Britons who became President of Congress
Not even twenty members of Congress would know the names of four Britons, each of whom became President of the Indian National Congress.
The man who took the initiative to found the Congress was a retired ICS officer. He was Allan Octavian Hume, 1829-1912. He did not become president but apparently served as general secretary of Congress for 22 years, 1885-1908. See, “A Dictionary of Indian History” by Sachchidananda Bhattacharya. The book was published in 1967 at the University of Calcutta.
The first session of Congress was held in December 1885 in Bombay under the chairmanship of Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee. The 1888 session was convened in Allahabad under the chairmanship of George Yule (1829-1892). He was a businessman. He was the head of Andrew Yule and Co in Calcutta, in addition to its sheriff. He was also President of the Indian Chamber of Commerce.
Yule was widely known in Indian circles for his enlightened vision, liberal views, and genuine sympathy for Indian aspirations. He was an influential and powerful figure in the public life of Bengal. He helped broaden the national perspective of India.
The Congress deputies who visited London in 1889, to lobby the British government to grant political reforms to India, met Yule, who was helpful and sympathetic.
Sir William Wedderburn (1838-1918) presided over the annual session of Congress in 1889 at Bombay and at Allahabad in 1910. He passed the ICS examination in 1859 and left for India in 1860. On his retirement in 1887, he was Chief Secretary to the Government of Bombay.
During his service, he devoted much time to famine relief and farm debt problems. His concern for these problems brought him into contact with Congress.
After his retirement, he entered Parliament in 1893. He formed the Indian Parliamentary Committee, of which he was Chairman until 1900. He came to India in 1901, to investigate famines and propose preventive measures.
In 1904 he returned to attend the 20th session of Congress in Bombay, presided over by Sir Henry Cotton.
As a Liberal, William Wedderburn believed in the principle of self-government. He hailed the formal proclamation made by Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu and Viceroy Lord Chelmsford in 1917 ensuring the establishment of self-government (in reality this did not happen ).
Wedderburn’s main contribution to the promotion of national consciousness was his lifelong work on behalf of the Indian reform movement (at this time Gandhi was nonviolently revolutionizing the Indian freedom movement).
Alfred Webb presided over the Madras session in 1894. He was an Irishman. Nothing specular happened during his tenure. Historically, the 1890s, to quote S. Gopal, were “a time of stagnation.” I quote a paragraph from his presidential address. It may not be inspiring, but it is worth remembering: “Politics is one of the most ennobling and comprehensive spheres of human activity, and none should ultimately be excluded from its exercise. There are many things being said, many deplorable things about them. Yet they remain, and always will remain, the most effective field in which to work for the benefit of our fellow human beings. The political atmosphere, the one we hope to breathe here, is one into which no thought of “greed, covetousness or low ambition” should enter. We desire the good of all. We work for everyone.
Sir Henry Cotton (1845-1915) came from a family that worked in India for five generations. Henry Cotton served in India from 1867 to 1902. He became President of Congress in 1904 during the Bombay session. After his retirement, he became a member of the House of Commons, joining the Indian group. His two books, “New India or India in Transition” and “India and Home Memoirs” have been well received in England and India.
In his address, he said: “…The Indian National Congress therefore has its own duties, of which I take it upon myself to say that as a watchful eyewitness since its birth, it has discharged them with fidelity, judgment and exemplary moderation.
Your past is distinguished. If you have not succeeded to any considerable extent in shaping government policy, you have exercised an immense influence on the development of the history of your country and the character of your countrymen. You have become a power in the land, and your voice resounds like a trumpet note across India. Your illustrious leaders have earned a place in the Hall of Fame, and their memory will be cherished by grateful posterity.