Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Low, John
LOW, Sir JOHN (1788–1880), general in the Indian army and political administrator, born at Clatto, near Cupar, Fifeshire, in 1788, was eldest son of Captain Robert Low of Clatto, and his wife, the daughter of Dr. Robert Malcolm. He was educated at St. Andrews University, attending the sessions of 1802–3 (Register), and in 1804 obtained a Madras cadetship on the nomination of Mr. J. Hudleston. On 17 July 1805 he was appointed lieutenant in the 1st Madras native infantry. For the part taken by six of its companies in the mutiny at Vellore the regiment was disbanded in January 1807, the innocent men and the officers (Low included) being reformed into the 24th Madras infantry (Wilson, iii. 176, 230–1). In 1816 the 24th was renumbered as the 1st Madras infantry, in recognition of its distinguished conduct at the battle of Seetabuldee (ib. iv. 267). Low became captain in the regiment in 1820, major 17th Madras infantry (late 2nd battalion 24th) in 1828, and lieutenant-colonel 19th Madras infantry in 1834. In 1839 he obtained the colonelcy of his old corps, the 1st Madras infantry, which he held up to his death. He became a major-general in 1854, lieutenant-general in 1859, general in 1867, and was placed on the retired list in 1874.
Low saw in his early years some varied military service. He was attached to the office of the quartermaster-general, 11 May 1810; rejoined his corps in February 1811; was attached to the 59th foot (now 2nd E. Lancashire) in the Java expedition of 1811 (Wilson, vol. iii.), and was wounded at the storming of Fort Cornelis; he was afterwards brigade-major in the ceded districts, and was Persian interpreter and head of the intelligence staff to Colonel Dowse in the South Mahratta country in 1812–13 (cf. ib. iii. 351–352); he was in commissariat charge of Brigadier William Tuyl's force sent against the Guntoor rebels in 1816; and was present at the final defeat of the Mahrattas at Maheidpore in Malwa, 21 Dec. 1817, as extra aide-de-camp to Sir John Malcolm. In March following, as first political assistant to Malcolm, he was employed with a force of over three thousand men and ten guns in pacifying the Chindwarra district, and his services were afterwards publicly acknowledged (Kaye, Life of Malcolm, ii. 234). He efficiently performed the delicate task of inducing the peishwa, Bajee Rao, to place himself under British protection (ib. pp. 238 et seq.), and when Bajee Rao retired to Bithoor, near Cawnpore (afterwards notorious as the residence of the Nana Sahib, Bajee Rao's adopted son), Low was appointed resident there. He filled that post for six years to the entire satisfaction of the governors-general, the Marquis of Hastings [see Hastings, Francis Rawdon-] and Lord Amherst [see Amherst, William Pitt]. Thenceforward Low's services were chiefly political, although in after years at Lucknow and later at Hyderabad his functions included the control of large local contingents of native troops. In 1825 he became political agent at Jeypore. In 1830 he was appointed by Lord William Henry Cavendish Bentinck [q. v.] to a like post at Gwalior, where he displayed much sagacity in defeating the intrigues of the regent Baï. In 1831 he was sent as resident to Lucknow.
In 1837 the misrule long prevailing in Oude had induced the court of directors to sanction a proposal of Lord William Bentinck for the temporary assumption by the company of the government of that state. Low, while recognising the disinterestedness of the proposed arrangement, felt assured that it would be misunderstood by the natives, and suggested the alternative of deposing the king and placing the heir-apparent on the throne. The new governor-general, Lord Auckland [see Eden, George, Lord Auckland], left the matter to Low's ‘approved judgment and discretion.’ Meanwhile the king died suddenly from poison, or more likely strong drink; a pretender, the favourite of the late king's chief widow, had been placed on the throne; the palace and city swarmed with turbulent soldiery; the rightful heir was a prisoner. Summoning a Bengal regiment to his aid, Low, after a fruitless parley, had the gates of the palace blown open and the pretender seized. The rightful heir was then installed by the British resident. In recognition of his services Low received the special thanks of the court of directors, and was made C.B. (20 July 1838). Hunter (Gazetteer of India, vol. x.) gives some particulars of Low's efforts to suppress a troublesome talookdar, Bhagwant Singh, in 1841. Low was not the author of the Oude treaty which was subsequently quashed (cf. Malleson, cab. ed. i. 394). Ill-health compelled him to return to England in 1842, after thirty-eight years of nearly uninterrupted service in India.
Low returned to India in 1847, and in 1848 was appointed governor-general's agent in Rajpootana and commissioner at Ajmere and Mhairwar, where he remained until 1852, when he was sent by Lord Dalhousie to Hyderabad, in succession to James Stuart Fraser [q. v.], as resident with the nizam. There he negotiated the treaty by which the Berars were assigned to the British government in return for the maintenance of the Hyderabad subsidiary force (Hunter, Gazetteer of India, v. 264 et seq.) For his services on this occasion also he received the special thanks of the court of directors. On 22 Sept. 1853 Low was appointed a member of council. His experience of Indian princes and the evils of native misrule was then very wide. ‘But he had not,’ writes Kaye, ‘so learned the lessons presented to him of improvident states and opportunities wasted as to believe it to be either the duty or the policy of the paramount government to seek “just occasions” for converting every misgoverned principality into a British province’ (Kaye; see Malleson, cab. ed. i. 56). In two able minutes, dated in February 1854, he protested earnestly, though despairingly, against the impolicy and injustice of the Nagpore annexation; but on this, as on other occasions, his views were ignored by Dalhousie. In the questions that ended with the annexation of Oude, Low strongly advocated interference, showing in a minute drawn up in March 1855 that the paramount government was bound, by considerations of justice as well as by treaty obligations, to interfere. The king, he showed, would never become an efficient ruler, and the non-enforcement of Lord Hardinge's threats of seven years previously had had a widespread influence for evil (ib. i. 103). When early in May 1857 tidings arrived of the mutinous refusal of the 7th Oude irregulars to use the greased cartridges, Low advocated leniency. He refused to credit the troops with disloyalty or disaffection, but only with ‘an unfeigned and serious dread that the act of biting’ the cartridges ‘would involve a serious injury to their caste’ (ib. i. 437, cf. ante). The news of the outbreaks at Meerut and Delhi was received a day or two later, and Low, in opposition, it is said, to his civilian colleagues, advised a determined effort for the recovery of Delhi (ib. ii. 90). In April 1858, when the mutiny was practically suppressed, Low went home, receiving, as on many previous occasions, the thanks of the government of India. Lord Canning described his services as ‘invaluable.’ ‘No man,’ wrote Kaye, ‘knew the temper of the natives better. He could see with their eyes, speak with their tongues, and read with their understandings,’ and to the last, heedless of their unpopularity, he clung with honest resolution to the old-fashioned political principles in which he had been nurtured (ib. i. 103).
Low had received the East India war medal with clasps for Java and Maheidpore, the British war medal for Java, and the mutiny medal. He was made a K.C.B. in 1862, and a G.C.S.I. in 1873. He died at Norwood, Surrey, 10 Jan. 1880, in his ninety-second year, and was buried at Kemback, Fifeshire.
Low married in 1829 Augusta, second daughter of John Talbot Shakespeare, Bengal civil service, and sister of Sir Richmond Shakespeare, one of Low's assistants at Lucknow. By this lady, who survives, he had four sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Mr. Malcolm Low, Bengal civil service, retired, is now conservative M. P. for Grantham. Another, Brigadier-general Sir Robert Cunliffe Low, K.C.B., Bengal light infantry, served, like his eldest brother, in India during the mutiny, and greatly distinguished himself in the recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Burmah.
[Dod's Knightage, 1879 and 1890; East India Registers and Army Lists; Wilson's Hist. Madras Army, Madras, 1881; Kaye's Life of Malcolm, vol. ii.; Parl. Papers, Accounts and Papers, East India, under ‘Hyderabad,’ ‘Nagpore,’ ‘Oude,’ &c.; Kaye's Hist. Sepoy Mutiny; Malleson's Hist. Indian Mutiny, cab. ed. London, 1888–9; Journ. Roy. Asiatic Soc. London, vol. xii. 1888; Times, 12 Jan. 1880, in which some of the early military details are incorrect.]