Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Vansittart, Henry (1732-1770)

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VANSITTART, HENRY (1732–1770), governor of Bengal, born on 3 June 1732 at his father's house in Ormond Street, London, was the third son of Arthur van Sittart of Shottesbrook, Berkshire, by his wife Martha, eldest daughter and coheiress of Sir John Stonhouse, bart., of Radley, Berkshire, comptroller to the household of Queen Anne. Robert Vansittart [q. v.] was his elder brother, and his younger brother, George, was father of General George Henry Vansittart [q. v.] and Vice-admiral Henry Vansittart [q. v.]

The family is of Dutch origin and derive their name from the town of Sittart in Limburg. Henry's ancestors removed to Julich, and afterwards to Danzig, whence his grandfather, Peter van Sittart (1651–1705), removed to London about 1670. Peter, who was a merchant adventurer, gained a large fortune by trade with the Baltic, the East Indies, and the South Seas. He was a governor of the Russia Company, and a director of the East India Company. His fifth son, Arthur van Sittart (1691–1760) (father of the subject of the present notice), was also a director of the Russia Company, and a man of great wealth. He died at his residence near Reading on 16 Sept. 1760.

Henry Vansittart was educated at Reading grammar school and at Winchester College. He was an unruly youth. His father, alarmed at his extravagances, compelled him at the age of thirteen to enter the service of the East India Company on the Madras establishment. In the summer of 1745 he sailed for Fort St. Davids, where he was employed as a writer, and in the winter of next year (1746–7) took part in the defence of the place when the French made an abortive attack on it. He was assiduous in his duties, and early mastered Persian, the tongue then employed in Indian diplomacy. While at Fort St. Davids he made the acquaintance of Clive, and a close friendship sprang up between them. In 1750 Vansittart was promoted to the grade of factor, and in the following year visited England. He had amassed a considerable fortune, which he soon dissipated in gambling and riotous living. With his elder brothers, Arthur and Robert, he was a member of the graceless Society of the Franciscans of Medmenham. Returning to India, he was employed in 1754 and 1755 in embassies to the French East India Company, and for his services was promoted to the rank of junior merchant. In 1756 he was advanced to that of senior merchant, while acting as secretary and Persian translator to the secret committee. In 1757 he took his seat in the council, and was appointed searcher of the sea-gate. In February 1759 he took part in the defence of Madras against the French under Lally.

On 8 Nov. 1759, on Clive's recommendation, he was appointed president of the council and governor of Fort William and the company's settlements in Bengal, Behar, and Orissa; but owing to the critical condition of affairs at Fort St. George, where he was acting as governor ad interim, he did not arrive in Bengal until July 1760. His promotion occasioned much discontent at Fort William, due, in part at least, to the fact that he was junior to any member of the council there, and a petition was drawn up by John Zephaniah Holwell [q. v.], the temporary governor, on 29 Dec. 1759, which was signed by the members of the council, remonstrating against his appointment. The directors, however, upheld Vansittart, and in a reply, dated 21 Jan. 1761, removed the petitioners from their official places.

Vansittart arrived in Bengal at the end of July 1760. He found affairs embarrassed. Clive, by undertaking to assist the subadar in military matters, had entirely changed the position of the company in Bengal. By the treaty with the subadar, Mír Jafar, the company undertook to maintain a force under their own direction, but in the subadar's pay, to be at his service when he should require it. The sum for its maintenance was afterwards fixed at a lakh of rupees a month. The new governor found this subsidy unpaid, the treasury empty, and the income of the presidency scarcely sufficient for the current expenses of Calcutta. Nothing was to be expected from Mír Jafar, who was alienated from the English, and who besides had entirely lost control of the administration. The death of his son Mirán on 2 July 1760 plunged matters into inextricable confusion by removing the only man able to control the subadar's troops. Under these circumstances Vansittart resolved to place the administration in the hands of Mír Kásim, Mír Jafar's son-in-law, a man of undoubted ability and well affected to the English. On 2 Oct. 1760 Vansittart proceeded to Kásimbázár, and, finding Mír Jafar resolutely opposed to his plan, deposed him, and at his own request sent him to Calcutta. His successor, Mír Kásim, by a treaty previously concluded on 17 Sept., assigned the revenues of the provinces of Bárdwán, Midnapur, and Chittagong for the maintenance of the company's troops, and placed them under English administration.

In April 1761 a serious difference arose between the English military and civil authorities. Mír Kásim, on assuming authority, among others, summoned Ramnarain, the financial official of Patna and a protégé of the English, to give in a statement of his accounts. This, however, Ramnarain, supported by the military officers at Patna, Lieutenant-colonel (Sir) Eyre Coote (1726–1783) [q. v.] and Major John Carnac [q. v.], steadily evaded doing. Vansittart at first was fully disposed to protect Ramnarain, and sent directions to Patna that if he made a statement of his accounts he was to be sheltered from attempts at extortion. Ramnarain, however, persistently evaded Mír Kásim's demand, and, relying on the connivance of the English, aspired to independence. He coined money in his own name, and Carnac, under pretence of protecting him, publicly, with an armed force, menaced and insulted Mír Kásim. Consequently Vansittart and the council recalled the two officers, leaving Ramnarain at the discretion of Mír Kásim, by whom he was imprisoned and afterwards put to death.

Though harmony was thus established for the moment, the state of affairs in Bengal was such that fresh disputes were inevitable. The company's servants were at that time allowed to engage in private trade, and the result was unfathomable corruption. By unjustifiably extending the privilege of trading free of duty to cover internal as well as foreign trade, by granting ‘dustucks’ or passports for their own and their servants' goods, as well as for those of the company, and by insisting that their native agents should be totally exempted from the subadar's jurisdiction, the English officials had engrossed the entire business of the country, and had established an independent government by the side of the nabob's. Vansittart set his face against these abuses, but the authority of the president was extremely limited. He was little more than chairman of the council, which determined all administrative action by a bare majority. He had hardly begun to take remedial measures when a peremptory order from the directors dismissed from their service three members of the council for joining in Clive's famous remonstrance of 1759, and placed his party in a minority. In addition the change sent Ellis, Vansittart's strongest opponent, to Patna, the residence of the nabob. Under these circumstances matters took a serious turn. The company's factors, annoyed at the restraint the nabob endeavoured to place on their exactions, retaliated by arresting his officers. Unable to afford redress, Vansittart endeavoured to pursue a policy of conciliation, and, while retaining the nabob's confidence, to soften the animosity of the council. After Warren Hastings, who had consistently supported Vansittart, had been despatched in August 1762 on a preliminary mission of investigation, Vansittart, at the end of the year, taking Hastings as assistant, visited the nabob at Mungír, whither he had removed to avoid Ellis. Vansittart came to an agreement with him whereby the goods of servants of the company should pay a duty of nine per cent., a rate far below that levied on native traders (Clive's speech in the House of Commons, 30 March 1772). This arrangement was immediately repudiated by the council on 1 March 1763, notwithstanding the protest of Vansittart and Warren Hastings, and the nabob, in exasperation, abolished the whole system of duties on internal trade. The council declared that his action was contrary to treaty obligations, and called on him to re-establish the customs. The subadar had long seen that a rupture was inevitable and had made preparations for war. Hostilities were commenced by Ellis, who made an unjustifiable and unsuccessful attack on Patna, was taken prisoner, and put to death at Patna with other European captives. Mír Kasim, after some successes, was overthrown by Major Thomas Adams (1730?–1764) [q. v.], and sought refuge with the nawáb of Oudh. Vansittart, chagrined at the manner in which his policy had been thwarted, resigned the presidency on the conclusion of the war, and left Calcutta on 28 Nov. 1764.

He was assailed by his opponents in England with great vehemence both before and after his arrival. Clive, already aggrieved by the deposition of Mír Jafar, which he considered a reversal of his policy, had been completely alienated from Vansittart by a personal quarrel, and Vansittart was supported in the India House by Clive's opponent, Lawrence Sulivan. In 1764 Vansittart transmitted to London copies of the political correspondence during his administration, which were published by his friends under the title ‘Original Papers relative to the Disturbances in Bengal’ (London, 1764, 2 vols. 8vo). Finding on his arrival that the court of directors would not grant him an interview, he republished the papers with a connecting narrative under the title ‘A Narrative of the Transactions in Bengal from 1760 to 1764’ (London, 1766, 3 vols. 8vo). The rough draft of the narrative, with corrections by Warren Hastings, is preserved in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 29211).

On 16 March 1768 Vansittart was returned to parliament for the borough of Reading. The reports sent home by Clive, who had been despatched to Bengal with extraordinary powers, justified him in the eyes of the company by exposing the corruption existing among their servants in Bengal. Early in 1769 he was elected a director of the company. On 14 June 1769 he was appointed, together with Luke Scrafton, a former official, and Francis Forde [q. v.], to proceed to India with the title of supervisor, and with authority to examine every department of administration. The three supervisors sailed from Portsmouth in September 1769 in the Aurora frigate, left Cape Town on 27 Dec., and were never heard of again (Gent. Mag. 1771 p. 237, 1773 pp. 346, 403, 1774 p. 85). William Falconer (1732–1769) [q. v.], the author of the ‘Shipwreck,’ who was on board in the capacity of purser, perished with them.

In 1754 Vansittart was married to Amilia (d. 1819), daughter of Nicholas Morse, governor of Madras. By her he left five sons—Henry, Arthur, Robert, George, and Nicholas, created Baron Bexley [q. v.] —and two daughters, Ann and Sophia. In 1765 Vansittart purchased the manors of Great and Little Fawley, Whatcombe, and Foxley in Berkshire, as well as a house at Greenwich, which descended to his children.

Owing chiefly to his quarrel with Clive, Vansittart has been unjustly treated by writers on Indian history. His conduct in Bengal was far-sighted, and his dealings with the subadar were distinguished by statesmanlike moderation. On every question that arose his proceedings were in accordance with the principles to which his successors were eventually obliged to conform. Had he been vested with sufficient authority, his administration would have been brilliant, but, like Warren Hastings at a later time, he found himself at the mercy of a hostile majority in the council, and was able only to indicate the right policy, not to carry it out. He was a good scholar and linguist, and was the author of several oriental translations. His son Henry afterwards transmitted several to the ‘Asiatick Miscellany,’ besides others of his own.

A portrait of Vansittart, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1767, is at Kirkleatham Hall, Yorkshire. Another portrait of him, painted by Reynolds in 1745, was engraved by Cousins and W. Reynolds; and a third, painted in 1769, was formerly in the India House. A portrait by Hogarth, painted in 1752–3, as a Franciscan of Medmenham, is at Shottesbrook; and a half-length by Dance, painted in 1768, is in the possession of Lord Haldon.

[Vansittart Papers; Vansittart's Narrative; Facts relating to the Treaty of Commerce lately concluded by Governor Vansittart without the consent of his Council, 1764; A Letter from certain Gentlemen of the Council at Bengal to the Secret Committee, containing reasons against the Revolution in favour of Meir Cossim Aly Chan, 1764; An Address to the Proprietors of East India Stock, 1764; A Vindication of Mr. Holwell's Character by his Friends, 1764; A Defence of Mr. Vansittart's Conduct, in concluding a treaty of commerce with Meir Cossim Aly Chawn, 1764; Scrafton's Observations on Vansittart's Narrative; A Letter from Vansittart to the Proprietors, 1767; Holwell's Address to Scrafton in Reply to his Observations on Vansittart's Narrative, 1767; Gleig's Memoirs of Warren Hastings, 1841, vol. i.; Malcolm's Life of Lord Clive, 1836; Transactions in India, 1785, pp. 39–50; Wilson's Clive, 1890, in English Men of Action; Mill's History of British India, ed. Wilson, 1830, vol. iii.; Gent. Mag. 1764 pp. 51–6, 1767 pp. 79, 80, 84; Malleson's Lord Clive, in Rulers of India; Elphinstone's Rise of the British Power in India; Cambridge's Account of the War in India, 1762, pp. 79, 81, 95; Broome's History of the Bengal Army, 1851; Orme's Military Transactions in Industan; Verelst's View of the English Government in Bengal, 1772; Long's Selections from the Records of Bengal, 1869, pp. 291, 297; Walpole's Memoirs of George III, ii. 445–6; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Hill, iii. 20–1; Johnsonian Miscellanies, ed. Hill, ii. 367.]

E. I. C.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.270
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
137 ii 16-12 f.e. Vansittart, Henry (1732-1770): for His youth was dissolute, and . . . . 'Hell-fire Club.' read He was an unruly youth.
6 f.e. after writer. insert In the winter of 1746-7 he took part in the defence of the place, when the French made an abortive attack on it.
138 i 5 after riotous living insert With his elder brothers, Arthur and Robert, he joined the graceless Society of the Franciscans of Medmenham.
139 i 40 for Mír Jafar read Mír Kásim
ii 33 for Amelia read Emilia
38 for Ann read Emilia
140 i 16 f.e. after 367 insert See also Gent. Mag. 1767, pp. 79, 80, 84; P. Auber's Rise and Progress of the British Power in India, 1837, and J. Talboys Wheeler's Early Records of British India, chap. ix.