Clemency Canning: forgotten servant of empire

This December sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles John Canning, first viceroy of India, and all too briefly a Knight of the Garter. Charles was born on 14 December 1812 at Gloucester Lodge, an Italian-style villa situated between Kensington and Brompton, and was one of four children of the politician George Canning (1770-1827) and his wife, Joan, nee Scott (c.1776-1837).  His father was twice foreign secretary, and then prime minister for just four months in 1827 before dying in office.  George and William, his elder brothers, both died as young men, one from consumption, the other by drowning.

Charles began his education at a private school in Putney then spent four years at Eton College.  After several months at another private school, he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, where his contemporaries included the future prime minister William Ewart Gladstone.  Unlike some young men from privileged backgrounds who went up to Oxford, he actually worked hard, achieving a first in classics and a second in mathematics, an interesting combination of subjects.  In 1835, two years after graduating, he married Charlotte Stuart (1817-61), elder daughter of Lord Stuart de Rothesay.  Their marriage was to be happy, but childless.

In 1836, he entered the Commons as tory MP for Warwick, but in 1837 had to move to the Lords having succeeded to the title Viscount Canning of Kilbrahan, county Kilkenny.  As an intelligent, well-connected young man from a political family, he had every prospect of a successful career in British politics.  His first big break came in 1841 when Sir Robert Peel formed a tory government and appointed him under-secretary of state for foreign affairs.  After Peel’s ministry collapsed in 1846 he was without political office for nearly seven years, but in 1853, joined Lord Aberdeen’s coalition government as postmaster-general.  By all accounts he made a great success of the job and further promotion seemed likely.  Then, Aberdeen’s coalition fell in 1855 during the Crimean War, and the more tough-minded Viscount Palmerston became prime minister.  Impressed by Charles Canning’s administrative qualities and his judicious, reflective nature, he nominated him to be the next governor-general of India in succession to Lord Dalhousie.

At this time, India was still run, to a large extent, by the East India Company, not directly by the British government, though this was soon to change.  Before embarking on the long voyage out, Charles attended a banquet at which the Company’s directors were present.  It seems he had a premonition of the explosive events to come as he spoke these words to those present:

  …in the sky of India, serene as it is, a cloud may arise, at first no
  bigger than a man’s hand, but which growing larger and larger, may      
  at last threaten to burst, and overwhelm us with ruin.

After a leisurely three-month voyage, Charles arrived in Calcutta (then the seat of government) in February 1856.  During his first year in office, rumbling discontent was growing amongst the sepoys of the Bengal army over a range of issues, and in the spring of 1857, the storm broke.  The garrison at Meerut rose up and murdered its officers then marched on Delhi and massacred the city’s European residents.  Within weeks most of the Bengal army had joined the mutiny.  This was a full-scale challenge to  British authority, made worse by a general state of anarchy in the affected areas, which allowed princes, peasants and landholders to settle old scores and grievances by violent means.

How was Charles Canning to respond to the grave situation?  India’s British residents, gripped by fear and near panic, demanded swift and savage action  to crush the rebels, especially after the Cawnpore massacre in which English women were slaughtered.  But Charles favoured a more measured response to the crisis, one which tempered firmness with mercy.  Bloody revenge, he felt, would only make it harder to restore order, and was likely to sow seeds of further trouble.  This did not go down well with the British press (especially The Times and Punch), who dubbed him “Clemency” Canning for his leniency towards the rebel Indian soldiers.

Eventually, the tide turned in favour of the British, the mutiny ended in the summer of 1858, and Charles Canning’s calm handling of the crisis was seen to be vindicated.  His nickname “Clemency”, once negative and derisory, now assumed a more positive aura.  But the way India was run had to change, so out went the East India Company, and the country was placed under the direct governance of the British crown.  Charles now became the first viceroy of British India and was raised to an earldom in 1859.  Two years later, the Star of India, a new order of knighthood, was created to strengthen ties between the queen and her Indian subjects.

The mutiny was a stern test of Charles Canning’s mettle and henceforth much of his time as viceroy was spent grappling with financial issues.  Typically, he worked a fifteen-hour day, which reinforced an impression of natural aloofness.  Unlike later viceroys, he was unable to make regular trips to the cooling hills of Simla in the summer months and most of his time was spent in the hot plains.  This took a severe toll on his health, and in November 1861 Lady Canning died of malaria.  Towards the end of his viceroyalty in March 1862, he was a broken, sick man, “pale, wan, toilworn, and grief-stricken” according to an observer at the time.

Soon after returning to London he fell ill with an abscess of the liver.  In May 1862, he was installed a Knight of the Garter by dispensation, but enjoyed the honour for a mere few weeks.  On 17 June he died at his home in Grosvenor Square, aged just forty-nine.  As befitted an unswerving servant of the empire he was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to his father George. His statue in the Abbey’s north transept bears an inscription, which refers to his once derogatory nickname:

     …during the perilous crisis of the Sepoy mutiny, he displayed
     with entire success such fortitude, judgment and wise
     clemency as proved him worthy of his illustrious father,
     and justly entitled him to the lasting gratitude of his country.

Had Lord Palmerston not sent him to India in 1855, Charles Canning would probably have risen to the top in British politics and would surely have lived much longer.  As it was, he spent six gruelling years running a country of dazzling complexity and mighty challenges.  Few men can have done more to earn the award of the Garter.

Simon Harrison (Archives volunteer)

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.