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He was the fourth son of the 11th Baron Elphinstone in the peerage of Scotland. Having been appointed to the civil service of the East India Company, of which one of his uncles was a director, he arrived at Calcutta early in 1796. After filling several subordinate posts, he was appointed (1801) assistant to the British resident at Poona, at the court of the peshwa, the most powerful of the Mahratta princes. Here he obtained his first opportunity of distinction, being attached in the capacity of diplomatist to the mission of Sir Arthur Wellesley to the Mahrattas. When, on the failure of negotiations, war broke out, Elphinstone, though a civilian, acted as virtual aide-de-camp to Wellesley. At the Battle of Assaye, and throughout the campaign, he displayed such courage and knowledge of tactics that Wellesley told him that he ought to have been a soldier.
In 1804, when the war closed, Elphinstone was appointed British resident at Nagpur. This gave him plenty of leisure time, which he spent in reading and study. In 1808 he was appointed the first British envoy to the court of Kabul, with the object of securing a friendly alliance with the Afghans; but this proved of little value, because Shah Shuja was driven from the throne by his brother before it could be ratified. The most valuable permanent result of the embassy was the literary fruit it bore several years afterwards in Elphinstone's great work on Kabul.
After spending about a year in Calcutta arranging the report of his mission, Elphinstone was appointed in 1811 to the important and difficult post of resident at Poona. The difficulty arose from the general complication of Mahratta politics, and especially from the weak and treacherous character of the peshwa, which Elphinstone rightly read from the first. While the mask of friendship was kept up Elphin stone carried out the only suitable policy, that of vigilant quiescence, with admirable tact and patience; when in 1817 the mask was thrown aside and the peshwa ventured to declare war, the English resident proved for the second time the truth of Wellesley's assertion that he was born a soldier. Though his own account of his share in the campaign is characteristically modest, one can gather from it that the success of the British troops was chiefly owing to his assuming the command at an important crisis during the Battle of Kirkee .
The peshwa being driven from his throne, his territories were annexed to the British dominions, and Elphinstone became their administrator. In 1819 he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Bombay and held this post till 1827, his principal achievement being the compilation of the "Elphinstone code." He virtually founded the system of state education in India, and probably did more than any other Indian administrator to further every likely scheme for the promotion of native education. His connection with the Bombay presidency was appropriately commemorated in the endowment of the Elphinstone College by the local communities, and in the erection of a marble statue by the European inhabitants.
Returning to England in 1829, after an interval of two years' travel, Elphinstone continued to influence public affairs. He twice refused the offer of the governor-generalship of India. Long before his return he had made his reputation as an author by his Account of the Kingdom of Cabul and its Dependencies in Persia and India (1815). Soon after his arrival in England he commenced the preparation of a work of wider scope, a history of India, which was published in 1841. It embraces the Hindu and Muslim periods, and is still a work of high authority.
- JS Cotton , Mountstuart Elphinstone ("Rulers of India" series), (1892)
- TE Colebrooke , Life of Mountstuart Elphinstone (1884)
- GW Forrest , Official Writings of Mountstuart Elphinstone (1884)
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