JOHNSTONE, John (1734-95), of Denovan and Alva, Stirling.
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Family and Education
b. 28 Apr. 1734, 5th s. of Sir James Johnstone, 3rd Bt., M.P., and bro. of George and Sir James Johnstone and William (Johnstone) Pulteney. m. 1 Sept. I765, in Calcutta, Elizabeth Caroline, da. of Col. Keene, and niece of Sir Benjamin Keene, minister at Madrid, 1s. 1da.
Johnstone went to Bengal c.1750 and by 1756, when the East India Company settlements were overrun, was a writer in Dacca, where he was captured but released and took shelter in the French factory. He returned with Clive to Calcutta, served in the artillery at Plassey, and subsequently accompanied Eyre Coote on his expedition up the Ganges. In October 1757 he was recalled to the civil branch of the Company’s service.1
While at Dacca he had been befriended by a fellow prisoner, Mrs. Warwick, who, on the presumed death of the family heir, bequeathed to Johnstone her fortune of £100,000. Johnstone, intending to go home, instructed his relations to negotiate for an estate in Scotland, but on the appearance of the missing Warwick heir surrendered his fortune and remained in the East India Company service. In 1761 he was appointed chief in Burdwan and a member of the Bengal council. A shrewd and unscrupulous business man, profitably engaged in private commerce, he resented the loss of privilege incurred by the Company’s proposals to regulate the inland trade, and was a leader in I763 of the rebels in the Bengal council who, by rejecting the agreement made by Henry Vansittart with the nabob Mir Kassim, helped to create a situation leading to the outbreak of hostilities.2
When the news reached London the Company dismissed Johnstone from their service, despite the efforts of his brothers and George Dempster. The Johnstone group, having supported Clive at India House against Laurence Sulivan in the contest for control of the direction, were deeply chagrined when Clive did not stipulate for John’s reinstatement as a condition of accepting the command in India, but none the less secured their objective in May 1764.3 Before Clive arrived in India, Johnstone, newly reinstated on the council, had taken the lead in negotiating terms with the new nabob and, ignoring the Company’s regulations, had secured for himself presents amounting to some £50,000. Clive, on reaching Calcutta in May 1765, indignantly rebuked the council for their ‘shameless’ proceedings; and Johnstone, charged with disobedience to the Company’s orders, resigned the service.4
He sailed for home in October 1765 with a fortune estimated at £300,000, and on his arrival aimed at acquiring Scottish estates and parliamentary interest. He negotiated with John Murray for some of his Selkirkshire property; with Lord Morton for the Orkneys; and eventually made his first purchases in Stirlingshire.5
Faced with a prosecution by the East India Company over his ill-gotten gains, Johnstone published his Letter to the Proprietors justifying all his actions. At India House his friends, led by Dempster and supported by the Sulivan party, campaigned on his behalf, and at the general court in May 1767, despite opposition both from the direction and the ministry, secured the withdrawal of the prosecution.6
At the general election of 1768 Johnstone unsuccessfully contested Haslemere; and in 1774 stood for Dysart Burghs and by his immense wealth succeeded in ousting James Townsend Oswald. In Parliament he voted with the Opposition; spoke ‘very severely’ on 17 Feb. 1775 against the bill debarring New Englanders from the Newfoundland fishing; voted 22 Feb. against Administration on Wilkes; and on 30 Oct. opposed North’s bill for assembling the militia. Consistently pro-American, he supported, 7 Nov., Luttrell’s plea for conciliation; and on 11 Dec. seconded George Johnstone’s motion against including Georgia in the general prohibition of trade. On 25 Feb. 1777 he seconded George Johnstone’s demand for firm action against Spanish attacks on British ships in the Bay of Honduras, deplored Britain’s humiliating situation, and urged an inquiry ‘to rouse us ... from romantic dreams of American conquest and legislative supremacy’. He voted consistently with Opposition to the end of the Parliament.7
At the general election of 1780 he lost his seat to John Henderson, a Government supporter. Out of Parliament he continued to extend and improve his estates, acquired most of the Philiphaugh lands in Selkirkshire, but though ‘immensely rich’ was unpopular and had little personal following either there or in Stirlingshire.8 Having purchased an estate in his native Dumfriesshire, he made an unsuccessful attempt in 1790 to stand for the county.9 He died 10 Dec. 1795.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest
- 1. John Johnstone, Letter to the Proprietors of E.I. Stock (1766); C. L. Johnstone, Hist. Johnstones, 178; S. C. Hill, Recs. Bengal, i. 70, 173; iii. 75; Fort William-India House Corresp. 1757-9, pp. 88, 284, 312.
- 2. Forrest, Life of Clive, ii. 225-44.
- 3. L. S. Sutherland, E.I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics, 131.
- 4. Bengal Part Present, iii. 390-3; Forrest, ii. 261-7.
- 5. John Pringle to Gilbert Elliot, 17 May 1766, Minto mss.
- 6. Sutherland, 144-6, 171.
- 7. Almon, i. 193; iii. 77, 129, 279; vi. 291.
- 8. Adam, Pol. State Scotland 1788, pp. 315, 317, 333.
- 9. Sir W. Maxwell to Buccleuch, 27 Apr. 1790, Buccleuch mss.