Bentinck, Lord William

views updated Jun 27 2018


BENTINCK, LORD WILLIAM (1774–1839), governor of Madras (1803–1808) and governor-general of India (1828–1835) William Bentinck was born on 14 September 1774, the second son of the duke of Portland. In 1803 he was appointed governor of Madras Presidency; he was recalled in 1808 after what London authorities deemed a mishandling of a rebellion by Indian soldiers in the company's army. In 1828, however, he was appointed as governor-general. During his administration, financial retrenchment in the military and civil service moved India toward a modern government, as did judicial reforms that made it possible for more Indians to serve as magistrates and judges. He regarded it as a "monstrous absurdity" that only Europeans could hold high office in British India.

The two most celebrated acts of his administration were also the most controversial: the abolition of the practice of widows burning themselves to death on their husbands' funeral pyres (known to Europeans as sati, and regarded by them as a mark of Indian barbarity); and the introduction of English as the medium of higher education. In the case of the abolition of sati, he was under significant pressure from Great Britain, with Christian activists insisting it was the duty of a Christian government to reflect Christian and British values in the Indian administration. Though sati was common only in North India, and only among upper castes, Bentinck was initially reluctant to take any action; although he personally favored abolition, he was told that the practice was sanctioned by Hinduism and would provoke fierce resistance from the Hindu population. Convinced, however, by Indian intellectuals that the custom was not enjoined by the Hindu scriptures, he issued a regulation in 1829 proscribing it throughout British India. That there was no adverse reaction suggests, as Bentinck said, he was "following, not preceding public opinion" (Philips, vol. 1, p. xxviii).

The other great innovation of Bentinck's administration, and one with enormous implications for modern India, was the decision in 1835 that the government would give support only to institutions of higher education that used English as the medium of instruction. Bentinck had decided that the use of English would make possible the "improvement" he so desired. In this he was supported by the most prominent Indian intellectual of the time, Ram Mohan Roy, as well as by Calcutta businessmen.

He retired in 1835 and died in 1839. While his administration did not, as he had hoped, greatly "improve" Indian society, it probably began its modernization.

Ainslie T. Embree


Bentinck's years as governor-general are covered in C. H. Philips, The Correspondence of Lord William Bentinck: Governor-General of India, 1828–1935 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977). John Rosselli, The Making of a Liberal Imperialist, 1774–1839 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), provides material on his career in India and elsewhere. Isaiah Azariah, Lord Bentinck and Indian Education, Crime, and Status of Women (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1978) argues for Bentinck's importance as a social reformer.

Bentinck, Lord William

views updated May 14 2018

Bentinck, Lord William (1774–1839). Soldier and administrator. Bentinck joined Marshal Suwarrof's army in Italy and served with the Austrian forces during the campaigns of 1799 and 1801. In 1803 he became governor of Madras but was recalled after being held responsible for the sepoy mutiny at Velore in July 1806. He subsequently saw action in the Mediterranean, commanding the British forces in Sicily (1811) and conducting a successful expedition against Genoa (1814). From 1827 to 1835 Bentinck acted as governor-general of Bengal. He instituted financial reforms to eradicate debts created by the recent Burmese War, reorganized the legal system, abolishing such practices as suttee (widow-burning), improved communications, introduced education programmes, and opened up official posts to natives. In 1833 he became the first governor-general of India after the East India Company Charter Act.

Richard A. Smith

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Lord William Cavendish Bentinck

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