In an age when it is fashionable to denigrate colonies, colonial rule and colonial governors, it is worth remembering that Sir Thomas Maitland was regarded as an outstanding governor, not only by his government, whose instructions he often resisted, but by the people he governed, both in Ceylon, and also in Malta and the Ionian Islands, when he was Commander in Chief Mediterranean, a post later held in 1944 by General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, later Lord Wilson of Libya.

During a visit to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) I was told by a former Prime Minister of the value of Sir Thomas’ reforms of Ceylon law which combined respect for local custom with efficient and honest administration.

In this article we will look at Sir Thomas’ career in the Mediterranean after his return from Ceylon. Before that, it is worth reviewing his earlier career. Born in 1759, he was at once appointed a lieutenant in the 17th Light Dragoons, Edinburgh Light Horse, and drew the pay of his rank until the regiment was disbanded in 1763, (when he was 4 years old), thereafter drawing half pay until 1778, when aged 19 he took up active service and raised a company for the Seaforth, 78th (later 72nd) Highlanders.

Military career

With his regiment, he served in India during the campaigns against Hyder Ali and the French, both competing with Britain for control of the sub-continent. From India he moved to the West Indies in 1794, where he became Lt Colonel of the 62nd Foot (remember that officers purchased their commissions in those days) In April 1797 he was appointed Brigadier-general of  San Domingo (not obtained by purchase!), and in January 1798 Brigadier-general of the West Indies.   The West Indies posting was complex. His instructions were to evacuate Europeans from San Domingo who were under pressure of the slave revolt led by Toussaint l’Ouverture, and this was achieved in May 1798. He was appointed colonel of the 10th West India Regiment later that year.

In September 1799, Maitland was given temporary command as Major General of an expedition to Brittany, and was able to choose the naval commander, the redoubtable Sir Edward Pellew. In June 1800 the expedition destroyed the fort at Quiberon, but abandoned plans to attack Belle Isle nearby.

Various domestic appointments followed; he remained  a member of Parliament for Haddingtonshire for most of the period 1794 to 1805. During this period he prepared the strategic plan for the destruction of the Spanish empire in South America which was followed by the liberator St Martin (see Yearbooks 1984 and 2001). Late in 1804 he was appointed a member of the Board of Control – the committee which oversaw the affairs of India. He had left India in 1794 as a captain in a line regiment, and returned 10 years later to Indian affairs as one of the rulers of the sub-continent.  In 1805 he was appointed Lieutenant General and Commander in Chief of Ceylon.  We covered his governorship in the 2006 Yearbook.

Luddite rising 1812

On return from Ceylon Maitland was almost at once summoned to deal with an outbreak of rioting and urban unrest in the north of England, the Luddite rebellion of 1812 (Yearbook 1987). This was suppressed by manoeuvre without the need for Maitland’s troops to fire a single shot in anger. We will return to this topic in a later issue.


The Luddite rebellion suppressed by early 1813, Maitland was quickly appointed governor of Malta.  The island is unusual because the Maltese chose in 1802 to become part of the British Empire. Its history had been of continual conflict with great powers, from the middle of the 16th century when the Order of the Knights of St. John was given Malta by the Emperor Charles V. Turkish attacks began in 1551 after neighbouring Tripoli in Libya fell into their hands, and the great siege of Malta commenced in 1565. Defeated, the Maltese were left in modest peace, though Algerine corsairs plagued the area until the 19th century. In 1798 a French fleet commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte arrived at the island which swiftly surrendered. After looting Malta of all valuables the fleet departed, leaving a garrison. The Maltese rebelled under French oppression, and in 1800 at their request Admiral Nelson blockaded the island and forced a French surrender. Malta thus became at its own request part of the British Empire. By the terms of the Peace of Amiens of 1802, Britain was supposed to evacuate the island, but with increasing signs of French belligerence, retained it.

Arrival in Malta

Maitland arrived there in October 1813 to find, as he had in Ceylon, disaster around him. Plague was raging, and he wrote home

"We breathe very much through a medium of arsenic and brimstone at present, but I am told, when I get accustomed to it, it will be quite delicious."

This was not the only parallel to Ceylon. Lord William Bentinck, now transferred from Vellore in India to Palermo in Sicily, once again called on Maitland to supply troops to reinforce his authority, challenged again as a result of Bentinck’s maladministration. This time Maitland refused, citing the plague and the very small number of troops at his disposal. To add to this, Admiral Langhorne arrived from Gibraltar with his fleet containing men suffering from Yellow Fever, a potentially fatal disease spread by mosquitoes. Maitland responded that the Maltese were more afraid of this disease than any other, and with plague already raging, he faced a long period of quarantine for yellow fever if he provided the help requested. Malta would starve, so help was denied.

This robust approach produced results, and by July 1814 Maitland could declare Malta free of plague, which was meanwhile killing 1,000 a day in Smyrna (now Izmir) and 500 a day in Alexandria, as well as many in Greece and Tunis. Maitland could now turn his attention at last to his Instructions.

His report to Lord Bathurst, Secretary for War and the Colonies contained the observation:

"To make a change beneficial we must at all times look not only at the thing itself, but at the temper with which it is received"

Most governors paid no attention to this issue. This was why Bentinck had twice been obliged to ask Maitland to provide military support from a much smaller colony than the one governed by Bentinck.

Above all else, Malta was distinguished by the domination and influence of the Roman Catholic church. The Knights Templars were primarily a religious order, so ecclesiastical influence pervaded the island.

The first problem was to deal with the right of sanctuary. A criminal who took sanctuary in a church had first to be tried by the ecclesiastical authorities before he could be handed over to the civil power. The difficulty lay in the ability to appeal from the Bishops court to Rome, so the net result was that British law did not prevail.  Maitland was prepared to tolerate the initial appeal to the bishops court, but not appeals to Rome, where the Holy See was an independent state.

Following the end of the plague, a service of thanksgiving was arranged in the Church of St John of Jerusalem, and the Governor was invited to attend, but seating was a problem. He was invited to use the seat formerly occupied by the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, who previously governed the island. However, this was in the sanctuary by special license of the Pope, whose authority the Governor challenged. So he would not sit there. The dilemma was solved by placing the royal coat of arms on the Grand Master’s chair to symbolise secular authority whilst Maitland sat outside the sanctuary, facing the bishop in a similar throne. A brilliant solution to an issue which could have caused great offence.

The next issue regarding the church was easier to solve. The government ordered Maitland to take over the great church of St John or the church of the Jesuits for use by the garrison.  Maitland resisted these proposals, and won the perpetual gratitude of the church and people of Malta through his protection of their interests.   Despite his strong interest in economy in colonial government, he proposed expenditure on enlargement of the palace chapel to meet this need.

The relationship with the church, despite these concessions was often stormy. In particular he distrusted the relationship of the Catholic bishops with their superiors in Rome, feeling that the British government should be supreme with the result that quarrels erupted over routine administrative matters concerning the church when he was not treated as the supreme local authority – which he had no right to be. He expected to be consulted before applications were made to the Holy See, took a keen interest in local ecclesiastical promotions and could be very obstructive if his proposals were not implemented. 

Corruption was a major problem. Malta was obliged to import nearly all its supplies of food, and the operation was handled by the “Universita”, described by Maitland as

"The most troublesome dunghill of corruption I have ever met with; nothing was more certain than that we should never recover one shilling of its deficit, so ingeniously were its accounts kept"

As an example, the Universita employed two agents to buy wheat in Constantinople, and they bid against each other, so the only benefit was to the corn merchants. Maitland sent an aide to Constantinople with £30,000 to buy grain and instructions to dismiss both agents.

The savings from this action, combined with the evacuation of Lampedusa, a tiny island near the Libyan coast greatly improved the finances of Malta.

During this period, in 1815, the main topic of Maitland’s correspondence was the Ionian Islands. Reports from Paris where the peace treaty was under negotiation indicated that the Seven Islands, -  as they were also called would become an independent republic under a British protectorate.

He was approached on this issue in May 1815, and observed that there should be a single Commander in Chief Mediterranean instead of several governors.  It was felt that he had proposed himself for the post, and as the year wore on, he became increasingly concerned by the prospect.

"I cannot look to the assumption of the Seven Islands without some dread” he wrote in September, “we shall find them very expensive if we do not take care."

He awaited the appointment. “As soon as I receive official notice of my appointment I shall proceed straight to Corfu, and from there to the other islands”

He was confident that Malta could run itself in his absence, and had already taken some long periods of leave.   He was sure that the success of the government of the Protectorate would be proportionate to the number of Englishmen appointed:

"if we appoint too many Englishmen there will be jealousy; yet nothing is clearer than that the government we set up will succeed just so far as it is administered by Englishmen, and no further."

Despite Government pressure to install representative government, he demurred,

"the whole community [in Sicily] was divided into two classes, viz., tyrants and slaves. Neither the one nor the other are fitted to enjoy the blessings of a free government. We may hereafter prepare them for it. In the mean time, all we can do is to correct the abuses that may exist, to rule them with moderation….."

Meanwhile, he returned to Maltese affairs. The pirates of the north African coast continued to be a plague. After a tour of inspection of British consulates he reported that

"Difficulties there must be in the future. We shall have to consider all these powers ‘(1) as powers possessing sovereignty, but (2) as exercising that sovereignty in a manner so totally discordant to every principle of civilised nations that we are all bound to resist it."

He proposed that the petty states be forced to ransom all Christian slaves.

Against government orders to await the arrival of his new deputy, he set off the Zante in January 1816 for a tour of inspection. “The king’s service will suffer less by my disobeying orders than by obeying them” he noted.  There had been some suggestion that the Ionians might elect their Governor, and the favourite for the post was Lord North, charming, civilised and not only a Greek scholar, but also fluent in modern Greek. He was also totally incapable, as Maitland had found on succeeding him in Ceylon. The sooner the Ionians realised that Maitland and not North would be Governor, the better for all concerned, so Maitland took an unauthorised leave of absence to visit his new charges.

Ionian Islands

Often known as the Seven Islands (there are a number of islets as well), they lie off the coasts of modern Greece and Albania, both parts of the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century. The hinterland was wild and anarchic.

In 1797 Napoleon destroyed the Venetian Republic after nearly 1,400 years of continuous existence. The Venetian empire was parcelled out, the landward provinces to Austria and the Ionian Islands were retained by France, which however, did not have the maritime resources to protect or control them.  Turkey and Russia combined to seize the islands and despite being the most despotic powers on earth, decided that  the Seven Islands should be come a republic under the style of the Byzantine Constitution (the eastern Roman empire was known as Byzantium).  After  a short Franco Russian war, the Treaty of Tilsit returned the islands to France.   Meanwhile the Royal Navy captured six of the islands, frustrating the cession to France.   By the final peace settlement, the 1815 Treaty of Paris, the islands were proclaimed an independent state under a British protectorate, with Britain given substantial authority over the administration.

Anarchy – a licence to kill

After centuries of Venetian neglect followed by the chaos of joint Russian and Turkish rule, the islands were in a state of anarchy. For example, a man planning to commit a murder would go to the judge to negotiate in advance the cost of an acquittal. The bargain made, the deed would be done, and justice would take its planned course – acquittal.

Restoration of order

It was to this chaos that Maitland was sent to rule using a constitution promising representative government. The Foreign Secretary was determined that the administration should be colonial in all but name.  Maitland’s reports were frank and brutal.

"The character most dreaded and detested in all these countries is that of an honest and upright man. They equally detest an honest government."

"Liberty and independence” means “independence of all judicial proceedings and liberty of plundering their country."

"the rulers here…..taking new oaths to their new master with the same fulsome civility they obeyed their old ones, rescinding this hour what they had done the last…"

"they consider nothing else but personal aggrandisement at the expense of the interests of the rest of the community."

The Russians required 14,000 troops and 36 ships to keep order. Maitland had 4,260 troops on 28th September 1817.  Count Mocenigo, of Ionian origin and Russian nationality, a former governor of the islands observed “if General Maitland expects to keep them in good humour for any length of time, he will be greatly disappointed.”  Russian sympathisers remained in Corfu. Received with great courtesy, they were promised much, but given little, and were gradually edged out of the administration.

Maitland, the new  Lord High Commissioner, used his powers of patronage to good effect, combined with brutal authority.  He produced as required by the Treaty a new constitution, whose only function was to throw a decent veil over the despotism of the Governor . The Ionians wanted independence, and Maitland pointed out that this precluded financial assistance from London, which was, however readily offered to colonies.

The constitution

A Primary Council was summoned – ten nobles on whom Maitland could rely, either because of natural sympathy, or because they had been bought. The new constitution was Iranian in style. members of the Lower House were chosen from persons approved by the Primary Council. The Upper House was elected by the Lower House with the proviso that the Governor could veto any appointment and order a new election. A second veto gave the Governor the opportunity to send two names to the Lower House for their final choice.

Maitland presented this amazing document to the Primary Council. He pointed out that although the Treaty of Paris described the islands as a single, free and independent state, it also provided for appointment of a Lord High Commissioner, which took away any such freedoms.

"If there be any persons whatever who can entertain a different feeling upon this subject, to such I can only say that all discussion of any kind…..must be totally useless."

Maitland went further and pointed out that whilst the powerful and wealthy did not really mind what the constitution might be, it mattered a great deal to the poor, who were the special care of the government. Administration of justice must be sound and speedy, so instead of elections which generally resulted in the appointment of corrupt judges, they would in furutre be appointed by the Lord High Commissioner.   He wrote at considerable length to the Secretary for the Colonies observing that the islands would be better off  under regulated, though authoritarian government, which was however always subject, "not to the will of a despot, but to the constitutional laws and practices of our Kingdom". The constitution was ratified by the Prince Regent in the throne room of the Pavilion at Brighton on 26th  August 1817, less than two years after his unauthorised departure for Zanthe. It remained in force until 1849.

Local situation

To appreciate to the full Maitland’s achievements, we need only look at the neighbouring countries. The Venetians had left the islands to the mercy of the local nobility who were no better than brigands. All Venice wanted was to ensure that no other power held these islands which commanded their trade routes to the Mediterranean.  On the mainland, nominal power was exercised by the Ottoman Empire, generally known as The Sublime Porte (after the gateway into the imperial palace), or for short the Porte. In its closing days, now the sick man of Europe, the Porte exercised little control of its governors, who were also largely bandits. The adjacent coast, now Albania, and part of the Ottoman Empire was administered by Ali Pacha, who was largely outside the control of the Porte, and in 1820 declared independence .  By the time he was assassinated in 1822 the entire Balkan peninsula was in a state of civil war and wars of independence. The neighbouring province of Morea (modern Greece) was also in revolt against the Ottoman Empire. In Italy, on the other side of the Adriatic, the situation was only a little better. Southern Italy, even today a disorderly place under Mafia control, was described by Maitland  as a madhouse, which only quietened when the warder (in this case the Austrian army) was present.

The Ionians were fiercely sympathetic to the Greek cause, as were the classicists of England, who ignored the fact that the Greeks of the 19th century were of Balkan origin who had no connection with the Ancient Greeks apart from living in the same territory.  Maitland had to keep the peace and ensure that the Ionians did not become overtly involved with the rebellion for fear of Ottoman reprisals.

Ionians regarded normal brigandage, smuggling and supply of food and weapons to the insurgents as a patriotic duty. The Porte could not understand how the British government could publicly support the empire, yet permit money to flow to the rebels. Maitland was especially concerned to prevent Turkish attacks on the Islands, which in the past had been bloody in the extreme, and so fiercely enforced neutrality on his charges. On the Ottoman coast he could not afford Turkish hostility without a large fleet in support, and this was not available.

Despite these problems, and the local tradition of banditry, Maitland was able to impose order largely by the strength of his will. Compared with Russian forces of 14,000 troops and a small fleet, Maitland had only 4,000 at his disposal, and yet even these were  not involved in any significant engagements or campaigns.  Maitland’s temper seems to have been worth 10,000 soldiers!

Maitland's style, though fairly brutal at a personal level, avoided use of force, though the threat was freely made by his behaviour. In practice, his bellicose style combined with a highly developed tactical sense and sensitivity to local opinion was enough to keep the peace and impose order. He is known as a statesman rather than as a soldier. During his campaign against the Luddites in Yorkshire in 1812, it is reported that his troops did not fire in anger. In both Ceylon and the Mediterranean  there are no reports of use of military force at all.

Bearing in mind the state of anarchy in the Ionian Islands, and the action he took to undermine the authority of the local nobility who had been accustomed  to untrammelled authority this is a tribute to his skills. Modern occupying forces would envy his success.

Order of St Michael and St George

CMG, KCMG, GCMG – the gongs awarded to diplomats and civil servants refer to Companion, Knight and Grand Cross respectively of the Order of St Michael and St George. The other meanings attributed to these initials are “Call Me God”, “Kindly Call Me God” and “God Calls Me God”.

Maitland felt the need to create a decoration to reward the service of distinguished Ionians. These are a very cheap means of giving valued benefits to people. Once agreed by Whitehall, he then proposed to extend the award to the Maltese. He commented :

“As regards Malta, the whole point is that this is the only colony of the British Empire where we have succeeded to an actual sovereignty. Hence we live here surrounded by an atmosphere of stars and ribands and the only Maltese who go undecorated are those who are faithful to their King.”

The argument was unchallengeable , and the order was made available to the Maltese and Ionians , but not to any other part of the Empire.    Maitland insisted on several classes to the order, “the whole point was to make a man think he was better than his neighbour.”  Urgency was essential because so many promises had been made and broken that he wanted swift action. “You have no conception of the impatience of these gentlemen.”

Next, the recipients must be chosen. Maitland wanted one for the leader of the Opposition, because he had kept him quiet with the promise of an order, two more were needed for ____  and  ___, because  “I don’t know how I shall get rid of them otherwise.”   In Malta two more Grand Crosses were needed, but as the recipients were wealthy, perhaps the Prince Regent would make them counts, and save two grand crosses.  The cynicism with which the awards were made is breathtaking, but perhaps only because  Maitland’s correspondence is in the public archives, and not agreed at meetings in smoke filled rooms or over a dram or two at Downing Street.

Count John Capodistrias

Capodistrias was Ionian by origin, and the Russian Secretary of State during the period of their occupation. He and his followers bitterly resented the British governor who had deprived the nobles of their former influence, and Capodistrias was close to the Czar Alexander. Maitland was well aware of his hostility and potential for damage. ‘The only evil we ever had, or shall have in the Islands is the family of Capodistrias.’ ‘It is plain that what he wants is to have me removed’

Capodistrias’ campaign began with a trip from St Petersburg to London to present the complaints of his family to the Cabinet. He had autograph letters from the Czar to both the Duke of Wellington and to Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Minister. He was received by Lord Bathurst, Colonial Secretary. The first complaint was that the constitution infringed the Treaty of Paris. Castlereagh responded that the Treaty gave Maitland, the Lord High Commissioner full discretion. Furthermore, Capodistrias had complained bitterly about the former constitution which he now praised ‘The primary cause of the late calamities of the Ionian Islands is to be ascribed to the constitutional code wrote Capodistrias, at an earlier period, so Catlereagh replied  ‘But your Excellency’s sagacity appeared to have convinced you at an early period of some of its defects’

A complaint that Maitland had too much power  was turned aside with the observation the the Treaty of Paris gave the commissioner such latitude. Complaints about the British troops were countered by the observation that Capodistrias had written ‘the nation themselves [Ionians] were unfit from their known habits of insubordination and violence to be obedient republican soldiers. That if the troops could not be Russian, they must be foreigners of some other description.’   Capodistrias argued that the garrison should be Ionian, but Castlereagh referred again to the Treaty to dispose of this complaint.

Castlereagh expressed his astonishment that Capodistrias should hold up the Venetian rule as ideal in view of his remark describing it as one of ‘corruption, vice and imbecility.’ A further complaint about the numbers of foreigners in public posts was refuted by a list of all public employees, noting that in the Customs service it was normal everywhere to appoint strangers for security.

Capodistrias complained that the Ionians were not informed of the revenue or expenditure of the Republic. Castlereagh retorted by enclosing a copy of Sir Thomas’ accounts and observing that this was the first public statement of accounts ever made to the people of the Ionian Islands by any administration. Castlereagh’s  patience with Capodistrias’ complaints was exhausted.

The real complaint was that the Ionian nobility could no longer tyrannise the people. Capodistrias had hoped that the magic of the Czar’s name would induce British concessions. The reverse happened, and Maitland’s support at home was greatly strengthened. He became in fact as well as nick-name  King Tom.    Once Capodistrias had failed to unseat Maitland despite the Count’s  legendary reputation in the Islands and the close co-operation of the Czar, the Ionians had little choice but to obey the King. Brigand nobles who only five years before had been despots in their island fortresses now became harmless and on occasion useful citizens. They either took government office and its rewards, or lay low on their estates, fearful of retribution should they cross King Tom.

The Palace of St. Michael and St. George

King Tom continued his building habits in Corfu, constructing the Palace of St. Michael and St. George, which is considered the finest of the British buildings in Corfu. It was built on the site formerly occupied by a Venetian hospital, after plans designed by Sir George Whitmore.  Construction began in 1819 and it served as the residence of the British Lord High Commissioner up to the end of the Protectorate in 1864. It was also the seat of the Ionian Senate and the headquarters of the Order of SS. Michael and George.

End of Sir Thomas’ career

At the end of 1823 Maitland returned to Malta, where he had spent very little time since taking on the responsibility for the Ionian Islands in 1816. Whilst Malta could readily be administered  from Corfu through reliable subordinates, Maitland’s regular presence was essential in Corfu to overawe the Ionian nobility and keep the peace with the Ottoman Empire. The visit to Malta was required to deal with a further outbreak of piracy, only finally quelled by the French conquest of Algiers in 1830.   On the 17th January 1824 Maitland suffered a fit of apoplexy – probably a heart attack, and died that evening.

Maitland’s character

Whilst there is no question regarding his administrative ability and concern for the people he was sent to govern, nor of their own regard for his achievements, there is equally no doubt that he was coarse and uncouth. On description, typical of others is “truculent, combative, cynical, vain, eccentric and a rough despot, unpopular with the troops.” It was his staff who nicknamed him King Tom. A subordinate, Sir Charles Napier, wrote “King Tom was a rock; a rock on which you might be saved, or dashed to pieces, but always a rock.”  In one instance an incompetent subordinate in Ceylon was dismissed from his post, and publicly humiliated. Arrangements were made to recover lost funds, and Maitland then wrote to the Colonial Office in extenuation of the delinquent’s conduct due to youth and inexperience.  The young man was then reinstated and made a fine career.

A Maltese cleric wrote of ‘the rather brutal character  of this man. Arrogance and unlimited pride predominated in him. He looked down with contempt upon everyone without any exception.’

This is only part of the story. Despite his frankness in dealing with his masters, he was valued for his efficiency and economy.  During the Capodistrias controversy he was supported by Lord Castlereagh,  the Foreign Secretary in everything he had done, because the government knew that a very frim hans was needed in the Islands.  In Ceylon he was able to get away with building a new residence with no difficulty in the light of the economies he had implemented.

He was also always concerned for the welfare of the people he governed. In Ceylon his instructions were “The sole object of Government is and always ought to be …to ensure the prosperity of the island solely through……increasing the prosperity and happiness of the natives.” On arrival in Malta he wrote to the Colonial Office “To make a change beneficial we must at all times look not only at the thing itself, but at the temper with which it is received”


As in Ceylon, Maitland is remembered with affection in Malta, where he protected the church, despite disputes with the clergy, instituted sound administration and largely rooted out corruption.  Malta remained in the British Empire until independence  in 1964, and is now a member of the European Union and the Commonwealth (the only EU country apart from the UK to also be in the Commonwealth).  Ceylon gained independence in 1948, became Sri Lanka and is also a Commonwealth member.

The official Corfu web site speaks of Sir Thomas Maitland’s rule as follows:

“During this time, the English started occupying other Ionian Islands and finally occupied Corfu in 1815. The occupation was made official after the Treaty of Paris in 1815. During their occupation, the Greek language became official, new roads were built, the water supply of the town was organised and the education system improved with the founding of the first Greek University in 1824.”