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Charles Theophilus Metcalfe

Charles Theophilus Metcalfe

Charles Theophilus Metcalfe, 1st Baron Metcalfe (1785-1846), was a prototype of the British colonial administrator. He held successively the major responsibility for governing three of Britain's most important dependencies.

Charles Metcalfe was born in Calcutta on Jan. 30, 1785, the second son of a Bengal army officer who became a director of the East India Company and a Tory member of Parliament. Metcalfe received his early education at Eton, from which he was removed at 15 to be sent to India in the service of the company, then virtually indistinguishable from the British government of India. Metcalfe soon earned the respect of his superiors and remained abroad until 1838, rising steadily in rank and duties and finally being selected three times as provisional governor general.

Metcalfe, believing (as he wrote in 1815) that "All that rulers can do is to merit dominion by promoting the happiness of those under them," was a liberal in India, paying particular attention to financial reform and freeing the Indian press from censorship. But he never questioned whose domain should prevail in India, and he had a lively interest in the use of troops for earning merit. His liberation of the press aroused great antagonism among his colleagues, and he blamed this situation for his failure to obtain appointment as governor of Madras in 1837; he chose to retire, feeling himself in disgrace.

Back in England, where he contemplated seeking a parliamentary seat as a Whig, Metcalfe accepted the governorship of Jamaica in 1839, where he played an important part in conciliating disputes that had arisen between sugar planters and their workers who, as former slaves emancipated in 1833, were disinclined to work for others except on their own terms. The planters, for their part, were disenchanted by the quality of imperial leadership they were receiving. Metcalfe's astuteness as a reformer again came into play, and by 1841 he was satisfied that he had accomplished all that one conciliator could do, and he again retired home. In 1843 he was offered the post of governor general of Canada, which he accepted pessimistically.

Canada (then essentially referring to what is now Ontario and Quebec) was a constitutionally united colony in whose Assembly the English-and French-speaking sections had equal representation. Strife between the sections, between those who sought closer or looser ties with Britain and between those who sought responsible self-government and those who were content to let the governor from Britain have a large voice in governing, was widespread. Metcalfe naturally favored a generous view of the governor's powers, an interpretation warmly contested by many leading Canadians. Metcalfe and his supporters, though superficially more successful, failed to make their views prevail, and responsible government was finally won in 1848. But by that time Metcalfe, ravaged by cancer, was dead; he had been created a baron and retired to England in 1845; he died Sept. 5, 1846.

Further Reading

Some of Metcalfe's writings are in Selections from the Papers of Lord Metcalfe, edited by John William Kaye (1855). The best work on him remains Kaye's Life and Correspondence of Charles, Lord Metcalfe (2 vols., 1854; rev. ed. 1858), a typically uncritical 19th-century biography but one based on Metcalfe's own lucid and penetrating papers. See also Edward Thompson, The Life of Charles, Lord Metcalfe (1937).

Additional Sources

Bakshi, S. R. (Shiri Ram), Ranjit Singh and Charles Metcalfe, Malayattoor, Kerala: Vishwavidya Publishers, 1980. □

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