Vansittart, Henry

Vansittart, Henry (1732-1770) governor of fort william in Bengal from 27 July 1760 to 2 December 1764. Born on 3 June 1732 in London, Vansittart was the third son of Arthur Vansittart of Berkshire, England.

Henry was educated at Reading Grammar School and at Winchester College. But in his early youth he was unruly. His father compelled him at the young age of thirteen to enter the service of the east india company on its Madras establishment. In 1745 he was employed as a writer at Madras. While at Madras he learnt Persian which was then the official Indian language. He met robert clive who became his close friend and promoter. In 1750 Vansittart was promoted to the next higher grade of factor. In the following year he visited England and led a reckless life there for about three years. He returned to India in 1754 and became a member of the Madras Council in 1757. In November 1759, on Clive's recommendation, he was appointed President of the Council and Governor of Fort William in Bengal.

Henry Vansittart

Vansittart arrived in Bengal as a successor of Clive towards the end of July 1760 and took over from the temporary president holwell amidst a deteriorating political situation. mir jafar, the then Nawab of the Bengal Subah proved himself utterly unsuccessful and lost control over the administration. At the same time the Company withdrew their support from Mir Jafar as it was doubted that he had been conspiring against the English. Vansittart chose mir qasim, son-in-law of Mir Jafar as the new Nawab. Mir Qasim made huge cash payment to individuals like Vansittart, Holwell and Sumru. By a treaty, he assigned to the Company the revenues of the districts of Burdwan, Midnapur and Chittagong.

Soon after his assumption of power as the Nawab of Bengal subah Mir Qasim developed serious differences with the officers of the Company who refused to pay inland customs duties and resorted to violence in dealing with the Nawab's officers. Ramnarayan, Nawab's revenue officer at Patna, earned his displeasure by avoiding submission of statement of accounts (apparently at the instance of some English military officers). But with Vansittart's support Mir Qasim was able to imprison Ramnarayan, who was later put to death. Meanwhile the unjust involvement of the Company's officers in private trade led to serious abuse of their trade privileges and consequent loss to the government revenue from custom duties.

Mir Qasim was determined to stop these abuses. For a time Vansittart supported the Nawab in his efforts to curb the reckless activities of the Company's officers, but his powers were also limited. He was able to negotiate a temporary settlement between the rival groups by which the goods of the servants of the company were subjected to pay a duty, but this agreement was repudiated by the council despite the plea of Vansittart who on the authority of the imperial farman and the orders of the court of directors repeatedly told the council that the English were exceeding their rights. The Nawab then acted on his own and in utter disgust abolished the whole system of customs. The English considered Nawab's action high handed and contrary to treaty obligations. Even Governor Vansittart felt helpless and could not convince his colleagues to treat the Nawab in a better way. This led to the series of wars between the Company and the Nawab, who after some initial successes was finally overthrown in October 1764 and fled from the country. A shattered Vansittart soon afterwards resigned the presidency on 28 November 1764, and returned to England.

In England he was bitterly criticised by his opponents. Clive, already annoyed at the deposition of Mir Jafar, which he considered a breach of contract, had been completely alienated from Vansittart. Lawrence Sulivan and some others in the India House, opponents of Clive, on the other hand, supported Vansittart.

In 1764 his friends published under the title Original Papers Relative to Disturbance in Bengal in two volumes being the political correspondence during his administration in Bengal, which he transmitted to London. He reprinted in 1766 the papers with additional narrative under the new tittle A Narrative of the Transactions in Bengal from 1760-1764 in three volumes. These are a dependable source material regarding what happened in Bengal during his term of office.

In March 1768 Vansittart was elected to parliament from the Borough of Reading. The reports sent home by Clive, who had been despatched to Bengal with extraordinary powers, exposed the corruption existing among the servants of the Company in Bengal and justified the stand taken by Vansittart. In early 1769 he was elected a Director of the Company. On 14 June 1769 he was commissioned along with two other officials including Luke Scrafton to examine the administrative affairs of India. The three member high-powered committee sailed from Portsmouth in September 1769 in the Aurora Frigate, left Cape Town on 27 December and were never heard of again.

Vansittart was married to Emilia, daughter of Nicholas Morse, governor of Madras, in 1754 and they had five sons and two daughters. On returning to England from India after his governorship Vansittart purchased quite a considerable property in Berkshire and a house at Greenwich which his children inherited.

Due to his conflict with Clive, Vansittart has been criticised by writers on British Indian history. But his conduct and dealings with the Nawabs of Bengal have been praised as statesmanlike and distinguished for moderation. Unfortunately he had not been vested with sufficient power to deal with his opponents and like warren hastings of the 1770s found himself at the mercy of hostile majority in the council and was not able to carry out even a rightful cause. Nevertheless he was a good scholar and a linguist and was the author of a number of oriental translations. [KM Mohsin]