Sir George Macartney

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Macartney, Sir George, Earl Macartney, was born at Lissanoure, in the northern part of the County of Antrim, 14th May 1737. Having passed through Trinity College, he entered the Middle Temple, made an extended tour of Europe (becoming acquainted with Rousseau and other persons of eminence), and shortly after his return home in 1764, was, through an intimacy with Lord Holland, appointed a special envoy to negotiate a commercial treaty with Russia. His biographer says: "His knowledge of European politics alone fitted him for the undertaking; but a graceful person, with great suavity of manners, a conciliating disposition, and winning address, were considered as no slight recommendations at a female court, where such accomplishments, it was fair to conclude, might work their way, when great and unaccommodating talents alone would prove ineffectual."

After long and arduous negotiations, during which he was thwarted not alone by opposing interests at the Russian court, but by the short-sighted policy of ministers at home, he brought the matter to a satisfactory conclusion, and returned to England in June 1767. He was enabled more than once, by his position at St. Petersburgh, to serve King Stanislaus of Poland, and was by him decorated with the order of the white eagle. In February 1768 he married a daughter of the Earl of Bute. In April he entered the British Parliament as member for Cockermouth; and in July changed this seat for one in the Irish Parliament for Armagh. In 1769 he was appointed Chief-Secretary for Ireland, on the nomination of Lord Townshend, Lord-Lieutenant. The position he took in Irish affairs is illustrated as follows by his biographer: "In the early part of the government of Lord Townshend, Sir George had occasion to fight many hard battles for his principal in the Irish House of Commons; and he was among the few members in that house who, by his manly and spirited retorts, could temper the impetuous eloquence of Mr. Flood, or silence the wild and democratic effusions of Dr. Lucas."

He held the secretaryship until June 1772, when he was made a K.B. and appointed to the sinecure office of Governor of Toome Castle, with a salary of £1,000. In October 1774 he re-entered the British Parliament; and in December 1775 was sent out as Governor of the island of Granada. In 1776 he was created Baron Macartney. He remained at Granada until July 1779, when, after a gallant defence against overwhelming numbers, he was obliged to surrender the island to the French Admiral d'Estaing, and was sent prisoner to France. After a short detention at Limoges, his exchange was facilitated by Louis XVI. On 22nd June 1781 he landed at Madras as Governor of that presidency, a post which he occupied for more than four years. The British power in India was at that time insecure. Owing to the war with France, Holland, and the American colonies, reinforcements could with difficulty be spared from home, while Hyder Ali, Sultan of Mysore, attacked the British settlements in the Carnatic.

Macartney found the resources of the Presidency almost exhausted; he borrowed money, raised recruits, established confidence, and aided by Sir Eyre Coote and Lord Hastings, repulsed the natives, drove the Dutch from the Coromandel coast, and concluded advantageous treaties with many of the Nabobs. The arrival of the French Admiral Suffren in the Indian seas terminated his successes. Aided by the French, Tippoo Sahib, son of Hyder Ali, retook Gondalour, while Madras itself was blockaded. Although encouraged by temporary successes elsewhere, Macartney must have succumbed, had not the peace of Versailles (1783) put an end to hostilities. Delivered from these dangers, the Governor of Madras had to contend against the jealousy of Hastings, Governor of Bengal. Both were recalled in 1785. On his arrival in England, Lord Macartney found he had been appointed Governor-General of India. This high post he declined, disgusted with the treatment he had been subjected to. A duel (in which he was severely wounded) with Major-General Stuart, whom he had removed from the service in India, terminated his Indian career. The Company, in consideration of his services, settled upon him a pension of £1,500. He resided principally at home until 1792, attending to his estates, and taking part in the deliberations of the Irish House of Lords.

From September 1792 to September 1794, he spent abroad as ambassador to China. The country was then little known, and Lord Macartney's published account of his embassy long continued the standard book of information on Chinese matters. Commenting on his mission, a writer says: "The amount of the benefit gained by this first diplomatic communication on the part of England with the Court of Pekin has been matter of dispute; but it is generally agreed that no other person could have accomplished more than was done by Lord Macartney, whose conduct at least was well calculated to impress the subjects of the Celestial Empire with a respect for the country which he represented."[97] In 1795 he was sent on a confidential mission to Italy; and from November 1796 to November 1798 he was Governor of the Cape of Good Hope, then newly captured from the Dutch. "There is no praise," says Lord Melville, "to which he is not entitled on the score of his government of the Cape." All his nerve and tact were called forth in 1797 by an attempted mutiny of the British fleet in Simon's Bay, following the news of the mutiny at the Nore.

Impaired health obliged him to give up this, his last official post, and return home. The Union gave him unbounded satisfaction: writing during the negotiations, he said: "I bow with admiration and respect to those by whose wisdom this great and important object has been brought so near to its completion. Considering many things that have happened in my time, painful to recollect and invidious to mention, I little imagined to see this happy day. Thank God! I have seen it. I thank the Father of all mercies that he has been graciously pleased to prolong my days to this auspicious period. The measure before us has my dying voice. It will annihilate the vain hopes of a vain insidious foe from without, and, I trust, will contribute to defeat the projects of a dark and treacherous enemy within." His last years were passed in retirement at Chiswick; his enjoyment of the society of a large circle of eminent men being lessened by severe sufferings from gout. He died, childless, 31st March 1806, aged 68, and was buried at Chiswick. In 1792 he had been created a Viscount; in 1794 an Earl; and in 1796 a British peer. His features were regular and well proportioned, his countenance open, placid, and agreeable. He possessed all the dignity of the " old school," without its stiffness, and retained it in his dress, which he did not materially alter for the last forty years of his life.

Sources

34. Biographie Générale. 46 vols. Paris, 1855-'66. An interleaved copy, copiously noted by the late Dr. Thomas Fisher, Assistant Librarian of Trinity College, Dublin.

97. Cyclopaedia, Penny, with Supplement. 29 vols. London, 1833.
D'Alton, John, see Nos. 12, 117a, 197b.

221. Macartney, Earl, Life and Selections from his Writings: Sir John Barron. 2 vols. London, 1807.

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