Mountstuart Elphinstone (6 October 1779 – 20 November 1859) was a Scottish statesman and historian, associated with the government of British India. He later became the Governor of Bombay (now Mumbai) where he is credited with the opening of several educational institutions accessible to the Indian population. Besides being a noted administrator, he wrote books on India and Afghanistan.
Born in Dumbarton, Dumbartonshire (now Dunbartonshire) in 1779, and educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, he was the fourth son of the 11th Baron Elphinstone in the peerage of Scotland. Having been appointed to the civil service of the British East India Company, of which one of his uncles was a director, he arrived at Calcutta (now Kolkata) early in 1796 where he filled several subordinate posts. In 1801, he escaped massacre in Benares (now Varanasi) by the followers of the deposed Wajid Ali Shah (?). Later that year he was transferred to the Diplomatic Service where he was posted as the assistant to the British resident at the court of the Peshwa ruler Baji Rao II.
In the Peshwa court he obtained his first opportunity of distinction, being attached in the capacity of diplomatist to the mission of Sir Arthur Wellesley to the Marathas. When, on the failure of negotiations, war broke out, Elphinstone, though a civilian, acted as virtual aide-de-camp to Wellesley. At the Battle of Assaye, and throughout the campaign, he displayed rare courage and knowledge of tactics such that Wellesley told him he ought to have been a soldier. In 1804, when the war ended, Elphinstone was appointed British resident at Nagpur. This gave him plenty of leisure time, which he spent in reading and study. Later, in 1807, he completed a short stint at Gwalior.
In 1808 he was appointed the first British envoy to the court of Kabul, Afghanistan with the object of securing a friendly alliance with the Afghans against Napoleon's planned advance on India. However this proved of little value, because Shah Shuja was driven from the throne by his brother before it could be ratified. The most valuable permanent result of the embassy was in Elphinstone's work titled Account of the Kingdom of Cabul and its Dependencies in Persia and India (1815).
After spending about a year in Calcutta arranging the report of his mission, Elphinstone was appointed in 1811 to the important and difficult post of resident at Pune (formerly known as Poona). The difficulty arose from the general complication of Maratha politics, and especially from the weakness of the Peshwas, which Elphinstone rightly read from the first. The tenuous peace between the Peshwas was broken in 1817 with the Marathas declaring war on the British. Elphinstone assumed command of the military during an important crisis during the Battle of Khadki and managed to secure a victory despite his non-military background. As reparations, Peshwa territories were annexed by the British. Elphinstone became the Commissioner of the Deccan in 1818.
The following year (1819), Elphinstone was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Bombay, a post he held until 1827. During his tenure, he greatly promoted education in India, at a time when opinion in Britain was against educating the "natives". He may fairly be regarded as the founder of the system of state education in India. One of his principal achievements was the compilation of the "Elphinstone code." He also returned many lands that had appropriated by the British to the Raja of Satara.
He built the first bungalow in Malabar Hill during this time, and following his example, many prominent people took up residence here. It soon became a posh locality, and remains so to the present date.
His connection with the Bombay Presidency is commemorated in the endowment of Elphinstone College by local communities, and in the erection of a marble statue by the European inhabitants. However, the Elphinstone Road railway station and the Elphinstone Circle, both in Mumbai city, are not named after him but in honour of his nephew, Lord John Elphinstone, who also later became Governor of Bombay in 1850s.
Return to England
Returning to England in 1829, after an interval of two years' travel, Elphinstone continued to influence public affairs. He twice refused the offer of the post of the Governor-General of India, preferring to finish his two-volume work, History of India (1841). It embraces the Hindu and Muslim periods, and is still a work of high authority. He died in Surrey, England on 20 November 1859.
- J.S. Cotton, Mountstuart Elphinstone ("Rulers of India" series), (1892)
- T.E. Colebrooke, Life of Mountstuart Elphinstone (1884)
- G.W. Forrest, Official Writings of Mountstuart Elphinstone (1884)
- Harrington, Jack (2010), Sir John Malcolm and the Creation of British India, Ch. 5, New York: Palgrave Macmillan., ISBN 978-0-230-10885-1
- Montstuart Elphinstone (GFDL site)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.