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William Pitt Amherst, Earl Amherst of Arracan (1773-1857)

This article was written by Robert Kennaway Douglas and was published in 1885

AmherstWilliam Pitt Amherst, a diplomatist and statesman, was the son of Lieutenant-general William Amherst; aide-de-camp to the king, governor of St John's, Newfoundland, and adjutant-general of the army, and his wife, Elizabeth Patterson (d. 1776/7). Amherst and his two sisters were brought up on the Isle of Wight until the deaths of their parents caused them to be transferred to Kent, where they were placed under the care of their uncle Jeffrey Amherst, first Baron Amherst (1717–1797), commander-in-chief of the army.

Amherst was born in January 1773, and succeeded as second baron on the decease of his uncle, the late commander-in-chief in Great Britain, on 3 August 1797. Being the son and nephew of officers who had held high positions in the colonies and elsewhere, he at all times took a keen interest in foreign affairs; and when, after the peace of 1815, the English government turned their attention to the complaints of injustice and exactions on the part of the Chinese mandarins which reached them from time to time from the English merchants at Canton, Lord Amherst was chosen to proceed to Beijing as British envoy, to represent to the Emperor Jia Jing (1796-1820) the wrongs which British subjects were suffering under his rule.

In February 1816 Lord Amherst sailed from Spithead, and after a voyage of no unusual length in those days arrived off Canton in the beginning of July. There he was met by mandarins of an inferior grade, who had been appointed to receive him, and with whom he very properly declined to communicate except through his secretaries. After considerable delay, permission was given him to proceed to Tianjin, by sea, on his way to the capital, and at that city he was again met by imperial commissioners. Being far removed from all semblance of English power, the commissioners, who, like all Asiatics, bow only when conscious of weakness, assumed an arrogant tone in their dealings with the envoy. The presents he brought from the prince regent for the emperor they described as articles of ‘tribute,’ and with more persistence than diplomatic skill they urged him to promise to perform the ‘kowtow,’ or nine strikings of the forehead on the ground, on being admitted into the presence of the emperor.

They even went the length of asserting, though falsely, that Lord Macartney, when granted audiences by the preceding emperor, Qian Long, had gone through this degrading ceremony. But to all solicitations on this point Lord Amherst turned a deaf ear, and declared his intention of yielding only so far as to bow, instead of prostrating himself, nine times. So anxious were the commissioners to see for themselves what this concession amounted to, that, at a dinner which they gave in honour of the envoy, some imperial insignia were introduced before which they kowtowed, while Lord Amherst and his staff made the promised number of bows.

After much time had been consumed in these profitless discussions, the commissioners, finding Lord Amherst firm, arranged that he should leave Tianjin for the capital on 14 August. After a tedious journey by river the embassy reached Tong Zhou, and from thence were carried on to the palace of Yuan Ming Yuan [the 'old' Summer Palace, burned down by the Allies in 1860], where they arrived on the evening of the 29th. Worn out with fatigue, Lord Amherst was about to retire for the night, when he was peremptorily invited into the presence of the emperor. Though such a breach of the commonest diplomatic courtesy might have been overlooked on the plea of ignorance, Lord Amherst, deeming it probable, from the hasty rudeness of the message and the insolent manner of the messengers, that an attempt would be made in the hurry of the moment to force him to perform an unbecoming ceremony, positively refused to obey the command. The result was that without further parley he was sent back the same evening to Tong Zhou, on his way to Tianjin. From this point, instead of returning as he came by sea, he was conducted down the Grand Canal, and over the celebrated Meling Pass, to Canton, where, on 20 January 1817, he re-embarked for England.

Although he had thus failed in carrying out the object of his mission, the true cause of his want of success was duly recognised by his countrymen; and when, in 1823, the Marquis of Hastings retired from the governor-generalship of India, Lord Amherst was appointed by the directors to succeed him. On landing at Calcutta (1 August 1823) he found the local politics much disturbed in consequence of the prosecution of Mr. Buckingham, a newspaper editor, by order of John Adam, who had held temporary office during the interval between the departure of Lord Hastings and Lord Amherst's arrival. By judicious firmness and conciliation, Lord Amherst succeeded in throwing oil upon the troubled waters on the spot, though Mr. Buckingham subsequently carried on the contention in England. But far more important matters demanded the immediate attention of the viceroy.

The pretensions of the king of Burmah had for some time been giving rise to uneasiness, and when Lord Amherst assumed the governor-generalship he was met by a demand from that sovereign for the cession of the whole of Eastern Bengal. Not satisfied with making this bold request, the king drove out by force of numbers the English garrison on the island of Shapporee at the mouth of the Naef river, and despatched General Máha Bundoola to conquer Bengal. So full was he of arrogant confidence as to the result of the campaign that he ordered this general, after vanquishing the English troops, to bring Lord Amherst, bound in golden fetters, into his presence.

This presumptuous conduct made a continuance of peace impossible, and on 24 February 1824 Lord Amherst issued a proclamation of war. Although our successes during the operations which followed were by no means unchequered by misfortune, the net result of the various campaigns was that Rangoon, Martaban on the Tenasserim coast, and Prome, the capital of Lower Burmah, were captured by our troops. Having by these reverses had his eyes opened to the real strength of the British power in India, and fearing lest further disasters should overtake him, the king proposed terms of peace, and eventually agreed to cede to the English Tenasserim, Arracan, and Assam, and to pay the expenses of the war. No sooner had Lord Amherst thus succeeded in securing peace with Burmah than a case of disputed succession at Bhurtpore again taxed his statesmanship.

The circumstances of this affair were of a kind well understood by students of Oriental history. A youthful heir had succeeded to the rajahship, and had been deposed by an ambitious cousin, Doorjun Sál by name. As the young rajah had been recognised by the government of India, Sir David Ochterlony, the English political agent in Northern India, at once ordered a force to march on Bhurtpore to support his claims. At the moment this policy was disapproved of by Lord Amherst, who recalled the troops. Subsequent events, however, proved that Sir David Ochterlony's policy was the true one, and Lord Combermere was despatched with a force of 20,000 troops of all arms and 100 guns to reinstate the rightful rajah on his throne. After a short campaign, in which Bhurtpore was captured by assault, Doorjun Sál was deposed, and the young rajah was left in undisputed possession of his heritage. For his services in this matter and in the general conduct of affairs in India, Lord Amherst was created an earl, and received at the same time the thanks of the directors and proprietors of the East India Company.

Towards the close of the same year (1826), he made a politically successful tour through the north-west provinces, and in the following summer he inaugurated Simla as a vice-regal sanatorium. For some time previously his health had been uncertain, and in February 1828 he embarked for England, having already sent in his resignation as viceroy. He was gazetted governor-general of Canada on 1 April 1835 on the nomination of Peel, but on the immediate change of ministry he gave up the appointment. For the rest of his life he lived comparatively retired from public affairs, and died in 1857, aged 84.

Lord Amherst was twice married, first, on 24 July 1800, to Sarah, countess dowager of Plymouth, relict of Other Hickman, fifth earl of Plymouth, by whom he had issue William Pitt, Viscount Holmesdale, and Sarah Elizabeth, who married Sir John Hay Williams; and secondly, on 25 May 1839, to Mary, relict of Other Archer, sixth earl of Plymouth

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