Lord William Bentinck

William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck GCB GCH PC (14 September 1774 – 17 June 1839), known as Lord William Bentinck, was a British soldier and statesman.[1] He served as Governor-General of India from 1828 to 1835. He has been credited for significant social and educational reforms in India including abolishing Sati, the suppression of female infanticide and human sacrifices,[2] and ending lawlessness by eliminating Thuggee – which had existed for over 450 years – with the aid of his chief captain, William Henry Sleeman. Along with Thomas Babington Macaulay he introduced English as the language of instruction in India.[3][4][5]

William Bentinck

Governor-General of India
In office
1828  20 March 1835
MonarchWilliam IV
Prime Minister
Succeeded bySir Charles Metcalfe
As Acting Governor-General
Governor-General of the Presidency of Fort William
In office
4 July 1828  1833
MonarchGeorge IV
William IV
Prime MinisterThe Duke of Wellington
The Earl Grey
Preceded byWilliam Butterworth Bayley
As Acting Governor-General
Governor of Madras
In office
30 August 1803  11 September 1807
MonarchGeorge III
Prime Minister
Preceded byThe 2nd Baron Clive
Succeeded byWilliam Petrie
As Acting Governor
Personal details
Born14 September 1774 (1774-09-14)
Buckinghamshire, England
Died17 June 1839(1839-06-17) (aged 64)
Paris, France
Political partyWhig
Spouse(s)Lady Mary Acheson (d. 1843)
ParentsWilliam Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland
Lady Dorothy Cavendish
EducationWestminster School
AwardsKnight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath
Royal Guelphic Order
Military service
Branch/serviceBritish Army
Years of service1791–1839
Commands11th Regiment of Light Dragoons
Battles/warsNapoleonic Wars


Bentinck was born in Buckinghamshire, the second son of Prime Minister William Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, and Lady Dorothy, only daughter of William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire. Upon the third duke's marriage to Lady Dorothy, he changed the family name to Cavendish-Bentinck.[6]

He was educated at Westminster School.[7]

Early career

In 1783, at the age of 9, he was given the sinecure of Clerk of the Pipe for life.[8]

Bentinck joined the Coldstream Guards on 28 January 1791 at the age of 16, purchasing an ensign's commission.[9] He was promoted to captain-lieutenant (lieutenant) in the 2nd Regiment of Dragoons on 4 August 1792,[10] and to captain in the 11th Regiment of Light Dragoons on 6 April 1793.[11] He was promoted to major in the 28th Foot on 29 March 1794[12] and to lieutenant-colonel in the 24th Dragoons that July.[13] On 9 January 1798, Bentinck was promoted to colonel.[14] In 1803 he was, to some surprise, appointed Governor of Madras, and was promoted to major-general on 1 January 1805.[15] Although his tenure was moderately successful, it was brought to an end by the Vellore Mutiny in 1806, prompted by Bentinck's order that the native troops be forbidden to wear their traditional attire. Only after serious violence was order restored and the offending policy rescinded, and Bentinck was recalled in 1807.

After service in the Peninsular War, Bentinck was appointed commander of British troops in Sicily. He was brevetted to lieutenant-general on 3 March 1811.[16] A Whig, Bentinck used this position to meddle in internal Sicilian affairs, effecting the withdrawal from government of Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies in favour of his son, Francis I of the Two Sicilies, the reactionary Queen's disgrace, and an attempt to devise a constitutional government for the troubled island, all of which ultimately ended in failure. In 1814, Bentinck landed with British and Sicilian troops at Genoa, and commenced to make liberal proclamations of a new order in Italy which embarrassed the British government (which intended to give much of Italy to Austria), and led, once again, to his recall in 1815.

Bentinck in Sicily

As conditions in Sicily began to deteriorate at the beginning of the 19th century, England began worrying about its interests in the Mediterranean. Internal dissensions in the Sicilian government and an ever-increasing suspicion that Queen Maria Carolina was in correspondence with the French Occupation of Sicily as its object led to the appointment of Bentinck as British representative to the Court of Palermo in July 1811.[17] At the beginning of his time at the head of Sicilian affairs, politicians in London opposed the Bourbon rule and appealed for Sicilian annexation. Bentinck was sympathetic to the cause and plight of the Sicilians and "was quickly convinced of the need for Britain to intervene in Sicilian affairs, not so much for Britain's sake as for the well-being of the Sicilians."[18] He was also one of the first of the dreamers to see a vision of a unified Italy.[17]

The English, however, were content to support the Bourbons if they were willing to give the Sicilians more governmental control and a greater respect of their rights. Bentinck saw this as the perfect opportunity to insert his ideas of a Sicilian constitution. Opposition to the establishment of a constitution continued to surface, Maria Carolina proving to be one of the toughest. Her relationship with Bentinck can be summed up in the nickname that she gave him: La bestia feroce (the ferocious beast).[18] Bentinck, however, was determined to see the establishment of a Sicilian Constitution and shortly thereafter exiled Maria Carolina from Palermo. On 18 June 1812 the Parliament assembled in Palermo and, about a month later, on 20 July 1812 the constitution was accepted and written on the basis of 15 articles, on the drafts prepared by Prince Belmonte and other Sicilian noblemen. With the establishment of the constitution the Sicilians had now gained an autonomy they had never experienced before. The constitution set up the separation of the legislative and executive powers and abolished the feudalistic practices that had been established and recognised for the past 700 years.[17]

Bentinck's success in establishing a Sicilian constitution lasted only a few years. On 8 December 1816, a year after Ferdinand IV returned to the throne of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the constitution was abolished and Sicily was reunited with Naples. The constitutional experiment was deemed a failure although it cannot be said to be his alone.[17] The Sicilian nobles were inexperienced and in the face of the difficulties of 1814 and 1815 could not sustain a constitution without British support, which was withdrawn in the wake of the end of the Napoleonic wars. The British no longer had an invested interest in the internal affairs of Sicily now that the threat of French invasion had been removed. The establishment of a Sicilian constitution that was facilitated by Bentinck was not to be soon forgotten. The ideas found therein and the small taste of freedom lingered in the memories of the Sicilians and had an influence on the desire for autonomy that was at the base of the Sicilian revolutions of 1820 and 1848.[18]

The Italian Adventure

Sailing from Sicily on 30 January 1814, Bentinck first made for Naples. There he reluctantly signed an armistice with Joachim Murat; whom he personally detested as being a man whose "whole life had been a crime," yet whom Britain found it expedient to detach from his brother-in-law, Napoleon, by guaranteeing his Kingdom of Naples in return for an alliance.[19] Having instructed the forces under his command in Sicily to make a landing at Livorno, Bentinck then travelled north, with a day's stop in Rome, to join them.[20] The disembarkation at Livorno began on the 9 March and took three days to complete, Murat's Neapolitans already having occupied the port beforehand.[21]

Napoleon's sister Elisa, though having now abandoned her Grand Duchy of Tuscany, had nevertheless not given up completely in attempting to salvage something out of the collapse of her brother's Empire. Having obtained from Murat - husband of her sister Caroline - the guarantee that he would obtain the consent of the Coalition he had just joined to her retention of the Principality of Lucca and Piombino in return for having rendered up Tuscany without a fight, she had, by the time of Bentinck's appearance at Livorno, retired to Lucca. Upon hearing of his landing, she sent a delegation to gain assurances that Murat's pact would be respected. Bentinck replied that it would not. If she did not depart immediately, he said, she would arrested. With 2,000 British troops dispatched towards the city to carry out this threat, the heavily pregnant Elisa had no choice but to abandon the last of her territories and flee north, where she eventually fell into allied hands at Bologna.[22]

Elisa quit Lucca on the 13 March. The next day, Bentinck issued a proclamation from Livorno calling on the Italian nation to rise in a movement of liberation. "Italians!" he declared, "Great Britain has landed her troops on your shores; she holds out her hand to you to free you from the iron yoke of Buonaparte...hesitate no longer...assert your rights and your liberty. Call us, and we will hasten to you, and then, our forces joined, will effect that Italy may become what in the best times she was".[23] In thus attempting to bring about his long-nurtured dream of an independent Italian nation-state in the north and centre (he did not consider the Neapolitans and Sicilians 'Italians'),[24] Bentinck was quite publicly repudiating the policy of his own Government - which was intending to largely restore the status quo ante bellum in Italy; with Austria in possession of Lombardy and the King of Sardinia re-established in Piedmont. For the next month, Bentinck was therefore operating as effectively an independent actor representative of Britain only, as Rosselli says, in the widest sense: in that he held himself to be furthering Britain's true interests, regardless of whether the current Government recognised them or not.[25]

Ordering his troops north to besiege Genoa, Bentinck himself now headed to Reggio Emilia for a conference with Murat. At this conference on the 15th, he brazenly demanded that Tuscany be handed over to himself and evacuated by the Neapolitan forces then in possession of it. It was necessary, he argued, that Tuscany be under British jurisdiction, as otherwise he would have no logistical base from which to conduct future operations - to which Murat replied that it was the same argument on his side which dictated his own necessary possession of it.[26] Suddenly threatening to turn his forces against Naples itself and restore the rightful Ferdinand IV if Murat did not give way, Bentinck was quickly reprimanded in a firm note from Castlereagh reminding him that he was instructed to co-operate in every way with Murat and Austria. At which he reluctantly withdrew his bid for Tuscany - which he had likely been hoping to turn into the nucleus of a free Italian state under his own aegis - and left for Genoa.[27] There had, in any case, been no discernable response from the Tuscans to Bentinck's proclamation, while in Genoa he would find a welcoming audience at last.[28]

Bentinck had been ordered to take and occupy Genoa in the name of the King of Sardinia.[29] But when the city surrendered to him on 18 April 1814, he instead proclaimed - contrary to the intentions of the Coalition - the restoration of the Republic of Genoa and the repeal of all laws passed since 1797, much to the enthusiasm of the Genoese.[30] At the same time, he dispatched an expeditionary force to Corsica to attempt to revive the Anglo-Corsican Kingdom of 1794 - 1796 and gain for Britain another useful base in the Mediterranean.[31] In Genoa meanwhile, on the 24th, he received representations from the provisional government in Milan beseeching Britain's support for the maintenance of an independent Kingdom of Italy rather than the restoration of Austria's rule over Lombardy. With Napoleon's abdication of both the French and Italian thrones on 11 April, the government in Milan was in search of a new sovereign who would better bolster their chances of survival and, in seeking to bind Britain to their cause, the suggestion was put to Bentinck that Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, the seventh son of George III, would be a welcome candidate.[31] Though Bentinck recommended they might look to Archduke Francis of Este as a more realistic candidate in order to mollify the Austrians.

With Napoleon's double abdication on the 11 April however - though the news took time to cross the Alps - Bentinck's capacity to influence events on the ground while, with the war against the Emperor still raging, all was still to a great extent up in the air, largely came to an end. As did his Government's motive for toleration. His erratic behaviour over the recent months had led the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool to brand him simply "mad", and his scope of authority was sharply reduced; though he was not finally dismissed from his grand post as Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean until April the following year.

Governor-General of India

Lord William Bentick was the first governor general of British-occupied India . Everyone else before him was the governor of Bengal (Fort William) On his return to England, Bentinck served in the House of Commons for some years before being appointed Governor-General of Bengal in 1828. His principal concern was to turn around the loss-making East India Company, to ensure that its charter would be renewed by the British government.

Bentinck engaged in an extensive range of cost-cutting measures, earning the lasting enmity of many military men whose wages were cut. Although historians emphasise his more efficient financial management, his modernising projects also included a policy of westernisation, influenced by the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, which was more controversial. He reformed the court system

Bentinck made major educational reforms he made English the medium of instruction after passing the English Education Act 1835, English replaced Persian, as the language of the higher courts and encouraged western-style education for Indians to provide more educated Indians for service in the British bureaucracy.[32][33] He founded the Calcutta Medical college after the committee appointed by him found that "The Native Medical Institution established in 1822 , The Committee headed by Dr John Grant as president and J C C Sutherland, C E Trevelyan, Thomas Spens, Ram Comul Sen and M J Bramley as members found the education, examination system, training and lack of practical anatomy clearly below standards" and recommended its closure, which Bentinck accepted and he opened the Calcutta Medical college which offered western medical education and opening of this college is seen as Introduction of Western Science into India.It was the first western medical college in Asia and it was open to all without distinction of caste or creed. James Ranald Martin compares the creation of this college to Bentinck's other acclaimed act of abolishing Sati [34][35][36][37][38][39]

Bentinck tried to suppress sati, the prescribed death of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre, and passed the Bengal Sati Regulation, 1829. He also targeted other customs that offended Western sensibilities, often with the help of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who was not only a social reformer but also known as "Maker of Modern India" or "Father of Modern India".[40] The "superstitious practices" Rammohan Roy objected to included sati', caste rigidity, polygamy and child marriages and Lord Bentinck helped him to enforce the law.[41] Although his reforms met little resistance among native Indians at the time, Indian enemies repeated a story to the effect that he had once planned to demolish the Taj Mahal and sell off the marble. According to Bentinck's biographer John Rosselli, the story arose from Bentinck's fund-raising sale of discarded marble from Agra Fort and of the metal from the Great Agra Gun, the largest cannon ever cast, a historical artefact which dated to the reign of Akbar the Great.[42][43] The efforts to eradicate the Thugs, a community of robber-murderers, were also started under Bentinck, and directed by William Henry Sleeman and organised thuggery was completely eradicated by 1837. Bentinck removed flogging as a punishment in the Indian Army.[44]

Saint Helena Act 1833

The Saint Helena Act 1833, also called the Charter Act of 1833, was passed during Bentinck's tenure and, accordingly, the monopoly of the East India Company was abolished. The Governor-General of Bengal became the Governor-General of India. This Act added a law member to the executive council of the governor general. Bishops of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta were to be appointed for the benefit of the Christians in India.

Bentinck returned to the UK in 1835 and refused a peerage, partly because he had no children and partly because he wanted to stand for Parliament again. He again entered the House of Commons as a Member for Glasgow.[45]

Personal life

In August 1791, Bentinck played in a non-first-class cricket match for Marylebone Cricket Club against Nottingham Cricket Club at King's Meadow, Nottingham.[46][47]

Bentinck married Lady Mary, daughter of Arthur Acheson, 1st Earl of Gosford, on 18 February 1803.[48] The marriage was childless. He died in Paris on 17 June 1839, aged 64. Mary died in May 1843.[49] They are buried together in the Bentinck family vault in St Marylebone Parish Church, London.


  1. "Lord William Bentinck | British government official". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 30 May 2019.
  2. Showick Thorpe Edgar Thorpe (2009). The Pearson General Studies Manual 2009, 1/e. Pearson Education India. pp. 103–. ISBN 978-81-317-2133-9. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  3. Radhey Shyam Chaurasia (2002). History of Modern India, 1707 A. D. to 2000 A. D. Atlantic Publishers & Dist. pp. 113–127. ISBN 978-81-269-0085-5. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  4. Jörg Fisch (2000). "Humanitarian Achievement or Administrative Necessity? Lord William Bentinck and the Abolition of Sati in 1829". Journal of Asian History. 34: 109–134. JSTOR 41933234.
  5. Arvind Sharma; Ajit Ray (1988). Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 7–9. ISBN 978-81-208-0464-7. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  6. Demetrius Charles Boulger (1897). Rulers of India: Lord William Bentinck. Oxford Clarendon Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-1-164-16873-7.
  7. "Imperial India". www.britishempire.co.uk. Retrieved 27 May 2019.
  8. Taylor, Charles. The Literary Panorama, Volume 10. p. 1411.
  9. "No. 13278". The London Gazette. 29 January 1791. p. 64.
  10. "No. 13446". The London Gazette. 31 July 1792. p. 606.
  11. "No. 13516". The London Gazette. 2 April 1793. p. 269.
  12. "No. 13635". The London Gazette. 25 March 1794. p. 264.
  13. "No. 13686". The London Gazette. 19 July 1794. p. 748.
  14. "No. 14080". The London Gazette. 6 January 1798. p. 23.
  15. "No. 15770". The London Gazette. 8 January 1805. p. 47.
  16. "No. 16460". The London Gazette. 2 March 1811. p. 406.
  17. Lackland, H. M. (1927). "Lord William Bentinck in Sicily, 1811–12". The English Historical Review. 42 (167): 371–396.
  18. Hearder, Harry (1983). Italy in the Age of the Risorgimento 1790–1870. New York: Longmans.
  19. Gregory, Sicily: The Insecure Base, 119; Rosselli, Lord William Bentinck, 175.
  20. Rosselli, Lord William Bentinck, 173.
  21. Nafziger, G. F. & Gioannini M., The Defense of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Northern Italy, 1813-1814, 209.
  22. Williams, The Women Bonapartes, II, 299 - 302.
  23. The Parliamentary Debates from the Year 1803 to the Present Time, Volume 29, 729.
  24. Rosselli, Lord William Bentinck, 151.
  25. Rosselli, Lord William Bentinck, 174.
  26. Nafziger, G. F. & Gioannini M., The Defense of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Northern Italy, 1813-1814, 210.
  27. Gregory, D., Sicily: The Insecure Base, 120.
  28. Gregory, D., Napoleon's Italy, 183.
  29. Rath, J. R., The Fall of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, 1814, 186.
  30. Gregory, Sicily: The Insecure Base, 120.
  31. Boulger, Lord William Bentinck, 52.
  32. Olson, James S.; Shadle, Robert S. (1996). Historical Dictionary of the British Empire. p. 131. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  33. Belliapa, C. P. (21 April 2014). "On William Bentinck's trail". Deccan Herald (Bangalore). Retrieved 19 January 2015.
  34. David Arnold (20 April 2000). Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India. Cambridge University Press. pp. 63–. ISBN 978-0-521-56319-2. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  35. Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya (1999). History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization: pt. 1. Science, technology, imperialism and war. Pearson Education India. pp. 477–. ISBN 978-81-317-2818-5. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  36. Michael Mann (24 October 2014). South Asia’s Modern History: Thematic Perspectives. Taylor & Francis. pp. 463–. ISBN 978-1-317-62445-5. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  37. Shamita Chatterjee; Ramdip Ray; Dilip Kumar Chakraborty (3 August 2012). "Medical College Bengal—A Pioneer Over the Eras". Indian Journal of Surgery. 73 (3): 385–390. PMC 3824763.
  38. "Students demand restoration of the old name of Calcutta Medical College". Krishnendu Bandyopadhyay. The Times of India. 30 January 2018. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  39. Mel Gorman (September 1988). "Introduction of Western Science into Colonial India: Role of the Calcutta Medical College". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 132: 276–298. JSTOR 3143855.
  40. Beck, Rodger B.; et al. Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-618-18488-0.
  41. Bandyopadyay, Brahendra N (1933). "Rommohan Roy". 351. London: University Press. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  42. Cooper, Randolf (2003). The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 198.
  43. Rosselli, J (1974). Lord William Bentinck: the making of a Liberal Imperialist, 1774–1839. London: Chatto and Windus for Sussex University Press. p. 283.
  44. S. K. Aggarwal (1 February 1988). Press at the crossroads in India. UDH Publishing House. p. 17. ISBN 978-81-85044-32-3. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  45. Boulger, p. 208.
  46. Britcher, Samuel (1791). A list of all the principal Matches of Cricket that have been played (1790 to 1805). MCC. p. 22.
  47. Haygarth, Arthur (1862). Scores & Biographies, Volume 1 (1744–1826). Lillywhite. p. 123.
  48. Boulger, p. 17.
  49. Boulger, p. 148.

Further reading

Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
James Macpherson
William Smith
Member of Parliament for Camelford
With: William Smith
Succeeded by
William Joseph Denison
John Angerstein
Preceded by
Lord Edward Bentinck
Charles Pierrepont
Member of Parliament for Nottinghamshire
With: Evelyn Pierrepont
Succeeded by
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Parliament of Great Britain
Member of Parliament for Nottinghamshire
With: Evelyn Pierrepont 1801
Lord Pierrepont 1801–1803
Succeeded by
Lord Pierrepont
Anthony Hardolph Eyre
Preceded by
Viscount Newark
Anthony Hardolph Eyre
Member of Parliament for Nottinghamshire
With: Viscount Newark
Succeeded by
Viscount Newark
Frank Sotheron
Preceded by
Viscount Newark
Frank Sotheron
Member of Parliament for Nottinghamshire
With: Frank Sotheron
Succeeded by
Frank Sotheron
John Lumley
Preceded by
John Walpole
Lord John Bentinck
Member of Parliament for King's Lynn
With: John Walpole
Succeeded by
John Walpole
Lord George Bentinck
Preceded by
James Oswald
Colin Dunlop
Member of Parliament for Glasgow
With: James Oswald 1836–1837
John Dennistoun 1837–1839
Succeeded by
John Dennistoun
James Oswald
Government offices
Preceded by
William Butterworth Bayley (acting)
Governor-General of India
Succeeded by
Sir Charles Metcalfe (acting)
Military offices
Preceded by
The Lord Heathfield
Colonel of the 20th Regiment of (Light) Dragoons
Succeeded by
Sir Stapleton Cotton
Preceded by
The Marquess of Lothian
Colonel of the 11th Regiment of (Light) Dragoons
Succeeded by
Lord Charles Manners
Preceded by
Sir Edward Barnes
Commander-in-Chief, India
Succeeded by
Sir James Watson
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