Macartney, George (1737–1806), Earl Macartney , diplomat, chief secretary, and colonial governor, was born 3 May 1737 at Lisanoure, near Dervock, Co. Antrim, the only surviving son of George Macartney (d. 1779), a landowner of Lisanoure, who in 1732 married Elizabeth (d. 1755), youngest daughter of the Rev. John Winder, prebend of Kilroot and rector of Carnmoney, Co. Antrim. They had three children: George; Letitia, who in 1756 married Godfey Echlin, of Co. Down; and Elizabeth, who in 1759 married Maj. John Belaquier.
Family background The Macartney family originated in Scotland and traced their roots in Ireland to 1649, when Macartney's great-grandfather, ‘Brown George’ Macartney (d. 1691), so-called to distinguish him from his relative ‘Black George’ Macartney (qv) (d. 1702), left Kircudbrightshire to emigrate to Ulster. ‘Brown George's’ son, George Macartney (1672–1757), the future chief secretary's grandfather, was a prosperous merchant and shipowner who represented Belfast in the Irish parliament from 1715 until his death in 1757. He married twice: first (14 August 1700), Letitia Porter (d. 1721), eldest daughter and co-heiress of Sir Charles Porter (qv), Irish lord chancellor, and they had three children, Charles (d. 1759), George (the future chief secretary's father), and Hugh (d. 1731). His second wife was the twice-widowed Elizabeth Dobbin (d. 1754) of Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, whose previous husbands were Capt. John Gibbons and Capt. Robert South of Ballyeaston, Co. Antrim. His two marriages brought him valuable property in Co. Wexford, in King's Co. (Offaly), in Dublin and Kilkenny cities, and in Carrickfergus. The bulk of his estates outside Ulster were sold off before 1733, and in that year with the proceeds he purchased the Lisanoure estate (c.6,146 acres) for £5,896, in 1736 he bought the Killinchy estate, and lastly in 1741 he bought the Dervock estate, 2,189 acres, for £7,205.
These family details are needed for three reasons. First, there has been much confusion over Macartney's forebears, largely owing to the presence of two families of Macartney, both of whom were active in Belfast mercantile circles in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and both of whom favoured the forename George. Second, the future chief secretary's start in life was largely owing to the shrewd investments of his grandfather, whose sole heir he became on the death of his uncle Charles in 1759. Third, the striking treatment of Macartney's father both by his grandfather and by his uncle Charles in their wills, and his near absence from the family records, require explanation. Put simply, Macartney's father was largely bypassed in both wills and it was to be the future chief secretary who stood to inherit when he came of age in 1758. We may note that it was Macartney's grandfather who escorted his grandson to school in Leixlip in 1745; that he excluded Macartney's father from being an executor of his will and guardian of his grandson; and that Macartney's father almost certainly died intestate in 1779. The absence of Macartney's father from the family records suggests that he had become estranged from his family or his father, Macartney's grandfather; alternatively, it may point to some physical or mental incapacity in his father.
Education and tours On 18 July 1745, after having been educated privately at home, Macartney was enrolled in a boarding school run by Dr Shem Thompson at Hillsborough, near Leixlip, Co. Kildare. The school specialised in preparing pupils for entry to TCD, and there was an emphasis on classics and French, with optional classes in ‘writing’ and ‘dancing’. On 16 July 1750, aged 13 (not 15, as he gave his age) he enrolled in Trinity. He proved an able student, winning several small prizes. He also came under the influence of the Rev. William Dennis, who had an extensive library and tutored Macartney privately in philosophy, literature, and politics. Dennis was also a long-standing friend of Edmund Burke (qv), and gave Macartney an introduction to him when he went to London in 1757. Years later, in 1767, by which time Dennis had fallen on hard times, Macartney was instrumental in securing an appointment for him as chaplain to Lord Townshend (qv), lord lieutenant of Ireland.
Macartney appears to have graduated from Trinity in 1754 (the records for that year are missing) and he moved to London in the autumn of 1757 to enrol at Lincoln's Inn, initially, then the following year at the Middle Temple. He could afford to pursue a legal career because on the death of his grandfather (October 1757) he had inherited a modest sum of money: more importantly, he stood to gain the bulk of his grandfather's estate should his uncle Charles, who inherited it, fail to produce a male heir, and this appeared increasingly likely. On the death of his uncle (1759), Macartney duly inherited the bulk of his grandfather's estate, but while this was in theory substantial, it was hedged around with so many conditions, and with so many charges on it, that it merely enabled him to obtain a modest income immediately and then to discharge his debts. It also allowed him to abandon his legal studies and to embark on a continental tour.
Prior to his departure in the summer of 1760, Macartney was in touch with Fr Ruggiero Giuseppi Boscovich, an Italian Jesuit from Turin who was then residing in London. Boscovich was sufficiently impressed by Macartney's erudition and sense of intellectual curiosity to give him advice on where to visit in Italy and furnish him with letters of introduction for use on his arrival there. Macartney visited Milan, Turin, Lucca, Pisa, Florence, Bologna, and Rome, not merely as a sightseer or tourist but as an academic pilgrim, anxious to visit a wide range of academic institutions. He spent some six months in Italy before journeying north to Geneva in the winter of 1760–61. There he encountered Stephen Fox (1745–74), eldest son of Henry, later 1st Lord Holland (1705–74), and it is no exaggeration to say that as a result of that encounter Macartney's future career was profoundly altered.
In circumstances that are still obscure, Macartney was able to render some service to Stephen Fox, a young man not only addicted to gambling but in poor health, almost certainly rescuing him from cardsharpers who wished to take advantage of him, and as a result Henry Fox was profoundly grateful. Macartney returned to England with Stephen in July 1761 and was welcomed into the Fox household. ‘You can't imagine what a racket the Holland House people make with this new Mr Macartney,’ noted one observer, ‘he rivals Lord Shelburne [qv], I think’ (quoted in Roebuck, Macartney, 17). Henry Fox asked Macartney to accompany Stephen on a tour to the Continent and he did so, meeting Rousseau, Voltaire (whom he impressed), D'Alembert, and Helvetius among the philosophes on his travels. He also accompanied Charles James Fox (1749–1806) in 1763 on a short trip to Germany, and he corresponded frequently with Lord Holland, though his news about Stephen was rarely good: ‘Tho’ he has abandoned play . . . he can't deny himself anything’ (quoted ibid., 18). By May 1763, Stephen had incurred debts of £7,000 over the preceding eighteen months. By this date, Lord Holland was actively promoting Macartney's career, and he was also lending him money to enable him to live splendidly, and to run up debts to him. In 1763 Holland tried to get him a parliamentary seat at Midhurst, Sussex, but this came to nothing.
Envoy to Russia In May 1764, through Holland's good offices, Macartney was offered the post of envoy-extraordinary to the court of Catherine the Great at St Petersburg. Macartney accepted, and on 27 December 1764 (having been knighted on 19 October) he arrived in St Petersburg: his mission, to negotiate a treaty of commerce and to explore the possibilities of a political alliance. On the first count, Macartney was a qualified success: unfortunately for him, he had unwisely signed the new commercial treaty without first referring it to London, as instructed, and to his acute embarrassment and Russian anger, a renegotiation was demanded. As for a political alliance, it proved as elusive as ever, and Macartney to his mortification found himself superseded. He returned to London in August 1767 and though he had been decorated with the White Eagle of Poland (apparently he had interceded with Panin, the Russian minister, on behalf of Poland), his disappointment was profound. Matters scarcely improved when he was named as ambassador to Russia in November 1767, for Macartney well knew that a return to Catherine the Great's court was impossible. He had made himself persona non grata at the Russian court, not just by crossing Panin over the commercial treaty but also he had affronted Catherine the Great herself by seducing two of her ladies-in-waiting, Mlle Keyshoff (whose ‘only merit in my eyes’, noted Macartney complacently, ‘was a passion which she either had, or affected to have for me’) and, more significantly, Mlle Khitrov, who was discovered to be pregnant. Macartney's exploits in the louche ambience of the Russian court elicited a whistle of approval from none other than Giacomo Casanova; but the fact was that, as Michael Roberts notes, Macartney had ‘really made Russia too hot to hold him’ (quoted by Michael Roberts in Roebuck, Macartney, 60), and he had no choice but to withdraw from the post of ambassador. Dispatches sent to him in Russia are now in the Boole library at UCC.
Marriage On 1 February 1768 Macartney married Lady Jane Stuart (1742–1828), second of six daughters of John, 3rd earl of Bute, and his wife Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Lady Jane brought a very modest dowry, had the misfortune to be badly scarred by smallpox as a child, and was profoundly deaf. She became pregnant and miscarried at least once, but there were to be no children. Macartney's love for her, however, cannot be doubted after the letter he wrote to ‘my dearest love’ before leaving to fight a duel in June 1786, after his return from India.
Chief secretary for Ireland Macartney sought another diplomatic post abroad but none was available, and there was a search for a seat in the British parliament for him. Stockbridge, a borough controlled by the Fox family, was one possibility, but that fell through, and in the event he was returned for Cockermouth (1768), a borough controlled by Lord Bute's other son-in-law, Sir James Lowther. His tenure of the seat was, however, brief, for Lowther called on him to vacate it. Macartney did so and, largely through the good auspicies of Bute, his compensation was to be a seat in the Irish parliament for Armagh borough in July 1768 and later to be appointed chief secretary to Lord Townshend, lord lieutenant of Ireland, on 1 January 1769.
At the time of Macartney's appointment as chief secretary, Lord Townshend was engaged in a bitter political struggle with the Irish ‘undertakers’, the handful of Irish political magnates who had become accustomed since the early years of the century to ‘undertaking’ the king's business in Ireland in return for influence, power, and a very large say in the disposal of government patronage. For decades this arrangement had suited both parties, but by the 1760s rule by undertakers was proving too inefficient and too costly, and when a government bill augmenting the army in Ireland was rejected by the Irish house of commons on 19 April 1768, Townshend embarked on a policy to overthrow the leading undertakers, principally John Ponsonby (qv), speaker of the Irish commons and head of the Irish revenue board. Specifically, he requested that he be considered a resident lord lieutenant, that those responsible for throwing out the augmentation of the army proposal be punished, and that the Irish revenue board be divided into separate boards of customs and excise in order to bring its patronage under the lord lieutenant's control. The overall object of these proposals was to establish the lord lieutenant and Dublin Castle as the centre of government and power in Ireland.
Macartney's election as member for Armagh borough in July 1768 had not indicated a desire on his part to enter the Irish political world. Nor indeed did the chief secretaryship of Ireland hold any attractions for him. After being envoy extraordinary to the court of Catherine the Great at St Petersburg, the post of chief secretary of Ireland seemed rather a clear step down. Accordingly, Macartney viewed his appointment as a stopgap until something better would turn up. Although his appointment dated from 1 January 1769, he did not settle in Ireland until September, and in the intervening period, while he did not neglect to lobby government ministers in support of Townshend's policies, he also made a determined effort to secure for himself the post of ambassador to Spain. In this endeavour Macartney was unsuccessful, and he had no option but to travel to Ireland to conduct government business on the opening of the Irish parliament in October 1769. In this session of parliament the Irish opposition to Townshend engineered the rejection of a government money or supply bill on the grounds that it had not taken its rise in the Irish house of commons. Macartney made a defence of the money bill but his arguments were swept aside in a torrent of patriotic rhetoric. The rejection of the money bill was interpreted in London and Dublin as a clear attack on Poynings’ law and, accordingly, after entering a protest against the commons’ action, Townshend prorogued parliament in late December 1769. It did not meet again until February 1771.
During the thirteen months that elapsed between prorogation and reassembly, Macartney worked diligently at helping Townshend build up a government majority in the Irish commons, and he also corresponded regularly with Thomas Allan (1725–98), Townshend's representative in London, who had been charged with forwarding the lord lieutenant's policies. Townshend recommended Macartney for an Irish peerage as Lord Balmaine of Loughguile, but George III rejected this in February 1770. Macartney's pursuit of the ambassadorship to Spain also proved unavailing. A peerage would have meant the end of his career as chief secretary, and as ambassador to Spain, a much more prestigious office, Macartney would have been in receipt of a higher salary than his £3,000 as secretary. Macartney also wanted out of Ireland because his relationship with Townshend was a difficult one, for his superior was of a mercurial temperament and was incapable of delegation.
The parliamentary session that opened in February 1771 was a triumph for Townshend and Macartney. Ponsonby resigned the speakership, and government majorities were routine. For his services as chief secretary in Ireland, Townshend recommended Macartney for a pension of £2,000 in September 1771. This was turned down on the grounds that it might make a ‘hard precedent’ for future chief secretaries (quoted by Thomas Bartlett in Roebuck, Macartney, 81). Despite being ‘heartily sick of it [the chief secretaryship]’, Macartney had little option but to stay on in Ireland for another session of parliament. He continued as chief secretary until November 1772 and his work and duties remained much the same as they had been previously. He received his rewards for his service: on 29 May 1772 Macartney was made a knight of the Bath, and in August 1772 he was awarded a modest pension of £1,500 a year.
Macartney was glad when his term in Ireland ended in November 1772: ‘My ministerial career in this country is, thank God, now at an end,’ he told a correspondent, ‘and . . . I have no ambition to run over it . . . I found myself obliged to do many things I did not like and to leave others undone which I wished to accomplish’ (ibid., 84). He had not enjoyed the dual political and administrative role that he had to play, and a difficult superior added to his problems. At bottom he saw the Irish parliament as largely irrelevant to the needs of the country, and as an imperialist he found its local concerns distracting. ‘In this vast empire’, he wrote, ‘on which the sun never sets and whose bounds nature has not as yet ascertained, one great superintending and controlling dominion must exist somewhere and where can that dominion reside with so much dignity, propriety and safety as in the British legislature’ (Sir George Macartney, An account of Ireland in 1773 (privately printed, 1773; copy in BL), 55). With sentiments like these, Macartney was from an early date an advocate of a legislative union between Ireland and Great Britain, and indeed in 1779 he travelled to Ireland at the behest of the British prime minister, Lord North, to sound out the possibilities of a union. However, the idea of a union as a solution to Anglo–Irish difficulties was at this date premature, and nothing came of Macartney's mission.
Macartney's pension ruled him out of a seat in the British house of commons and, to overcome this, he had himself appointed governor of Toome with a salary equivalent to his pension. In the British general election of 1774 he was returned through the auspices of Bute for Ayr Burghs in Scotland. He appears to have spoken only once in the commons and no vote by him is recorded.
The West Indies and India In November 1775 he was appointed governor of Grenada, Tobago, and the Grenadines, and in consequence he gave up his seat in parliament in January 1776, and was created Baron Macartney in the Irish peerage on 19 July 1776. In May of that year he and Lady Jane arrived in St George, Grenada. Macartney's governorship of the island has been described as ‘a triumph of diplomatic skill and administrative efficiency’ (E. M. Johnston in Roebuck, Macartney, 125). However, misfortune befell him there: during the American war of independence the island was attacked and captured (July 1779) and Macartney was taken prisoner and carted off to France with the loss of nearly all his personal belongings. Lady Jane had earlier sailed for England, where Macartney joined her in November 1779, after a prisoner exchange was concluded with the French.
Macartney was deemed to have acquitted himself ably in the West Indies; and in the summer of 1780, when he began to lobby for the office of president of Fort St George, the East India Company's possession in south India, his claims were well received. After a hard-fought campaign – Macartney's ignorance of India was held against him – his appointment to the office with a salary of £15,000 a year was announced on 14 December 1780. He sailed in February 1781 (without Lady Jane, who was to follow later, but never did) arriving at Madras in June. He did not return to London until December 1785. His period of office in India was a very difficult one. Contrary to his expectations, he did not like the country, and from an early date he suffered from ill health there. In addition, he faced opposition to his plans from, at various times, just about all the resident powers: the governor general Warren Hastings, Gen. Sir Eyre Coote (qv), Paul Benfield, Sir John MacPherson, and the nawab of Arcot. In defence of his conduct he fought two duels, one in India, and one with Gen. James Stuart on his return to London, in both of which he was wounded – in the second one, severely. Behind the various conflicts lay the ill-defined division between civil and military powers in India, the ambiguous constitutional position of the East India Company vis-à-vis the governor-general in Calcutta, the authority of the company vis-à-vis native rulers, personal rivalries, and the seemingly limitless opportunities for graft and corruption. In this latter respect, Macartney's hands remained clean.
In January 1786 Macartney met William Pitt, the British prime minister, to discuss his tenure of office in India. It was clear from this interview that his conduct in India was not viewed favourably. To his dismay, he learned that he was not to be rewarded with a British peerage, and it was accepted that he could not be governor general, a post he had been offered just before he sailed for England. On the credit side, Macartney had saved over £30,000 during his term in India, and he had done so without peculation.
For the next few years, perhaps disillusioned with public office, Macartney lived privately, recovering from his wound, coping with his gout, improving his estates at Loughguile (‘the taste for country life grows upon me wonderfully’, he noted in December 1790 (quoted in Robbins, Lord Macartney, 172)), and, equally, enjoying his newly purchased house at 3 Curzon St., London (purchased for £3,500 in 1786 with the money saved in India). In 1788 Macartney took his seat for the first time in the Irish house of lords; and later became custos rotulorum for Co. Antrim, and one of the trustees of the linen manufacture in Ulster.
Ambassador to China In the autumn of 1791 Macartney was approached by Henry Dundas, British home secretary, and sounded out about going as ambassador to China. Macartney was agreeable and on 22 December his appointment was confirmed with a salary of £10,000 a year and an allowance of £5,000 a year. He was also promoted in the peerage as Viscount Macartney of Dervock on 19 July 1792, with a promise of an earldom in the future, duly fulfilled when, on his return from China, he was created Earl Macartney on 1 March 1794.
Macartney's mission was to extend British trade with China, to negotiate a treaty of commerce, to impress the Chinese with British technological superiority, to secure trading concessions, and if possible to open up Japan and Cochin China to British merchants. Two large ships, a sixty-four-gun warship and an East Indiaman, were made available to carry Macartney's ninety-four-strong party, which included interpreters, botanists, metallurgists, scientists, artists, five German musicians, and a small party of soldiers. Goods from manufacturers such as Wedgwood (pottery) and Wilkinson (swords), as well as ingenious timepieces, lenses, globes, and orrerys were also carried on board as presents for the Chinese emperor. On 26 September 1792 the ambassador and his suite departed, and on 20 June 1793 reached Macao, and a month later, the Chinese mainland, at the closest point to reach Peking (Beijing) by river and overland.
Macartney's embassy immediately ran into difficulties on the Chinese insistence that as the ‘western ocean barbarian’ representative of a ‘vassal state’ (J. L. Cranmer-Bing in Roebuck, Macartney, 221), he must perform the full kowtow, complete with three kneelings and nine knockings of his head on the floor before the emperor. Macartney demurred, and though he did in fact meet the emperor, there was little positive result from his embassy: there was to be no treaty of trade and friendship and his mission must be accounted a failure. The responsibility for this cannot be laid at Macartney's door: as the historian of his embassy candidly puts it, ‘from the very beginning the embassy never stood the slightest chance of success’ (ibid., 243; italics in original). There was simply no common ground between the Chinese and the British: one sought tribute from an inferior, the other sought trade concessions from an equal. The result might have been foreseen. On 9 January 1794 Macartney and his entourage set sail from China. He noted in his journal: ‘nothing could be more fallacious than to judge of China by any European standard’ (quoted ibid., 240).
Private mission Macartney arrived in London on 5 September 1794, rested there during the winter, and then in July 1795 undertook a ‘private’ mission for the British government, this time to Verona in northern Italy, where the exiled French king, Louis XVIII, was uttering what were considered to be unhelpful threats against the revolutionaries in Paris. Macartney's mission was to urge some restraint in Louis's declarations, but he arrived too late as the so-called ‘Verona declaration’ had been promulgated some weeks before he reached Louis's court. Macartney discovered that Louis believed that while conciliation was fine in theory, it was undesirable in practice. In mid November 1795 Macartney sought leave ‘to make a little tour’ of Italy (quoted by W. R. Fryer in Roebuck, Macartney, 262), a sort of reprise of his grand tour thirty years earlier. He visited Padua, Venice, Bologna, and Florence and travelled further south to Naples, taking in Rome on his journey home.
Governor of the Cape In April 1796 Macartney set out on his return journey from Italy to England, and on his arrival there he was offered by Dundas the governorship of the Cape of Good Hope, a colony newly captured from the Dutch, at a salary of £10,000 a year and £2,000 expenses. On health grounds Macartney was reluctant to accept further travel, but the terms were attractive and his conditions for accepting the position, principally that he could return if his health worsened, were readily agreed to. He was duly appointed on 30 December 1796, reaching the Cape on 4 May 1797. Lady Jane, by now totally deaf, once again did not accompany him. Macartney proved a tough governor of the Cape, quelling a threatened naval mutiny, discouraging the slave trade, and firmly stamping on anything that smacked of admiration for the French. He recommended retention of the Cape colony on the grounds that it was ‘the master key of India’ (quoted by J. L. McCracken in Roebuck, Macartney, 274). On health grounds – he had gout, piles, a kidney stone, and his eyesight was fading – he was permitted to return from the Cape in November 1798, and his sojourn as governor there was to mark the end of his public life: he turned down prime minister Addington's offer of president of the board of control in 1801.
Last years For the remaining years of his life, Macartney and Lady Jane lived mostly at Lisanoure, with periods at their home in Curzon St. in London. His personal fortune had been put on a sound footing as a result of his service in India, and was further improved by his embassy to China and his sojourn at the Cape. At the time of his retirement from public life, he had discharged his debts (estimated at over £20,000 in 1790), and was in receipt of a private income of £9,000 a year. From the late 1780s on, he was able to improve his estate at Lisanoure, including almost entirely rebuilding Lisanoure Castle, constructing six worker's cottages, effecting various drainage schemes, and helping to pay for a new catholic ‘mass house’ nearby. In London he was an active member of the Literary Club (Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, and Sir Joshua Reynolds had been founder members) to which he had been elected in 1786, and he served as president prior to his departure for China. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in June 1792, and of the Society of Antiquaries on 30 April 1795.
In the early 1800s Macartney's health worsened and he found the journey to Lisanoure difficult, then impossible. He last visited Lisanoure in the summer of 1804. He died at Curzon St., London, on 31 March 1806, aged 68, and was buried quietly at Chiswick on 9 April. Macartney's wealth at death was around £40,000; Lady Jane was left over £3,000 a year; and by his will he vested all his real estate in trustees for the use of his sister Elizabeth's daughter, Elizabeth Hume. Her eldest son, George (b. 1793), provided he took Macartney's name, was to inherit on Elizabeth's death.
Macartney's career had taken him to the four corners of the earth, yet he was to be closest to a parliamentary and political career in his native Ireland. His later career was driven by a quest for personal financial security and for peerage honours, and the first proved elusive until after his return from India. His embassy to China brought him into the public eye and also won him a British peerage. His career illustrates how someone from a relatively modest background, by a combination of luck and ability, could go far in public life in the eighteenth-century British empire.