SULIVAN, Laurence (c.1713-86), of Ponsbourne Park, Herts.
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Family and Education
b. c.1713 in Ireland, of the family of Sulivan or O’sulivan of co. Cork. m. (apparently at Bombay) Elizabeth, a relative of Edward Owen of the E.I. Co., 2s.
Director, E.I. Co. 1755-8, 1764-5, 1769-70, 1771-2, 1778-80, 1783- d.; dep. chairman 1763-4, 1772-3, 1780-1; chairman 1758-9, 1760-2, 1781-2.1
Sulivan’s early life is obscure, and the first record of his activities occurs in March 1740 when his appointment as assistant to the governor of Bengal was confirmed and ante-dated to 1 Jan. Appointed factor in February 1741, he did useful work but rose slowly through lack of interest at home. In 1751 he became chief of Mahim and took his seat on the Bombay council. He returned to England in 1753 with a moderate fortune, engaged in agency business, and in 1761 purchased for £13,500 the estate of Ponsbourne. About the same time he was able to give up or greatly reduce his business activities. He said later of his resources, ‘though I was independent, not anxious for more, I never was rich’.2 In 1755, when the cry was being raised for men with local knowledge on the direction of the East India Company, he was elected a director, and thus began what was to be the absorbing interest of his career.
His parliamentary ambitions arose directly out of his activities in the Company, since relations between state and Company were close and of growing importance. At first received somewhat coldly by ministers accustomed to deal with those whom he had superseded, he benefited from the changes following the accession of George III and attached himself to Bute and in particular to Shelburne, with whom he soon became on intimate terms.3 At the general election of 1761 he contested Ashburton, a borough over which Lord Orford was accustomed to exercise control. He was probably introduced there by John Dunning, a friend of Shelburne, and encouraged by Shelburne to make the attempt. Sulivan was defeated but expressed his determination to petition. He wrote to Shelburne on 7 Sept. 1761:4 ‘I have the high opinion of Lord Bute as sincerely to believe he will not suffer me and the rights of a free people to be sacrificed by a minister [Newcastle] who avows his boasted influence shall operate against me.’ But Henry Fox asked to be excused from presenting the petition,5 and Bute persuaded him to abandon it. On 2 Mar. 1762 Sulivan wrote to Newcastle:6
I owe that respect to your Grace as to acknowledge your intended kindness ... but as my future expectations are from Lord Bute alone, at whose desire I gave up the contest, I can only offer your Grace my thanks.
On 24 Mar. Sulivan was returned for Taunton on Lord Egremont’s interest. In 1768 he transferred to Ashburton as a result of an arrangement made with Robert Palk.
In the House Sulivan was a frequent and successful speaker on East India affairs and until 1769 a personal follower of Shelburne. The Company’s growing responsibilities led to dissensions within its general court which were intensified by the violent personal enmity between Sulivan and Clive. In the 1763 election of directors Clive, at the head of a number of dissatisfied Company servants, created a large number of fictitious votes in an attempt to drive Sulivan from power. Sulivan defended himself by similar measures, and triumphed with the aid of funds and influence put at his disposal by Administration. On the fall of the Bute Administration, however, Clive gained the support of the new ministry and Sulivan lost control of the Company’s affairs. Maintaining his close relations with the Shelburne group, Sulivan, assisted by Henry Vansittart, embarked on a struggle to recover his authority in the Company, and when Shelburne returned to office in 1766 succeeded in influencing materially the settlement between the state and the Company over their claims on the territorial revenues of Bengal. But the Chatham Administration was too divided to give him the help which would restore his control over the Company. The intimacy which developed between Lauchlin Macleane and Shelburne, and the part Macleane began to play in the speculation which sprang up in East India stock at this time, brought Sulivan into even closer relations with Shelburne. It was with the aid of the Shelburne group and a related group of speculators headed by Macleane and including a number of M.P.s (e.g. William Burke and Lord Verney) that Sulivan and Henry Vansittart planned in 1769 an expensive campaign to get back into power, a campaign in which they at last succeeded. This success proved a disaster, for a sudden fall in the value of East India stock plunged all the participators into acute financial difficulties; Sulivan and Vansittart were left liable for a ‘sum not less than £60,000’, and the loss of Vansittart at sea on his way to India to retrieve his fortunes made Sulivan’s position still more serious. By 1772 he estimated his debts uncovered by securities at some £17,800, and his estate was mortgaged to Dunning. Though he was owed large sums by Macleane, and though Macleane was sent to India in the hopes that he would be able to repay his creditors, little in fact was obtained from this source, and the failure of Sir George Colebrooke depressed Sulivan further, since Colebrooke also was his debtor. He managed by desperate efforts to keep his head above water, and succeeded in 1778 in getting his son Stephen out to India, where Warren Hastings befriended him, but he never regained his former prosperity. As late as 1779 Hastings, hearing of his straitened means, offered him a gift of £10,000, which he was prepared to accept if the transaction could be carried out secretly.7
The financial disaster of 1769 also ended his relations with Shelburne (himself a sufferer). In September he complained that ‘to me all are ill-disposed’8 and in October went over to Administration in the hope of obtaining their support in the Company. The support of Administration did not at once benefit him, as a combination of his enemies ousted him from the direction in 1770, but at the election of 1771 the personal intervention of North effected his restoration and, once there, his knowledge and ability began again to make their mark. By the end of 1771 it was noted that ‘if he remains united as at present with Sir George [Colebrooke] he will ... very shortly lead the India House’.9
He used his power to try to bring order and direction into the chaos of the Company’s affairs. He put his trust in Warren Hastings as governor of Bengal, and, among other measures, introduced a bill in the House of Commons on 30 Mar. 1772, with Government support, for increasing the control of the Company over its servants and reorganizing the administration of justice in Bengal. Opposition within the Company, however, and public opinion in the House, led to the gradual withdrawal of Government support from the bill, which was finally permitted to lapse, after the setting up of a select committee to investigate Indian abuses. Shortly afterwards Sulivan, with other leading directors, was discredited in the eyes of both the shareholders and the public by the collapse of the Company’s credit in the financial crisis of that year, when it became clear that the leading directors had been keeping from the shareholders the knowledge of the Company’s financial weaknesses.
When the Company had been rescued from its straits by North’s East India legislation of 1773 and the Treasury began to exercise a continuous indirect control over the Company’s affairs, it was made plain to Sulivan that it was intended to exclude him henceforth from the direction. Complaining of ‘the cruel unmerited conduct of Lord North’, he persisted in standing for the direction in 1773, but was defeated, and despite the unwilling support, on occasion, of the Rockingham group he did not succeed in again becoming a director until 1778.10
The general election of 1774 came when his affairs were at their lowest ebb. In view of his alienation from Shelburne (though he still maintained some relations with Dunning) he could hardly have hoped to retain his seat at Ashburton, but the news that his friend Palk intended to resume his seat seems nevertheless to have been a blow to him. ‘From public motives alone’, he wrote to Palk, 23 Aug. 1774, ‘I sought Parliament, but so little satisfaction have I experienced within these walls that, had I now my then independence, no temptation upon earth should have carried me thither again. But the melancholy change makes it (if possible) necessary to the future prospects of my family that either I or my son should be in the Senate.’11 Yet in the end he withdrew all claims on the seat, and appears never to have tried to enter Parliament again. His ambition in the Company remained, however, unabated, and he was at the centre of the activities in which state and Company were concerned in the following years. In 1778 confusion among the supporters of Administration enabled him to slip back on to the direction, and John Robinson was soon complaining that he was ‘forming a cabal and party in the direction and is nearly getting a majority’.12 In 1780 the Administration accepted the new situation and formed an alliance with him in the Company which subsisted until North fell in 1782. While this return to power enabled him to carry out some of his projects in the Company, his alliance with Administration and his support of Warren Hastings called down upon him the enemity of the Opposition; and after North’s resignation he was attacked in the seventh report of the select committee, and by Burke and others in the House of Commons in the debate of 1 Apr. 1783 on the printing of the report.13 He played an active part in the struggle against Fox’s East India bill in 1783, and in ensuring the Company’s support for the Pitt Administration. Though now old and somewhat infirm he hoped to enjoy his old supremacy in the Company; but the new ministers refused to support him as a candidate for either of the chairs. He remained a prominent director, but his influence was in decline.
Mr. Sulivan has great experience and some talents, great cunning; will go through thick and thin with his party while he remains attached to it; but not to be trusted for a moment when his own views lead him to be faithless; clean-handed I really believe as to money or unfair profits himself, but careless to how great a degree he supports the job of any of his connexions. I think the ruling passion with him is the vanity of being supposed the head of the India Company and the power of giving protection to his friends in the Company’s service.
In fact he was, despite his lack of scruples and the suspicions and hostility which he raised, one of the greatest of the Company’s rulers, fertile in expedient, quick to recognize merit, and with an unusual comprehension of the problems facing the Company both at home and abroad.
He died in February 1786.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Lucy S. Sutherland
- 1. L.S. Sutherland, E.I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics.
- 2. Add. 29194, f. 97.
- 3. Add. 32922, f. 9.
- 4. Lansdowne mss.
- 5. Sulivan to Shelburne, 2 Nov. 1761, ibid.
- 6. Add. 32935, f. 158.
- 7. Add. 29194, f. 96; 29143 f. 424; 29148, ff. 12-15; HMC Palk, 168.
- 8. Sulivan to Shelburne, 27 Sept. 1769, Lansdowne mss.
- 9. R. Leycester to W. Hastings, 1 Dec. 1771, Add 29132, f. 465.
- 10. Add. 29194, ff. 96-98; Richmond to Rockingham, 8 Apr. 1774, Rockingham mss.
- 11. HMC Palk, 242.
- 12. Add. 38211, f. 20.
- 13. Debrett, ix. 583.
- 14. H. Furber, ‘E.I. Directors 1784’, Jnl. Mod. Hist. 1933, p. 483.