William Amherst, 1st Earl Amherst

William Pitt Amherst, 1st Earl Amherst, GCH, PC (14 January 1773 – 13 March 1857) was a British diplomat and colonial administrator. He was Governor-General of India between 1823 and 1828.

The Earl Amherst

Earl Amherst.JPG
Governor-General of the Presidency of Fort William
In office
1 August 1823 – 13 March 1828
MonarchGeorge IV
Prime Minister
Preceded byJohn Adam
As Acting Governor-General
Succeeded byWilliam Butterworth Bayley
As Acting Governor-General
Personal details
Born(1773-01-14)14 January 1773
Bath, Somerset
Died13 March 1857(1857-03-13) (aged 84)
Knole House, Kent
Spouse(s)(1) Hon. Sarah Archer
(2) Lady Mary Sackville
Alma materChrist Church, Oxford

Background and educationEdit

Born at Bath, Somerset, Amherst was the son of William Amherst and Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Paterson. He was the grand-nephew of Jeffrey Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst, and succeeded to his title in 1797 according to a special remainder in the letters patent. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford.[1]

Ambassador extraordinary to ChinaEdit

In 1816 he was sent as ambassador extraordinary to the court of China's Qing dynasty, with a view of establishing more satisfactory commercial relations between China and Great Britain. On arriving at Pei Ho (Baihe, today's Haihe), he was given to understand that he could only be admitted to the Jiaqing Emperor's presence on condition of performing the kowtow, a ceremony which Great Britain considered degrading (a view that was not shared by either the Netherlands or Russia, which also traded with China),[2][citation needed] and which was, indeed, a homage exacted by a Chinese sovereign from his tributaries. To this, Amherst, following the advice of Sir George Thomas Staunton, who accompanied him as second commissioner, refused to consent, as Macartney had done in 1793, unless the admission was made that his sovereign was entitled to the same show of reverence from a mandarin of his rank. In consequence of this, he was not allowed to enter Peking (Beijing), and the object of his mission was frustrated.

His ship, the Alceste, after a cruise along the coast of Korea and to the Ryukyu Islands on proceeding homewards, was totally wrecked on a submerged rock in Gaspar Strait. Amherst and part of his shipwrecked companions escaped in the ship's boats to Batavia, whence relief was sent to the rest. The ship in which he returned to England in 1817 touched at St Helena and, as a consequence, he had several interviews with the emperor Napoleon (see Ellis's Proceedings of the Late Embassy to China, 1817; McLeod's Narrative of a Voyage in H.M.S. Alceste, 1817). During one of the interviews, it was attributed to Napoleon that he said, "China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep. For when she wakes, she will shake the world."[3]

Governor-General of IndiaEdit

Amherst was Governor-General of India from August 1823 to February 1828. The principal events of his government were annexation of Assam leading to the first Burmese war of 1824, resulting in the cession of Arakan and Tenasserim to the British Empire.[4]

Amherst's appointment came on the heels of the removal of Governor-General Lord Hastings in 1823. Hastings had clashed with London over the issue of lowering the field pay of officers in the Bengal Army, a measure that he was able to avoid through successive wars against Nepal and the Marathas. However, his refusal in the early 1820s during peacetime to lower field pay, resulted in the appointment of Amherst, who was expected to carry out the demands from London.

However, Amherst was an inexperienced governor who was, at least in the early days of his tenure in Calcutta, influenced heavily by senior military officers in Bengal such as Sir Edward Paget. He inherited a territorial dispute from John Adam, the acting Governor-General prior to his arrival, which involved the Anglo-Burmese border on the Naaf River and this spilled over into violence on 24 September 1823. Unwilling to lose face in a time of Burmese territorial aggression, Amherst ordered the troops in.

The war was to last two years, with 15,000 killed on the British side and it cost 13 million pounds, contributing to an economic crisis in India. It was only due to the efforts of powerful friends such as George Canning and the Duke of Wellington that Amherst was not recalled in disgrace at the end of the war.

The war significantly changed Amherst's stance on Burma, and he now adamantly refused to annexe Lower Burma, but he did not succeed in repairing his reputation entirely, and he was replaced in 1828. He was created Earl Amherst, of Arracan in the East Indies, and Viscount Holmesdale, in the County of Kent, in 1826. On his return to England he lived in retirement till his death in March 1857.


Lord Amherst married twice, and remarkably, both his wives were dowager countesses of Plymouth. His first wife was Sarah, Dowager Countess of Plymouth (1762–1838), daughter of Andrew Archer, 2nd Baron Archer and widow of Other Windsor, 5th Earl of Plymouth (d. 1799). She was more than ten years older than him and the mother of several children. They were married in 1800 and were blessed with two sons as well as a daughter Lady Sarah Elizabeth Pitt Amherst. Sarah died in May 1838, aged 76, after about 38 years of marriage. Lady Amherst's pheasant was named after Sarah; it was at her instigation that the species was introduced from Asia to Bedfordshire. The genus Amherstia, a Burmese flowering tree, is also named after her.

In 1839, an year after the death of his first wife, Lord Amherst, aged 66, married the widowed daughter-in-law of his first wife. This was Mary, Dowager Countess of Plymouth (1792–1864), elder daughter and co-heiress of John Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset, and widow of his stepson Other Windsor, 6th Earl of Plymouth (1789–1833). Although this was an unusual marriage, it was not forbidden by either Church law or civil law. His second wife had no children by either marriage.

Lord Amherst died in March 1857, aged 84 at Knole House in Kent, the seat of the Dukes of Dorset, a property which his second wife had inherited. He was survived by his second wife, Lady Amherst, heiress of Knole, who died in July 1864, aged 71.[5] Lord Amherst was succeeded in his titles by his second and only surviving son, William.

See alsoEdit

Barrackpore Mutiny of 1824


  1. ^ Lundy, Darryl. "Peerage.com". The Peerage.[unreliable source]
  2. ^ For the Netherlands, see Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest § Embassy to China.
  3. ^ Reported as being from an 1817 conversation in The Mind of Napoleon, ed. and trans. J. Christopher Herold (1955), p. 249. Reported as unverified in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations (1989).
  4. ^ Karl Marx, "War in Burma—The Russian Question—Curious Diplomatic Correspondence" contained in the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Volume 12 (International Publishers: New York, 1979) p. 202.
  5. ^ Lundy, Darryl. "p. 2803 § 28026". The Peerage.[unreliable source]


External linksEdit

Government offices
Preceded by
John Adam (acting)
Governor-General of India
Succeeded by
William Butterworth Bayley (acting)
Peerage of Great Britain
Preceded by
Jeffrey Amherst
Baron Amherst
Succeeded by
William Pitt Amherst
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Earl Amherst
Succeeded by
William Pitt Amherst