Canning, Charles John (DNB00)
|←Cannera||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 08
Canning, Charles John
CANNING, CHARLES JOHN, Earl Canning (1812–1862), governor-general of India, was the third son of the celebrated statesman, George Canning [q. v.] He was born on 14 Dec. 1812, at Gloucester Lodge, an Italian villa, at one time the property of the Duchess of Gloucester, situated in what was then an almost rural tract between Brompton and Kensington. His education was commenced at a private school at Putney, and continued at Eton, which he left at the end of 1827, carrying away with him ‘a reputation rather for intelligence, accuracy, and painstaking, than for refined scholarship or any remarkable powers of composition.’ After spending nearly a year under private tuition in the house of the Rev. John Shore, of Potton in Bedfordshire, where he contracted a lasting friendship with the third Lord Harris, one of his fellow-pupils, and afterwards governor of Madras, he entered Christ Church, Oxford, in December 1828. At Oxford he was the contemporary of Gladstone, Dalhousie, and Elgin. In 1832 he took his degree with a first class in classics and a second in mathematics. In 1835 he married the Honourable Charlotte Stuart, eldest daughter and coheiress of Lord Stuart de Rothesay, and in 1836 entered parliament as member for Warwick. In 1837, both his elder brothers having died some years previously, he succeeded, on the death of his mother, to the peerage, which had been created in her favour after her husband's death, and became Viscount Canning of Kilbrahan in the county of Kilkenny. On the formation of Sir Robert Peel's government in 1841, he was appointed under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, and held that office for nearly five years, becoming chief commissioner for woods and forests shortly before the downfall of Peel's government in 1846. He continued to be a follower of Peel during the remainder of that statesman's life, and, adhering, after Peel's death, to the Peelite party, he declined an offer of the post of foreign secretary which was made to him by Lord Derby on the occasion of the latter being invited to form an administration, when Lord Russell's cabinet resigned office in February 1852. In 1853 he joined Lord Aberdeen's cabinet as postmaster-general, holding the same office for a short time under Lord Palmerston, by whom he was selected in 1855 to succeed Lord Dalhousie as governor-general of India. In his management of the postal department, Canning established a reputation for administrative ability, evincing in a marked degree some of the qualities which distinguished him in his after career. The unremitting industry, the habit of careful inquiry into facts, and the caution, sometimes perhaps carried to excess, which were exhibited by the governor-general during the terrible events of the Indian mutiny, all characterised his performance of the far less responsible duties which devolved upon the postmaster-general. He introduced several beneficial changes in the organisation of the department, establishing, among other reforms, the practice of annually submitting to parliament a report of the work achieved by the post office. Sir Rowland Hill, whose appointment as sole secretary to the post office in 1854 was made on the advice of Canning, described the period during which he served under him as ‘the most satisfactory period of his whole official career, that in which the course of improvement was steadiest, most rapid, and least chequered.’
Canning assumed the government of India on the last day of February 1856, having visited en route Bombay and Madras, at the latter of which places he spent some days with his old friend and fellow-student, Lord Harris, who was then governor of Madras. India at that time was at peace. During Lord Dalhousie's government large additions had been made to British territory; the Punjáb, Pegu, Nágpur, Satára, Jhánsi, and Oudh had been annexed; the Berár territories of the Nizam of the Dekhan had been placed under British administration; the mediatised courts of Arcot and Tanjore had ceased to exist; and the recognition of the grandson of the king of Delhi, then an elderly man, as the future successor of the latter, had been granted, subject, among other stipulations, to the condition that he should as king ‘receive the governor-general at all times on terms of perfect equality.’ By the recent annexations of territory four millions sterling had been added to the revenues of British India. Great progress, both moral and material, had been made in the various branches of the administration. In an elaborate minute recorded by the retiring governor-general on the eve of his departure, emphatic stress was laid on the prosperous and peaceful condition of affairs, qualified only by the remark that ‘no prudent man, who has any knowledge of eastern affairs, would ever venture to predict the maintenance of continued peace within our eastern possessions.’ Canning was not less desirous than the majority of his predecessors for a peaceful administration. In his speech at the banquet given by the court of directors in his honour before his departure from England, he gave expression to his desire for a peaceful time of office, and to his recognition of ‘the large arena of peaceful usefulness’ which lay before him; adding, however, with prophetic apprehension, that he could not forget that ‘in our Indian empire that greatest of all blessings depends upon a greater variety of chances and a more precarious tenure than in any other quarter of the globe,’ and that ‘in the sky of India, serene as it is, a small cloud may arise, at first no bigger than a man's hand, but which, growing larger and larger, may at last threaten to burst and overwhelm us with ruin.’ He had not been long at Calcutta when it became apparent that a war was impending, which, though not affecting Indian territory, nor the actual frontier of India, would involve the employment of a portion of the Indian army. Persia, in defiance of an existing treaty, had taken Herat, and, negotiations failing to bring about the evacuation of the place by the Persian forces, the English government in the autumn of 1856 declared war against the shah. The arrangements for the expedition, which was carried to a successful issue early in 1857, under the command of Sir James Outram, were made by Canning, and occupied a good deal of his attention in the latter part of his first year of office. Closely connected with this matter was the question of subsidising the amir of Cabul, and enabling him by grants of money and arms to aid in driving the Persians from Herat. This policy, urged by Herbert Edwardes, was adopted by Canning, at first with some reluctance, but afterwards with a conviction of its wisdom. He showed this conviction by cordial acknowledgments to Edwardes.
Another very difficult question, handed down to Canning by his predecessor, with which he was called upon to deal very shortly after his arrival, was that of an alteration of the conditions of service upon which the sepoys in the native army of Bengal were enlisted—a change which involved the obligation of service beyond the sea. In deciding upon this military reform, which had been pressed upon the attention of the government by the difficulty of providing British Burma with a sufficient force of native troops, but which has since been regarded as one of the causes of the mutiny of 1857, Canning was supported by the commander-in-chief and by his other constituted advisers. His own view on the subject, as stated in his letters to the president of the board of control, was that the system of enlistment for limited service, which had never been adopted in Madras or Bombay, ought not to have been tolerated so long in Bengal; and although there were some persons who were apprehensive of ‘risk in meddling with the fundamental conditions upon which the bargain between the army and the government has hitherto rested,’ there was no real cause for fear on this ground. His only apprehension had been—and that he said had vanished—that ‘the sepoys already enlisted on the old terms might suspect that the change was a first step towards breaking faith with them, and that on the first necessity they might be compelled to cross the sea;’ but there had been ‘no sign of any such false alarm on their part.’
The administration of the recently annexed province of Oudh, which had fallen into incompetent hands, occasioned much anxiety to Canning at that time. The difficulty was met by the supersession of the officiating chief commissioner, and by the transfer to that post of Sir Henry Lawrence, then in charge of our relations with the native states in Rajputána. During this first year of his government, the amount of work which pressed upon Canning was very great; for, while he had to deal with several new and difficult questions of the nature of those just referred to, he had also, like all newly appointed governors-general, to wade through heavy masses of previous correspondence bearing upon the innumerable matters which called for decision. At that time the duty of initiating orders in the business of all the departments devolved upon the governor-general. It was not until a later period, when the work was enormously increased by the events of the mutiny, that Canning, at the instance of Sir Henry Ricketts, introduced the quasi-cabinet arrangement, under which each member of council takes charge of a department, disposing of all details, and only referring to the governor-general matters of real importance, and questions involving principles or the adoption of a new policy.
It would be foreign to the scope of this brief memoir to enter upon any detailed review of the causes or of the incidents of the appalling catastrophe, the mutiny of the Bengal army, which strained to the utmost the energies and resources of the government of India during the second and third years of Canning's administration. Whether the issue of the greased cartridges was the chief cause of the discontent, or panic, or whatever the sentiment may be called, which clearly existed (and this was Lord Lawrence's view), or whether, as was held by many persons well qualified to form an opinion, the mutiny originated in a number of concurrent causes, which are summed up in a single sentence in Sir John Kaye's preface to his ‘History of the Sepoy War:’ ‘Because we were too English the crisis arose,’ to which he added, ‘it was only because we were English that when it arose it did not utterly overwhelm us’—these are questions upon which difference of opinion will always exist. The first open indication of the approaching catastrophe was given in February 1857 by the 19th Bengal native infantry at Berhampore refusing to receive the new cartridges. Previous to and subsequent to this affair, reports were received of a mysterious circulation of ‘chupatties,’ small cakes of unleavened meal, which were passed from village to village in the north-western provinces, and of lotus flowers sent from regiment to regiment. There were also numerous acts of incendiarism in the military cantonments. On 29 March the first act of violence took place, when a sepoy of the 34th regiment at Barrackpur, in a state of intoxication, attacked and wounded the adjutant of the regiment, many hundred men of the regiment looking on quietly, while a native officer refused to take the assailant into custody, and forbade his men to render any assistance to the English officer, who narrowly escaped with his life. The extent of the native disaffection was not seen, however, until 10 May, when the mutiny at Meerut, accompanied by the murder of several English officers and other English men and women, followed the next day by the rising of the native troops and massacre of Europeans at Delhi, and in the course of a few weeks by the rising of nearly the whole of the Bengal army, by the rebellion in Oudh, by the massacre at Cawnpore, and by the murder of Europeans at many other places in the Bengal presidency and in Central India, showed that British rule in India was confronted by the gravest peril to which it had been exposed since the days of Clive. Canning was much blamed, especially by the English residents of Calcutta, for having failed in the first instance to realise the gravity of the crisis. His refusal at an early period of the mutiny to take advantage of an offer which was made by the English at Calcutta to form a regiment of volunteers, an offer which he afterwards accepted; the delay of the government in ordering a general disarming of the sepoys until the course of events had rendered such a measure impossible; the inclusion of English newspapers in an act restricting the liberty of the press; the application to Englishmen, as well as to natives, of a general disarming act; Canning's efforts to moderate the fierceness of the retribution, which, involving in some cases the sacrifice of innocent men, was being exacted by British officers, both civil and military, for the outrages committed by the mutineers and by others who had participated in those outrages—all these things were severely censured in certain quarters, and for a time brought much unpopularity upon the governor-general among a section of his countrymen in India. ‘Clemency Canning’ was the nickname which was applied to him, and on one occasion it was remarked that his policy was best described by two stamps in use in the Indian post-office, ‘too late’ and ‘insufficient.’ Canning's unpopularity at that time was much fostered by the natural reserve and apparent coldness of his disposition. It is probable that in some cases the tendency to a very deliberate weighing of evidence, when dealing with difficult questions, caused undesirable delays in cases in which promptitude of action was essential. The failure at the early stages of the revolt to realise the magnitude of the danger which had arisen was shared more or less by every Englishman in India, by men of the ripest Indian experience, as well as by men who, like the governor-general and the commander-in-chief, were comparative novices in Indian affairs. Of Canning's undaunted courage and firmness there never was a shadow of a doubt. Lord Elgin and Lord Clyde, like all who were brought into direct official relations with him, were much impressed by the calm courage and firmness evinced by the governor-general at that dark time. Two qualities, always important in a ruler, but exceptionally important in dealing with a perilous crisis, the faculty of reposing confidence in able subordinates, and the prompt and generous recognition of good service, Canning evinced in a remarkable degree. His immediate compliance with Sir Henry Lawrence's application to be invested with full military authority in Oudh enabled the latter to take precautions which, although they failed to stem the tide of rebellion or to prevent the sacrifice of many lives, including that of the gallant and able man who devised them, averted what would have been the far graver disaster of the fall of the Lucknow residency and the massacre of its illustrious garrison. His confidence in John Lawrence was amply justified by the sagacity and courage with which the chief commissioner, discerning the enormous importance of the recapture of Delhi, strained every effort to send to that place all the troops that could possibly be spared from the Punjáab. But while Canning thus trusted the ablest of his lieutenants, he by no means surrendered the exercise of his own judgment when on difficult questions his views differed from theirs. Thus, when John Lawrence recommended the abandonment of the trans-Indus territory, in opposition to the advice of Sydney Cotton and Herbert Edwardes, the governor-general decided against the proposal, and at a later period he overruled Outram's objections to his own policy in dealing with the Taluqdárs in Oudh.
The last-mentioned affair, which might have cut short Canning's tenure of office, and which actually led to the retirement of a cabinet minister, was one of the most embarrassing incidents in Canning's career. It arose out of a proclamation which Canning deemed it advisable in the spring of 1858 to issue, as soon as the reconquest of Oudh should have been completed, regarding the treatment to be meted out to those who had been guilty of rebellion in that province. The proclamation declared among other things that with a few exceptions ‘the proprietary right in the soil of the province was confiscated by the British government, which would dispose of that right in such a manner as it might deem fitting.’ Canning regarded the proclamation as an indulgent one, seeing that it promised an exemption almost general from the penalties of death and imprisonment to Oudh chieftains and others who had joined in the rebellion. Lord Ellenborough, then president of the board of control, took a different view, and transmitted through the secret committee of the court of directors a despatch condemning the proclamation in language of unusual severity, as involving an unjustifiable departure from the course generally followed in dealing with a recently conquered nation. The language of the despatch, which had been issued without the knowledge of the cabinet, was generally disapproved in England, and provoked in both houses of parliament animated discussions, which would have led to the downfall of Lord Derby's government, had not Ellenborough, taking upon himself the entire responsibility of his act, retired from the cabinet. Canning, after having vindicated his policy in a dignified and masterly reply, in the course of which he observed that ‘no taunts or sarcasms, come from what quarter they might, would turn him from the path which he believed to be that of public duty,’ consented at the earnest request of the prime minister to retain his office.
In the course of the same year, 1858, Canning was called upon to give effect to the act of parliament which transferred the government of India from the East India Company to the crown. He thus became the first viceroy of India. In 1859 he was raised to an earldom. During the remaining years of his government, his duties, if less anxious, were scarcely less arduous than those which had weighed upon him during the mutiny. The reorganisation of the Indian army, the re-establishment of Indian finance, which had been seriously disarranged by the enormous expenditure entailed by the mutiny, the restoration of confidence in the minds of native chiefs, and reforms in the legislative and administrative system, which were embodied in the Indian Council's Act of 1861, were among the matters which chiefly engaged his attention during the last three years. He cordially supported Bishop Cotton's plans for educating the children of Eurasians and poor Europeans. He objected to the military policy of the home government. He deprecated the abolition of the system of raising British regiments for employment exclusively in India, holding that it was essential that the British force in India should be largely composed of regiments and batteries which could not be removed to meet an exigency in Europe. Regarding the native states, Canning attached great importance to the policy of securing and confirming the allegiance of the great chiefs. With this view he deemed it essential that the princes and people of India should be assured that the annexation policy was abandoned, and that the traditional custom of adoption would not in future be interfered with, and he caused ‘sunnuds,’ i.e. grants, to be issued to all the chiefs of a certain rank, sanctioning the right of adoption in terms which could not be misunderstood. One of the measures taken to restore the financial equilibrium—the imposition of an income-tax—was strenuously opposed by the governments of Madras and Bombay, and produced an official controversy, which was followed by the removal from office of the governor of Madras, Sir Charles Trevelyan, who had taken the extraordinary step, while the correspondence was in progress, of publishing in the local newspapers a minute condemning the policy of the government of India. Canning's action in this matter was mainly confined to supporting the policy of his financial advisers. Finance was not a subject with which he was specially conversant; but it is believed that while he condemned Trevelyan's insubordination, Canning did not consider his objections to the income-tax to be altogether destitute of force. The last months of Canning's stay in India were clouded by the death of his noble and singularly gifted wife, who was carried off by an attack of jungle fever in the latter part of 1861. His intense grief is vividly described by Bishop Cotton. Lady Canning's death was mourned throughout India by all who had been brought into contact with her. Canning retired in March 1862, much broken in health, and died in London on 17 June following. He had been made K.S.I. on the institution of the order in 1861, and K.G. a few weeks before his death. He left no issue, and his title consequently lapsed. Of Canning's character as a public man some idea will have been formed from the preceding remarks. His defects were a cold and reserved manner and an over-anxious temperament, which frequently occasioned delay in the despatch of business. In the elaborate care which he bestowed upon the composition of his official minutes, despatches, and speeches, he was painstaking almost to a fault. He was strictly just and conscientious in the disposal of his patronage, but even here his anxiety to select the best man for a vacant post sometimes caused undue delay in filling up appointments. He appears to have possessed in an eminent degree the great, and at all times rare, virtue of magnanimity. No amount of personal obloquy could induce him to clear his own character, as he might have done on more than one occasion, at the expense of the reputation of his countrymen. And if he was cold and reserved in manner, his coldness was not that of an unfeeling heart. It was related of him by a member of his personal staff that on the night on which he heard of the Cawnpore massacre, he spent the whole of it walking up and down the marble hall of Government House. Cotton described him as ‘a very mirror of honour, the pattern of a just, high-minded, and fearless statesman, kind and considerate … without any personal bias against opponents.’ His name will have a high rank among great Indian statesmen.[Ann. Reg. 1862; Life of Sir Rowland Hill, by George Birkbeck Hill, London, 1880, p. 263; Kaye's History of the Sepoy War; Malleson's History of the Indian Mutiny, 1878; Chambers's History of the Indian Revolt, 1859; Parliamentary Paper relating to the Oudh Proclamation, 1859; Men whom India has known, Madras, 1871; Memoir of Bishop Cotton, 1871; personal information. Lord Canning's correspondence, which is said to have been preserved in a very complete form, is in the possession of his heir, the present Marquis of Clanricarde. It was placed at the disposal of the late Sir John Kaye when he was writing his ‘History of the Sepoy War,’ but in consequence of an incident which occurred in connection with the restoration of the papers after Sir John Kaye's death, an application made by the writer of this article for permission to consult them has been declined.]