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Sir John Malcolm

April 20, 2015 @ 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm

Sir John Malcolm India John Malcolm

John Malcolm, who has recently published a biography of his namesake and kinsman, Sir John Malcolm (1769-1833) (Malcolm – Soldier, Diplomat, Ideologue of British India), will be discussing Sir John’s role as envoy to Persia and writer of the History of Persia.

John Malcolm was the representative of Shell in Iran 1967-71 and therefore has a very good understanding of Iran.  For an outline of his book, see below:


The Life of Sir John Malcolm (1769 – 1833)


  • Malcolm as a man. Son of an impoverished Scottish tenant farmer (one of 17 siblings), who left school, family and country at the age of thirteen, and achieved distinction in a distant continent as a soldier, diplomat, administrator and scholar. A dashing, ebullient and generous character, largely self-educated. In these days of narrow credentialism, a quintessential all-rounder.
  • Indian History. The current perception of the British Raj tends to be of Curzon, Kipling, E. M. Forster, memsahibs and the Freedom struggle; of a complacent and apparently immovavble imperial edifice being outmanoeuvred by the non-violent tactics of the saintly Mahatma Gandhi; and before that, of evangelically minded British generals crushing brave but pathetic Indian resistance with superior weaponry. But in Malcolm’s day Indo-British relationships were very different.
  • The Governance of India. Between 1783 and 1833 a fierce political debate (in which Malcolm played a leading part) raged in British governing circles about how India was to be governed. This debate can be described in terms of ‘imperialism’. But it still has relevance to-day, in the shape of the struggle between super power hegemony (via the UN, the IMF etc) and national governments
  • The East India Company was one of the world’s first multinational corporations. The issues its management faced have many parallels to-day: for instance, the tensions between a head office and a distant ‘man on the spot’ .
  • Persia and the Great Game. Malcolm was one of the earliest players in the Great Game between Britain and Russia in Persia and Central Asia.



  • Soldier: a professional soldier rising to Major-General, who campaigned with Wellington in India (and arguably became his best friend); and who later led EIC troops to victory over the Mahratta Chief Holkar in 1817.
  • Diplomat: deservedly earning the cry “Send Malcolm” for his troubleshooting abilities and his leadership of three missions to Persia.
  • Administrator: One of a trio of Scotsmen (the others being Elphinstone and Munro) who worked out a philosophical basis for British rule in western India, so that when hegemony was achieved in 1818, they had the vision to:
  • leave things largely as they were in ‘British’ India; simply enforcing existing laws;
  • refrain from interference in the internal governance of ‘Native’ States
  • prohibit European colonisation
  • promote Indians to senior levels in EIC administration
  • recognise that the ‘moral mandate’ for British rule in India was temporary; that its very success would eventually be its undoing

In short, Malcolm can realistically be called an ‘Ideologue’ of British India, whose ideas ‘were forgotten too soon and remembered too late’.

  • Scholar: author of nine books, including The History of Persia, the first in a European language from Persian sources, mostly gathered from personal observation and local dialogue.


  • Courageous: leaving school, family and country at 13; never shrinking from a challenge
  • All rounder: fighting soldier, sportsman, diplomat, administrator, scholar, linguist and poet;
  • Liberal: modern attitudes to Indian and Persian affairs; interest in and respect for local culture, advocate of ‘Native’ education (even female education!); absence of arrogance or racial prejudice.
  • Gift for friendship: with all sorts of people – the grandest (Wellington, Fath Ali Shah, Peshwah Baji Rao, Marquess Wellesley); the most learned (Mackintosh, Humboldt, Whewell and Walter Scott) ; the humblest Indian or Persian peasant; and fellow travellers everywhere.
  • Faults – over-ambitious, vain, ‘a great and loud talker’, getting into fights with “head office” – but also over-generous, too trusting, writer of bad poetry;
  • Zest for life – nicknamed “Boy Malcolm” for his youthful exuberance even in middle age.


  • Recognised in his lifetime and shortly after (GCB, Persian Order of Lion and Sun specially created for him by Fath Ali Shah, statues in Westminster Abbey and Bombay, monument at Langholm) but now better remembered in India, and to some extent Persia, than in Britain.


April 20, 2015
7:00 pm - 8:30 pm
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