Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant-Duff is not a name that readily comes to mind while listing the Governors of Madras Presidency. His was a rather uneventful tenure from 1881 to 1886. Probably his being succeeded by Lord Connemara, the scandals of whose governorship earned him immortality, put Grant-Duff further in the shade. Weak vision coupled with a sickly constitution could have also contributed significantly to his making a poor impact.
Born in 1829 in Scotland to James Grant-Duff, an experienced India hand, and Jane, he was named after Mountstuart Elphinstone, Scottish statesman, historian and Governor of Bombay. M.E. Grant-Duff studied law, passed with honours, was called to the Inner Temple and had a fairly middling career after which he took to politics, joining the Liberal Party and becoming an MP in 1857. A long tenure in the House of Commons – he was to be an MP till 1881 – did not see him exert himself much except on the topic of education on which he spoke regularly and to equip himself for which he travelled extensively in the Continent. In 1868, W.E. Gladstone rather reluctantly appointed him Under Secretary of State for India in which capacity Grant-Duff played a rather faithful second fiddle to the Duke of Argyll who was Secretary of State for India. It was during this period that the Kooka rebellion broke out in the Punjab which was brutally suppressed and at the end of which 50 men were rounded up and blown from guns. Grant-Duff was subject to intensive questioning in the House of Commons over it and he did not emerge in a good light. His comment that the number was 49 and not 50 as the last man had to be brought down in self-defence was seen as being in poor taste.
The fall of Gladstone’ s government in 1874 saw Grant-Duff out of office for six years. In 1880 he was back, once again with Gladstone, this time as Under-Secretary of State for Colonies. In 1881, he was made Governor of Madras. His handling of the Chingleput Ryots Case in which he overruled a judgement of the High Court of Madras and reinstated a corrupt and convicted tahsildar was to earn him public contempt. His administration was also accused of bungling in handling Hindu-Muslim riots in 1882. G. Subramania Aiyar of The Hindu, who joined issue on most matters with the Governor, described him to W.S. Blunt as “a failure. He came out as Governor of Madras with great expectations, and we find him feeble, sickly, unable to do his work himself, and wholly in the hands of the permanent officials. The Duke of Buckingham, of whom we expected less, did much more, and much better.” Blunt found this to be a commonly held opinion across Madras Presidency.
An assessment made with the benefit of hindsight would be more charitable, at least if his contributions to Madras city were included. He was the man who saw to the laying of the promenade along the beach, and which he first named The Marina. He interested himself in the Museum and added to its collection. His wife, to whom The Hindu was more favourably disposed, worked hard to make the Victoria Caste and Gosha (now the Kasturba Gandhi Memorial) Hospital a reality, its prime mover Mary Dacomb-Scharlieb being a protégé of hers.
Grant-Duff returned to England to permanent retirement and died there in 1906. His career as a Governor was crowned by a knighthood. Right through life he was a prolific writer and his tenure as Governor of Madras was recorded in two volumes titled Notes from a Diary, Kept Chiefly in Southern India, 1881-1886. This was published in 1899. The book was dismissed as the “jejune memoir of a rather spasmodic and superficial worker” and certainly a perusal of it reveals a man who travelled, entertained and kept waiting for the “English mail.” But it also shows him to be a person who admired natural and man-made beauty and his descriptions of Madras and its surroundings and some of the happenings here make for fascinating reading.
Those interested in reading the book can download it from here: