Bruce, Victor Alexander, ninth Earl of Elgin and thirteenth Earl of Kincardine 1849-1917, statesman and sometime viceroy of India, was the eldest son of James Bruce, eighth Earl of Elgin [qv.], by his second wife, Lady Mary Louisa Lambton, daughter of the first Earl of Durham, author of the famous report on Canadian government. He was born 16 May 1849 at Monklands, near Montreal, his father being then governor-general of Canada. He was educated first at Glenalmond—very strenuous and Spartan in its earliest days—and afterwards, like his father, at Eton, in Dr. Warre's house. While there he succeeded his father, who died at Dharmsala, in the Punjab Hills, on 20 November 1863, after little more than eighteen months' tenure of the viceroyalty. From Eton he went to Balliol College, Oxford, where he graduated with a second class in literae humaniores in 1873, and was captain of the college cricket eleven. He proceeded M.A. in 1877. For some twenty years after leaving Oxford he lived chiefly at his Fifeshire seat, taking a very active part in county and Scottish affairs, and specially in the promotion of education. He accepted the chairmanship of the Scottish liberal association; and adhering to Mr. Gladstone at the time of the Home Rule split, he was in the short-lived government of 1886, first as treasurer of the household and then as first commissioner of works.
His party returned to power in 1892, and in the following year Elgin was offered the Indian viceroyalty in succession to Lord Lansdowne, when it had been refused by Sir Henry Norman [qv.]. Lord Rosebery testified publicly (May 1899) to the difficulty he found in overcoming Elgin's objections, based chiefly on a modest estimate of his own powers. His recognition of his own limitations was so far justified that he cannot be reckoned among the outstanding governors-general of India. His personal influence on affairs was weakened by a retiring disposition and a self-distrust, from which there sprang a subservience to Whitehall that has, perhaps, no parallel in viceregal records. Though his influence on affairs was thus less positive than was fitting, his period of office will live in history as marking a momentous change in the conditions of British rule in India.
An acute observer has well said that when Elgin landed at Bombay in January 1894, there seemed to be no reason why the comfortable system of control then in vogue should not continue upon the same lines for a period measured by decades. But beneath the unruffled surface, new currents of thought were forming and were steadily gaining momentum. Intellectual Indians were ceasing to accept the solid fact of British control without question and without criticism, and Elgin's quinquennium by no means fulfilled its early promise of placidity [Lovat Fraser, India under Curzon and After, 1911, chap. 1]. The initial trouble was financial. The continued fall of the rupee exchange had caused large deficits; and, as measures already taken to secure stabilization could only mature by degrees, import duties were levied for revenue purposes. In order to meet Lancashire views, cotton goods were excluded, in the first instance, from the schedule. A heated controversy was evoked; in which for the first time the non-official European residents joined the Indian politicians in vehement agitation against government action. The viceroy, with marked failure of imagination, wrote to the secretary of state, Sir Henry Fowler, that the outcry was unreasonable and unreasoning [Life of Lord Wolverhampton, 1912]. For a blunt ruling in the legislature (27 December 1894) that all official members must obey the mandate of the India Office he was bitterly attacked in both the English-owned and the Indian press. A subsequent compromise on the cotton duties allayed the storm, but failed to satisfy Indian opinion.
Elgin's tenure was marked also by persistent and costly trouble on the Frontier. The delimitation of the Afghan boundary had made it necessary to establish a political agency in Chitral, and in 1895 a local rising was followed by the destruction of a Sikh detachment, and the British agent, (Sir) George Scott Robertson [qv.], was besieged in the Chitral fort. After his relief there was a prolonged controversy as to the expediency of retaining control. In 1897 the Waziris rose in revolt, and the Tochi Valley had to be occupied by a British force. Then followed the attack of the Swat tribes upon the Malakand, the raids of the Mohmands upon villages near Peshawar, and the seizure of the Khyber Pass by the Afridis. In a few days the North-West Frontier was aflame from Tochi to Buner, and it took 60,000 troops and a six months' campaign to extinguish the conflagration. Elgin was charged, on the one hand, with indecision while the fate of the Khyber Pass was in the balance, and, on the other, with exercising little independent judgement in regard to the alleged forward policy of the military authorities. The commander-in-chief, Sir George White, described him at this time as straight, clever and considerate [Sir M. Durand, Life of Sir George White, 1915].
Soon after Elgin's arrival, India had entered upon a cycle of lean years. The monsoon rains of 1895 were deficient and those of 1896 failed almost completely. Then followed the most intense and severe famine that had been known under British rule. By the spring of 1897 over four million people were receiving relief, and the mortality was extremely heavy. Moreover, in the autumn of 1896, bubonic plague was detected in the Bombay slums. Carried into the interior of the Western Presidency by a trek of the mill hands, it spread thence to almost all parts of India, and has since been endemic. The preventive measures instituted were deeply resented in Western India, where sanguinary riots occurred and two officers were deliberately murdered. A school of revolutionary extremists now grew up [Report of Sedition Committee, 1918]; sedition trials had to be instituted, and the law on the subject was strengthened.
Elgin was hardly fitted to be at the helm in such stormy seas. A man with the driving power of John Lawrence might be careless of dress and deficient in the instinct for ceremonial without detriment to his prestige; Elgin, apart from his public spirit, his chivalry, and his high sense of duty, had little to counteract the handicaps of reserve of manner, habitual silence, a retiring disposition, a certain homeliness in his aspect and bearing, a curious dislike of riding and on public occasions even of driving, and a general inaptitude for social leadership. He neither looked the great part which he had accepted so reluctantly, nor trusted himself in it. Yet he gave proof of no small administrative capacity in such matters as railway extension and famine relief.
Returning home at the beginning of 1899, Elgin received the Garter. He promptly resumed his local work in Scotland and was re-elected convener of the Fife county council. In September 1902 he accepted the chairmanship of a royal commission to inquire into the military preparations for the South African War, and into allegations of extravagance and contractual fraud. He carried through the inquiry with such judgement and dispatch that a unanimous report, which suggested methods of home defence later embodied in the territorial system, was presented in the following July. In 1905 he was chairman of the important commission necessitated by the decision of the House of Lords in the appeal of the Free Church against the union of the two large non-established Presbyterian bodies in Scotland. The recommendations of the commission were embodied in an Act passed a few months later; and Lord Elgin became chairman of a second commission charged with giving detailed effect to the recommendations of the first. Subsequently, at the request of the founder, he became chairman of the Carnegie trust for the Scottish universities, and he held this office till his death. He was chancellor of the university of Aberdeen from 1914.
Elgin was selected for the colonial secretaryship when Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman formed his ministry on the eve of the great liberal victory of January 1906. He shared in the steps, such as the grant of full autonomy to the Transvaal, which led a few years later to the union of South Africa. His cautious temperament never responded with enthusiasm to certain aspects of radical thought on overseas problems. We have Lord Morley's testimony [Recollections, 1917, ii, 207, 211] that Elgin was unsympathetic towards his proposals for Indian constitutional reforms. Moreover, Elgin publicly dissociated himself from the charges which had been brought against the unionist government at the general election with reference to the importation of Chinese labour for the Transvaal mines. Elgin was somewhat overshadowed by his brilliant under-secretary, Mr. Winston Churchill, whose speeches on departmental matters were as aggressive and stimulating as his own were cautious and pedestrian. So there was no great surprise when Mr. Asquith, on becoming prime minister in April 1908, did not include Elgin in the reconstituted Cabinet. Refusing the marquisate offered him, but avoiding any public indication of wounded pride, Elgin returned with zest to his first and deepest attachment to parochial, county, and Scottish affairs. In these at least he was not wavering or self-distrustful, and his devoted, useful service was recognized and appreciated on all hands.
In 1876 Elgin married Lady Constance Carnegie, daughter of the ninth Earl of Southesk, by whom he had six sons and five daughters; she died in 1909. His second wife, whom he married in 1913, was Gertrude Lilian, daughter of Commander William Sherbrooke, of Oxton Hall, Nottinghamshire, and widow of Captain Frederick Ogilvy, R.N. He died at his seat Broomhall, Dunfermline, Fifeshire, 18 January 1917. He was survived by five sons and four daughters, and another son was born posthumously. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Edward James Bruce, who served as a territorial officer in the European War.
Works cited above
Indian official reports
V. Smith, Oxford History of India, 1919
P. E. Roberts, Historical Geography of India, part II, 1920
The Times, Scotsman, Aberdeen Free Press, Dundee Advertiser, 19 January 1917
Manchester Guardian, Times of India, 20 January 1917
Contributor: F. H. B. [Frank Herbert Brown]