George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney

George Macartney should not be confused with Sir George Macartney, a later British statesman.
The Right Honourable
The Earl Macartney

Portrait of Lord Macartney by Lemuel Francis Abbott.
Governor of Grenada
In office
Monarch George III
Preceded by William Young
Succeeded by Jean-François, comte de Durat
Governor of Madras
In office
22 June 1781  14 June 1785
Monarch George III
Preceded by Sir Thomas Rumbold
Succeeded by Sir Archibald Campbell
Governor of Cape Colony
In office
Monarch George III
Preceded by Abraham Josias Sluysken
Succeeded by Francis Dundas
Personal details
Born (1737-05-14)14 May 1737
Lissanoure, Loughguile, Ballymoney, County Antrim
Died 31 May 1806(1806-05-31) (aged 69)
Chiswick, Middlesex, England, United Kingdom
Alma mater Trinity College, Dublin

George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney, KB (14 May 1737 – 31 May 1806) was a British statesman, colonial administrator and diplomat. He is often remembered for his observation following Britain's success in the Seven Years War and subsequent territorial expansion at the Treaty of Paris that Britain now controlled "a vast Empire, on which the sun never sets".

Early years

He was an Irishman descended from an old Scottish family, the Macartneys of Auchinleck, who had settled in 1649 at Lissanoure, in Loughguile, Ballymoney, County Antrim, Ireland, where he was born. He was the only son of George Macartney and Elizabeth Winder. After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1759, he became a student of the Temple, London. Through Stephen Fox, elder brother of Charles James Fox, he was taken up by Lord Holland.

Appointed envoy extraordinary to Russia in 1764, he succeeded in negotiating with Catherine II an alliance between Great Britain and that country. He was returned in 1768 to the Irish House of Commons as Member of Parliament for Armagh Borough, in order to discharge the duties of Chief Secretary for Ireland. On resigning this office he was knighted.

In 1775 he became governor of the British West Indies and was created Baron Macartney in the Peerage of Ireland in 1776. He was elected to a seat in the British parliament (Bere Alston) from 1780 to 1781.

Governor of Grenada

Macartney was the Governor of Grenada from 1776 to 1779. During his governance, the island was attacked in July 1779 by French royal fleet of the Comte d'Estaing. After losing control of the fortifications on Hospital Hill (an essential defense position located on a prominence overlooking the island capital St. George's), Macartney chose to surrender unconditionally.

Governor of Madras

Macartney was the Governor of Madras (now known as Chennai) from 1781 to 1785. During his tenure as governor, renovation and strengthening of the walls of Fort St. George was commenced after the siege of Lally and completed in 1783. It was also during this time that most of the buildings and barracks in the western portion of the Fort were erected. The Palace Street, the Arsenal, the Hanover square and the Western Barracks were constructed during this time. The streets in the eastern side of the Fort were also altered.

It was also during this time that idea of a police force for Madras was thought of. Popham, the brainchild of the street which would bear his name (Popham's Broadway) submitted a plan for the establishment of a regular police force for Madras and for the building of direct and cross drains in every street. He also advocated measures for the naming and lighting of streets, for the regular registration of births and deaths and for the licensing of liquor, arrack and toddy shops. A Board of Police assisted by a Kotwal was subsequently formed. The Kotwal was to be the officer of the markets under the Superintendent of Police.[1]

He negotiated the Treaty of Mangalore which brought an end to the Second Anglo-Mysore War in 1784.[2]

Macartney declined the governor-generalship of India (then the British territories administered by the British East India Company) and returned to Britain in 1786.

Embassy to China

Lord Marcartney saluting the Qianlong Emperor, 1793.
Engraving of Lord Macartney

After being created Earl Macartney in the Irish peerage (1792), he was appointed the first envoy of Britain to China, after the failure of a number of previous embassies, including Cathcart's. He led the Macartney Embassy to Beijing in 1792 with a large British delegation on board a 64-gun man-of-war, HMS Lion. The embassy was ultimately not successful in its primary aim to open trade with China, although numerous secondary purposes were attained, including first-hand assessment of the strength of the Chinese empire. The failure to obtain trade concessions was not due to Macartney's refusal to kowtow in the presence of the Qianlong Emperor, as is commonly believed. It is probably described most neutrally as a result of competing world views which were uncomprehending and incompatible. After the conclusion of the embassy, Qianlong sent a letter to King George III, explaining in greater depth the reasons for his refusal to grant the requests of the embassy.[3]

The Macartney Embassy is historically significant because it marked a missed opportunity by the Chinese to move toward some kind of accommodation with the West. This failure would continue to plague the Qing Dynasty as it encountered increasing foreign pressures and internal unrest during the 19th century.

The policies of the Thirteen Factories remained. The embassy returned to Britain in 1794 without obtaining any concession from China. However, the mission could be construed as a success because it brought back detailed observations. Sir George Staunton was charged with producing the official account of the expedition after their return. This multi-volume work was taken chiefly from the papers of Lord Macartney and from the papers of Sir Erasmus Gower, who was Commander of the expedition. Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, was responsible for selecting and arranging engraving of the illustrations in this official record.[4]

Macartney was expected to lead an embassy to Japan after he completed his mission to China, but his hopes of being able to proceed to Japan were ended by the confirmation when he returned to Canton of news of the outbreak of war with France and consequently of the vulnerability of his ships to attack by French cruisers operating from Batavia.[5] On 23 December, Macartney recorded in his journal: "I have given up my projected visit to Japan, which (though now less alluring in prospect) has always been with me a favourite adventure as a possible opening of a new mine for the exercise of our industry and the purchase of our manufactures".[6]

Selected quotes

Lord Macartney

Macartney's journal from the embassy to China included observations and opinions which have become famously associated with the British diplomat[7]

The Empire of China is an old, crazy, first-rate Man of War, which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers have contrived to keep afloat for these hundred and fifty years past, and to overawe their neighbours merely by her bulk and appearance. But whenever an insufficient man happens to have the command on deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship. She may, perhaps, not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom.[8]
The breaking-up of the power of China (no very improbable event) would occasion a complete subversion of the commerce, not only of Asia, but a very sensible change in the other quarters of the world. The industry and the ingenuity of the Chinese would be checked and enfeebled, but they would not be annihilated. Her ports would no longer be barricaded; they would be attempted by all the adventures of all trading nations, who would search every channel, creek, and cranny of China for a market, and for some time be the cause of much rivalry and disorder. Nevertheless, as Great Britain, from the weight of her riches and the genius and spirits of her people, is become the first political, marine, and commercial Power on the globe, it is reasonable to think that she would prove the greatest gainer by such a revolution as I have alluded to, and rise superior over every competitor.[9]

Later life

On his return from a confidential mission to Italy in 1795, he was raised to the British peerage as Baron Macartney, and in the end of 1796 was appointed governor of the newly acquired territory of the Cape Colony, where he remained until ill health compelled him to resign in November 1798. In early 1797 he was requested to assist with the proposed plan to send an attacking force from the Cape under Major-General J.H. Craig to the South West coast of Spanish America by way of the British colony in New South Wales.[10] He died at Chiswick, Middlesex, on 31 May 1806, the title becoming extinct, and his property, after the death of his widow (Lady Jane Stuart, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Bute; they were married in 1768), going to his niece, whose son took the name.

See also

Wikiquote has quotations related to: George Macartney


Allegorical engraving of George Macartney after his capture at the battle of Grenada (1779).
  1. Reforms of George MaCartney from 'Corporation of Chennai' website
  2. Turnbull p.180
  3. Ch'ien Lung, (Qianlong) Letter to George III
  4. Banks, Joseph. State Library of New South Wales, Papers of Sir Joseph Banks; Section 12: Lord Macartney’s embassy to China; Series 62: Papers concerning publication of the account of Lord Macartney's Embassy to China, ca 1797.
  5. Robert J. King, "'The long wish'd for object' — Opening the trade to Japan, 1785-1795", The Northern Mariner / le marin du nord, vol.XX, no.1, January 2010, pp.1-35, pp.30-33.
  6. Cranmer-Byng, "Russian and British Interests in the Far East, 1791-1793", Canadian Slavonic Papers, vol.X, 1968, pp.357-75, p.206.
  7. Zhang, Xiantao. (2007). The origins of the modern Chinese press: the Influence of the Protestant Missionary Press in late Qing China, p. 33, p. 33, at Google Books, excerpt, "In 1793, Lord Macartney, after failing in his diplomatic mission to make China extend trade with Britain, famously remarked that the empire of China was 'an old, crazy, first-rate Man of War', which had intimidated its neighbours 'merely by her bulk and appearance' ...."
  8. Perdue, Peter. (2005). China Marches West: the Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, p. 505, p. 505, at Google Books; Robbins, Helen Henrietta Macartney (1908). Our First Ambassador to China: An Account of the Life of George, Earl of Macartney with Extracts from His Letters, and the Narrative of His Experiences in China, as Told by Himself, 1737–1806, from Hitherto Unpublished Correspondence and Documents, p. 386., p. 386, at Google Books
  9. Robbins, p. 386., p. 386, at Google Books
  10. Dundas to Macartney, 21 January 1797, “Correspondence of George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney, whilst Governor of the Cape of Good Hope”, Bodleian Library, GB 0162 MSS.Afr.t.2-4*. See also Robert J. King, "An Australian Perspective on the English Invasions of the Rio de la Plata in 1806 and 1807", ", International Journal of Naval History, vol.8 no.1, April 2009,


Political offices
Preceded by
The Lord Frederick Campbell
Chief Secretary for Ireland
Succeeded by
Sir John Blaquiere
Government offices
Preceded by
William Young
Governor of Grenada
Succeeded by
Jean-François, comte de Durat
as Governor-General of Grenada
New creation Governor of the Cape Colony
Succeeded by
Francis Dundas, acting
Parliament of Ireland
Preceded by
Robert Cuninghame
Hon. Barry Maxwell
Member of Parliament for Armagh Borough
With: Philip Tisdall 1768–1769
Charles O'Hara 1769–1776
Succeeded by
Philip Tisdall
Henry Meredyth
Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
Sir John Mordaunt
John Elliot
Member of Parliament for Cockermouth
With: Charles Jenkinson (1768)
George Johnstone (1768–1769)
Succeeded by
George Johnstone
Sir James Lowther
Preceded by
James Archibald Stuart
Member of Parliament for Ayr Burghs
Succeeded by
Frederick Stuart
Preceded by
Sir Francis Henry Drake
Hon. George Hobart
Member of Parliament for Bere Alston
With: Lord Algernon Percy (1780)
Viscount Feilding (1781)
Succeeded by
Viscount Feilding
Laurence Cox
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
The Earl of Buckinghamshire
Ambassador from Great Britain to Russia
Succeeded by
Hans Stanley
Preceded by
Hans Stanley
Ambassador from Great Britain to Russia
Succeeded by
The Lord Cathcart
Preceded by
Ambassador from Great Britain to China
Succeeded by
George Elliot (1784–1863)
Peerage of Ireland
New creation Earl Macartney
Baron Macartney
Peerage of Great Britain
New creation Baron Macartney
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