Open main menu

MACNAGHTEN, Sir WILLIAM HAY (1793–1841), diplomatist, born in August 1793, was second son of Sir Francis Macnaghten (1763–1843) of Dundarave, Bushmills, co. Antrim, by his wife Letitia, eldest daughter of Sir William Dunkin of Clogher. The father was knighted on becoming a judge of the supreme court of Judicature at Madras in 1809, and was transferred to the supreme court of Bengal in 1816. He assumed the additional surname of Workman in 1823, retired from the bench in 1825, and was created a baronet 16 July 1886. In 1832 he succeeded to the chieftainship of the Clan Macnaghten and the patrimonial estate of Beardiville, on the death of his brother, Edmund Alexander Macnaghten. After being educated at Charterhouse, William received a cadetship in the East India Company's service, and came to India in September 1809. For some time he served in the bodyguard of the governor of Madras, and was a member of his household. He devoted himself zealously to the study of Hindustani, for which he gained a prize of five hundred pagodas in May 1811, and of Persian, the language then most in request in the political department, for which he gained a similar prize two years later. He also acquired the Tamil, Telugu, Canarese, and Marathi tongues. From June 1811 to the summer of 1812 he served as a cornet in the 4th cavalry at Hyderabad, and was initiated by Henry Russell, the resident, into the diplomacy of the nizam's court. In 1812 he joined Lord William Bentinck's institution, and pursued the study of mathematics. He was also employed on survey duty, and in 1813 he joined the escort of Mr. Cole, resident of Mysore, and acted as Cole's political assistant.

Macnaghten was appointed to the civil service of Bengal in 1814, and arrived at Calcutta in October, bearing the highest commendations from Madras. There he continued his oriental studies for some time at the college of Fort William, and gained the highest attainable distinction in every eastern language taught there. He was appointed in May I8I0 assistant to the registrar in the Sudder Dewanny Adawlut, the court of appeal for the presidency of Bengal. Next he officiated as joint magistrate of Majda in November 1818, and as judge and magistrate of Shahabad in February 1820. In January 1822 be became deputy-registrar of the Sudder court, and having at his own request been examined in Hindu and Mohammedan law, and having proved his proficiency in both, he was appointed registrar of the Sudder Dewanny, a post that he held for nearly nine years. During this time he published at Calcutta his 'Principles and Precedents in Mohammedan Law,' in 1825, which reached a third edition in 1864 ; his 'Reports of Cases in the Court of Nizamut Adawlut,' in 1827 ; his ' Principles and Precedents of Hindu Law,' in 1829, which was republished in 1866 ; and, beginning with 1827, 'Reports of Cases in the Court of Sudder Dewanny Adawlut,' all legal works of high value.

His political career began towards the close of 1830, when he accompanied Lord William Bentinck as secretary during his tour in the upper and western provinces of India. This tour lasted until the beginning of 1833, and at the meeting of the governor-general with Runjeet Singh, maharaiah of Lahore, at Roopur, he gained his earliest practical insight into the diplomacy of the then north-western frontier of India. Returning to Calcutta, he was appointed to take charge of the secret and political departments of the government secretariat, and held that post for four years, until the end of Lord Auckland's first year of office [see Eden, George].

In October 1837 he quitted Calcutta for the last time, to accompany Lord Auckland during his tour of the north-west provinces, and was thenceforth one of Lord Auckland's most trusted advisers. He largely determined the policy of intervention in the affairs of Afghanistan, which was to effect the deposition of Dost Mahomed and the restoration of Shah Soojah to the throne of Cabul. He was well fitted both for secretarial and diplomatic work. 'With a profound knowledge of oriental languages and oriental customs,' says Kaye, 'he combined an extensive acquaintance with all the practical details of government, and was scarcely more distinguished as an erudite scholar than as an expert secretary.' Accordingly, Lord Auckland despatched him to Lahore to gain the goodwill of Runjeet Singh, and ultimately he was directed in May 1838 to sound him as to joining in an Afghan expedition. He had an interview with the maharaiah at Adeenanuggur on 31 May, was received in full durbar on 3 June, and on 26 June succeeded in obtaining the execution of the tripartite treaty between the governor-general, Runjeet Singh, and Shah Soojah, 26 June 1838. By this treaty the British government was not pledged to send a single soldier beyond the frontier, but only to provide European officers to discipline and command an independent army of the shah. From Lahore he visited Shah Soojah at Loodiana on 13 July, and, after securing the shah's assent to the treaty, returned to Lord Auckland at Simla. The governor-general's policy soon expanded, and it was decided to despatch not European officers only, but a large force of troops, and to make the expedition practically a British one, reducing the shah to the position of a puppet in English hands. With this policy Macnaghten was thoroughly identified. He assisted in the preparation of Lord Auckland's manifesto of 1 Oct. 1838, signed it in his secretarial capacity, and was gazetted envoy and minister at the Afghan court of Soojah-ool-Moolk.

On 10 Dec. the army of Bengal, which was to co-operate with the Bombay force moved forward from Ferozepore, and was joined by the new envoy at Shikarpore. In spite of the news that the Persians had raised the siege of Herat, it was decided to send the expedition forward into Afghanistan, though reduced in numbers. Macnaghten's task was one of extreme delicacy and difficulty. Shah Soojah, personally disliked by the Afghan tribes, was doubly unpopular on account of the support of British arms. He was himself of untrustworthy character, and was galled by the restrictions placed on his liberty of action by his British allies. The geography and resources of Afghanistan, and the temper and views of its people, were alike almost unknown in India. To add to Macnaghten's difficulties, the military and diplomatic arrangements were entrusted to different hands, and he soon found himself in almost open collision with the military authorities. Macnaghten, like the shah, was anxious to press on with all speed to Candahar, but had no authority over the military commanders, Sir John Keane [q. v.] and Sir Willoughby Cotton [q. v.] According to the governor-general's directions, the new ameer was to accompany the main body of the invading army, and Macnaghten accordingly sent to Cotton, when he was at length ready to advance on Afghanistan, a message requiring him to provide a thousand camels for the conveyance of the shah and his suite. Cotton thereupon accused Macnaghten of wishing to interfere in the command of the army, and a stormy interview took place between them on 20 Feb. 1839. This friction lasted until the expedition reached Candahar on 25 April. With the success of the enterprise Macnaghten's prestige and popularity with the force increased. His success was, however, more specious than real, for by the excessive employment of bribes and pecuniary allowances to native chiefs to buy their support for the new ameer, he intolerably burdened the Indian treasury, and also prepared for the outbreak, which eventually occurred, when it became necessary to reduce the amount of the allowances. At the moment Macnaghten organised a local corps of mountaineers to keep open the passes, by which the expedition communicated with its distant base on the Indus ; but this placed the commissariat and supplies of the force at the mercy of faithless and rapacious tribesmen. When the shah entered Candahar, Macnaghten reported that he was received with enthusiasm. Although the statement was completely falsified by subsequent events, its sincerity need not be questioned. Macnaghten was incurably optimistic ; and, pledged as he was to the policy of intervention in Afghanistan, he took an unduly hopeful view alike of Shah Soojah's character and of the attitude of his people towards him. He continued to deal successfully with the difficulties occasioned by the perfidy of the khan of Khelat, the surrender of the yrmily of Dost Mahomed, the despatch of a Russian force to Khiva, and the detention of Colonel Stoddart at Bokhara. Unfortunately Indian experience and precedents afforded little guidance in Afghanistan. Even Macnaghten soon realised that Shah Soojah alone would never govern his Afghan subjects, and that the occupation of Cabul and Candahar by British troops must continue for an indefinite period. The difficulty of keeping a puppet-prince on the throne by British arms, while at the same time investing him with the appearance of independence, and allaying the jealousy of his subjects, only increased as the months of 1840 went on. Macnaghten was forced to witness much cruelty and misgovernment, which the treaty with the shah forbade him to suppress, as being matters within the internal government of Afghanistan, although he felt that the presence of the British troops in the country made us morally responsible. Soon the influence of the chiefs was thrown into the scale against him. Dost Mahomed escaped from Bokhara, and the whole country from Cabul to the Oxus rose in his support. The shah's new levies deserted to the deposed ameer, and though the Dost was defeated on 17 Sept. atBamian, Shah Soojah's own forces had vanished. Suddenly on 3 Nov. the situation seemed to improve, when Dost Mahomed gave himself up to Macnaghten in person. All through the early part of 1841 the envoy was occupied with reorganising the administration of Afghanistan, and in spite of many signs of uneasiness he believed that all was quiet throughout the length and breadth of the land, and disregarded Sir Alexander Burnes's warnings and Pottinger's unfavourable reports from Kohistan and the Nijrow country. Macnaghten had been created a baronet 18 Jan. 1840. In September following he was appointed a provisional member of the council of India. In September 1841 he was nominated governor of Bombay, and he determined to assume his new office in November. On 25 Sept. he protested energetically against an evacuation of Afghanistan. Some months earlier he had made requisitions for further troops from India, but ne now admitted the necessity of relieving the enormous strain, which the cost — about 1,250,000l. per annum — of the occupation and the subsidies to the Afghan chiefs was putting on the finances of India. Since the troops could not be withdrawn the stipends were reduced. Disaffection, always smouldering, was at once fanned into a flame. The Kohistanees and the Nijrowees assumed a threatening attitude ; the Eastern Ghilzyes began to plunder the caravans in the Khyber pass and to cut the communications of the expedition with India. Still on the surface all seemed quiet, and on 1 Nov. Burnes waited on him with congratulations upon the state of profound peace m which he was leaving the country. At that moment the Afghan chiefs were arranging for rebellion. 'The immediate cause of the outbreak' as a memorandum of Macnaghten's records, 'was a seditious letter addressed by Abdoolah Khan to several chiefs of influence at Cabul, stating that it was the design of the envoy to seize and send them all to London.'

A street riot on 2 Nov. heralded the out-break, and Sir Alexander Burnes [q. v.], who lived in the city, was murdered. The English, force at Cabul, under the command of an incapable general, 'William George Keith Elphinstone [q. v.], had been reduced by the despatch of troops to deal with disturbances in the Nijrow country and in Kohistan, and it was cantoned in an exposed situation. Macnaghten called upon Elphinstone for immediate action, but nothmg was done. The riot of the 2nd, which half a dozen companies of sepoys could have quelled in an ', had developed into a national uprising by the 4th, when the British army had become a disorganised and helpless crowd. Provisions ran short; those in command thought of retreat, and the possibility of successful defence diminished daily. When the Barukzye chief, Osman Khan, sent in an offer to treat on 24 Nov., Macnaghten entertained it in principle, but rejected the terms offered. On 8 Dec. he invited the opinion of the military commanders upon the feasibility of further resistance, and re ceived a reply in the negative signed by Elphinstone and subordinate officers. On the 11th he met the rebel chiefs in a conference on the plain in the direction of Seeah Sung, and after some debate accepted their terms ; namely, the complete but unmolested evacuation of Afghanistan by the British troops, never to return unless summoned by the Afghan people ; the restoration of Dost Mahomed ; and leave to Shah Soojah to return to India or to reside at Cabul as he pleased. The chiefs bound themselves to facilitate the evacuation by furnishing a supply of provisions. The envoy designedly manifested great confidence in their good faith ; he had attended this hazardous conference almost unattended, and placed Captain Trevor in their hands as a hostage. From the first, however, they violated their obligations; they refused to supply provisions, and frequently molested the troops. Macnaghten endeavoured, by negotiations with the Ghilzais and Kuzzdbashes, which were somewhat inconsistent with this treaty, to procure supplies, but, conformably with its terms, the feala Hissar was finally evacuated and Ghuzni was given up. The chiefs thereupon increased their demands, and on 20 Dec. they demanded that Brigadier-general Shelton should be given up to them as a hostage, and that the British guns and ammunition should be surrendered. Worn out with fatigue and anxiety, convinced of the faithlessness of the chiefs, and driven to resort to almost any expedient, Macnaghten now listened to overtures, which he was not justified in entertaining, and which were themselves a trap designed by the Dost's son, Mahomed Akbar Khan, to show that the British were incapable of keeping faith with the Afghans. Akbar sent on the 22nd a message by Captain Skinner, who was then in his hands, offering to play into the hands of the British and to outwit the combination of Barukzye chiefs. Mahomed Khan's fort and the Bala Hissar were to be occupied by British troops, at any rate until the summer ; Shah Soojah was to be maintained on the throne, and Akbar Khan was to be his vizier. These terms, inconsistent as they were with his obligations to the rebel Khans, the envoy unhappily accepted, and signed an assent to them in Persian. An offer made at the same time by Mahomed Sudeeq, who accompanied Skinner, to procure the assassination of Ameenoollah Khan, one of the rebels, for a price, was refused. In token of his goodwill Macnaghten sent to Akbar a handsome pair of pistols.

Next day the plot was carried out. Akbar had undertaken with the other chiefs to prove Macnaghten'8 want of faith to them and to take him prisoner. He had the proof of the one in his hands. It was determined to effect the seizure at an interview to take place at noon of the 23rd on the Seeah Sung plain. Knowing his peril, and in spite of warning, Macnaghten went out to the place of meet- ing with Captains Trevor, Mackenzie, and George St. Patrick Lawrence [q . v.], but otherwise almost unattended. After a short discussion they were seized, and with difficulty were saved by the Khans from being torn to pieces by their followers. Trevor was killed on the way to the city, Lawrence and Mackenzie were carried thither as prisoners, Macnaghten was thrown to the ground, and Akbar, fearing a rescue from the cantonments, and disappointed of securing his person as a hostage according to his promise to his confederates, shot him in a sudden fit of fury with the very weapon which the envoy had presented to him the day before. The body was at once hacked to pieces by the fanatical Ghazis, the head was carried through the streets of Cabul, and fragments of the limbs were exposed in the Char Uhouk, the principal bazaar. The massacre of the British army in its retreat through the Khyber Pass followed [see Brydon, William]. Macnaghten's remains were removed by the second Afghan expedition under Sir George Pollock in the autumn of 1842, and were buried at Calcutta, where there is a monument to his memory.

There has been much controversy about Macnaghten's conduct in the negotiation with Akbar Khan and his fitness for the conduct of the British relations with Afghanistan, but there is no doubt of his personal high character and his brilliant attainments. He was a most accomplished orientalist, and possessed an almost unique knowledge of the habits and modes of thought of the various native races of India, and almost to the end he maintained his interest in oriental scholarship. So late as 1838 he edited an edition of the 'Thousand and One Nights,' and in the following year 'Alif Laila.' He was an admirable secretary, unwearying and facile, a fluent writer of despatches, and an assiduous official. The defect of his character was that he was too impulsive, too optimistic, and too self-confident, and thus was unable, in spite of warnings, to perceive the patent facts of his position in Afghanistan. His courage and steadfastness during the last seven weeks of his life are beyond praise ; and if his acceptance of Mahomed Akbar's offer must be censured, it is to be recollected that he was worn out with weeks of harassing anxiety, and surrounded by almost helpless colleagues; that he thought the Barukzye chiefs utterly untrustworthy—as in fact they were; that there was no time to be lost in seizing any opportunity that offered of saving the troops, the women and the children, then besieged in the cantonments. His statesmanship has been judged solely by his Afghan policy, which undoubtedly was a failure, and by his reports of the state of Afghanistan in 1840 and 1841, which events signally falsified; but it must be remembered that in his Afghan policy he was supported by Lord Auckland; and that the verdict passed on his conduct as envoy is largely based on the strictures of Sir Alexander Burnes, who could not in the circumstances be an altogether unprejudiced critic. The task which was set him, that of governing the Afghan people without direct authority over them, and of preserving the seeming independence of Shah Soojah, while leaving him only a power for mischief, was in itself a hopeless one. Macnaghten married in 1823 the widow of Colonel M'Clintock. There is a portrait of him in Atkinson's 'Views in Afghanistan.'

[See Calcutta Review, ii. 209; Kaye's War in Afghanistan; Afghan Papers, 1838; Vincent Eyre's Cabul; Gleig's Sale's Brigade in Afghanistan; Prinsep's General Register of East India Company's Servants, 1844; Lives of Sir H. Lawrence and of George Lawrence; cf. Calcutta Review, vols. vii. and xv. The disasters which overtook the British force in Afghanistan under Macnaghten form the subject of James Grant's novel, Only an Ensign.]

J. A. H.