The EIC and Lord Minto's Foreign Policy

The British East India Company, at the time of Dr. Leyden’s residency and travels in India, was governed as follows. A board of directors, appointed by His Majesty the King of England among holders of a certain minimum value of stock in the company and subject to his removal, held all authority over appointments within the company and final authority over company policy. This board was headquartered at Leadenhall Street in London. The company’s operations were overseen and directed by the Governor-General and three members of counsel chosen from among civil servants of at least ten years’ experience in India, comprising the Supreme Government in Bengal, located in Calcutta; with subordinate governments in Bombay, Madras, and Prince of Wales Island (present-day Penang Island, Malaysia). The EIC’s supreme court was also located in Calcutta, as well as its leading college, Calcutta College (also known as Fort William College), established in 1800 and at which Dr. Leyden studies and taught the languages of the Indian sub-continent. The object of Calcutta College after 1804, during Leyden’s lifetime, was reduced to the study of Oriental literature, so Leyden’s studies there were actually central to the purpose of the college at the time.

When Lord Minto was appointed as Governor-General of the East India Company in 1807, the Napoleonic Wars dominated inter-European relations, and thus also military policy in and around the colonies controlled by the European powers. Though Britain held a near-monopoly at the turn of the 19th century in trans-Indian Ocean trade, France controlled two islands in the South Indian Ocean, present day Mauritius; had initiated a close diplomatic relationship with the kingdom of Persia; and were in the process of taking control of the Dutch colonies in the archipelago of present-day Indonesia. These developments worried Lord Minto greatly, especially given France’s imposition on Russia of the Continental System, which forced an embargo on Russian trade with Britain, and let Lord Minto to fear a potential Russian-French military expedition through Central Asia or Persia towards the territories for which he was now responsible. To counter this threat, Lord Minto ordered four diplomatic missions in 1809, each with the intent of establishing relations for mutual defence with the nations north and west of the Company’s India territories. The first of these missions Lord Minto sent to Lahore, a kingdom in the region of the present-day border between India and Pakistan, which concluded in April 1809 with a treaty for mutual defence; the second he sent to Sind, a kingdom located at the mouth of the Indus River, which concluded in August 1809 with a treaty establishing ‘eternal friendship’ between the British and Sind and excluding the French from having any relations with Sind; the third he sent to Kabul, which concluded with a similar treaty rendered null by the overthrow of the Shah a few months after it was signed; and the fourth mission he sent to Persia, led by John Malcolm, who was unsuccessful in persuading the Persian king—a mission send by the home government from London simultaneously, however, ended in a treaty signed in 1812 closing passage through Persia to all European nations other than Great Britain.

Just as threatening to the British effort to contain Napoleon as the land-based threat from India’s north and west, however, was the French naval presence in the South Indian Ocean islands of Ile de France and Bourbon. All naval trade from Asia to Europe had to round the Cape of Good Hope and pass by Madagascar, no matter its port of departure or destination. The French-held islands sat right next to this shipping lane, and French warships stationed there were charged with the singular purpose of disrupting British shipping. Thus, when the British home government in London launched a joint mission with the East India Company board of directors in 1808, consisting of twenty-eight ships organised into four fleets, to sail from England to India to collect saltpetre for the war and return to England. This tremendous scheme was entirely frustrated by the French raiders, at the loss of fifteen of the twenty-eight ships and over one thousand people on board.

The directors of the East India Company, upon hearing of this calamity, resolved forthwith to root out the French from their highly strategic base. The British navy based in Calcutta, commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, undertook a campaign against the French navy that lasted from October 1808 until the capture of Bourbon in July 1810, and of Ile de France four months later. While this campaign was under way, Lord Minto ordered and received the capture of pirate outposts on the islands of the Persian Gulf in November 1809; and undertook a campaign to capture the major French garrisons and naval bases in the Dutch East Indies colonies. The British expeditionary force between February and August of 1810 captured the islands of Ambon, Banda, and Ternate—each located in the Banda Sea, which lies between the islands of Celebes and Papua. Following the success of these missions, Lord Minto ordered the invasion of the port city of Batavia, now known as Jakarta, on the island of Java. Lord Minto himself accompanied the expeditionary force, which assembled at Malacca (in the Straits of Malacca), on the southwest coast of British-held Malaya, on 1 June 1811; also accompanying the mission was John Leyden. The expeditionary force embarked on Batavia Island on 4 August, and captured the city unresisted on 8 August, subsequently defeating and dissolving its French garrison of 10,000 men; meanwhile Dr. Leyden, in his zeal to avail himself of the manuscripts of one particular library in the city, neglected to purge it of mosquitoes, contracting malaria or some other such disease and meeting his demise on 28 August.


For the government of the EIC:
Auber, Peter. An Analysis of the Constitution of The East-India Company.
Originally Published 1826, Reprinted by Lenox Hill, 1970.

For Lord Minto’s foreign policy:
Bakshi, S.R. British Diplomacy and Administration in India, 1807-13. Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1971.
Taylor, Stephen. Storm and Conquest. W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.