The British Empire Library

Malcolm - Soldier, Diplomat, Ideologue of British India: The Life of Sir John Malcolm (1769-1833)

by John Malcolm

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
It is rare for an author of a biography to share the same name as his subject, but in this case it is true, as John Malcolm is a distant relative. It was his work in Iran (for Royal Dutch Shell) that led him to Sir John Malcolm, for Sir John is remembered in Iran, but almost forgotten elsewhere. However it was not until his retirement that he was able to undertake the necessary research, and that took several years, and much travelling. But the result is a magnificent study, which takes its place beside the Victorian life by Sir John Kaye (2 vols., London 1856), and fills out the sketch by Sir Rodney Pasley, another kinsman, Send Malcolm.

Sir John Malcolm was the seventh child (of 17) and fourth son of George Malcolm, a poor tenant farmer in Eskdale in the Scottish Borders. Despite poverty George had very good connections, and through a neighbour obtained a nomination for John as a cadet in the Madras Army. John was only eleven, but passed the oral examination at India House, and arrived in Madras in April 1783, aged thirteen. His service in India lasted 47 years, broken only by three periods of home leave. His army service formed the basis of his later diplomatic career, for he was a natural leader, and formed close bonds with his sepoys, aided by his social skills, and his ability to talk to them in their own languages, and thus to learn about their customs. He fought in the later stages of the wars against Tipu Sultan of Mysore, during which he met Colonel Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington (who became a lifelong friend), and in the Maratha and Pindari wars of 1802-1805 and 1817-1818; he commanded a division in the decisive defeat of Holkar at Mehidpur in 1818.

Malcolm's diplomatic skills were developed in three embassies to Persia, marked by his affability, which gained the confidence of the Persian officials, and his ability to converse with them in fluent Persian. Unfortunately these embassies coincided with British Government missions led by Sir Harford Jones, and Malcolm clashed with him; little was gained for India, but Malcolm did collect materials for his magisterial History of Persia (2 vols., London 1815). Diplomacy was also demanded in 1818 when Malcolm was appointed Agent of the Governor General, Lord Hastings, to settle the relations between the petty States of Central India and the East India Company.

He achieved this by negotiating directly with the rulers, bypassing their officials; the treaties which Malcolm signed brought peace to Central India, and the experience provided the materials for his Memoir of Central India (2 vols., London 1823). Malcolm hoped that his success would be rewarded by his appointment as Governor of Bombay, but this went to his friend Mountstuart Elphinstone. The Governorship of Madras went to his friend Sir Thomas Mumo ; his proposal that Centra l India should be governed by a new Lieutenant Governor was turned down by the Court of Directors in London. Promotion to Major General, and the award of a GCB (Knight Grand Cross) did not pacify Malcolm, and so he went home on leave for five years, feeling that this was the end of his Indian career.

However, after five years of life as a country gentleman, and a fruitless search for a parliamentary seat, Malcolm did succeed Elphinstone as Governor of Bombay, but his three years there were not happy; the bureaucratic rules of the Bombay Council and Secretariat did not suit Malcolm's independent spirit, and there were two major problems. It was a time of austerity, and neither the civil service nor the army appreciated the cuts which were forced on them. The second problem was a bitter dispu te with the Supreme Court over the Court' s application of English law beyond the city's limits ; this was opposed by Malcolm, and was only settled in 1830, in Malcolm's favour, by the Privy Council. Malcolm fled from these problems by making extensive tours of outlying districts, and by spending the hot weather at Mahabaleshwar. These tours were Malcolm's last opportunity to talk directly to local people, settle minor disputes, and apply his policy of governing newly-acquired territories. This involved minimum disruption of existing institutions and authorities, and the employment of lndians (he favoured Brahmins) in senior positions. His views were shared by his predecessor, Mountstuart Elphinstone, and to some extent by Sir Thomas Munro, but ignored by later reformers.

Throughout his career Malcolm showed an infectious enthusiasm for his work, immense energy, and delight in riding and hunting; no wonder that the nickname 'Boy Malcolm' stuck to him. He made friends easily, and was intensely loyal, but was not above using his friends to advance his career. His public speaking was almost garrulous, and he tended to dominate conversations with a flood of anecdotes. For a boy whose formal education ceased at thirteen, Malcolm developed remarkable literary gifts, bombarding his superiors with voluminous Minutes, and publishing nine books. He was devoted to his immediate family, his beloved wife Charlotte and their five children, and to his numerous brothers, three of whom were knighted, and his sisters; many relatives contrived to visit Malcolm in India, or in various English homes. Despite settling in the London area, Malcolm remained true to his Scottish roots, and had many Scottish friends in the Indian services. Sir John Kaye used 'a room-full ' of Malcolm's private papers, but most had disappeared, victims of flood and fire, when John Malcolm came to write. His search for archival materials extended across the globe, and included access to significant private collections; his bibliography of printed sources is exemplary. The result is a fine work which will be the envy of many historians, and the standard study of Sir John Malcolm's life and work for years to come.

British Empire Book
John Malcolm
First Published
John Donald
Review Originally Published
Spring 2015 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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