Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bruce, James (1811-1863)

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BRUCE, JAMES, eighth Earl of Elgin and twelfth Earl of Kincardine (1811–1863), governor-general of India, second son of the seventh earl of Elgin [q. v.], was educated at Eton and at Christ Church, Oxford, where in 1832 he took a first class in classics, and was shortly afterwards elected a fellow of Merton. It is a curious coincidence that one of the examiners on the latter occasion was Sir Edmund Head, who many years afterwards succeeded Elgin as governor-general of Canada. Among Elgin's contemporaries at Christ Church were Lord Dalhousie and Lord Canning, his two immediate predecessors in the office of governor-general of India, the fifth Duke of Newcastle, the first Lord Herbert of Lea, and Mr. Gladstone. In a contest for the Eldon law scholarship he was defeated by Roundell Palmer, now Earl of Selborne. In April 1841 he married a daughter of Mr. C. L. Cumming Bruce, and at the general election in July of the same year he was elected member for Southampton, his political views being those which were afterwards called liberal-conservative. 'When parliament met, he seconded the amendment to the address, which, being carried by a large majority, was followed by the resignation of Lora Melbourne's government. Shortly afterwards, on the death of his father, his elder brother having died in the previous year, he succeeded to the Scotch earldom, and ceased to be a member of the House of Commons. In March 1842 he was appointed governor of Jamaica.

Jamaica, at the time of Elgin's appointment, was in some respects in a depressed condition. The landed proprietary, which was mainly represented in the island by paid agents, had suffered considerably from the abolition of the slave trade. The finances required careful management, and the moral and intellectual condition of the negro population was very low. In all these matters progress had been made under the administration of Elgin's distinguished predecessor, Sir Charles Metcalfe; but much still remained to be accomplished, especially in the matter of educating the negroes. In this, and in the important object of encouraging the application of mechanical contrivances to agriculture, Elgin's efforts were very successful, and his administration generally was so satisfactory that very shortly after leaving Jamaica he was offered by the whig government, which had acceded to office in 1846, the important post of governor-general of Canada. His first wife had died shortly after his arrival in Jamaica, and in 1847 he married Lady Louisa Mary Lambton, daughter of the first Earl of Durham.

In Canada, as in Jamaica, Elgin again succeeded to an office which very recently had been filled by Metcalfe, but the difficulties of the position were far greater than those which had met him in the West Indian colony. The rebellion which had taken place in Lower Canada in 1837 and 1838 had left behind it feelings of bitter animosity between the British party, which was most numerous in the upper province, and the French Canadians, who preponderated in Lower Canada. Pursuant to the recommendations made in Lord Durham's celebrated report. Upper and Lower Canada had been imited under a single government, and under Sir Charles Bagot, Metcalfe's predecessor as governor-general, constitutional government had been established. During the earlier part of Metcalfe's government the French Canadians and the party that sympathised with them had been in office; but a difference of opinion between Metcalfe and his council as to his power to make appointments, even to his personal staff, without the assent of the council, had led to the resignation of the majority of the council, and had been followed by the dissolution of the assembly and an election which gave a small majority to the British party. Elgin found this party in power, but before he had been a year in office another general election gave a majority to the other side, and during the remainder of his stay in Canada his ministry was composed of persons belonging to what may be called the liberal party, the chief element in that ministry being French Canadian. From the first Elgin had very serious difficulties to contend with. The famine in Ireland, which commenced in the first year of his government, flooded Canada with diseased and starving emigrants, whose support had in the first instance to be borne by the Canadians; the Free Trade Act of 1846 inflicted heavy losses upon Canadian millowners and merchants; and last, but not least, the British party regarded with the keenest resentment the admission into the government of the country of persons some of whom they looked upon as rebels. This resentment, on the occasion of a bill being passed granting compensation for losses incurred in Lower Canada during the rebellion, culminated in riots and outrages of a grave character. The measure in question was the outcome of the report of a commission appointed by Metcalfe's conservative government in 1845. It was denounced both in Canada and in England, and in the latter country, among other persons, by Mr. Gladstone, as a measure for rewarding rebels for rebellion, and on the occasion of the governor-general giving his assent to it, his carriage, as he left the House of Parliament, was pelted with stones, and the House of Parliament was burnt to the ground. A few days later, on his going into Montreal to receive an address which had been passed by the House of Assembly condemning the recent outrages and expressing confidence in his administration, he was again attacked by the mob, some of his staff were struck by stones, and it was only by rapid driving that he escaped unhurt. The result of these disturbances was that Montreal was abandoned as the seat of government, and for some years the sittings of the legislature were held alternately at Toronto and Quebec. Later on the situation was embarrassed by a cry for annexation to the United States, caused mainly by the commercial depression consequent upon free trade and the absence of a reciprocity treaty with the States. The latter was at last concluded in 1854, after negotiations conducted by Elgin in person. Another source of considerable anxiety at this period was the practice in vogue among certain English statesmen of denouncing the colonies as a needless burden upon the mother country. But all these difficulties were gradually overcome, and when Elgin relinquished the government at the end of 1854, it was generally recognised that his administration had been a complete success.

For two years after leaving Canada Elgin abstained from taking any active part in public affairs. On the breaking up of Lord Aberdeen's government in the spring of 1855, he was offered by Lord Palmerston the chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster with a seat in the cabinet ; but wishing to maintain an independent position in parliament, while according a general support to the government of the day, he declined the offer.

In 1857, on differences arising with China in connection with the seizure of the lorcha Arrow, Elgin was sent as envoy to China. On reaching Singapore he was met by letters from Lord Canning informing him of the spread of the Indian mutiny, and urging him to send troops to Calcutta from the force which was to accompany him to China. With this requisition he at once complied, sending in fact the whole of the force, but he proceeded himself to Hongkong in the expectation that the troops would speedily follow. Finding that this expectation was not likely to be fulfilled, and that the French ambassador, who was to be associated with him in his mission, had been delayed, he re ired to Calcutta in H.M.S. Shannon, which he left with Lord Canning for the protection of that city. Later in the year he returned to China, fresh troops having been sent out to replace those which had been diverted to India. Canton was speedily taken, and some months later a treaty was made at Tientsin, providing among other matters for the appointment of a British minister, for additional facilities for British trade, for protection to protestants and to Roman catholics, and for a war indemnity. He subsequently proceeded to Japan, where he made a treaty with the government of that country, under which certain ports were opened to British trade, and foreigners were admitted into the country.

On his return to England in the spring of 1859 Elgin was again offered office by Lord Palmerston, and accepted that of postmaster-general. He was elected lord rector of Glasgow University, and received the freedom of the city of London. In the following year he was again sent to China, the emperor having failed to ratify the treaty of Tientsin, and committed other unfriendly acts. On the voyage out the steamer in which Elgin was a passenger was wrecked in Galle harbour. The mission was not accomplished without fighting. The military opposition was slight, but the Chinese resorted to treachery, and after having, as was supposed, accepted the terms offered by the two envoys (Baron Gros, on the part of the French, was again associated with Elgin), carried off some officers and soldiers whom Elgin had sent with a letter to the Chinese plenipotentiary, and also the ‘Times' correspondent, Mr. Bowlby [q.v.] who had accompanied them. The latter and one or two other members of the party were murdered. In retribution for this treacherous act, the summer palace, the favourite residence of the emperor at Pekin, was destroyed. A few days later the treaty of Tientsin was formally ratified, and a convention was concluded, containing certain additional stipulations favourable to the British government. Visiting Java on his voyage home, Elgin returned to England on 11 April 1861, after an absence of about a year.

Elgin had hardly been a month in England when he was offered the appointment of viceroy and governor-general of India, which Lord Canning was about to vacate. It was the last public situation which he was destined to fill, and he appears to have accepted it with some forebodings. In a speech which he made to his neighbours at Dunfermline shortly before his departure, hc observed that ‘the vast amount of labour devolving upon the governor-general of India, the insalubrity of the climate, and the advance of years, all tended to render the prospect of their again meeting remote and uncertain.’ He left England at the end of January 1862, arriving at Calcutta on 12 March. During the twenty months which followed, he devoted himself with unremitting industry to the business of his high office, bringing to bear upon it experience acquired in other and widely different spheres of duty, but fully conscious of the necessity of careful study of the new set of facts with which he was brought into contact. ‘The first virtue,’ he said to one of his colleagues, ‘which you and have to practise here at present is self-denial. We must, for a time at least, walk in paths traced out for us by others.’ The first eleven months were spent in Calcutta, where, without encountering any serious illness, he suffered a good deal of discomfort from the heat. In libruary 1863 he moved to Simla, halting at Benares, Agra, Delhi, and other places, and holding durbars, at which he made the acquaintance of numerous native chiefs and nobles. Spending the summer at Simla, on 26 Sept. he started for Sealkote, en route to Pesháwur with the intention of then proceeding to Lahore, where, in pursuance of the Indian Councils Act, passed two years before, the legislative council was to assemble. The earlier art of the route lay over the Himalayas and the upper valleys of the Beas, the Rávi, and the Chenáb rivers. In the course of it he crossed the twig bridge over the river Chandra, an affluent of the Chenáb. The crossing of this bridge, constructed us it was of a rude texture of birch branches, much rent and battered by the wear and tear of the rainy season, involved very great physical exertion, and brought on a fatal attack of heart complaint, to which he succumbed at Dharmsálá on 20 Nov. 1863. Lady Elgin and his youngest daughter were with him. A very interesting account of his last days, written by his brother-in-law, A. P. Stanley, dean of Westminster, is given in Mr. Walrond's memoir.

Of Elgin’s character as a public man, the most prominent features were the thoroughly practical manner in which he habitually dealt with public questions; his readiness to assume responsimility, and the strong sense of duty which enabled him to suppress personal considerations whenever they appeared to conflict with the public interests. Of the two last-mentioned qualities striking evidence was furnished by his prompt resolve to send the troops destined for China to the aid of the Indian government. Of the East an example was affnnled at an early period in his official life. Shortly after his arrival in Jamaica he came into collision with the home government on a question of taxation, regarding which the legislation of the local assembly was disapproved in England. Fully recognising the advantages cf free trade, and the principles upon which the free-trade policy was based, he was not prepared to admit that those principles, however sound in the abstract, ought to be suddenly enforced in a colony just emerging from grave financial difficulties, and by a temperate representation he induced the government to recall an order which would otherwise have caused serious embarrassment. A few years later, in Canada, influenced by similar considerations, he brought about, not without delay and difficulty, and mainly by his own persistent advocacy, the reciprocity treaty with the United States. He was charged in some quarters with having shown timldity in dealing with the disturbances at Montreal, but the charge was discredited by successive governments at home, whose confidence in is judgment and firmness was to the last unimpaired. The vigour and diplomatic ability displayed by him in China in getting his own way, both with the Chinese authorities and with his French colleague, were very remarkable. In China and in India, where he was brought into contact with Englishmen and other Europeans settled among Asiatic populations, he seems to have formed a strong, and some persons thought an exaggerated, impression of the tendency of Europeans to ill-use the inferior races, his letters, both public and private, containing frequent and indignant allusions to this subject.

In India his tenure of office was too short to admit of any trustworthy estimate being formed of his capacity to administer with success a system so different from those to which he had been accustomed in his previous career; but, had his life been spared, he would probably have taken a high place on the roll of Indian administrators. In private life he was much beloved. His letters show that he was a man of warm affections, eminently domestic, with very decided convictions on the subiect of religion. He was a full and facile writer, and a iiucnt and effective speaker, with a style remarkably clear, abounding in illustrations from the varied stores of a well-furnished and retentive memory.

[Letters and Journals of James, eighth earl of Elgin. ed. Theodore Walrond, 1872; Kaye’s Life of Lord Metcalfe, 1858 ; personal information]

A. J. A.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.40
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
104 i 32 Bruce, James, 8th Earl of Elgin: after government insert His election for Southampton was, however, declared void on petition
105 ii 16 after Elgin insert who was made G.C.B. the year before