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Life of Sir George Grey: Governor, High commissioner, and Premier. An Historical Biography.

Chapter XVII. — High Commissioner in South Africa—continued

page 115

Chapter XVII.
High Commissioner in South Africa—continued

An Episode.
Grey sends Troops, etc., to India.

Grey was never parochial, and the strands of his variegated career were continually being crossed by threads from the Motherland or from other provinces of the Empire. In August, 1857, he professed to have received from Lord Elphinstone, Governor of the province of Bombay, a despatch informing him of the outbreak of the mutiny in India. As the Governor of Bombay and the High Commissioner of the Cape could have no official relations with one another save through the Home Government, the term 'despatch' is obviously inaccurate. The fact remained, and it was grave. Grey at once realised the gravity of the situation as neither the Governor-General of India nor the English Ministry realised it. His action was prompt and decisive. A man-of-war then lying in Table Bay was at once sent to India, two batteries of the Royal Artillery stationed at Capetown were also sent, and with them were sent ammunition, military stores, and some horses, including the Governor's own carriage horses. Grey's public-spirited action received the warm approval of Queen Victoria. "I hear," wrote Monekton Milnes, afterwards Lord Houghton, "the Queen is in great admiration of Sir George Grey, at the Cape, having sent his carriage horses to India and going afoot.'' Grey had no more power to despatch the man-of-war than the Governor of New South Wales would have to despatch to India the British squadron anchored in Sydney Harbour. It is also doubtful whether he had—indeed, it is hardly doubtful that he page 116had not—power to despatch the Royal Artillery, and it is certain that, in the eyes of the Home Government, he incurred Talleyrand's reproach of trop de zèle. Posterity will not ratify the judgment. The verdict of history will be that, if he acted ultra vires, he was justified in so acting. His action was that of a statesman and a patriot.

Conciliates Natives.

According to his own account, Grey continued to despatch to India all the Imperial troops he could possibly spare, numbering 5,000. As these were under the command of English officers, who could obey only the orders of the War Office, he must have superseded those officers and thus supplanted the War Office. It is possible, but not very credible. One thing is certain. Resolving to trust to his personal influence to maintain peace in the midst of hostile races, he showed his customary energy in fore-arming himself against possible dangers. He set out on a series of visits to the kraals of the Kafir chiefs in order to extract from them solemn assurances of fidelity, or at least to arrange for a truce so long as the Empire was in danger. It is a tribute to his powers of persuasion, and at the same time a testimony to the loyalty of character of these savages, that he was completely successful and met with no refusals. Had they fallen on the defenceless settlements as the Zulus fell twenty years later, the British colonies would have been wiped out. He climbed the heights of Thaba-Bosigo, and from Moshesh, the aged chief of the Basutos, he received an assurance of friendship. From all others he received similar assurances. All were kept, and the whole of South Africa remained at peace, not only during the struggle in India, but for many years after. Grey was a fighting Governor, but he fought to end wars, not to begin them, and he established peace.

Levies Troops.

He was not content with taking these energetic measures. In answer to a second appeal from Lord Elphinstone (so he asserted) he summoned to its old page 117standards the disbanded German Legion, or a large portion of it, and despatched it to Bombay. For a subject to levy troops without the authority of the Sovereign was an act of high treason, and Grey undoubtedly incurred the risk of the severe penalties attached to such a procedure. Though the German Legion took no part in suppressing the Mutiny, it aided in keeping the peace in Bombay, which must have been denuded of white troops. Here again, therefore, the action of the High Commissioner, taken in contravention of the law though it was, will meet with the approval of posterity.

Advises Use of Maoris.

We are not sure that the same approbation will be meted out to another measure that he proposed or recommended. Some old friends of his, leading Maori chiefs in the North Island of New Zealand, offered to raise regiments of Maoris for service in India. For a number of reasons Grey strongly advised the Home Government to accept the offer. Recalling the employment of Indians in the war of American Independence, where the Indians were yet matched with hostile Indians in the American service, the English Government refused to accept the offer. Grey had been misled by his romantic attachment for a race whose virtues he probably overestimated and to whose savagery he chose to shut his eyes. In the matter of savagery there was, indeed, little to choose between the brown race and the white. A touch of cannibalism would hardly have been out of place at a time when Indian natives were blown from the mouths of guns. At all events, the civilised world will probably not again sanction the use of savage troops against even semi-civilised peoples.

Diverts the China Contingent.

The condemnation thus affixed to an ill-advised and ill-timed offer is of a mild nature compared with the astonishment raised by another phase of the same episode. Not in the excitement of the moment, but in page 118cold blood and to the last years of his life, Grey seriously maintained that it was he, and not Lord Elgin, who diverted the troops on their way to support the British plenipotentiary in China and despatched them to India. To himself alone he calmly arrogated the merit ascribed to that act, of having "saved India."

A Delusion.

It is a case for the Society for Psychical Research. From the beginning to end the narrative is a pure hallucination, or a tissue of hallucinations. It is difficult to conceive that a sane mind can have entertained such delusions or through forty years persisted in such beliefs. Mr. Rees charitably assumes that Grey believed that, in an emergency, when the existence of the Empire was at stake, a high officer of that Empire could ignore all precedents, supersede all rules, and act upon principles he had himself originated. But this is much too charitable a view of the case. There is no doubt at all that in 1857 Grey believed—in 1884, as the writer can testify, he still believed—that, as Commander-in-Chief within the Colony, he possessed the supreme command of all forces in the Colony, could direct military movements, and supersede the English general if such movements were not made. That was an extraordinary straining of his powers, and, as we have seen, it was not in imagination only. But it was mild in comparison with the incredible assumptions he made when the transports destined for China, to support Lord Elgin in forcibly concluding a treaty with the Chinese Government, touched at Capetown to take in supplies. He then claimed that, as the troops had come within the boundaries of the Colony, he was empowered to direct their movements. This was his deliberate belief. In pursuance of it he required of the commander of the troops that he should disobey the orders he had received from the War Office, diverge from the route he had been instructed to take, and steam straight to Calcutta. Through his biographer he asserts that the commander, Col. Hope, yielded to his insistence or rather obeyed his orders, and steamed page 119straight for Calcutta. The troops arrived in India in time to enable Sir Colin Campbell to relieve Lucknow. But for this unexpected reinforcement Lucknow would have fallen, and India itself might have been reconquered.

Against the Evidence.

Not a tittle of evidence supports this chain of assumptions. The officer in command only laughed at the mock orders he received from the Governor and continued his voyage to Singapore, as he had been instructed to do. There Lord Elgin received a despatch from Lord Canning, the Governor-General of India, informing him of the outbreak of the Mutiny and the critical situation of Central India. Then he rose from the table, where he sat at dinner, and paced the balcony for two or three hours, evidently deliberating what steps he should take in this grave emergency. "To his eternal honour," according to Lord Malmesbury, he decided to sacrifice the means of accomplishing the mission that had been entrusted to him, and divert to India the troops that had just arrived at Singapore, as had been arranged. Is it not plain that the transports did not steam straight from Capetown to Calcutta, as Grey had ordered they should, and as he professes to believe they really did, but simply pursued the course to Singapore, whither they had been sent? Lord Elgin, and he alone, diverted them to Calcutta; and Sir George Grey had no more to do with the diversion than the Man in the Moon. The facts, clearly stated and irresistibly argued, were placed before him in a New Zealand journal in 1890, by an officer who had been on board the transports when they touched at Capetown, but nothing could eradicate the deep-seated delusion. By deputy (for he was too proud to enter personally into controversy with any colonist), and that deputy (if I do not mistake) Mr. Rees, he maintained in the same journal his old contentions, as he had done for thirty-three years to all who would listen to him, and thus furnished convincing proof that megalomania had permanently disturbed the balance of his mind.

page 120

One more piece of evidence is available. When Mr. Rees's narrative was published, Sir Henry Loch, who had been Secretary to Lord Elgin, wrote to the Times, giving his statements a specific denial and scouting the claims made by, and on behalf of, Sir George Grey. Nothing more conclusive is ever likely to be produced.

The True Actor.

It is little to add that Mr. Rees, by his own confession, was unable to discover that any fitting recognition of Sir George Grey's signal services on this historic occasion had ever been made. What he really means is that he can find no evidence that things had happened as Grey said they did. All who follow him in the same track will be in equal perplexity. One is surprised, on looking through the histories of the Mutiny, to observe how indefinite are all the statements made about the incident. Even in the book that ought to have contained an authorised narrative there are only the haziest references to it. The unpretending volume, indeed, might have been more luminously compiled. Elucidative notes or illustrative words, such as Carlyle appended or prefixed to Cromwell's letters or intermingled with his speeches; Lord Elgin's meagre accounts filled out from authoritative histories; above all, some glimpses of a striking personality, would have greatly added to its historical value. The Earl of Elgin was no ordinary man. Driven by inherited financial embarrassment to seek a remunerative career by honourable public service abroad, he exercised a wise despotism over Jamaica in his early manhood, brought constitutional government in Canada into successful working in his maturity, and when the snows of age had prematurely whitened the finely shaped head he went forth to rule the great dependency he had saved. The writer well remembers listening with all the reverence of boyhood to the address he gave in the town hall of the city near his seat at Broomhall on the eve of his departure for India. An Anglican rector who had been his contemporary at Oxford said that he was there the finest elocutionist of his time, and all who page 121heard him at Dunfermline in the early sixties must have felt the solemnity of the occasion. A slight tremor shook his voice as he spoke of the unlikelihood of his return from the sphere of his new labours, but true eloquence was lacking to match the polished enunciation and the finished elocution. He never returned, and, dying tragically at his post, he unwittingly bequeathed to his son both the reversion of the viceroyalty and a seat in the present Cabinet.

He was lying at Singapore, impatiently waiting for the arrival of the troops that were to support his mission in China. Instead of them came a messenger, grim and terrible, to tell of the rising of the Sepoys in Central India, and with it an appeal to his generosity and patriotism. So far from its being the case, as Grey always alleged, that Lord Canning underestimated the danger and asked only that some horses and other trifling reinforcements should be sent him, it is stated in the Letters that Canning urgently entreated Lord Elgin to send him troops—the troops, namely, that were destined for the China Expedition. And "I have not a man" to send, he writes to his wife. His troops were still at sea. He did exactly what Grey claimed to have done. He despatched fast steamers to intercept the slow-sailing transports and divert them towards the Hoogly. After consulting with the local general, he had resolved on a great act of renunciation. He determined to sacrifice the China mission, and thus relinquish in advance all the glory he might have hoped to win. As it happened, he reaped the higher glory of renouncement, and he did not in the long run sacrifice the impurer fame of negotiating a questionable treaty.

Evidence is deficient on the one side and altogether lacking on the other. In a matter in which there ought to be thousands of witnesses, many of them still living, we are unable positively to say that the transports complied with the requests of Grey or obeyed the orders of Elgin. Grey's contention, which looks like the delusion of a distempered brain, is at least arguable. Whately's Historic Doubts about Napoleon might have a counterpart in Historic Doubts about Lord Elgin.