Dundas, Henry

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DUNDAS, HENRY (1742–1811), the first viscount Melville, Baron Dunira, president of the Board of Control for Indian Affairs (1793–1801). Henry Dundas earned his place in British politics by being able to deliver the Scottish vote to the Tory Party, whose leader, William Pitt, was also a close personal friend. His connection with India began in 1781 with his chairmanship of a secret Parliamentary committee investigating wars in the Carnatic and Rohilkhand and continued during his service as home secretary (1791–1795), as secretary at war (1794–1801) and as first a member and then president of the Board of Control (1784–1801).

Dundas's preeminent concern was to curb the British East India Company's tendency to wage costly wars of expansion and consolidation. He was not opposed to such measures where they served Britain's imperial interests, but he believed that these and the company's dominant shipping interests were best served by increasing the company's revenues by trade. Wars for dominion could be profitable, but in Dundas's opinion, they had in the past filled the pockets of the company's agents, not the company's coffers. Accordingly, Dundas praised Warren Hastings as the savior of India when that governor-general's military operations appeared to him to be in the defense of empire, but he opposed Hastings whenever other motives could be attributed to his diplomacy or war-making. This ambivalence was exploited by one of Hastings's successors, Richard Colley, the marquis of Wellesley (governor-general, 1798–1805). Wellesley regarded the company's revenues as best secured by actively reducing its many rivals, foreign and indigenous, thus consolidating its political influence. As a former member of the Dundas-led Board of Control, Wellesley well knew of Dundas's prejudice against such a policy, but events played into Wellesley's hands. Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1801, the presence of French officers advising Tipu Sultan in Mysore, and the threat of an Afghan invasion from the north left Dundas with little choice but to support intervention in Mysore and other Indian states.

Wellesley promptly translated Dundas's security concerns into a mandate for a series of campaigns, including the Fourth Mysore War and a Second Maratha War, which he supplemented with annexations and subsidiary alliances that collectively secured for the Company either the possession of, or control over, virtually the entire subcontinent, except Sind and Punjab. These steps won Wellesley his marquisate. However, they had proven very costly, and Wellesley had pressed them to their conclusion long after the French and Afghan threats had evaporated. These were sufficient reasons for Dundas to withdraw his support and for the company's directors to recall Wellesley in 1805.

Dundas was by then himself in some difficulty. In 1802 he had been elevated to the English peerage as Viscount Melville and Baron Dunira, but that same year his political enemies accused him of misappropriating funds during his long tenure as treasurer of the navy (1782–1800). In 1805 a report of a Parliamentary committee of inquiry led to his impeachment and trial. He was acquitted of all charges in 1806 but did not again hold public office.

Marc Jason Gilbert

See alsoBritish East India Company Raj ; Hastings, Warren ; Wellesley, Richard Colley


Furber, Holden. Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville, 17421811: Political Manager of Scotland, Statesman, Administrator of British India. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931.

Ingram, Edward, ed. Two Views of British India: The Private Correspondence of Mr. Dundas and Lord Wellesley, 17981801. Bath: Adams & Dart, 1970.