Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Child, John (d.1690)

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CHILD, Sir JOHN (d. 1690), governor of Bombay, was a brother of Sir Josiah Child [q.v.] Child appears to have been sent to India before he was ten years old, and to have spent the following eight years of his life at Rajahpur under the charge of an uncle named Goodshaw, then superintendent of the East India Company’s factory at Rajahpur. Child is said to have subsequently been instrumental in procuring the dismissalof his uncle from his appointment for dishonesty, and to have succeeded him as superintendent of the factory. In 1680 he was appointed agent of the company at Surat, at that time their principal facto in Western India. Surat had previously been a presidency, and was restored to that position in 1681, when Child was appointed president, with a council of eight, one of whom he was authorised to a point deputy governor of Bombay. In 1618 a somewhat serious insurrection occurred atBombay, a Captain Richard Keigwin, the commander of the troops and a member of the council, seizing the deputy-governor and those councillors who adhered to him, and proclaiming that the authority of the company in the island of Bombay was annulled, and that the island was placed immediately under the protection of the king of England. Child proceeded to Bombay and endeavoured unsuccessfully to bring the rebels to reason by negotiation. Eventually the matter was settled by the despatch of a king's ship to Bombay, Keigwin surrendering under promise of a pardon. In August 1684 Child was appointed captain-general and admiral of the company's sea and land forces. He was made a baronet in February 1684-5, and in 1685 the seat of government was transferred from Surat to Bombay. In 1686 Child was vested with supreme authority over all the company’s possessions in India, with instructions to proceed to Fort St. George, and, if necessary, to Bengal, ‘to bring the whole under a regulated administration.’ The island of Bombay havin been made over to the company by Charles II, who had received it from the crown of Portugal as part of his wife’s dowry, the court of directors in 1689 determined to constitute Bombay the chief seat of their trade and power, and at the same time to ‘consolidate their position in India on the basis of territorial sovereignty in order to acquire the political status of an independent power in their relations with the ughals and Mahrattas’ (Sir George Birdwood, Report on the Miscellaneous Old Records of the India Office, 1 Nov. 1878). It was in pursuance of this policy, which, though not proclaimed, had been resolved on some years previously, that Child engaged in hostilities with the emperor of Delhi, which involved the company in serious difficulties, and resulted in their having to pay an indemnity of 150,000 rupees. One of the stipulations made by the emperor, Arangzib, on this occasion was that Child should be removed from India. While the question was pending, Child died at Bombay on 4 Feb. 1680.

Of Child’s character and conduct as a public man the accounts vary very much. Bruce, the annalist of the company, writes of him in terms of the highest praise. According to him ‘the precaution and public principles on which Sir John Child acted under critical circumstances discover a high sense of duty and a provident concern for the interests of the company.’ He describes Child as havin been for many years, ‘by his firmness and integrity, the real support of the company’s interests in India,’ and ‘alone capable of extricating them from the difficulties in which they were involved.’ Hamilton, on the other hand, in his ‘New Account of the East Indies; published in 1727, has not a good word to say for Child. He characterises the governors of Bombay as having been ‘tolerable good’ until ‘Sir John Child spoilt it.’ In another passage he says: ‘After General Child had gotten the reins of government again into his own hands, he became more insupportable than ever.’ It seems clear that in the case of Thorburn, one of the mutineers with Keigwin, Child acted in a tyrannical manner. Thorburn, after the authority of the company had been restored, was imprisoned at Bombay for debt, and, although in bad health, was allowed no attendance, and even his wife, notwithstanding the most urgent entreaties addressed by her to Child, was prevented from visiting him until within thirty-six hours of his death. To such an extent was Child’s enmity carried in this case that the captain of an Indiaman who married Thorburn's widow shortly after her husband`s death was deprived by Child of his appointment. Anderson, in his book on the ‘English in Western India,’ attributes Child's errors to his zeal in promoting the interests of his company. Adverting to certain questionable proceedings which Child took against the native authorities at Surat, Anderson observes that ‘as their (the company’s) policy was unprincipled, he (Child) was quite ready to make it his. They had become deeply involved in debt, they owed 281,250l. to natives of Surat, and it had become inconvenient to discharge even the interest of such a sum. Instead therefore, of following the old-fashioned way, and paying, they were resolved to discover some other means of escaping from their obligations. The two Child's were the men to devise and execute such a plan. We do not see any ground for accusing Child of that selfishness and peculation in which man of the servants of the company indulged, to their lasting disgrace; not that he neglected his own interests, but that he identified them with the company's.’

Another question connected with Child, upon which there appears to be some doubt, is that of the official designation which was given to him when he was invested with authority over the other presidencies as well as Bombay. Sir George Birdwood, in the report already alluded to, describes Child’s appointment as that. of ‘governor-general,’ a title which was not subsequently given to any Indian governor until the time of Warren Hastings. In the books quoted in this article Child is called indiscriminately ‘governor’ and ‘general,’ but the term ‘governor-general’ is not used. In the despatches of the court of directors he was usually designated ‘our general.’ In the commission of his successor, Sir John Goldsborough, the term ‘governor-general’ does not occur.

[Mill's Hist. of British India, vol. i.; Bruce's Annals of the East India Company. vol. ii.; Hamilton’s New Account of the East Indies, Edinburgh, 1727; Anderson's English in Western India, London, 1856; Birdwood's Report on the Old Miscellaneous Records of the India Office, 1 Nov. 1878.]

A. J. A.