A secret service Agent who became the first Colonial Secretary of Ceylon

At the age of 22, Hugh Cleghorn of Stravithie in Scotland was appointed Professor of Civil History at the University of St. Andrews. For the next twenty years, until he was dismissed, Cleghorn was becoming increasingly unpopular with his colleagues, and gaining a reputation for sinister activities and mysterious journeying.

He spent a good deal of his time on the Continent and neglected his students at St. Andrews. Repeatedly the Senate of the University remonstrated with him and called him back to duty. Cleghorn did not mind. He felt he was engaged in work more important to the State, and enjoyed the secret missions on which someone in the highest circle of government was engaging him. The venerable professors of St. Andrews wondered whether their young colleague was a charlatan or merely suffering from delusions.

In January 1793, the French beheaded their king; next year they were at war with Holland, which had a Colonial Empire that included Ceylon and Java. The ruler of Holland, Prince William of Orange, also called the Stadtholder fled to England. With the conquest of the Low Countries, Holland became a vassal of France. What was to happen to Ceylon and the other colonies of the Dutch?

The question engaged the attention of Pitt and Dundas, the two most powerful Ministers of the British Government, the Prime Minister and Secretary of State, respectively. The first thing they did was to get the Prince of Orange to issue instructions to the Governors of the Dutch Colonies to allow British ships to enter their harbours, and British troops to land in their territory, "to prevent the Colony from being invaded by the French." Their next move was to send a force to Trincomalee. Pitt said in Parliament of Trincomalee that it was "to us the most valuable Colonial possession on the globe, as giving to our Indian Empire a security which it had not enjoyed from its establishment." He added that Trincomalee was "the finest and most advantageous Bay in the whole of India, .... the equal of which is hardly known, in which a whole fleet may safely ride and remain in tranquility".

The six transports carrying the Forces entrusted to Colonel Stuart arrived in Trincomalee on the 1st of August, 1795. The Dutch Governor of Ceylon J. P van Angelbeek was not willing to accept the instructions of the former ruler of his country, and equivocated and dallied. But the odds were against him. Meanwhile, the British Ministers were pursuing other stratagems to bring Ceylon under British Control. Even before the French had executed their King, agents of the British Government were busily planning to annex the Dutch Colonies if France violated the neutrality of the Low Countries. Professor Cleghorn was one of these agents.

The "Prof." was 44, and getting more and more involved in the cloak and dagger business far removed from his academic duties. He was spending a great deal of time in Switzerland, especially in Neuchatel. Dundas, the powerful Secretary of State and a fellow- Scotsman, was supplying him with funds. Cleghorn was told to win the friendship of a certain Count Charles Daniel de Meuron of Neuchatel, the proprietor of a regiment of mercenaries garrisoning the Dutch forts of Colombo, Trincomalee and Jaffna. It was clear that one of the best ways of weakening the defences of the forts was to buy off the Count and get him to withdraw his troops. From his conversations with de Meuron, Professor Cleghorn gathered that the Count would not be averse to transferring his Regiment to the British service on suitable terms. A draft agreement to this effect was drawn up and submitted to Dundas. The likelihood of suspicion being aroused was so great that the Professor reluctantly decided not to go to Stuttgart in an attempt to conclude a similar treaty with the Duke of Wuertemberg for the transfer of the Wuertemberg Regiments which were in the Dutch Service in Ceylon.

In February, 1795, Cleghorn received the following official communications from Dundas:

From the Rt. Hon’ble Henry Dundas, Secretary of State, to Hugh Cleghorn.

"I have submitted to H. M.’s consideration, the papers which 1 received from you respecting the Regiment de Meuron now employed in the Island of Ceylon, and 1 have in consequence been directed to authorise you to proceed to Switzerland, where you are to open a negotiation with Compte de Meuron, for engaging the services of that Regiment on the terms you have proposed, a copy of which I return to you.

"If the Count should accede to the conditions, you are directed to offer him, you will sign a Capitulation to that effect and transmit it to me, and in order to obviate any difficulties that may arise in India in applying the services of the Regiment to the advantage of this country, under the circumstances which will naturally take place, I would have you to exert your influence with the Count to proceed to Ceylon himself and to take the command of his Regiment for a short time.

"It will be very desirable that your negotiation with the Count should, if possible, be brought to a conclusion immediately, and in the event of a favourable issue, that the Regiment should be appraised of the circumstances and the situation in which it is to be considered. For this purpose, it is important that the departure of the Count should be hastened as much as possible, and in order that no delay may take place, it is wished that you would accompany him thither; but whether the Count can be prevailed upon or not and more easily in case of refusal, it will be of use that you go to India and carry the arrangement into effect under such circumstances as he may entrust with you to the officers now in command of the Regiment.

"I do not wish to confine you in your journey to any particular route, especially as it may be necessary for you to attend to the wishes of the Count upon this point, but in order that you may not be at a loss for defraying the expenses, 1 enclose to you a letter of credit on the Correspondents of the house of Sir Robert Herries & Co., authorising you to draw upon them for the sum of pounds 1500 on that account.

"I also enclose to you a letter to the Government of Madras in conformity with the suggestions contained in Article 4 of the proposals, and I am persuaded that every assistance and co-operation will be given to the Count to enable him to fulfil such engagements as he may make with you.

"I have desired the Lords of the Admiralty to order a vessel to be ready at Leghorn to convey you across the Mediterranean to such port as you think most convenient to facilitate your journey to India."

Cleghorn was in the prime of life but the Count, whom he was ordered to drag along through a greater part of Europe and Asia, was an old man. Cleghorn sent to Dundas the following letter he had received from the Count.

"I have resigned myself to your pleasure, my dear friend, and so 1 find that your eloquence has somewhat taken advantage of the esteem and friendship which has bound us together for so long; for it is foolish at my age, after establishing delightful little retreat where I meant to live in peace, forgetting the wickedness of the world and all its worries — it is foolish, I say, for me to embark on the stormy sea of business. Any sensible man would blame me — I even blame myself — and had I not said ‘yes’— a sacred word in my estimation — most assuredly the natural reflections which I have made since would keep me rooted here. For we are all mortal. If I were to lose you on the way, what would become of me? Now, supposing that I arrive in Madras, what part should 1 be called upon to play there?"

The Count insisted that he be given the rank of General and that his brother, Pierre Frederic de Meuron, the Commander of the de Meuron Regiment in Ceylon, be made Brigadier General. The Count was given an advance of pounds 4000 to pay his debts and it was agreed that he be paid a sum of pounds 6000 annually for keeping his Regiment complete.

The couple hired a country vessel at Venice and set sail, with an entourage of two secretaries, and two servants, and reached Alexandria after a voyage of 28 days. They joined a caravan from Cairo to Suez. They then took an Arab ship down the Red Sea to Mocha. At Jiddah they were robbed and the journey from here to Madras cost something over pounds 1000.

Lack of water forced the ship to Tellicherry on the Malabar Coast, where they heard about Colonel Stuart’s successful expedition to Trincomalee. Cleghorn decided to meet with Stuart without delay. He set out in an open boat for Point Pedro. In the island of Rameswaram he was entertained by the ruling chief — "he gave us an excellent supper of curries where we had plantain leaves instead of plates, and our fingers supplied the place of spoons," Within three days the Professor returned to Madras and reported in person to the Governor, Lord Hobart, who detailed Major P. M. Agnew. another friend of Dundas’s to go to Colombo under a flag of truce and demand the transfer of the de Meuron Regiment.

The Count’s brother, commanding the Regiment at Colombo had to be informed of the transfer by means of a letter smuggled into his hands in a Dutch cheese, since the Governor van Angelbeek, would not allow any English emissaries to speak to him.

This is how Cleghorn himself describes the incident: "In my letter 1 took notice of the motive which induced me to hasten to Ceylon from Negapatam: viz. to convey information to the Commanding Officer of the regiment de Meuron of its new situation. And 1 mentioned to Mr. Stuart the means, which 1 fell upon for this purpose. 1 crossed in a small boat, or Chelinga, which had a Danish pass from Tranquebar. It was loaded upon chance with Madeira, linen and cheese for the army in Ceylon. But as the whole British force was leaving Jaffnapatam and Point Pedro to re-assemble at Trincomalee, there was no market for the goods with which this small vessel was loaded. 1 prevailed on the owner to go with her to Colombo and carry an open note to Colonel de Meuron from me. In this note I said only that I have seen his friends well in Switzerland some months before. But the owner of the ship agreed to give him a Dutch cheese, into which 1 put a letter informing him of the arrival of his brother in India, of the general articles of the Capitulation, and that the transfer of the regiment would be instantly demanded on the part both of the British Government, and his brother the Colonel and Proprietor of it."

Despite many difficulties the bulk of the Regiment de Meuron was withdrawn to India in October. The Professor wrote to Dundas on the 24th:"It gives me real satisfaction to inform you that my mission has been attended with all the success which could have been accepted from it. The Regiment de Meuron has now the honour to constitute a part of His Majesty’s Forces in India."

Some months passed before the surrender of the maritime provinces of Ceylon by the Dutch took place. In an action on the 12th of February, 1796, in Colombo, the Dutch lost 40 killed and 60 wounded. The Colombo garrison of the Dutch had dwindled to 1,310 Europeans and 1840 Malays. Moors, and Sepoys. It was completely over-powered by the British forces. The Fort was occupied by the British on the morning of 16th February.

Some authorities have taken the view that Governor van Angelbeek betrayed his government by putting up a half-hearted defence, but the charge is not proved. The credit for the almost bloodless conquest of Ceylon must go in large extent to Professor Cleghorn through whose efforts the de Meuron Regiment had been withdrawn. He was paid an honorarium of pounds 5000 by His Majesty’s Government.

In 1798 the Professor returned to Ceylon as Chief Secretary to the First Governor, Frederic North (later Earl of Guilford). He organised the administration and the famous Cleghorn Minute is a classic of its kind. But he was not the perfect bureaucrat. The Governor, an impulsive and irascible young man, suspected Cleghorn of intriguing against him with the authorities in Madras. Cleghorn returned to Great Britain in 1800 and bought 1800 acres in Scotland, the estate of the Strathvithie from the Marchioness of Titchfield. He was Captain of the Royal and Ancient Gold Club in 1802, He is mentioned in the diaries of Walter Scott and in Southey’s "Life of Dr. Bell."

Writing to Dr. Bell. the founder of the Madras College in October 1831, Cleghorn, then Nearly eighty years of age, reflects: "Learned retirement and secluded leisure for study is nonsense. The world is the school of letters as well as of business. The political agitations of Greece produced her poets and philosophers as well as her statesmen; while the monkish establishment of our fathers, with their seclusion and endowments, produced only the jargon of technical language, and fettered themselves and their disciples with the impertinence of academical forms..... My ardent desire to visit foreign countries has been gratified to the utmost, I have been employed by Government in many important missions abroad. 1 was a near observer, from my situation in Switzerland, of all the great events passing in France; and, to a certain extent, I became acquainted with all the great men of my time.‘ Cleghom had a number of sons, one of whom, Patrick Cleghorn, became Administrator General of Madras and afterwards Laird of Strathvithie. A grandson of Cleghorn was the first Conservator of Forests in India.

Cleghorn, who died at the age of eighty-five, left a diary consisting of six volumes, two of which contain an account of his journey from London to Ceylon; one, the return journey from Ceylon as far as Naples.

Engraved on his tomb-stone in the Churchyard of Dunino in Scotland are the words:

In Memory of Hugh Cleghorn, L. L. D. of Strathvithie, Professor of Civil and Natural History in the University of St. Andrews.

Who died in February 1836 and is buried here.

He was the agent by whose instrumentality the Island of Ceylon was annexed to the British Empire.

Count de Meuron retired to Neuchatel, a British Major-General, while his brother Pierre Frederic de Meuron, remained with the Regiment in India till 1801. The Regiment de Meuron formed part of the British Army for twenty-one years and was disbanded in Canada in 1816.


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