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Significant Scots
Sir John Malcolm

MALCOLM, (Sir) JOHN, a distinguished soldier and diplomatist, was born on the farm of Burnfoot, near Langholm, on the 2nd of May, 1769. This farm was granted to the paternal grandfather of Sir John, at a low rent, by the earl of Dalkeith, in 1707; it subsequently became the residence of George Malcolm, the father of Sir John, who married Miss Pasley, daughter of James Pasley, Esq. of Craig and Burn, by whom he had seventeen children, fifteen surviving to maturity. Of these children, three attained to a high station and title; namely, Sir Pulteney, vice-admiral, H. N.; Sir James, lieutenant-colonel of marines; both of whom are Knight Companions of the Bath; and the subject of this memoir. The farm is still in possession of the family.

Sir John Malcolm entered life in 1782, as a cadet in the service of the East India Company; and a part of his success is to be ascribed to the zeal with which he applied himself at first to study the manners and languages of the east. Having distinguished himself at the siege of Seringapatam in 1792, he was appointed by lord Cornwallis to the situation of Persian interpreter to an English force serving with a native prince. In 1795, on his return from a short visit to his native country, on account of his health, he performed some useful services in general Clarke’s expedition at the Cape of Good Hope, for which he received the thanks of the Madras government, and was appointed secretary to the commander-in-chief. In 1797, he was made captain; and from that time to 1799, he was engaged in a variety of important services, terminating at the fall of Seringapatam, where he highly distinguished himself. He was then appointed joint secretary with captain (afterwards Sir Thomas) Munro, to the commissioners for settling the new government of Mysore. In the same year, he was selected by Lord Wellesley to proceed on a diplomatic mission to Persia, where he concluded two treaties of great importance, one political, and the other commercial; returning to Bombay in May, 1801. His services were acknowledged by his being appointed private secretary to the governor-general. In January, 1802, he was raised to the rank of major; and on the occasion of the Persian ambassador being accidentally shot at Bombay, he was again entrusted with a mission to that empire, in order to make the requisite arrangements for the renewal of the embassy, which he accomplished in a manner that afforded the highest satisfaction to the Company. In January, 1803, he was nominated to the presidency of Mysore, and to act without special instructions; and in December, 1804, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In the June of the following year, he was appointed chief agent of the governor-general, and he continued to serve in that capacity until March, 1806, having successfully concluded several very important treaties during that period.

Upon the arrival in India, in April, 1808, of the new governor-general, lord Minto, colonel Malcolm was sent by his lordship to the court of Persia on a very important mission--that of endeavouring to counteract the designs of Bonaparte, then in the zenith of his power, who threatened an invasion of India by way of Persia, supported by the Persian and Turkish governments. In this difficult embassy, colonel Malcolm did not wholly succeed. He returned to Calcutta in the following August, and soon afterwards proceeded to his residence at Mysore, after having, to use the words of lord Minto, "laid the government under additional obligations to his zeal and ability." Early in the year 1810, he was again selected to proceed in a diplomatic capacity to the court of Persia, whence he returned upon the appointment of Sir Gore Ouseley, as ambassador. So favourable was the impression which he made, on this occasion, on the Persian prince, that he was presented by him with a valuable sword and star, and, at the same time, made a khan and sepahdar of the empire; to that impression, indeed, may be ascribed much of the good understanding, both in a political and commercial point of view, which afterwards subsisted between this country and Persia. During this embassy, while at Bagdad, colonel Malcolm transmitted to the government of Bengal his final report of the affairs of Persia—a document so highly appreciated, that the government acknowledged its receipt to the secret committee in terms of unqualified praise.

In 1812, colonel Malcolm again visited his native shores. He was received by the court of directors of the East India Company, with the deepest regard and acknowledgment of his merits; and shortly afterwards he received the honour of knighthood. He returned to India in 1816, and soon became engaged in extensive political and military duties; he was attached, as political agent of the governor-general, to the force under lieutenant-general Sir T. Hislop, and appointed to command the third division of the army, with which, after taking Talym by surprise, he acted a prominent part in the celebrated battle of Mehidpoor, when the army under Mulhar Rao Holkar was completely beaten, and put to rout. His skill and valour on this occasion were the theme of general admiration. A vote of thanks was awarded him, on the proposal of Mr Canning, by the house of commons; and the prince regent expressed his regret that the circumstance of his not having attained the rank of major-general prevented his creating him a knight grand cross. The intention of his royal highness to do so was, nevertheless, recorded, and in 1821 he accordingly received the highest honour which a soldier can receive from his sovereign. After the termination of the war with the Maharattas and Pindarees, to which colonel Malcolm’s services had eminently contributed, he was employed by lord Hastings in visiting and settling the distracted territories of Mulhar Rao, which, and other services, he accomplished in a most satisfactory manner, gaining to British India a large accession of territory and treasure.

At the end of the year 1821, he resolved to return once more to England; on which occasion the general orders contained the following paragraph :—"Although his excellency the governor-general in council refrains from the specific mention of the many recorded services which have placed Sir John Malcolm in the first rank of those officers of the Honourable Company’s service, who have essentially contributed to the renown of the British arms and counsels in India, his lordship cannot omit this opportunity of declaring his unqualified approbation of the manner in which Sir John Malcolm has discharged the arduous and important functions of his high political and military station in Malwah. By a happy combination of qualities, which could not fail to earn the esteem and confidence, both of his own countrymen and of the native inhabitants of all classes, by the unremitting personal exertion and devotion of his time and leisure to the maintenance of the interests confided to his charge, and by an enviable talent for inspiring all who acted under his orders with his own energy and zeal, Sir John Malcolm has been enabled, in the successful performance of the duty assigned to him, in the Mulwah, to surmount difficulties of no ordinary stamp, and to lay the foundations of repose and prosperity in that extensive province, but recently reclaimed from a state of savage anarchy, and a prey to every species of rapine and devastation. The governor-general in council feels assured that the important services thus rendered to his country by Sir John Malcolm, at the close of an active and distinguished career, will be not less gratefully acknowledged by the authorities at home, than they are cordially applauded by those under whose immediate orders they have been performed."

Sir John returned to England in April, 1822, with the rank of major-general, and soon after he was presented by those who had acted under him in the war of 1818 and 1819, with a superb vase of the value of 1500. During this visit to England, Sir John received a proud testimony of the favour of the East India Company, and acknowledgment of the utility of his public career, in a grant, passed unanimously by a general court of proprietors, of a thousand pounds per annum, in consideration of his distinguished merits and services.

Sir John had quitted India with the determination to spend the evening of his life in his native country; but the solicitations of the court of directors, and of his majesty’s ministers for India affairs, induced him again to embark in the service of his country, where experience had so fully qualified him to act with advantage. In July, 1827, he was appointed to the high and responsible situation of governor of Bombay, which post he continued to fill until 1831, when he finally returned to England, having effected, during the few years of his governorship, incalculable benefits both for this country, our Indian territories, and every class of the inhabitants there. Upon his leaving Bombay, the different bodies of the people seemed to vie with each other in giving proofs of the esteem and high consideration in which he was held. The principal European gentlemen of Bombay requested sir John to sit for his statue, afterwards executed by Chantrey, and erected in Bombay; the members of the Asiatia Society requested a bust of him, to be placed in their library; the native gentlemen of Bombay solicited his portrait, to be placed in their public room; the East India Amelioration Society voted him a service of plate; the natives, both of the presidency and the provinces addressed him as their friend and benefactor; and the United Society of Missionaries, including English, Scottish, and Americans, acknowledged with gratitude the aids they had received from him in the prosecution of their pious labours, and their deep sense of his successful endeavours to promote the interests of truth and humanity, with the welfare and prosperity of his country and his countrymen. These were apt and gratifying incidents in the closing scene of his long and arduous services in our Indian empire. But, whether at home or abroad, all parties who knew any thing of his career concurred in awarding him the highest praises, both as a civil, military, and political character; and the brief encomium of Mr Canning in parliament, that he was "a gallant officer, whose name would be remembered in India as long as the British flag is hoisted in that country," is only in accordance with the universal opinion of his merits.

Shortly after Sir John’s arrival in England in 1831, he was returned to parliament for the burgh of Launceston, and took an active part in the proceedings upon several important questions, particularly the Scottish reform bill, which he warmly opposed. He frequently addressed the house at length; and his speeches were characterized by an intimate knowledge of the history and constitution of his country, by a happy arrangement, and much elegance of expression. Upon the dissolution of parliament in 1832, Sir John became a candidate for the Dumfries district of burghs; but being too late in entering the field, and finding a majority of the electors had promised their votes, he did not persevere. He was then solicited to become a candidate for the city of Carlisle, and complied; but having been too late in coming forward, and being personally unknown in the place, the result of the first day’s poll decided the election against him. Sir John then retired to his seat near Windsor, and employed himself in writing a work upon the government of India, with the view of elucidating the difficult questions relating to the renewal of the East India Company’s charter. One of his last public acts was an able speech in the general court of proprietors of East India Stock, and the introduction of certain resolutions relative to the proposals of government respecting the charter—which resolutions were, after several adjourned discussions, adopted by a large majority. His last public address was at a meeting in the Thatched House Tavern, for the purpose of forming a subscription to buy up the mansion of Sir Walter Scott for his family; and on that occasion, his concluding sentiment was, "that when he was gone, his son might be proud to say, that his father had been among the contributors to that shrine of genius." On the day following he was struck with paralysis, the disorder which had just carried off the illustrious person on whose account this address had been made. His death took place in Prince’s Street, Hanover Square, London, on the 31st of May, 1833.

As an author, the name of Sir John Malcolm will occupy no mean place in the annals of British literature. His principal works are—A Sketch of the Sikhs, a singular nation in the province of the Penjamb, in India; The History of Persia, from the earliest period to the present time; Sketches of Persia; A Memoir of Central India; and his treatise on the Administration of British India, which was published only a few weeks before his death. Sir John had also been engaged for some time before his death in writing a life of lord Clive, which afterwards appeared.

Sir John married, on the 4th of June, 1807, Charlotte Campbell, daughter of Sir Alexander Campbell, baronet, who was commander-in-chief at Madras, by whom he left five children, viz:—Margaret, married to her cousin, the present Sir Alexander Campbell; George Alexander, a captain in the Guards; Charlotte Olympia; Anne Amelia; and Catharine Wellesley.

Upon the public character of Sir John Malcolm it would be superfluous to pass any lengthened eulogium in this place, since that character is so forcibly and faithfully sketched in the facts we have just recorded. Let it suffice to say, that he was a true patriot; that the chief end and aim of his public life was to advance the prosperity of his country—to promote the condition of every class of his fellow creatures. Such is the conclusion which the records of his life enable us to draw; and his private character was in perfect keeping with it: he was warmly attached to his kindred and connexions; as a friend, he was constant and devoted; and all his social qualities might be said to "lean to virtue’s side." Last, though not least of all, he was a sincere and devout Christian; and in every part of the world where it was his fortune to be placed, and under whatever circumstances, he never shrunk from any opportunity of evincing his deep regard for the religion of his country.

Our thanks to John Malcolm for the comments below.

Comments on the Electric Scotland entry on Sir John Malcolm


The article on which this entry is based was probably published around the middle of the 19th century. It refers (para 6, line 3) to Sir John’s son-in-law as “the present Sir Alexander Campbell”. Sir Alex Cockburn-Campbell Bt died in 1871 in Western Australia. It is obviously cribbed from the rather superficial obituary of Sir John Malcolm published in the Gentleman’s Magazine of July 1833 (vol CIII, Part II, pp.81-84). The obituary has been edited, but the article uses the same phraseology, makes the same mistakes, and adds a few more of its own.

The style reflects typically mid-Victorian attitudes and values. Obviously these were different from those of to-day, but they were also, in my view, significantly different from those prevailing during Sir John’s lifetime.

Factual errors in the article which should be noted are as follows:

Para 1, line 3

“The farm [Burnfoot] was granted to the paternal grandfather of Sir John, at a low rent, by the Earl of Dalkeith in 1707..” [my emphasis]

The Revd Robert Malcolm (Sir John’s grandfather) was appointed as Minister to the parish of Ewes in Dumfriesshire in 1717. He was given the “tack” of Burnfoot in 1730 to supplement his stipend as Minister.

Para I, line 5

“Of these children, three attained to a high station and title..” [my emphasis]

Four Malcolm brothers achieved knighthoods – Sir James (1767-1849), Sir Pulteney (1768-1838), Sir John (1769-1833) and Sir Charles (1782-1851).

Para 2, line 1

“Sir John Malcolm entered life in 1782 as a cadet in the service of the East India Company…” [my emphasis]

Sir John was accepted as a cadet in the Madras Army in November 1781 (gazetted in May 1782). He sailed from Britain in October 1782 and arrived at Madras in April 1783.

Para 2, lines 15-16

“On the occasion of the Persian ambassador being accidentally shot in Bombay, he was again entrusted with a mission to that Empire [Persia]…”

This should read “he was entrusted with a mission to Bombay, in order to arrange for the repatriation of the remainder of the Persian mission, and to placate the Persian government.”

Para 2, line 19

“Presidency of Mysore…”

Should read “Residency” [this may be just a typo, but the two words have significantly different meanings.

Para 3, line 1

“On the arrival in India, in April 1808, of the new Governor-General, Lord Minto, Colonel Malcolm was sent by his Lordship to the Court of Persia..”

Lord Minto arrived in India in July 1807. Malcolm left Bombay for Persia in April 1808

Para 3, line 13

“Good understanding….which afterwards subsisted between this country [Britain] and Persia.”

This is a doubtful assertion. Certainly not many Persians would have agreed, even in the mid 19th century.

Para 7, line 4

In July 1827 he was appointed…..Governor of Bombay..”

Sir John was appointed Governor in January 1827; he sailed for India in July, and took up his post in November 1827.

Para 8, line 10

“Sir John then retired to his seat near Windsor…”

Although Sir John purchased Warfield Hall, near Winkfield, in January 1832, he made extensive renovations, which were not completed until the month he died. He never lived there.

Para 8, lines 16-19

[Re Sir John’s speech at the Thatched house tavern [London] re purchasing Sir Walter Scott’s house] “on the day following, he was struck  with paralysis…”

Sir John’s speech at the Thatched House tavern was probably in late 1832 (see Grierson III p.150n on Scott). The article may be referring Sir John’s speech to the Court of Proprietors of the East India Company on 15 April 1833. Sir John suffered a stroke on 28 April.

Para 9, line 2

[Malcolm’s published literary works]

In addition to the books cited in the article, Sir John also published “A Sketch of the Political History of India” (1811), “The Political History of India” (1826) and “Disturbances in the Madras Army in 1809” (1811). He also published privately “Miscellaneous Poems” (1829).

Para 10, line 1

“Sir John married on 4 June 1807…..”

This should read 4 July 1807.

Para 10, line 4

“George Malcolm, a captain in the Guards…”

Sir John’s son George served as an officer in the British army. However, he was never in the Guards.

Para 11, last sentence

“Last, though not least of all, he was a sincere and devout Christian…”

This is a piece of mid-Victorian “spin”. In his philosophical outlook Sir John Malcolm was very much a child of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment. He was interested in all manifestations of religion – Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh - more as a deist than as a devotee of any one of them (see Margot McLaren, “British India, British Scotland”, 2001).

John Malcolm
8 October 2004

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