MALCOLM, Sir John (1769-1833), of Warfield, nr. Wokingham, Berks.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



9 Apr. 1831 - 1832

Family and Education

b. 2 May 1769, 4th s. of George Malcolm (d. 1803) of Burnfoot, nr. Langholm, Dumfries and Margaret, da. of James Pasley of Craig, Dumfries. educ. Westerkirk (Archibald Graham); in London by Mr. Allen 1781. m. 4 July 1807, at Mysore, Charlotte, da. of Col. Alexander Campbell of Ballede, Perth, 1s. 4da. kntd. 15 Dec. 1812; KCB 7 Apr. 1815; GCB 20 Nov. 1819. d. 30 May 1833.

Offices Held

Cadet, E.I. Co. (Madras) 1780, ensign 1781, lt. 1788, capt. 1798, maj. 1802, lt.-col. 1804, col. 1813, maj.-gen. 1819.

Pol. resident, Mysore 1802-12; gov. Bombay 1827-30.


Malcolm’s grandfather Robert Malcolm (d. 1761), who was descended from a junior branch of a Fifeshire family, was minister of Ewes, near Langholm, and had the tenancy of a sheep farm at Burnfoot. His son George was intended for the church, but a speech impediment put paid to this. He took over Burnfoot and the adjoining farm of Douglan, but got himself into financial difficulties through unwise speculations. His son John, the seventh of his 17 children, was taken to London in 1781 by his maternal uncle John Pasley, a merchant at 23 Surrey Street, who managed to place him in the East India Company’s service, despite his extreme youth. He sailed for India in the autumn of 1782 and arrived at Madras in April 1783.1 In 1788 he joined the forces of the nizam of Hyderabad in the Mysore war. He was, as one observer noted, ‘quite illiterate’ in terms of formal education, but ‘possessed of an intellect which only required to be set a-going, either for good or evil’. His ambitions turned to a diplomatic career, and he made himself master of the Persian language. Illness forced him to return to Britain on furlough in February 1794, but the voyage completely restored him. While at home he attracted the attention of Henry Dundas†, president of the board of control, with a paper on the grievances of Indian army officers. He was appointed to the staff of Sir Alured Clarke, the new commander-in-chief in Madras, and returned with him to India in May 1795, after a winter in Edinburgh where he casually attended university lectures.2

He served as private secretary to Clarke and his successor General Harris, but remained a frustrated diplomat. In the Mysore war of 1799, when he formed a lifelong friendship with the governor-general Lord Wellesley’s brother Arthur, the future duke of Wellington, he acted as the controlling political officer of the army, and became first secretary to the commission appointed to settle the Mysore territories after the taking of Seringapatam. Soon afterwards Wellesley sent him to Persia, as the first British envoy since the sixteenth century, with the aims of diverting the Afghans, checking French influence and promoting British trade. The mission, which lasted from December 1799 to early 1801, was dogged by difficulties of protocol, but Malcolm was at last presented to the shah, 16 Nov. 1801, and concluded commercial and political treaties. He reflected that he had ‘done as much as I was able’ in ‘a first negotiation with a government not two stages removed from a state of barbarism’. The outcome of the mission displeased the Company but found favour with Wellesley, who made Malcolm his private secretary and ambassador at large. His expectation of a nomination to a lucrative Indian post was thwarted by his employment on a succession of special missions, but in 1803 he secured the residency at Mysore, though he was hardly ever there. By 1806 he was out of pocket as a result of his special missions and feeling threatened by the opprobrium which was heaped on Wellesley on his return to England. The following year, when he married, he was advised by Arthur Wellesley not to be ‘in a hurry’ to go home, because he was ‘not yet sufficiently rich’. For his own part, Malcolm now contemplated retirement after 18 months of quiet residence at Mysore to recoup his finances. Late in 1807 he accepted the new governor-general Lord Minto’s commission to undertake another mission to Persia, but the Company made difficulties and he went to the Gulf merely as an observer with a small force of ships and marines. The enterprise was negated by French influence and Malcolm was back in India by August 1808, when he looked towards retirement in two years, being ‘tired of wasting my life in exertions which, from the virulence of party in England, are unlikely either to be appreciated or rewarded’. In 1810 he returned to Persia on a mission which was dogged by internecine British squabbles and accomplished little. Although he was censured for its extravagance, he was given money and assistants to advance his planned history of Persia, to which he turned his attention after the publication in 1811 of his Sketch of the Political History of India. He also dashed off Disturbances in the Madras Army, a defence of his suppression of the 1809 rebellion in Masulipatam, which was published in England just before his arrival on furlough in July 1812.3

Malcolm accepted an invitation from Lord Buckinghamshire, the new head of the board of control, to discuss Indian affairs with him. He also met and befriended Sir Walter Scott, who thought him ‘a fine fellow’, distinguished by ‘frankness’ and ‘sound ideas of morality and policy’. He gave evidence on Indian matters before the committee of the whole House, 5, 7 Apr., and the Commons select committee, 7 May 1813. He obtained a grant of £5,000 from the Company in recognition of his services and pressed on with his literary projects, but he still coveted high diplomatic employment. Wellington advised him to get into Parliament if possible, in order to advance this ambition, but also recommended him to ‘be nobody’s man but your own’ and to confine his pretensions to India. He became a literary celebrity on the publication of his successful History of Persia in the summer of 1815, after which he visited Wellington with the army of occupation in Brussels and Paris. Concluding that his prospects at home were bleak, he sailed again for India in October 1816. As the governor-general Lord Hastings’s agent and a brigadier in the Deccan army, he plunged into a welter of diplomatic and military activity. On 21 Dec. 1817, impetuously commanding an advance guard of cavalry, he scored a spectacular but bloody victory over Holkar’s forces at Mehidpoor. While furious at being passed over for Elphinstone as governor of Bombay in March 1819, he was persuaded by Hastings to stay on, in the vague expectation of becoming lieutenant-governor of the central territories, the administration and settlement of which now occupied most of his time. This proved illusory, and his chagrin was intensified when he learned early in 1820 that Sir Thomas Munro had been preferred to him as governor of Madras. Slightly mollified by promotion to major-general and a GCB, he stayed in India to complete his Report on the Province of Malwa and Notes of Instructions for his successors, both published in 1822. He left for England in December 1821 and travelled via Egypt, Corfu and Italy, where he visited his friend John William Ward*, who reported that ‘his Herculean frame has ... yielded in some degree to the effects of climate and fatigue’, but that ‘his spirits’ were ‘unabated’.4

He published a Memoir of Central India in 1823, when a proposal from the Company that he should undertake a fresh mission to Persia foundered on his insistence on having credentials from the crown. Later that year he visited Wellesley in Ireland and returned with reports of its ‘improving state’, notwithstanding the continuing atrocities there. He toured Scotland in 1824, and the next year went to France to attend the coronation of Charles X.5 He still thought an Indian governorship was the least he deserved, and in March 1824 he applied to succeed Munro at Madras, only to find ministers committed, at Lord Liverpool’s insistence, to supporting the pretensions of Stephen Rumbold Lushington*, the secretary to the treasury. Although Wellington warned him that he had ‘no chance’ of attaining his object, Malcolm persisted and, to meet the objection that his father-in-law’s holding the command at Madras made his own appointment inappropriate, he persuaded a faction at East India House to press for his appointment to Bombay and Elphinstone’s transfer to Madras. Against all the advice of Wellington and Charles Williams Wynn*, president of the board of control, who urged him to settle for a compensatory pension, Malcolm dug in his heels; the affair dragged on for months and ended in disappointment, though he did get the pension. In 1826, when he published his Political History of India, he considered but thought better of the idea of bidding for a seat on the direction of the East India Company.6 At the general election that year he had hopes of a seat at Rochester, where the treasury encouraged him to stand, ‘first, I really believe, on my own account, and next, because it will give them a second Member who, though not a Downing Street Member, is not in opposition’. However, he was dished by the intervention of the first lord of the admiralty on behalf of his son. He claimed to have declined ‘several’ invitations to stand elsewhere, because ‘they either do not suit my purse or my sentiments on the doctrine of free will’. He later confided to his brother Gilbert that the ‘ultimate object’ of his ambition was to be governor-general of India.7 In December 1826 he accepted the government of Bombay in succession to Elphinstone, deluding himself, as Wellington told him he was, that it might lead to the supreme office, if only as provisional successor to Lord Amherst. He secured from the Indian authorities at home what he regarded as an implied promise that he would be given overall responsibility for the administration of central India. Yet nothing had been settled by the time he sailed, with instructions to confine his activities to Bombay, in July 1827. His Sketches of Persia was published that year. His governorship was marked by a prolonged dispute with Sir John Grant, one of the puisne judges, over the rights of jurisdiction claimed by the supreme court, and by his policy of stringent economy and retrenchment. He initially retained hope of securing the administration of the central territories, but when this was dashed by the new governor-general Lord William Cavendish Bentinck*, to whom the Company had passed the buck, he decided to abide by his original resolution to leave India for ever at the end of 1830. As he told Bentinck, he had ‘an independent fortune’ and ‘a seat in Parliament awaiting my arrival’, which he intended to occupy principally in order to participate in the forthcoming discussions on the renewal of the East India Company’s charter.8 Lord Ellenborough, president of the board of control, was minded in November 1829 to name him as Bentinck’s provisional successor, not with the intention that he should actually take up the post, but in order to bring the wayward Bentinck to heel. Wellington and the chairs of the Company saw some merit in the ploy, but Ellenborough had no convincing answer to their objection that going to Calcutta would kill Malcolm, who ‘would stay till he died in order to be governor-general one day’. Though disappointed in his main ambitions and vexed at the rejection of his application to be made a privy councillor, he returned to England, so he assured Wellington, ‘a very contented man’.9

Soon after his arrival in London in February 1831 Maria Edgeworth, whose invitation he accepted, found Malcolm ‘as entertaining and delightful as his Persian Sketches and as instructive as his Central India’. The following month Elphinstone attended a dinner for him at Ellenborough’s, in company with Wellington and several of the late ministers:

Malcolm rattled away precisely as he would have done at his own table in Bombay, kept everybody in good humour, though he took all the talk to himself, and really commanded my admiration for his ease and independence among a class of people for whom I know him to entertain so excessive a respect. He made no attempt to adapt his conversation to them, or please anybody but himself ... I can now account for his popularity with all people of note whom I have heard talk of him. It could never have been gained by mere courting of favour, or sustained by any one who had less frankness, good humour and talent.10

Early in April he was returned for Launceston by the 3rd duke of Northumberland, who had turned out one of the sitting Members for supporting the Grey ministry’s reform bill. He declared that ‘he had not an acre of land’ and had been ‘returned by the patron ... free of expense’, but he ‘could vote as he pleased’ on all measures except reform, to which he was ‘most decidedly opposed’.11 He planned to concentrate on Indian affairs in the House, and was added to the select committee on the renewal of the East India Company’s charter, 18 Apr. (and reappointed, 28 June 1831, 27 Jan. 1832). He was also determined to have his say on what he privately described as ‘this goddess reform’, which was ‘twin-sister to the goddess of reason, who troubled Europe 40 years ago’. To a friend, he wrote:

I am no enemy ... to reform; but that, to be safe, should be very moderate and very gradual ... The consequences my experience leads me to anticipate may not be immediate, but they are, in my mind, certain; and the option appears to be between our fighting the battle or leaving a sad inheritance of a deteriorated and broken constitution to our children. My practical education makes me an unbeliever in these new political lights. I cannot think that the mantle of Francis Bacon has descended upon Jeremy Bentham. I would not consult men in a fever on their own case.12

On 19 Apr. 1831 he made his maiden speech in support of Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the reform bill, for which he voted. He defended the ‘borough-mongering system’, in so far as it enabled the interests of India to be represented by providing a way into Parliament for men such as himself; typically, he talked at length of his own services in the East. He subsequently denied, unconvincingly, an allegation across the floor that he had been returned not on account of his Indian expertise, but because he was willing to fall in with Northumberland’s views on reform. Nevertheless, Thomas Gladstone* reported that he had spoken ‘with great animation and manliness’.13 Having written a pamphlet on the subject in the form of a Letter to a Friend in India, he came in again for Launceston at the ensuing general election.14

He threw cold water on Stuart Wortley’s idea of setting up several subsidiary committees to investigate various aspects of the East India Company’s affairs, 28 June 1831. He favoured allowing native Indians to serve on grand juries and act as magistrates, 1 Sept., but opposed Hume’s call for radical reform of the Indian judicial system. He supported a petition for abolition of the Indian pilgrim tax, 14 Oct., but warned of the dangers of exciting Indian passions through careless pronouncements in Parliament. He condemned the reintroduced reform bill as a ‘concession to the clamorous demands of the people’, 5 July, and voted against the second reading next day. He supported Agnew’s attempt to give the doomed boroughs a share in elections as parts of wider constituencies, 15 July. He voted for use of the 1831 census to determine the disfranchisement schedules, 19 July, deplored the extinction of Midhurst and Old Sarum, which would remove three Indian pundits from the House, 26 July, and voted against the partial disfranchisement of Chippenham, 27 July. He put the case for Launceston being allowed to keep two Members, 29 July, but did not divide the House. Next day he taunted the reformer De Lacy Evans for his bid to save both seats at Rye. He foresaw problems arising from the increase in London Members, 4 Aug., and spoke against the enfranchisement of Gateshead, 5 Aug. He agreed in principle with Hume’s call for colonial representation, 16 Aug., and supported Estcourt’s attempt to perpetuate the corporation and freeman franchises, 27 Aug. In all this, as he told his brother Charles, he saw himself as

fighting the revolutionary battle ... The evil in this country lies deep. The whole of the lower and numbers of the middle classes have been sedulously taught to regard their superiors not only with envy but hostility, as men that sleep and fatten on their labour and hard earnings. Knowledge without religion or principle has been universally disseminated, and the desire to better their condition through chance or spoliation excited. The designing, who seek change, and the ignorant, who are deceived by them, are active and loud, whilst those who desire the tranquillity of the country are hitherto silent and inert. But the period has come when they must be roused, or England will change her character as well as her constitution.

He remained obsessed with India and her problems:

I am ... working sometimes fifteen hours a day, and always eight or ten ... India and its services are threatened by prejudice, ignorance, and the attacks of bodies of men deeply interested in change ... There is not the smallest borough in England that has been disfranchised or enfranchised that does not excite more interest ... than our whole empire of India ... I desire to retire and to complete much useful work, and to take care of my health; but having begun by filling a certain place in public estimation, and believing that one year more will decide the fate of India, I have hitherto refused to listen to the entreaties of my good lady and ... mean ... to go through with the work in which I have perhaps imprudently engaged.15

On the third reading of the reform bill, 19 Sept., he attacked the ‘political puritans’ who deluded themselves that ‘a constituency of 20,000, including voters paying only 3s. 10d. a week for lodgings, will be free, independent and virtuous’. He also dismissed Hume’s plan for direct representation for India as impractical, and suggested instead the creation of a ‘constituency’ from the 2,000 or so proprietors of the East India Company. He voted against the bill later that day, and divided against its passage, 21 Sept., and the second reading of the Scottish bill, 23 Sept. He was in the majority against issuing the Liverpool election writ, 5 Sept. 1831. That autumn he visited Paris and returned convinced that France, ‘where you hear nothing but the voice of reason and political wisdom, and see nothing but distrust and distress’, was on the verge of chaos. He hoped that, thanks to the stand made by the Lords, Britain would ‘not be hurried down that precipice, to the very brink of which we have been driven by ignorance, violence, inexperience and ambition’.16

Malcolm had recently bought a house with 235 acres in Berkshire, and he added supervision of its improvement to his already crowded schedule. He toured Scotland in November, visited the duke of Northumberland at Alnwick, and returned to London to divide against the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831. During the Christmas recess he was in Shropshire and North Wales.17 He voted against going into committee on the bill, 20 Jan. 1832. He gave notice of his intention of proposing the formation of a constituency to embody Indian interests, 27 Jan., but later abandoned the idea. He paired in favour of preserving the franchise for freemen by marriage, 7 Feb.,18 and voted against the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb. Seconding the wrecking amendment to the bill’s third reading, 19 Mar., he welcomed some of the modifications made to it, but warned that ‘under its operation, no administration will have sufficient strength to carry on the government of the country’, much less that of India, and he exhorted the Lords to reject it; he divided in the minority, 22 Mar. He backed Murray’s amendment to increase Scotland’s county representation, 1 June. He voted against ministers on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan. He supported the cholera prevention bill, 15 Feb., but counselled against exciting alarm which, so his Indian experience had convinced him, promoted the spread of the disease. He presented a Launceston petition in favour of the factory bill, 20 Feb. He opposed inquiry into the claims of the Hutchinsons on the rajah of Travancore, 10 Apr., and begged to be excused from serving on the committee, being ‘already engaged every day on committees’. As a member of the Indian military subcommittee, he complained to Ellenborough that the chairman, Byng, was ‘incapable’; but he was in turn criticized by his colleague Fergusson, who observed that he ‘could talk only of himself’. He gave evidence to the general committee on military affairs, 5, 8 Mar., and on India’s foreign relations, 12, 17 Apr.19 He forced ministers to admit that there was room for improvement in the current procedure for adjudicating on such claims as that of the Hutchinsons, 14 June. He approved the Indian juries bill, which opened the way for natives to serve on grand juries, 18 June. He favoured inquiry into the Deccan prize money claims, 6 Aug., and defended Elphinstone and other company officials from allegations of their depredations against the peishwah of the Pindarees, 10 Aug. 1832.

Malcolm had no hope of coming in for the one Launceston seat spared by the Reform Act and, ‘being tied to no party’, he saw ‘a pretty fair prospect of making a salaam to the old walls of St. Stephen’s’. However, he was encouraged by the duke of Buccleuch and others to come forward for the Dumfries district of burghs and ‘attempt to stem ... the tide of radicalism now flowing, unhappily, with little less violence through our sequestered valleys, than through the streets of Birmingham’. He meant ‘neither ... to brook pledge nor to disburse cash’ and, having ‘the mark of an anti-reformer upon my brow’, he had little expectation of success. Following the dissolution in November 1832 two days of canvassing convinced him that, in the divided state of the local Conservative interest, he had no chance, and he withdrew. On his way south at Carlisle he was ‘literally taken out of a coach and asked to head an attack against that revolutionary emblem, the tri-coloured flag’, but it was generally reckoned that he had allowed himself to be ‘the cat’s paw’ of a corporation rump and he gave up after an hour’s polling left him well in arrears of a Radical and a Whig. He nevertheless claimed that his intervention had ‘lowered’ the ‘Whig influence’.20 Early in 1833 he saw his Government of India through the press and, ignoring continued illness, delivered a two-hour speech at a special general court of proprietors, 15 Apr., criticizing the government’s proposal to end the East India Company’s commercial monopoly; he afterwards collapsed, but attended later sessions without speaking. He subsequently suffered a stroke and died in May 1833.21 He left his wife an annuity and his one-third share in her late father’s estate, and instructed that the Warfield property should be sold for the benefit of his son George Alexander, who also received £5,000 to go towards the purchase of army commissions and the residue of personalty sworn under £40,000.22 His Life of Clive was finished by William Erskine and published in 1836, and he was commemorated by a Chantrey statue in Westminster Abbey and an obelisk on Langholm hill.

Malcolm rose from humble origins to become one of the most distinguished administrators of British India. However, he was not a success in Parliament, where he engaged himself in a lost cause and where ‘neither voice nor delivery were much in his favour’. Physically and mentally resilient, he was energetic, versatile and decisive, but was sometimes betrayed by his excessive self-confidence. Thomas Macaulay*, an inveterate political opponent, loathed him, and considered him ‘the greatest egotist now living’, but others saw past his irritating habit of engrossing every conversation to his winning candour and generosity of spirit. Elphinstone, for one, praised his ‘natural abilities’ of ‘quickness of apprehension’ and ‘boldness’, and wrote that he possessed ‘in an eminent degree, the power of gaining the attachment of those with whom he associated’, thanks to ‘his unbounded good nature ... a temper which nothing could ruffle and spirits which nothing could depress’.23

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


J.W. Kaye, Life and Corresp. of Sir John Malcolm, 2 vols. (1856), is monumental but uncritical. R. Pasley, ‘Send Malcolm!’ (1982), is a sketch, but pays more attention to Malcolm’s writings.

  • 1. Kaye, i. 1-9; Pasley, 6-8.
  • 2. Kaye, i. 9-40; Pasley, 9-14.
  • 3. Kaye, i. 43-512; Pasley, 20-74.
  • 4. Kaye, ii. 70-352; Pasley, 75-122; PP (1812-13), vii. 53-60, 61-71, 407-17; Ward, Llandaff Letters, 311.
  • 5. Kaye, ii. 415-57; Pasley, 123-30; Harewood mss, Canning to Williams Wynn, 1, 7 Apr., reply, 7 Apr.; Add. 51534, T. Grenville to Holland, 22 Sept. 1823.
  • 6. Kaye, ii. 458-74; Pasley, 127-35; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 297, 360; Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, ii. 48, 112, 114-15, 123; Wellington Despatches, ii. 244-6; Add. 38193, f. 200.
  • 7. Add. 41963, ff. 302, 304; Kaye, ii. 474-6.
  • 8. Kaye, ii. 477-558; Pasley, 136-49; Bentinck Corresp. ed. C.H. Philips, i. 10, 26-27, 54-60 (quoted), 74-75, 80, 294-7, 467-8; Ellenborough Diary, i. 227, 326; ii. 56; Wellington Despatches, vii. 226-9.
  • 9. Ellenborough Diary, ii. 146, 149, 151; Wellington Despatches, vii. 261-4.
  • 10. Edgeworth Letters, 486-7; T.E. Colebrooke, Elphinstone, ii. 300.
  • 11. West Briton, 15, 22 Apr. 1831.
  • 12. Kaye, ii. 559-63; Add. 41963, f. 292.
  • 13. St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 198, T. to J. Gladstone, 20 Apr. 1831.
  • 14. Wellington Despatches, vii. 459.
  • 15. Kaye, ii. 564-71.
  • 16. Add. 41964, f. 100.
  • 17. Kaye, ii. 572-80.
  • 18. The Times, 10 Feb. 1832.
  • 19. Three Diaries, 189; PP (1831-2), xiii. 38-50; xiv. 27-41.
  • 20. Kaye, ii. 581-97; Carlisle Jnl. 15 Dec.; The Times, 15, 18 Dec. 1832.
  • 21. Kaye, ii. 598-613; Pasley, 155-62; Bentinck Corresp. ii. 1042, 1068.
  • 22. PROB 11/1819/463; IR 26/1727/372.
  • 23. Gent. Mag. (1833), ii. 83; Macaulay Letters, ii. 107, 250; Colebrooke, ii. 331.