Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Abercromby, Robert (1740-1827)
ABERCROMBY, Sir ROBERT (1740–1827), military commander, was born at Tullibody, his father's seat in Scotland, in 1740, and was a younger brother of the more famous Sir Ralph. His desire to enter the army was as great as his elder brother's; and while Ralph was serving in Germany, Robert served as a volunteer in North America with such gallantry, that, after the battle of Ticonderoga in 1758, he was appointed an ensign, and in 1759 a lieutenant in the 44th regiment. He was present at the battle of Niagara and the capture of Montreal, was promoted captain in 1761, and retired on half-pay at the peace in 1763. He spent some quiet years in Scotland, but on the breaking out of the war with the American colonies felt none of the political scruples of his brother Ralph, and at once offered his services to the government. They were gladly accepted, because of the numerous retirements of officers from political reasons, and in 1772 he was appointed major in the 62nd regiment, and in 1773 lieutenant-colonel of the 37th. He served with great distinction throughout the war, and was present at the battles of Brooklyn, where his brother James was killed, Brandywine and Germantown, at the occupation of Charleston, and the capitulation of Yorktown. His services were the more appreciated from his brother's well-known political opinions, and in 1781 he was promoted colonel, and made aide-de-camp to the king. In 1787 he was made colonel of the 75th regiment, and in 1788 accompanied it to India.
In India during the next nine years he won his chief military renown. In 1790 he was governor and commander-in-chief at Bombay, and was directed by Lord Cornwallis to co-operate with him in his attack on Mysore. He first occupied with his forces the Malabar coast, and not without some resistance from the independent chieftains who either feared or loved Tippoo Sultan, and in 1792 marched up from the west to meet Lord Cornwallis before Seringapatam. His march was completely successful, and Tippoo had to sign the tripartite treaty of Seringapatam. For his eminent services he was made a knight of the Bath, and appointed to succeed Lord Cornwallis as commander-in-chief of the forces in India. He left Bombay in November 1792, but did not become commander-in-chief till the departure of Cornwallis in October 1793. His term of office was chiefly remarkable for the second Rohilla war and the mutiny of the officers of the company's service.
After the reduction of the wild but warlike tribes of the Rohillas by the orders of Warren Hastings after his disgraceful convention with the Vizier of Oudh, the district of Rampoor was given to Fyzoollah Khan, one of the Rohilla chieftains. On his death, in 1793, the Vizier of Oudh wished to resume this district for his master; but the governor-general supported the claim of Mahommed Ali to succeed his father, Fyzoollah Khan. In 1794, however, Mahommed Ali was murdered by a relative named Gholam Mahommed, and Abercromby was ordered by the governor-general, Sir John Shore, to punish the murderer. Abercromby advanced with a small force, and after a long and well-contested action at Battina defeated Gholam Mahommed. His own ability and the gallantry of his troops were at once acknowledged by Sir John Shore; but he was censured for admitting the murderer to terms.
The other important event of his command was the mutiny of the company's officers. This was chiefly caused by their being always regarded as inferior to the king's officers, though often in command of more serviceable regiments, which deprived them of any chance of obtaining the more lucrative appointments in the garrison or the field. Abercromby's mildness and good temper served him in good stead, and where a martinet would have given rise to a regular rebellion he managed to control the spirit of disaffection till the arrival of new regulations from England. He was now suffering so much from a disease of the eyes that he was obliged to return home in April 1797. The best character of himself and of the tenor of his command in India is contained in the following passage from a private letter of the governor-general, Sir John Shore: ‘My respect for Sir Robert Abercromby has increased with my knowledge of his character. What he was at Bombay I know not; he has been here mild, conciliatory, and unassuming from the first, and it is only justice to him to declare that a more honourable, upright, and zealous man never served the company. I assure you with great truth that I have ever found him anxious to promote the public good, either by his own efforts or those of others. I certainly do not think his abilities equal to his situation, and there are few men who have abilities equal to it; but I believe that his have been under-estimated, and that his greatest fault is his good nature. He will retire with a very moderate fortune, for money was never his object: he thinks too little of it.’ He was promoted lieutenant-general in 1797, elected M.P. for the county of Clackmannan in the place of his brother Ralph in 1798, was made governor of Edinburgh Castle in 1801, and a general in 1802. His increasing blindness made it impossible for him ever again to take active service, and obliged him to resign his seat in parliament in 1802. He lived to the age of 87, and died at Airthrey, near Stirling, in November 1827, being at the time the oldest general in the British army. He does not seem to have possessed the abilities of his brother Sir Ralph, but always did well whatever he had to do. As an Indian general of that period Sir John Shore's testimony to his incorruptibility is the highest praise for a time when a command in India was regarded as an opportunity for making a fortune.
[For Robert Abercromby's services see the Royal Military Calendar, 1820, vol. i.; for the campaigns in Mysore see Cornwallis's Correspondence, published 1861; and for his command-in-chief in India the Life of John, Lord Teignmouth, by his son.]