Pottinger, Sir Henry (1789–1856), 1st baronet, soldier and diplomat, was born 25 December 1789 at Mountpottinger, Co. Down, fifth son of Edward-Curwen Pottinger, landowner, and his wife Anne, daughter of Robert Gordon of Florida Manor, Co. Down. The Pottingers had emigrated from Berkshire to Belfast in the late sixteenth century and provided two sovereigns (mayors) of Belfast in 1661 and 1689, at which time they acquired the estate of Mountpottinger, though they had to sell the bulk of it over the succeeding century. Edward-Curwen Pottinger was radical in politics, and in 1779 formed the Mountpottinger Volunteers; in 1797 he was secretary of a freeholders’ meeting at Ballynahinch which called for full parliamentary representation for all Irishmen. Henry did not inherit his father's radicalism and never took part in Irish politics. Educated at the Belfast Academy, he entered the navy, but after a voyage as midshipman (1801), departed for India in 1803. Four of his brothers eventually served in India, as did a number of his nephews, including the war hero Eldred Pottinger (qv).
On arrival in Bombay, Pottinger asked his sponsor, Lord Castlereagh (qv), to arrange for a transfer to the army. Enrolling in the East India Company's college in Bombay, he studied native languages, and was commissioned ensign (18 September 1806), and lieutenant in the infantry (16 July 1809). His first posting was as assistant to Nicholas Hankey Smith, representative of the governor general, with whom he was sent on a mission to Sind in April 1808. On his return, he offered to go on a fact-finding mission to Baluchistan, between India and Persia. Disguised as a native he left Bombay on 2 January 1810 and returned a year later; his account of his trip, Travels in Beloochistan and Sinde, was published in 1816.
Pottinger was next appointed assistant to Mountstuart Elphinstone, resident at Poona, and there took part in the third Mahratta war and was commended for his part in the battle of Kirki (November 1817). On 15 October 1821 he was made captain, and was subsequently promoted to lieutenant-colonel (17 March 1829) and brevet colonel (23 January 1834). After the surrender of the Peshwa to the British (June 1818), he was made collector of Ahmednagar, a post that involved administrative, judicial, and fiscal duties. In May 1825 he was appointed resident at Cutch, which involved him in negotiation with the Amirs, rulers of the neighbouring Sind, where Britain had no resident. In June 1832 he managed to open up the River Indus for commercial traffic, and six years later persuaded the Amirs to accept a British resident in exchange for protection from Ranjeet Singh, ruler of Lahore. Pottinger became the first British resident in Sind in April 1838, having earned a reputation as a strong and resolute, if occasionally tactless, negotiator. He was immediately plunged into conflict: Lord Auckland, governor general, wanted Sind as a strategic base for attacking Afghanistan; the Amirs refused but yielded on 1 February 1839 after military pressure, leaving the British to occupy Karachi. This troubled Pottinger – he believed his government was in violation of previous agreements with the Amirs – and towards the end of 1839 took home leave for the first time since arriving in India. By February 1843 the Amirs had been exiled and Sind entirely annexed. The English liberal press denounced the annexation, but commended Pottinger.
After being made baronet (27 April 1840), Pottinger accepted (1841) the offer of the foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, of the post of plenipotentiary and superintendent of British trade in China. This was a highly significant posting. The opium war, originating in the exclusion by the Chinese government of British opium traders from Canton, had broken out in January 1840 and both sides had disavowed a subsequent treaty. Pottinger arrived in Macao on 9 August 1841 and arranged with the British military authorities to attack forcefully. Amoy, Chusan, Ningpo, Chapu, and Chankiang fell by May 1842, leaving the Chinese no option but negotiation. Pottinger's iron resolution became famous in Britain through an intercepted letter from the chief Chinese negotiator to his government: ‘To all his representations, the barbarian, Pottinger, only knit his brows and said “No”’ (Pottinger, 121). The treaty of Nanking (29 August 1842) opened up five ports to British traders, awarded $21 million (half the annual Chinese revenue) as remuneration for British losses, and ceded Hong Kong to Britain. Pottinger had gone beyond his remit in obtaining Hong Kong; the foreign secretary had originally intended that the then barren island without a port would be used only for negotiating purposes, as it was expensive and politically undesirable to maintain. Pottinger was made GCB (2 December 1842) and named first governor of Hong Kong (5 April 1843). Although spending only a year in this post, he managed to hold out against military and naval efforts to turn the island into a fortress instead of the commercial centre he envisaged.
He returned to England in October 1844, having been made a member of the privy council (23 May 1844). The following June, the house of commons voted him an annual pension of £1,500 for life but he did not remain long in retirement, accepting an appointment (28 September 1846) as governor of the Cape of Good Hope, where the white settlers were involved in periodic skirmishes with the Kaffir tribes. On reaching the Cape (27 January 1847) he took a typically strong line with the Kaffirs. His plan was to turn the Cape into a British protectorate administered by British agents, along the lines of the Raj in India; however, he had insufficient troops to realise this, and did not remain long in his post. On 1 November 1847 he was made governor of Madras, and remained there for six years. His tenure was not a success as he was by this time old, gout-ridden, and without energy to effect reforms.
Clear-sighted and able to keep his nerve under fire, Pottinger was better at dealing with crises than at carrying out ordinary administrative duties. He was known for his irascibility and over-attention to petty details, although his parsimony won him the treasury's gratitude and within the limits of his entrenched imperialism, he was fair-minded. His private demeanour was in keeping with his public one, his humour being of the grim, deadpan variety.
On retirement (1854) he returned to England; but the climate did not suit his health, and he repaired to Malta, where he died 18 March 1856, and was buried at Valetta. He married (1820) Susanna Maria (1800–86), daughter of Capt. Richard Cooke of Dublin. She survived him, as did two sons and a daughter. He had disinherited his eldest son, Sir Frederick Pottinger (1831–65) because of his improvidence, but reinstated him after a deathbed reconciliation. Frederick responded by running rapidly through his patrimony and eventually departing for Australia, where he found work as a police commissioner before his early death in 1865. His brother succeeded to the baronetcy.
In 1861 Sir Henry's brother, Col. William Pottinger, had a marble tablet erected to him in St George's church, Belfast, which stated rather obscurely that he had almost been granted a peerage but was denied it through hostile influence. Pottinger's biographer has found no substantiation for this claim but notes that his subject's pension and honours were modest in view of his achievement in China.