The Life and Correspondence of Major-General Sir John Malcolm (by John William Kaye, 1856).
Amongst the recollections of the incitements to exertion applied in early boyhood, most men must remember, more or less distinctly, the various versions of the story of the Industrious Apprentice which were addressed to them. Sometimes John Goodchild walked up to London from the workhouse, with three farthings in his pocket, and lived to enjoy the splendid apotheosis due to a Lord Mayor. Sometimes, after a long career of virtuous and industrious obscurity, he accidentally gained, by his learning and eloquence, such enlightened patronage that he made his fortune in a couple of years, and became Lord Chief-Justice in five. Sometimes he enlisted as a common soldier, and rose to the command of armies; but the uniform moral of his career was, that in the fortunate British Empire there was no eminence, however lofty, which might not be reached by any aspirant to greatness, however lowly. There are many careers which seem to turn such tales into an idle mockery; but from time to time, lives are written which seem expressly intended to justify the recognised maxims which recommend honour, probity, and industry as the best policy, at the expense of the sceptical critics who take the opposite view of life. Sir John Malcolm was pre-eminent amongst men of this class. We do not remember a man whose history presents so complete a justification of the recognised views of life. Both in its incidents and in the lesson which it conveys, it is a very remarkable one.
Sir John Malcolm, born in 1769, was the fourth son of a family of seventeen children who were born to George and Margaret Malcolm, of Burnfoot, in Dumfriesshire. His father was a farmer, who was not only poor, but, in consequence of some unfortunate speculations, in embarrassed circumstances. He had, however, connexions through whom he obtained situations for several of his children, and, amongst the rest, a cadetship for John Malcolm, who received his commission in 1781, at the ripe age of twelve. When the young hero left home, his nurse said to him, “Kaim your head, and keep your face clean; if ye dinna, ye'll just be sent hame agen.” To which useful admonitions he replied, “Ye'll see if I were awa’ amang strangers, I'll just do weel aneugh.” When brought up to the India House, he was so mere a child that the Directors hesitated to pass him; and one of them said, “Why, my little man, what would you do if you were to meet Hyder Ali?” “Do, Sir,” was the answer, “I’d out with my sword, and cut off his head.” “You’ll do; let him pass,” was the reply; and, pace Sir C. Trevelyan and Sir S. Northcote, it was not a very unwise one. His first term of service in India lasted for twelve years, during which he got into and out of debt, learned several native languages, and acquired some experience and a great deal of ambition; for, being stationed at Hyderabad, he saw something of diplomatists, and was struck with the strongest desire to become himself a member of the diplomatic, or, as it is called in India, of the “political," branch of the service. On his return to England in 1791, he continued to further this object by writing a variety of letters to the newspapers, on Indian questions, an succeeded in connecting himself with the subject so effectively that he went out in 1794, as Secretary to General, afterwards Sir Alured Clarke, then Commander-in-Chief at Madras. He was introduced to the diplomatic service by Lord Wellesley, by whom he was appointed to the office of Assistant at Hyderabad. Mr. Kaye follows him closely through the whole of his career, from the date of this appointment to his final retirement from India, and death in 1833. In the interval between these dates, he filled various situations—diplomatic, administrative, and military—reaching the dignity of Governor of Bombay, and being twice sent on embassies to Persia. We will not follow Mr. Kaye through the whole of his narrative, which contains much that is valuable to students of Indian politics and history, and some things which are eminently curious and interesting to all persons who care to understand the nature and institutions of the most wonderful empire in the world.
The best way to show the nature of the last mentioned portion of its contents will be to attempt to give some notion of the character of Sir John Malcolm himself; for he seems to us to have embodied, to no common degree, the characteristics which more peculiarly belong to the subordinate instruments in the work of founding and maintaining a great empire. The task is an easy one, for not only was Malcolm's character very simple, but his career developed it, in all its proportions, with singular distinctness. He would seem to have been on the whole one of the very happiest of men. He had a constitution of great vigour, a body of very noble appearance and remarkable strength, and unfailing and overflowing animal spirits. His mind was unceasingly active, singularly shrewd and observant, and by no means deficient in power, though not much disposed to patient reflection or original thought. He had great strength of character, great courage, strong principles, and warm affections. These noble qualities, limited in some respects and deficient in others, found, nevertheless, an ample field for their exercise in diplomacy, war, and administration. Those who wish to learn the official details of the treaties by which the fruits of the victories of Assaye and Laswarrie were secured to us, or of those which first instituted friendly relations between the British Empire and Persia, will find their progress fully described in Mr. Kaye's book, The objects of the first Persian embassy were partly to acquire geographical, statistical, and political information on the condition and resources of the countries which adjoin the North-West of our territories, and partly to counteract the influence of the French at the Persian Court. The second was prompted to a great degree by the fear arising from the alliance made at the Peace of Tilsit between France and Russia, lest the two Powers together should undertake a joint invasion of British India. Both the Mahratta and the Persian negotiations throw a remarkable light on Sir J. Malcolm's character. In the first, he acted as the immediate subordinate of Lord Wellesley, and few things can be more characteristic of the men than the relations between them. Malcolm was zealously and passionately devoted both to the person and to the policy of his superior. He writes, both of and to him, in language so enthusiastic, that if it came from a less warmhearted and honourable man, we should be tempted to doubt its sincerity. Nothing can be less like the vulgar notion of a diplomatist than the singlehearted, impetuous way in which he details his views—nothing more honourable than the courage with which he dissents from his chief's opinion, at the price of incurring his very serious displeasure. The fact that straightforward simplicity, plain speaking, and fair dealing, without any artifice or device whatever, uniformly gained their points against an amount of duplicity and disingenuity altogether unlimited, is the great moral of the whole of Malcolm's diplomatic career. Lord Wellesley's despatches are also very striking. In all that he writes there is a weighty and graceful stateliness, which obviously overpowered Malcolm, and inspired him with a sort of admiration and loyalty which are amongst the most characteristic features of his character.
In his Persian embassies, another set of the envoy's qualities were called out. His quick sympathies and dazzling personal gifts enabled him to assume a position towards the Court which a more phlegmatic person could hardly have occupied. He was to the last degree punctilious in matters of form, and yet made himself wonderfully agreeable in all direct intercourse with the king and his ministers. The Shah seems to have regarded Malcolm with strong attachment, and his accomplishments produced a curiously powerful effect on the minds of the people at large. On his second embassy he was greeted with a vast number of popular traditions founded on more or less accurately reported incidents of the first.
Malcolm's career as a soldier was not a very brilliant one. He held no considerable command except in the second Mahratta war, when he led the decisive charge in the battle of Mehedpoor, and conducted the siege of Asseergur. His principal military occupation was of a semi-civil character, and consisted of the settlement of the districts of Central India, which came under our control after the final dispersion of the Mahrattas. Malcolm's administration of Malwah appears to us to form not only the brightest, but the most instructive part of his career. He had to provide for the security of life and property throughout the whole of a district as so as England, which had been wasted by war and rapine till it was in many parts a mere jungle for wild beasts. The peculiar fitness which he displayed or this kind of employment throws a singular light on the whole nature and origin of English rule in India. It was a task which required no rare qualities, moral or intellectual, but it afforded the widest scope for the exercise of the great everyday virtues, the plenteousness or scarcity of which decides the question whether a nation is to be great or small. Courage, energy, manly sense, impartial justice, attention to substance rather than form, are the qualities which enable a man to bring a wild race of semi-barbarians to live in peace and order; and with all these gifts Malcolm was endowed superabundantly. He was a brave soldier, a mighty hunter, a just judge, accessible to every human being who wanted to see him, and administering justice much as St. Louis did in the forest of Vincennes; and by these qualities, and others like these, he earned a reputation which survived amongst the natives for very many years after he left them. He turned robber chiefs into guardians of order. He protected the cultivators so efficiently that, in his days, lands were tilled which had lain fallow for a century, and yet he carefully abstained from all undue meddling. It was his system and maxim never to interfere if he could possibly help it. He protected persons and property with inviolable fidelity; but the great object of the whole of his public life in India was to teach the natives as far as possible to govern themselves, to allow the different native governments to fall as gently as possible, and never to assume for the English the responsibility of the direct management of affairs until it had become absolutely necessary.
Sir John Malcolm was a man of letters as well as a soldier and a statesman. On his own subjects he had a wonderful fund of knowledge, and, indeed, his energy, both in acquiring and in recording it is one of the most remarkable incidents in his life. How such a man contrived to write so much is a constant subject of surprise to Mr. Kaye; but a gentleman so well accustomed to composition ought to remember the old story of the clergyman who would have made his sermon shorter if he had had more time. Sir J. Malcolm's taste was not very severe, and he would seem to have been diffuse and almost garrulous on most occasions. Indeed, when he left his own subjects, he was quite a different man from the chivalrous paladin so well known in India. The view which he took of French politics when at Paris in the year 1815, was harsh and narrow in the extreme, and his speeches and writings on the Reform Bill might have been taken almost verbatim from Bentham's book of Fallacies. Nor can we honestly deny that his sensitiveness to praise seems to have developed itself to an extreme and even unmanly degree. His desire for titles and offices, even to the close of his life, was so earnest and so strong that even the simplicity and naïveté with which he avowed it can hardly reconcile us to the forms which it assumed. Taking him as a whole, however, we know of few more striking examples of the height to which a man may be raised by the possession of the commonest of virtues. The whole of Malcolm's life is a cheerful and spirited sermon on a cheerful text.
Of the literary merits of the book itself we need only say that it has the merits which might be expected of its author, and the faults which might be expected of its subject. It is the work of a practised and skilful writer, but, like almost all biographies, it is too long for a life and too short for a history; and, like almost all books on India, it leaves on the mind of a reader not specially acquainted with the subject, a strange kind of impression that Malcolm was a real man, who passed his life in fighting and negotiating with shadows. We wish that all writers on Indian subjects would meditate on the example afforded them by Mr. Macaulay's wonderful essays on Clive and Warren Hastings. From them some distinct conception may be derived of the people to whom the reader is introduced—we feel as if we had known Omichund and Nuncomar and Surajah Dowlah. But, like so many other writers, Mr. Kaye has failed to give us any other notion of Scindiah and Holkar, the Peishwah and the Nizam, than that which is conveyed in Coleridge's well-known saying, that their names are “wonderful non-conductors of sympathy.”
Saturday Review, January 3, 1857.