J.R. Dalhousie – Governor-General of India

DalhousieNot all governors-general, or ‘viceroys’ of India were touched with brilliance, like Lord Curzon. One of them, the last, gave the most important part of the British Empire away as if he were presenting the prize at a school’s Parent’s Day. Dalhousie must be awarded top marks for effort, however. He was born in 1812, just three years before Bonaparte was finally pushed off the map. He became Governor-General at the age of thirty-six – remarkably good going – and held the office until 1856. He is still the youngest ever to reach this position. He was able, innovative and interested; he worked so hard that he ruined his health.

His unpopularity with journalists then, and biographers now, is that he was a typical example of an Imperialist, believing in mind and heart that British rule was superior, and that the more of India the Raj (q.v.) ruled, the better it was for the Indian people. The London papers were full of criticism of his attempts to extend British rule, not reduce it. This meant military campaigns; East India Company troops invaded the Punjab in 1848 (Dalhousie’s first year) and defeated the Sikhs (no easy task), annexing it a year later. Lower Burma was taken over after the Second Anglo-Burmese War. Parts of Oudh (now Awadh) were annexed in 1856, using the excuse of local mismanagement.

Many other principalities in India were seized if the ruler died without a male heir. It was said that they ‘lapsed’ into Company control. The only states which managed to maintain shaky control were those, like Hyderabad, that were already surrounded by British territory. Heavily influenced by the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, Dalhousie promoted better education for the populace, and reduced the traditional killing of female babies. He saw his task as the creation of a modern administration, and the unification of the whole sub-continent as much as possible, achieved by the removal of trade barriers, the building of railways, and provision of a telegraph link between Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, with a trunk line running up the river Ganges to connect Calcutta with Lahore and Delhi. This was not merely altruism; it would enable British goods to be sold in the interior, and allow British troops to be moved with comparative ease from one part of India to another. He also started a much cheaper postal service.

Dalhousie’s greatest and most provocative error was, however, the annexation of Oudh, an extremely rich area with obstinate and unmovable ideas about independence. Discontent there contributed greatly towards the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny (q.v.) in 1857. Dalhousie however was made a Marquess, dying in semi-retirement in 1860; he was just forty-eight years old.

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