Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A British friendship


At this time thirty years ago there were three young men at Christ Church, Oxford,—almost of the same age, all good students, all interested in matters which lay outside their books, and all cordially respecting and admiring each other. Two of the three were of a reserved cast of character, while the third was frank and fluent, though perhaps as discreet at bottom as his prouder-looking friends. Each desired to do something to distinguish his name, and benefit his generation: and each had high expectations of what the other two would do. In February last, some memorable observances took place which have brought back some moving old associations with those three youths. Thirty years ago, James Bruce was two-and-twenty, and carried an air of seniority over his comrades who were but one-and-twenty. Yet he was the frank and fluent one, and they the shy and reserved. James Andrew Ramsay was Scotch, as Bruce was. The third, Charles John Canning was, I need not say, English. Ramsay was the son of an earl; Bruce of an earl also,—the Earl of Elgin, who brought over the marbles which visitors to the British Museum know so well: and Canning was no doubt prouder of the title of son of his father than his friends could be of their ancestral honours. We should be glad to know now the turn that conversation took between these youths when they anticipated their careers of active life: and there is something very solemn in looking back upon the unconsciousness in which they were living of the remarkable relation their three lives were to bear to each other. All three no doubt assumed that political service would occupy their years and their energies, and they might often imagine how they would act together, and what guidance their co-operation might impress upon events: but no speculations, plans or dreams of their own could approach in singularity and gravity the actual developments which have been witnessed by some of us who were men when they were schoolboys, and who live to tell their story over two of their three graves.

It was in 1833 that they took their honours at Oxford. In another ten years, Bruce, having succeeded to his father’s title, and been thereby removed from the House of Commons, was governing Jamaica. He ruled with sense and courage, but with a heavy heart; for on arriving with his young wife, they underwent a fearful shipwreck; and she escaped death at the moment only to die immediately after in childbed. The daughter then born was the bridesmaid of the Princess of Wales last month. The other two friends were in the public service also. Ramsay had become the tenth Earl of Dalhousie; and he was now Vice-President of the Board of Trade, and a Privy-Councillor. Canning was Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Peel ministry of that time. Thus far, the duties of the three comrades lay wide apart, and there was no indication of any peculiar bond which was to unite their names for posterity. The time, however, was approaching.

When the second ten years came to an end, Lord Elgin had made himself a sound and high reputation as Governor-General of Canada. His second wife, the eldest surviving daughter of Lord Durham, was living among the scenes she had known when her father was saving and regenerating Canada, and seeing her husband carrying out, with great energy and discretion, her father’s policy. Lord Canning was now at the Post Office, relinquishing his patronage, and devoting his energies to carry to perfection a department of the public service which could never bring him any brilliant honours or rewards. Some of us may be able to recal some feelings of mortification on the one hand, or of amusement on the other, at the son of George Canning being known as the steady and diligent man of business, of moderate ability and languid ambition, satisfied to have something useful to do. Such was the common notion of the man: but he had two friends at least who could have told us that we did not know him yet.

And where now was Lord Dalhousie? He seemed to stand as much higher than Elgin as Elgin stood higher than Canning. He was Governor-General of India.

At first, the public wondered that a man should be taken from the Board of Trade to rule such an empire as India: but it was not very long before the world became occupied with him as a statesman, far more than as an economist; and we heard a great deal of his policy. The Indian policy of Lord Dalhousie became one of the chief topics of public interest; and it was felt that there must be something remarkable about the man who was the youngest statesman ever appointed to a position of such responsibility. Great mistakes were made about his policy,—partly from the ignorance of Indian affairs then prevalent in England, and partly from his own excessive reserve. Because the Punjaub came into our possession in his time, and then some smaller States, and at length Oude, it was assumed that Lord Dalhousie’s policy was one of “annexation.” It may be better seen elsewhere how untrue this was, and how much more earnestly the Governor-General desired many things than any extension of our Indian territory. In this place I can point out only two or three incidents which mark the spirit of his rule, and link his destiny with that of his early friends.

He was, if not the father, the guardian of the Great East Indian Railway: and when he stood to witness the departure of the first train, he was witnessing the doom of the hitherto invincible ignorance, prejudice, and superstition of India. Within a little while, he saw the Hindoo priests, and teachers, and public, discussing the subject of pilgrimages,—the merits of which seemed to be largely affected by the ease with which the country could now be traversed by steam. He established in some regions a system of vernacular schools, and advanced the education of the people with as much zeal as any predecessor, and with far more wisdom than the wisest. While our Indian empire itself was growing, and while the minds and fortunes of the people within it were growing in full proportion, Lord Dalhousie had a heavy care on his mind. So many officers were withdrawn from military duty for other service,—political, civil engineering, and administrative in various ways;—that he was alarmed about the military efficiency of the forces in the country. Again, those forces were declining in number, while the new extensions of territory required an increase. He was anything but an alarmist; but he urged a strong reinforcement of officers; and also a distribution of the troops, by which the safety of the country might be better secured than it could be while European battalions were withdrawn from Bengal, for service in the Crimea and in Pegu, and to garrison our new territories to the north-west. He said there must be three more battalions in Bengal; and the distribution of the troops must be rearranged. When he went from one to another of our military stations,—Cawnpore, no doubt, for one, whenever he passed between the seat of Government and the Upper Provinces,—he made the most penetrating inquiries into the state of mind and temper of the forces, native and European, and insisted with all his authority and influence on the vital importance of cultivating a frank and considerate intercourse with the native soldiery, of all races and persuasions. It was regarded as impossible to distribute the forces as he advised and desired. If his word had been taken for the probable consequences, the effort might have been found practicable; and, among other results, the lives of his two comrades would have been very different from what they have actually been.

After seven years of tremendous work, during which he passed through the labours of all his lieutenants, so far as that his mind was always accessible to them, and his interest engaged in their duty, Lord Dalhousie was worn out; and in another year he came home.

It must have been a remarkable day in his life, when he sat in Government House at Calcutta, hearing the salutes down the river, and the noise outside, which told of the arrival of his successor; and when he went to the door to meet and bring in that successor,—his old comrade Canning!

We know how they met. The worn-out man handed to the fresh man a telegram just arrived, which announced that all was well in Oude—newly annexed.

The consultations of the few following days must have been of the deepest interest,—far transcending anything they had imagined in their Christ Church days, though there are romantic dreams in college of political friendships more potent than rivalries. The freshman had not everything to learn; for he had been a member of the Government which had co-operated with and guided the Governor-General. Their intercourse was not that of guide and disciple so much as that of statesmen in partnership, one of whom was now retiring. When the worn-out one was carried on board ship, he left his successor impressed with the sense of the constant danger of the Europeans in India, till the old terms of confidence with the native troops could be restored, the forces better officered, and the whole more prudently distributed. The new territories were far less dangerous in themselves than as abstracting the securities of the oldest districts: and one of the warnings delivered to Lord Canning by Lord Dalhousie was, that there was more peril in the region about Calcutta than beyond the Sutlej.

We were disappointed of Lord Dalhousie’s accounts of Indian affairs in parliament. There was again much wonder that a Postmaster-General, as before a Vice-President of the Board of Trade, should be sent out to rule hundreds of millions of men: and there was no little vexation that Lord Dalhousie was neither seen nor heard. He was very ill; and soon, when bad news began to arrive from India, he was bitterly blamed, and wildly misjudged. His pride and his humility, his temperament and his judgment, co-operated to keep him silent. He would wait for justice. He would some day show that the mutiny was owing to other causes than any policy of his. He could not endure to thrust his own complaints on public attention at a time of national calamity: and so he sank in dumb submission to misconstruction and self-reliance as to the wisdom as well as the rectitude of his course. No doubt he was well aware that he would be justified by the faithful efforts of his friends, and especially of the successor who could best appreciate and explain his policy.

While he was lying ill, and deprived, as he thought, of the honour due to his rule, there was a time when his sympathies must have been strongly with his two old friends. Lord Elgin was on his voyage as ambassador to China in 1857, when the news of the Indian mutiny reached him. After an hour of anxious meditation, he resolved on a step worthy of a patriotic statesman, and singularly graceful under the circumstances. He decided to suspend his own mission in order to give India the benefit of the regiments he carried with him. Many as had been the pleasant meetings he and Lord Canning had had in the course of their lives, none could have compared in satisfaction with that on the steps of the Government House at Calcutta, when Lord Elgin followed in person the wonderful and welcome news that he was coming up the Ganges with reinforcements, which could not have astonished the natives on the banks more if they had come up from the river or down from the sky. During the weeks of Lord Elgin’s detention in India, before the new batch of forces for China reached Calcutta, his presence and his counsel were infinitely supporting to his old friend. Nothing could be finer than the calm bearing of Lord and Lady Canning from the beginning of the season of horror, when it seemed probable that the last European in India might be slaughtered before any adequate help could arrive. The natives gazed in the great man’s face day by day, and they saw no change. Every evening Lady Canning was seen going out for her airing as if nothing was happening: and when another great man came up from the sea with ships and soldiers, the audacity of rebellion was cowed in Calcutta, and far beyond it.

The horrors of the Cawnpore massacre were enough to have turned the brain of a woman of less calmness and devotedness than Lady Canning; and her husband and his friend must have felt more for her than she did for herself. The officers and their wives and children, whom the Cannings knew face to face, and some of whom they had visited in their cantonments at Cawnpore, were slaughtered like cattle; and the ladies and children cut to pieces and thrown into the well, which I need not describe. Here were realities of life, such as the young Bruce and Canning had little thought of encountering together, in the old college days. Lady Elgin was safe at home; but she was not much the happier for that; and from no friend at home had Lady Canning a more anxious and cordial sympathy.

Lord Elgin proceeded to his great work in China, thinking of anything rather than that he should again be welcomed by his friend Canning on those steps of Government House, and taken into council over the same desk, about the affairs of the same empire. There had been great changes in less than five years. Lord Elgin had established the new relations between China and our country; and Lord Canning had saved our Indian empire. Their old friend had sunk into his grave, interested to the last in their great achievements when his own were over, and were apparently misjudged and almost rejected.

There were other changes, as both painfully felt.

Lady Canning’s face and voice were absent. She had sunk under the climate, and partly perhaps from the consequences of the suspense and agony of the year of the rebellion. Her husband was not like the same man. His spirit was broken when he lost her; and Lord Elgin saw this in his face at their meeting.

Once more,—knowing that it was for the last time,—the friends exchanged confidence. They spent many hours in discussing the interests of the hundreds of millions of human beings whom the one was turning over to the rule of the other. Lord Elgin’s hope was that his friend would still be, for a time, an effectual aid to India and to him in parliament; and, though they would hardly meet again, they might yet work together at the same great task. Still, he must have had misgivings that all was over when he looked upon the haggard face and wasted form which sanguine people said would be restored by the voyage.

It was a great and memorable administration,—that of Lord Canning. Many of us were fully aware of it; and it was generally appreciated much less imperfectly than that of Lord Dalhousie. Not only was public attention more earnestly directed to India than ever before; but India, having come under parliamentary government, had converted an anomalous and external kind of interest into a national one. No expectations were too high of the honours that would be awarded to the first Viceroy of India, as soon as he should have recruited enough from the fatigues of his return to appear in public. But, while his friend in India was looking for the news of Lord Canning’s reception, and of the beginning of his services to India in parliament; and while we were waiting to see him come out into our streets and parks, he was slipping away. Before he could receive the first instalments of the national acknowledgments, he was dead. When his friend at Calcutta was hoping for some revival of his strength, however temporary, the news came of a funeral in Westminster Abbey, and of the long and noble train of great citizens who were eager to follow the son of George Canning to his grave.

Amidst the overwhelming cares and pressing business of his Indian rule, Lord Canning had lost nothing of the keenness of feeling with which he thought of the Englishwomen and their young daughters who filled the horrible tomb at Cawnpore. He took a deep interest in the plans for laying out the grounds round the well, by which the graves of the soldiers who perished were to be enclosed with the hideous one of the ladies and children, and the whole made a monument of the year of tribulation. It was reserved for the friend who had mourned over the calamity with him to fill his place at the consecration of this monument; and this was done by Lord Elgin on the 11th of February last.

Each friend has always been worthy of the other in the thorough devotedness to duty and the national service which gives heroic composure to the statesman in office, as well as to the general in command. As Lord Elgin stood “like a statue” on the upper pavement of the well, in the sight of all the people, his countenance and bearing were as calm as Lord Canning’s were in his daily rides in 1857, when the people looked in his face for a reflexion of the news from the upper country, and always saw grave composure. But there was sorrow in the heart of the survivor, as there had been in his who was gone. There was sorrow in all hearts, no doubt;—in all within the enclosure, and, we are assured, in those of the natives outside. But Lord and Lady Elgin were mourning others than those who were buried there. They were thinking of the brave-hearted and unselfish woman who lay in her grave at Calcutta, and of her husband under the pavement of Westminster Abbey. To them at such a moment it must have seemed as if they had had more to do with death than with life. Something of this is disclosed in the address of Lord Elgin on the evening of the great day of the opening of the East Indian railway line to Benares, when he remarked on Lord Canning having proposed the health of Lord Dalhousie at the opening of a former portion of the line. He referred briefly, and evidently because he could not help it, to the relations which had existed between the three friends of a lifetime. “It is a singular coincidence,” he said, “that three successive Governors-General should have stood towards each other in this relationship of age and intimacy.” The singular condition of welfare at which India is evidently arriving shows that the circumstance is as happy as it is remarkable.

Amidst the brightest times to come, and the most blessed fortunes that can be in store for India, there will always be,—as there ought always to be,—a strain of melancholy mingled with the rejoicing. The address of the Bishop of Calcutta, delivered from the monument, will probably be the best and longest remembered sermon of the age. Lord Elgin appears to the people now as the survivor of a series of regenerating rulers of India, who have sacrificed themselves to their work: and when his monument is reared (long hence may it be!) it will be remembered how it was that he was in India during the summer of the mutiny, and that he presided at the dedication of the sacred enclosure at Cawnpore. In all time to come the spirit of the inscription on the monument will hang round the statesmanship and the statesmen of the period of the mutiny, as well as round the memory of the sufferers under its agonies. “These are they which came out of great tribulation,” says the monument; and the sentiment of a future day, happier even than the present, may include under the description many more of the contemporaries of the transition stage of India than those whose bones lie there.

In the midst of the great moving picture of Indian history, during the middle period of our century, we may have a moment’s attention to spare for the friendship of the three rulers of the time; and some sympathy for them under the discovery so clearly appointed to them,—that the fulfilment of the highest and most lawful dreams of youthful ambition involves a very full experience of the mournfulness of human life.

From the Mountain.