Lord William Bentinck assumed the office of the Governor-General in 1828. Born in 1774 he commenced his career as a soldier and later at the young age of twenty two he became a Member of Parliament. He was appointed the Governor of Madras in 1803. He supported Sir Thomas Munroe on revenue administration. The Vellore Mutiny of 1806 had resulted in Bentinck’s recall. However, his appointment again to the higher office as Governor-General shows his real greatness. As Governor-General, Bentinck had initiated an era of progress and reforms. He was undoubtedly the first Governor- General of British India who acted on the dictum that “the welfare of the subject peoples was a main, perhaps the primary, duty of the British in India”.
Policy Towards Indian States
William Bentinck adopted a policy of non-intervention and non-aggression with Indian states. If at all he interfered in the affairs of the Indian states, it was only to end any form of misgovernment and never to annex any territory.
In Mysore, Hindu rule under Krishnaraja III was restored by Wellesley. In the beginning, the young Raja functioned well along with his able minister Puranaiya. Later, when the young raja assumed full control of the government he proved incompetent. The peasantry of the state suffered from many grievances. There was no redressal. Consequently, a revolt of the peasants broke out in 1830 and it was suppressed with the help of an army from Madras. Nonetheless, the British authorities took over the administration of Mysore State and placed it under the control of a commissioner. The Raja was given a pension.
Sir Mark Cubbon was commissioner from 1834 to 1861 and his administration was beneficial to the people of Mysore. Even today, the famous Cubbon Park in Bangalore city has been named after him to remind his services to Mysore.
Cachar and Jaintia
The principality of Cachar lying in the North East Frontier came under the protection of the British in accordance with the Treaty of Yandaboo concluded at the end of the first Burmese War. The Raja of this small state was assassinated in 1832 but there was no heir to succeed him. Bentinck annexed this state at the wish of the people.
Jaintia was one of the territories brought under the custody of the British after the first Anglo-Burmese War. The ruler of the small country behaved in an unruly way by abducting a few subjects of British India with the evil intention of sacrificing them to the goddess Kali. Therefore, the Governor-General acted promptly to avert any recurrence of such cruel abhorrent act and annexed this country.
Vira Raja was a ruthless ruler of Coorg who treated his people with savage barbarity and killed all his male relatives. Lord William Bentinck decided to deal with him effectively and sent Colonel Lindsay to capture Mercara, the capital of the Coorg state. The Raja was deposed in 1834 and the state was annexed.
Relations with Ranjit Singh
Lord William Bentinck was the first Governor-General to visualise a Russian threat to India. Hence, he was eager to negotiate friendly relations both with the ruler of Punjab, Maharajah Ranjit Singh and also with the Amirs of Sind. His earnest desire was that Afghanistan should be made a buffer state between India and any possible invader. As an initial measure, an exchange of gifts took place between Lahore, the capital of Punjab and Calcutta, the seat of Governor-General. It was then followed by the meeting of Bentinck and Ranjit Singh on 25 October, 1831 at Rupar on the bank of the river Sutlej amidst show and splendor. The Governor-General was successful in winning the friendship of Ranjit Singh and the Indus Navigation Treaty was concluded between them. This treaty opened up the Sutlej for navigation. In addition, a commercial treaty was negotiated with Ranjit Singh. A similar treaty was also concluded with the Amirs of Sind.
Charter Act of 1833
The Regulating Act of 1773 made it compulsory to renew the Company’s Charter after twenty years. Hence, the Charter Act of 1793 was passed by the Parliament. It extended the life of Company for another twenty years and introduced minor changes in the existing set up. The Charter Act of 1813 provided one lakh of rupees annually for the promotion of Indian education. It also extended the Company’s charter for another twenty years.
The Charter Act of 1833 was a significant constitutional instrument defining the scope and authority of the East India Company. The liberal and utilitarian philosophy of Bentham was made popular by the provisions of this Act. Following were the important provisions:
(i) The English East India Company ceased to be a commercial agency in India. In other words, it would function hereafter as the political agent for the Crown.
(ii) The Governor-General of Fort William was hereafter called ‘the Governor- General of India’. Thus, Bentinck was the first Governor-General of India’.
(iii) A Law Member was appointed to the Governor-General’s Council. T. B. Macaulay was the first Law Member of the Governor- General-in-Council.
(iv) The Act categorically stated ‘that no native of India, nor any natural born subject of His Majesty, should be disabled from holding any place, office, or employment, by reason of his religion, place of birth, descent or colour”. It was this enactment which laid the foundation for the Indianisation of public services.
After twenty years, the Charter Act of 1853 was passed and it was the last in the series of Charter Acts.
Reforms of Lord William Bentinck
The advent of Lord William Bentinck ushered in a new era in the annals of India in many ways. Although his tenure of office covered only a short span of seven years, it saw a period of enduring reforms. They may be classified as financial, administrative, social and educational.
When Bentinck assumed the Governor-Generalship in 1828, the financial position of the Company was poor. The exchequer was very weak. The state budget showed a deficit of one million rupees. It became necessary on the part of the Governor-General to take effective steps to improve the financial condition. To achieve this he adopted the following measures:
He reduced the salaries and allowances of all officers and additional staff were removed. In the military department, he abolished the system of double batta. (Batta was an allowance to troops on active service.) By these financial reforms at the time of his departure, he left the treasury with a surplus of Rs.1.5 millions.
Bentinck’s administrative reforms speak of his political maturity and wisdom. In the judicial department he abolished the provincial courts of appeal established by Cornwallis. They were largely responsible for the huge arrears of cases. This step was readily accepted by the Directors since it cut down their expenditure. Another good measure of Bentinck was the introduction of local languages in the lower courts and English in the higher courts in the place of Persian. Even in matters of revenue Bentinck left his mark. He launched the revenue settlements of the North West Province under the control of R.M. Bird. This settlement was for a period of 30 years and it was made either with the tillers of the soil, or with the landowners.
The social reforms of William Bentinck made his name immortal in the history of British India. These include the abolition of Sati, the suppression of Thugs and the prevention of female infanticide.
Abolition of Sati
The practice of sati, the age old custom of burning of widows alive on the funeral pyre of their husbands was prevalent in India from ancient times. This inhuman social custom was very common in northern India more particularly in Bengal. Bentinck was greatly distressed when he received a report of 800 cases of sati in a single year and that from Bengal. He determined to abolish this practice which he considered an offence against natural justice. Therefore, he became a crusader against it and promulgated his Regulation XVII on 4 December 1829 prohibiting the practice of sati. Those who practiced sati were made liable for punishment by law courts as accessories to the crime. The Regulation was extended to the Madras and Bombay Presidencies in 1830.
Suppression of Thugs
The most commendable measure which Bentinck undertook and which contributed to the material welfare of the people was the suppression of the ‘thugs’. They were hereditary robbers. They went about in small groups of fifty to hundred posing as commercial gangs or pilgrims ‘strangling and robbing peaceful travellers’. They increased in number in central and northern India during the 18th century when anarchy reigned after the disintegration of the Mughal Empire. A campaign was systematically organised by Colonel Sleeman from 1830 against the thugs. During the course of five years nearly 2000 of them were captured. A greater number of them were exterminated and the rest were transported to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. For his role in the suppression of thugs, Sir William Sleeman was known as “Thugee Sleeman”.
Female infanticide was one of the horrible and heartless deeds committed even by civilized people. This practice killing female infants was very much prevalent in places like Rajputana, Punjab, Malwa and Cutch. Bentinck took effective steps to prevent the ritual of child sacrifice at Saugar Island in Bengal. He not only prohibited female infanticide but declared them as punishable crime.
Introduction of English Education
The introduction of English Education was a significant event of Lord William Bentinck’s administration. He appointed a committee headed by Lord Macaulay to make recommendations for the promotion of education. In his report, Macaulay emphasized the promotion of European literature and science through English medium to the people of India. This recommendation was wholeheartedly accepted by William Bentinck. The Government Resolution in 1835 made English the official and literary language of India. In the same year, William Bentinck laid foundation of the Calcutta Medical College.
Estimate of William Bentinck
Bentinck was a “straightforward, honest, upright, benevolent, sensible man”. His social reforms such as abolition of sati and prevention of child sacrifice eradicated age old evils from Hindu society. It is gratifying to note that “Bentinck acted where others had talked”. To enforce the regulations regarding the prohibition of sati, he was prepared to risk his own position. Such courage and straightforwardness were seldom found among the administrators of those days. His educational reforms heralded a new age in India.
After William Bentinck, Lord Auckland (1836-42) became Governor-General. The First Afghan War (1836-42) was fought during his administration. Due to his failure in Afghanistan he was recalled in 1842. Lord Ellenborough succeeded him and ended the Afghan War. He also annexed the Sindh. His successor, Lord Hardinge (1844-48) fought the first Anglo-Sikh War (1845-46) and concluded the Treaty of Lahore.