Henry Vansittart, the Governor of Bengal, was born on 3rd June 1732 at his father's house in Great Ormond Street, Bloomsbury. He was the third son of Arthur van Sittart of Shottesbrooke Park in Berkshire, by his wife Martha, eldest daughter and co-heiress of Sir John Stonhouse, bart., of Radley Hall, also in Berkshire, Controller to the Household of Queen Anne. Robert Vansittart was his elder brother and his younger brother, George, was father of General George Henry Vansittart and Vice-Admiral Henry Vansittart.
Henry Vansittart was educated at Reading Grammar School and at Winchester College. His youth was dissolute and, with his elder brothers, Arthur and Robert, he was a member of the graceless Society of the Franciscans of Medmenham, more usually known as the 'Hellfire Club'. His father, alarmed at his extravagances, compelled him, at the age of thirteen, to enter the service of the East India Company on their Madras establishment. In the summer of 1745, he sailed for Fort St. Davidís, where he was employed as a writer. He was extremely assiduous in his duties and early mastered the Persian language, the tongue then employed in Indian diplomacy. While at Fort St. Davidís, he made the acquaintance of a young Robert Clive, and a close friendship sprang up between them. In 1750, Vansittart was promoted to the grade of factor and, in the following year, visited England. He had amassed a considerable fortune, which he soon dissipated in gambling and riotous living. Returning to India, he was employed in 1754 and 1755 in embassies to the French East India Company and, for his services, was promoted to the rank of junior merchant. In 1756, he was advanced to that of senior merchant, while filling the post of secretary and Persian translator to the secret committee. In the following year, he took his seat in the council and was appointed searcher of the sea-gate. In February 1759, he took part in the defence of Madras against the French under Lally.
Clive had now been Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army for three years and, on 8th November 1759, he recommended that Vansittart was appointed President of the Council and Governor of Fort William and the company's settlements in Bengal, Belhar and Orissa; but, owing to the critical condition of affairs at Fort St. George, where he was acting as governor ad interim, he did not arrive in Bengal until July 1700. His promotion occasioned much discontent at Fort William, due, in part at least, to the fact that he was junior to any member of the council there. A petition was drawn up by John Zephaniah Holwell, the temporary governor, on 29th December 1759, which was signed by the members of the council, remonstrating against his appointment. The directors, however, upheld Vansittart and, in a reply dated 21st January 1761, removed the petitioners from their official places.
Vansittart arrived in Bengal at the end of July 1760. He found affairs embarrassed. Clive, by undertaking to assist the Subadar in military matters, had entirely changed the position of the company in Bengal. By the treaty with the subadar, Mir Jafar, the company undertook to maintain a force under their own direction, but in the Subadar's pay, to be at his service when he should require it. The sum for its maintenance was afterwards fixed at a lakh of rupees a month. The new governor found this subsidy unpaid, the treasury empty and the income of the presidency scarcely sufficient for the current expenses of Calcutta. Nothing was to be expected from Mir Jafar, who was alienated from the English and who, besides, had entirely lost control of the administration. The death of his son, Miran, on 2 July 1760, plunged matters into inextricable confusion by removing the only man able to control the Subadar's troops. Under these circumstances, Vansittart resolved to place the administration in the hands of Mir Kasim, Mir Jafar's son-in-law, a man of undoubted ability and well affected to the English. On 2nd October 1760, Vansittart proceeded to Kasimbazar and, finding Mir Jafar resolutely opposed to his plan, deposed him and, at his own request, sent him to Calcutta. His successor, Mir Kasim, by a treaty previously concluded on 17th September, assigned the revenues of the provinces of Bardwan, Midnapur and Chittagong for the maintenance of the company's troops and placed them under English administration.
In April 1761, a serious difference arose between the English military and civil authorities. Mir Kasim, on assuming authority, summoned, amongst others, Ramnarain, the financial official of Patna and a protege of the English, to give in a statement of his accounts. This, however, Ramnarain, supported by the military officers at Patna, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Eyre Coote and Major John Carnac, steadily avoided doing. Vansittart, at first, was fully disposed to protect Ramnarain and sent directions to Patna that, if he made a statement of his accounts, he was to be sheltered from attempts at extortion. Ramnarain, however, persistently evaded Mir Kasim's demand and, relying on the connivance of the English, aspired to independence. He coined money in his own name and Carnac, under pretence of protecting him, publicly, with an armed force, menaced and insulted Mir Kasim. Consequently Vansittart and the council recalled the two officers, leaving the fate of Ramnarain at the discretion of Mir Kasim, by whom he was imprisoned and afterwards put to death.
Though harmony was thus established for the moment, the state of affairs in Bengal was such that fresh disputes were inevitable. The company's servants were, at that time, allowed to engage in private trade and the result was unfathomable corruption. By unjustifiably extending the privilege of trading free of duty to cover internal as well as foreign trade, by granting 'dustucks' or passports for their own and their servants' goods, as well as for those of the company, and by insisting that their native agents should be totally exempted from the Subadar's jurisdiction, the English officials had engrossed the entire business of the country, and had established an independent government by the side of the Nabob's. Vansittart set his face against these abuses, but the authority of the President was extremely limited. He was little more than Chairman of the Council, which determined all administrative action by a bare majority. He had hardly begun to take remedial measures, when a peremptory order from the directors dismissed from their service three members of the council for joining in Clive's famous remonstrance of 1759, and placed his party in a minority. In addition, the change sent Ellis, Vansittart's strongest opponent, to Patna, the residence of the Nabob. Under these circumstances, matters took a serious turn. The company's factors, annoyed at the restraint the Nabob endeavoured to place on their exactions, retaliated by arresting his officers. Unable to afford redress, Vansittart endeavoured to pursue a policy of conciliation and, while retaining the Nabob's confidence, to soften the animosity of the council. In August 1762, Warren Hastings, a consistent supporter of Vansittart, was despatched on a preliminary mission of investigation. At the end of the year, taking Hastings as his assistant, Vansittart visited the Nabob at Mungir, whither he had removed to avoid Ellis. Vansittart came to an agreement with him whereby the goods of servants of the company should pay a duty of nine per cent, a rate far below that levied on native traders. This arrangement was immediately repudiated by the council, on 1st March 1768, notwithstanding the protest of Vansittart and Warren Hastings. The Nabob, in exasperation, abolished the whole system of duties on internal trade. The council declared that his action was contrary to treaty obligations and called on him to re-establish the customs. The Subadar had long seen that a rupture was inevitable and had made preparations for war. Hostilities were commenced by Ellis. He made an unjustifiable and unsuccessful attack on Patna, was taken prisoner and put to death there with other European captives. Mir Jafar, after some successes, was overthrown by Major Thomas Adams and sought refuge with the Nawab of Oudh. Vansittart, annoyed at the manner in which his policy had been thwarted, resigned the presidency on the conclusion of the war and left Calcutta on 28th November 1764.
Vansittart was assailed by his opponents in England, with great vehemence, both before and after his arrival. Clive, already aggrieved by the deposition of Mir Jafar, which he considered a reversal of his policy, had been completely alienated from Vansittart by a personal quarrel, and Vansittart was supported in the India House by Clive's opponent, Lawrence Sulivan. In 1704, Vansittart transmitted, to London, copies of the political correspondence during his administration, which were published by his friends under the title, 'Original Papers relative to the Disturbances in Bengal' (1764). Finding, upon his arrival, that the court of directors would not grant him an interview, he republished the papers with a connecting narrative under the title 'A Narrative of the Transactions in Bengal from 1760 to 1764' (1766).
On 16th March 1708, Vansittart was returned to parliament for the borough of Reading. The reports sent home by Clive, who had been despatched to Bengal with extraordinary powers, justified Vansittart in the eyes of the company by exposing the corruption existing among their servants in Bengal. Early in 1769, he was elected a director of the company. On 14th June 1769, he was appointed, together with Luke Scrafton, a former official, and Francis Forde, to proceed to India, with the title of supervisor and with authority to examine every department of administration. The three supervisors sailed from Portsmouth in September 1769 in the Aurora frigate, left Cape Town on 27th December and were never heard of again.
In 1754, Vansittart had married to Amelia, daughter of Nicholas Morse, Governor of Madras. By her he left five sons - Henry, Arthur, Robert, George and Nicholas, created Baron Bexley - and two daughters, Ann and Sophia. In 1765, Vansittart purchased Foxley Manor at Bray, which became his main country residence, along with those of Great and Little Fawley and Whatcombe, all in Berkshire, and a London residence in Greenwich, which descended to his children.
Vansittartís conduct in Bengal was far-sighted and his dealings with the Subadar were distinguished by statesmanlike moderation. On every question that arose, his proceedings were in accordance with the principles to which his successors were eventually obliged to conform. Had he been vested with sufficient authority, his administration would have been brilliant but, like Warren Hastings at a later time, he found himself at the mercy of a hostile majority in the council and was able only to indicate the right policy, not to carry it out. He was a good scholar and linguist, and was the author of several oriental translations.
Edited from Sidney Lee's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1899)
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