Pottinger, Eldred (1811–43), soldier and diplomat, was born 12 August 1811 in Co. Down, eldest son of Thomas Pottinger (d. 1845) of Mountpottinger, Co. Down, and his wife Charlotte, daughter of James Hamilton Moore. His mother dying when he was two years old, his father remarried and had eight more children. The family was distinguished: the Pottingers had settled in Belfast in the seventeenth century; provided two sovereigns (mayors) of Belfast in 1661 and 1689; and acquired the estate of Mountpottinger, Co. Down, in 1759. However, Eldred's father and grandfather were notorious spendthrifts and between them dissipated the family fortune; the bulk of the estate was sold in 1779, and Mountpottinger house sold in 1811.
There was a family connection with India: four of Eldred's uncles served there, including the diplomat Henry Pottinger (qv). Eldred was educated at Addiscombe, the East India Company's military college, and entered the Bombay artillery in 1827. After regimental service, he transferred to the political department in 1836 and acted as assistant to his uncle Henry Pottinger, resident in Cutch. In 1837 the latter granted his request to go to Afghanistan on an intelligence-gathering mission. Disguised as a horse-dealer, without European companions, he travelled via Shirkapur and Kabul to arrive in Herat on 18 August. In November the city was besieged by combined Persian and Russian forces, to great British alarm, as Herat was a crucial gateway to India. Pottinger, fluent in Persian and Pashto, was appointed by Yar Mahammed Khan, wazir and commander of the forces under Shah Kamran, the ruler of Herat, to take over the military defence of the city and the diplomatic negotiations. Largely through his efforts, Herat resisted and the siege was raised in September 1838. Pottinger was highly commended by the governor-general, the earl of Auckland; and was made brevet major, created CB, and appointed political agent to Herat at a salary of 1,000 rupees a month, backdated to the commencement of the siege. His subsequent efforts to persuade Herat to ally with Britain were less successful, and in 1839 he left the city.
In 1841 Pottinger was appointed political agent to Kohistan, a district of Afghanistan. He was alarmed by gathering native discontent and advised the British envoy, Sir William Hay Macnaghten (qv), to station a force strong enough to resist rebel attack. Macnaghten responded by reducing Pottinger's escort from seventy-five to twenty-five men. On 2 November the revolt of the Afghans against Shah Shuja, whom the British had imposed on the throne, began. Insurgents attacked Pottinger's residence and he fled to Charikar, Kabul's neighbouring city. Over the next ten days Pottinger, the Irish adjutant John Colpys Haughton (1817–87), twenty-five horsemen, and 100 Gurkhas were besieged in Charikur by an army of 20,000 Afghans. Pottinger was wounded in the thigh, Haughton's hand had to be amputated, and some hundred of their men were killed before Pottinger, Haughton, and three men escaped on 14 November, reaching Kabul the next day to find it in chaos. Macnaghten was assassinated there by Akbar Khan on 23 December, and Pottinger succeeded him. In view of the assassination he advised breaking off all negotiations with the Afghans and going to war, but he was overruled and had to sign instead the treaty enabling the British garrison to retreat from Kabul on 6 January 1842. He was detained by Akbar Khan as a hostage and so escaped the massacre at the Jugdalluk pass, where 16,000 soldiers and camp followers were killed between 8 and 13 January, including Pottinger's half-brother Thomas. He was held hostage until Sir George Pollock and his army arrived on 17 September 1842. At a court of inquiry convened in India, blame first turned on Pottinger as having signed the treaty, but it became apparent that he had done so under duress and his name was cleared, though not before The Times had publicly admonished him. He was granted leave and in July 1843 visited Hong Kong where his uncle Henry was governor. He died there on 15 November 1843, probably of typhus. The government awarded annuities to his stepmother and half-brothers. Pottinger achieved cult status, and in the twentieth century was the subject of two works of romantic fiction and one biography. He possessed great military and diplomatic astuteness; his warning before his death of the grave possibility of a mutiny among native officers due to low morale prefigured the Indian mutiny of 1857. His papers are in the PRONI.