dislike of the arbitrary rule of Ferdinand IV in Sicily, but a practice Bentinck effectively took into his own hands by the end of his posting in that country). It is not likely that his travels did not stimulate some intellectual response in the young soldier. According to Rosselli, ‘So far as a soldier is likely to be an intellectual he was one’.
In British politics things were also hardly quiet. Bentinck – and his father, Portland – found himself allied with Pitt, Canning and Burke, and opposed to Charles James Fox and his faction. This alliance ‘meant eagerness to carry on the ideological war to the end’. The fact that the conflict with France can be described in these terms means that to Bentinck it was not a conflict to be persecuted with anything less than utter seriousness. In him, as in Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, one can detect an instinctive hostility to the upstart Corsican which Napoleon was popularly perceived to be. Indeed, like Wellesley, Bentinck wrote Napoleon’s last name with an especially Corsican ‘u’ – ‘Buonaparte’ is a frequent presence in his letters and diaries from Sicily.
This political interest was not idle; and it was not simply the inevitable result of family connections and nature of such people taking positions. Bentinck was an active participant in Britain’s Parliamentary democracy, and was to remain a frequent Member of Parliament (if not a particularly active one) for most of his adult life.
Bentinck was first elected to the House of Commons – thanks largely, it must not be forgotten, to family interests – in March-May 1796 as the ‘ephemeral member for the rotten borough of Camelford’. His political alliance with Pitt and his faction, who were out of office at that time, later helped Bentinck to acquire the governorship of Madras in 1802.
This was to be his first test as an administrator; and it was also to be the first test of his precociously acquired and somewhat precarious principles. The result was, at the end of his term, a less than perfect one.