Elphinstone, Mountstuart

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ELPHINSTONE, MOUNTSTUART (1779–1859), governor of Bombay (1819–1827). One of the shrewdest administrators of the British East India Company, Mountstuart Elphinstone "settled" the vast region of Maharashtra after defeating the Brahman peshwa of Pune in 1818. His father, Baron Elphinstone, was governor of Edinburgh Castle, where Mountstuart attended school. Appointed to the East India Company's Bengal Service, he landed in Calcutta at the age of seventeen, and six years later was made assistant to the company's Resident in Pune.

Fascinated by classical Greek and Roman history, Elphinstone proved himself singularly adept at governance, using both sticks and carrots in his daily dealings with the last peshwa of Pune, Baji Rao II, whom he viewed as "intriguing, lying, and corrupt," but believed could be "restrained by fear" from becoming "treacherous." Baji, however, tragically underestimated his young British master, mistaking Resident (Mountstuart was promoted in 1810) Elphinstone's soft-spoken advice on how best to govern his "Land of Marathas" for weakness. One fateful day in June 1818, Baji watched his "mighty" Maratha force outside Pune, at Kirkee, crushed by the much smaller, yet better-armed company of British Sepoys under Elphinstone's command, marking the dawn of British paramountcy over western India. Baji was pensioned off and shipped north with his courtiers to Bithur castle. Elphinstone remained in charge of settling Pune, before moving on to govern Bombay, ruling a region larger than all of England, Scotland, and Wales before he turned forty.

Wisely using non-Brahman Maharashtrian Indians to govern the territory he settled, Elphinstone was careful to do nothing to rouse the fury of the Brahmans who continued to live in the region, preserving the sanctity of their Hindu temples, allowing them to remain tax-free, continuing to subsidize religious schools as well as other charitable societies. The company confiscated lands of the largest "nobles" (sirdars), who had supported the peshwas, but most other landowners were granted amnesty as long as they vowed loyalty to the "Great" (Bahadur) Company's Raj. Peasants soon learned that, though British collectors of their land revenues demanded no less than the peshwa's servants had, once taxes were paid they would be left in peace, no repeated demands made by princely robbers or petty pilferers, who had in the past returned to demand more grain or gold. Before Elphinstone left Pune, it was said that even an old woman could walk across that city at night with gold on her cane, without fear of robbers or molesters.

The same was true of the work Elphinstone did as governor of Bombay, drafting a new Code of Laws, laying the foundation of an excellent educational system, one so widely appreciated by its populace that when he retired from that job the city's foremost institution of higher learning was renamed Elphinstone College. After leaving India, Elphinstone was repeatedly invited to return as governor-general by the company's Board of Control, but he declined that honor, preferring to travel through Italy, writing his useful papers and later his History of India (1841) at his home in Surrey.

Stanley Wolpert

See alsoBritish Crown Raj ; Maharashtra


Ballhatchet, Kenneth. Social Policy and Social Change in Western India, 18171830. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1957.

Elphinstone, Mountstuart. Territories Conquered from the Paishwa: A Report. 1822. Reprint, Delhi: Orient Publications, 1973.

Furber, Holden. John Company at Work: A Study of European Expansion in India in the Late Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948.

Roberts, Paul E. India under Wellesley. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1929.

Wolpert, Stanley A. Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and Reform in the Making of Modern India. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962.