Napoleon Series Archive 2016

Mountstuart Elphinstone in India, 1796-1818

Mountstuart Elphinstone in India, 1796-1818
Tinker, Elizabeth Hansen

In 1801, at the beginning of his career as a political agent, Mountstuart Elphinstone and a friend were approached by an Indian fakir at the great Hindu shrine of the Juggernaut; the fakir asked “'When will you take this country?' We answered 'Never!' He said 'Yes; you will certainly take it.'" The incident illustrates the basic reluctance of the British to "take" India, a reluctance which in retrospect seems rather surprising.

For the expansion of the highly organised power of the British at the expense of their weaker and less stable neighbours appears now as an almost inevitable process, which, having gathered momentum, continued irresistibly, impelled by its own dynamics. By 1818 the fakir's prophecy had come true; the British had conquered India “in spite of the most peremptory injunctions of forebearance from home”. Official policy, laid down in Pitt's 1784 India Act, abjured expansionist ambitions as "repugnant to the wish, the honour and policy of this nation.”

The Court of Directors of the East India Company, wishing to avoid the expenses of war and the responsibilities of rule, issued repeated instructions against the acquisition of territory, which it regarded as incompatible with its role as a trading company. The Company had, of course, originally established factories and settlements in India for commercial reasons yet the causes of its expansion into the subcontinent between 1796, when Elphinstone arrived in India, and 1818, when the last independent indigenous power was defeated, were not primarily economic.

'The most important motives were political and diplomatic and were related to general strategy and the defence of existing possessions. The Company had to decide whether it was to be a merchant or a ruler. Lord Wellesley, believing trade depended on security, opted for the latter. The problem of Britain's security in India was related both to the nation's role as a European and world power and to its position as an Indian power. The emphasis placed upon European rivalries in directing British expansion in Africa can also be applied to the Indian scene in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In both cases the acquisition of areas, valuable for neither trade nor settlement, can be explained in terms of global strategy, international politics and the irrational fears by which they are sometimes governed.