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Governors General of India, Part I: Wellesley

From 1798 until 1805, the Marquess Wellesley presided over a great extension of British influence, deliberately seeking to make the King’s Government in Whitehall the real paramount power in the sub-continent. A.S. Bennell begins the first of three studies of British Governors-General in India.

Until 1947, one of the most difficult decisions that had to be made by a British Prime Minister was the choice of a Governor-General or Viceroy of India. The post carried immense prestige, yet remained difficult to fill. To the statesman who had hopes of the highest office at home it was a side-turning that led to the grave of reputations.

To the politician making his way it was a formidable opportunity, but one that rarely led back to the main stream of political advancement. Britain sent a wealth of talent to India. (“We must not lose India by keeping our best people here,” George VI wrote to Churchill in 1943; “but I do not feel that Eden can be spared at present.”)

Yet it was not perhaps the highest talent, and some members of the short list of outstanding Viceroys could be fairly awarded Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ comment on Franklin Roosevelt, “a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.”

Political life has long trained its followers in a hard school. Perforce the beginner learns the art of working for group-purposes with men of very different temperament and opinions. As a general rule, he is set to prove his talents in minor office. “The science of government deals with men, but I am set to govern packages.” Such was Gladstone’s complaint, written in his private diary, at the moment when he accepted office for the second time under Peel; and it might have been echoed by many others.

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