English School 18th, Century
Miniature Portrait of Field Marshal John Colborne, 1st Baron Seaton , GCB, GCMG, GCH, PC ,1778 – 1863
John Colborne, 1st Baron Seaton
oil on ivory
13 x 11 cm.


 inscribed on the  reverse  'Lord Seaton as a young man',


By descent in the family from the sitter :  The Hon Revd Graham Colborne and thence by descent


John Colborne, first Baron Seaton (1778–1863), army officer and colonial governor, younger child of Samuel Colborne (d. 1785), a landowner of Lyndhurst, Hampshire, and his wife, Cordelia Ann (d. 1791), only daughter of John Garstin of Leragh Castle and Ballykerrin, co. Westmeath, was born at Lyndhurst on 16 February 1778. His father had lost money through unsuccessful speculations and left his widow and two children in straitened circumstances. Having been educated at Christ's Hospital, London (1785–9), and Winchester College (1789–94), where he took part in the great school rebellion of 1793, Colborne entered the army as an ensign in the 20th foot on 10 July 1794 by the interest of the earl of Warwick, and was to gain all subsequent rank without purchase. He served in the Helder campaign (1799) and, following his promotion to captain (January 1800), on the Belle Île expedition and in Minorca, Egypt, Malta, and Sicily. After distinguishing himself at Maida (4 July 1806) he was appointed military secretary to General the Hon. Henry Edward Fox, and later to General Sir John Moore.

Gazetted major in January 1808, Colborne accompanied Moore to Sweden and Portugal, and was with him on the retreat to Corunna; in accordance with Moore's dying wish he was promoted lieutenant-colonel (5th garrison battalion) in February 1809. Colborne returned to the Peninsula in August, and spent some months liaising with the Spanish army of La Mancha; he witnessed its defeat by Soult at Ocaña (19 November), before assuming command of the 2nd battalion of the 66th foot. He was present at Busaco in temporary command of a brigade, and in the autumn of 1810 was appointed to the arduous charge of the advance guard at Alhambra outside the lines of Torres Vedras. In the following March he took part in the recovery of Campo Mayor and was then employed on detached duty, commanding a brigade of the 2nd division, in disrupting French communications south-east of Badajoz. He joined Beresford at Albuera, where, on 16 May his brigade, its visibility obscured by a hailstorm, was badly mauled by French lancers and chasseurs.

In July 1811 Colborne exchanged into the élite 52nd regiment, forming part of the famous light division, and at the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo he commanded the assault (8 January 1812) on Fort San Francisco and was wounded in the right shoulder and arm during the storming of the city (19/20 January). Partially disabled in his right arm, Colborne was invalided home. He married on 21 June 1814 Elizabeth (d. 28 November 1872, aged eighty-two), eldest daughter of the Revd James Yonge of Puslinch, Devon, rector of Newton Ferrers, Devon. Called 'the beauty of Devonshire' (Moore Smith, Life of John Colborne, 125) and by her niece Charlotte M. Yonge 'the brightest, most playful and lively of creatures' (ibid., 253), she was charming and gracious and a devout Anglican.

Colborne rejoined Wellington's army in July 1813. Taking temporary command of the 2nd brigade of the light division, he led the attack at the storming of the pass of Vera (7 October) and commanded it at the battles of the Nivelle (10 November)—when Colborne, though his own force was outnumbered, bluffed the strong French garrison of the Star Redoubt to surrender—and the Nive (9–12 December). He returned to the 52nd and handled it brilliantly at the battle of Orthez in the following February and afterwards at the siege of Toulouse. With the coming of peace Colborne was promoted brevet colonel and aide-de-camp to the prince regent, receiving at the same time the peninsular gold cross with three clasps and, on 2 January 1815, following the reconstitution of the Order of the Bath, being appointed KCB.

Colborne was appointed military secretary to the prince of Orange, then commanding the British forces in the Netherlands, and on Bonaparte's escape from Elba he resumed command of the 52nd, brigaded with the 71st and the 2nd battalion of the 95th under Sir Frederick Adam in the division of Sir Henry Clinton. At Waterloo the brigade was initially posted on the extreme right of the allied position, before advancing to the right centre of the front line soon after 3 p.m. Although the brigade was only partially protected by the lie of the ground from the unremitting French cannonade, thanks to Colborne's skilful handling of his regiment casualties were comparatively light. As the crisis of the battle approached (about 6.30 p.m.) the 52nd and 71st fell back to the crossroad on the ridge to the immediate left of Hougoumont. In the melée that ensued as the imperial guard attacked the English centre Colborne, anticipating Wellington's orders, threw his regiment forward, wheeled it to the left of an advancing column to the west, fired volley after devastating volley into its flank, and drove it back in disorder. Although he deserved every credit for this bold initiative, it is absurd to speak of it as having assured a decisive victory. And while no slight was intended, the omission of Colborne's name from Wellington's Waterloo dispatch gave rise to a controversy which he correctly refused to enter.

Colborne remained with his regiment in Paris as part of the army of occupation until January 1816, when he obtained leave of absence. After an extensive tour through Europe he rejoined the 52nd in May 1818, being employed in garrison duty largely in the northern command to deal with the threat of disturbances in the manufacturing areas. In July 1821 he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Guernsey, the first of several civil postings in which he was to serve with distinction. A devout Anglican, of spartan habits and studious disposition, blue-eyed and curly-haired, tall and spare of person, he was very much the beau idéal of a soldier; contemporaries frequently remarked his striking similarity to the duke of Wellington in his simplicity of manner, integrity, and devotion to duty. Yet there the resemblance ended. He once described himself as a reasonable conservative, anxious to preserve institutions worth maintaining, but fully alive to the necessity of reforming those that were not (Moore Smith, Life of John Colborne, 341); and his administrative career revealed him as anything but a tory in the mould of his old commander. In Guernsey he was instrumental in restoring confidence in government by improving communications, agriculture, public works, and education. He reformed the decayed Elizabeth College (founded 1563), which reopened in 1824. Having been promoted major-general in May 1825, Colborne was offered the military secretaryship under a proposed reorganization of the War Office in July 1827. That project failing in consequence of Canning's death, Colborne was gazetted lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada in August 1828. Earlier he had refused the governorship of Trinidad.

Colborne arrived at York (Toronto) shortly after an election which had returned a sizeable ‘reforming’ majority to the provincial assembly, and in the wake of the publication of the proceedings of a parliamentary select committee (Parl. papers, 1828, 7.569) animadverting on administrative arrangements. While regarding the crude parochialism of local politics and the frequently unconstitutional proceedings of the assembly with distaste, his administration was conspicuous for its tact and conciliation, and strict impartiality towards the amorphous groups that constituted political life in the colony. Although, in what was still virtually a backwoods settlement, the province was unready for responsible government, he effected changes in the composition of the legislative council and was sparing in his use of patronage; in conjunction with the Colonial Office, steps were taken towards a greater fiscal autonomy and to render the judiciary more independent. Determined to promote English influence in a dependency which had been overly exposed to American settlement, he encouraged immigration from the United Kingdom and spared no effort or expense to ensure its success; and during his administration the population of the province increased by some 70 per cent. His Indian policy, in his efforts to persuade the tribes to come to terms with European settlement through education and agriculture, was distinguished by humanity and enlightenment. Elsewhere he initiated extensive public works, extended communications and education, and in 1830 instituted Upper Canada College. Despite his dislike of sectaries his attitude towards religious problems was generally pragmatic and clear-headed, though his policy in regard to the clergy reserves and the endowment of Anglican rectories was censured. An outstanding governor, Colborne had the misfortune to administer Upper Canada at a time of intense political animosities, exacerbated by the poisonous nature of the provincial press and colonial demagogues, most notably William Lyon Mackenzie who poured forth a constant stream of vituperation. His overt and prescient contempt for this vociferous, if unrepresentative, minority was to prove his undoing. On a visit to London in 1832 Mackenzie had acquired a fortuitous and wholly undeserved reputation in official circles as the mouthpiece of colonial opinion, and on Mackenzie's persuading a half-empty chamber to accept his Seventh Report on Grievances in April 1835, the new secretary of state, Lord Glenelg, reacted with alarm. Colborne was severely rebuked for the infrequency and meagreness of his public dispatches, his full and dispassionate analysis of events in his private correspondence with the Colonial Office being dismissed as partisan statements. Stung, he forestalled recall by resigning in high dudgeon.

Amid widespread regret Colborne left the province in January 1836, and was on the point of returning to England when he was offered the command of the forces in the Canadas. Accepting with reluctance, he moved to Montreal. He arrived at a critical juncture in the affairs of Lower Canada, where the long-running fiscal dispute between the French-dominated assembly and the executive had made government all but impossible. This volatile situation, aggravated by widespread economic distress, was scarcely eased by the announcement of coercive measures by the imperial government in April 1837, and Colborne began preparing to meet a possible uprising. When the highly localized outbreak did come, in mid-November, martial law was declared and he quickly isolated the insurgent areas and personally led 2000 regulars and volunteers against the rebel centres at St Eustache and St Benoît. Within barely a month the Lower Canadian ‘rebellion’ was over, and on the resignation of the governor-in-chief, Lord Gosford, Colborne assumed the administration of the government. With the arrival of Lord Durham as high commissioner to enquire into the affairs of the Canadas in May 1838, Colborne, though anxious to resign his command, was persuaded to remain at Glenelg's urgent insistence. Possessing little confidence in the home government and uneasy about the administrative innovations, particularly the union of the two Canadas, proposed by Durham and his numerous suite, he meantime prepared to meet a further recrudescence of violence in the province. Viewing Durham's hasty resignation and departure (1 November) with evident relief, because it avoided possible friction between the civil and military commands, he moved swiftly to deal with the further insurrection. By 17 November the small groups of rebels in various locations had been dispersed and order restored, though the behaviour of some of his irregular forces was to earn him the name ‘le Vieux Brulôt’, and, after his elevation to the peerage, ‘Baron Saton’. Gazetted governor-in-chief of British North America on 12 December, Colborne now eschewed the mildness with which he had dealt with the previous outbreak and determined, for the future peace of Lower Canada, that the rule of law had to be vindicated. Following a series of courts martial, twelve rebels were hanged and fifty-eight transported to the Australian colonies. Damned by ‘loyalists’ for his leniency and execrated by 'Patriotes' for his bloodthirsty tyranny (Moore Smith, Life of John Colborne, 307), he nevertheless hoped that a period of firm, but enlightened, administration would restore tranquillity and some much-needed realism to the political affairs of the Canadas. Yet such was not to be under his dispensation: with an astonishing insouciance, Melbourne's government now proposed to send out yet another whig civilian as governor-in-chief, but in the hope that Colborne would consent to remain commander-in-chief. Not surprisingly he reacted with indignation and refused to countenance the proposal. Having already been made GCH (October 1836) and promoted lieutenant-general (June 1838), he was invested GCB a few days before he left Montreal, on 23 October, after the arrival of his successor, Charles Poulett Thomson (afterwards Lord Sydenham).

On his arrival in England Colborne was raised to the peerage (14 December 1839) as Baron Seaton, with a pension of £2000 for three lives for his services, an honour generously made at the instance of Lord Melbourne, with whose administration he had so often been at odds. Rumours of an Irish command coming to nothing, he remained unemployed until January 1843 when he was offered, and eagerly accepted, the long-sought position of lord high commissioner of the Ionian Islands (GCMG, July). He arrived in April, following the enforced resignation of J. A. Stewart Mackenzie, and found the political and administrative affairs of the protectorate in some disarray. His predecessor, of whom much had been expected by proponents of liberalization, had not displayed any marked administrative talents and had been little trusted by the Colonial Office, while his acerbity of manner had antagonized many prominent Ionians. Initially unwilling to propose constitutional concessions Seaton, much impressed by the justice of Ionian demands, as also by the ‘revolution’ in Greece in the autumn of 1843, began preparing the ground for such concessions by cultivating the liberal intelligentsia in Corfu and associating the people more closely with the administration. Municipal authorities were encouraged and granted greater responsibility, the reform of the judiciary and the police establishment was extended, and the press laws were relaxed; and at a time of increasing economic prosperity he embarked on extensive projects of social amelioration and public works. Meantime he used his powers to promote his views: liberal politicians were advanced in both senate and assembly, and senior administrative positions hitherto held by Englishmen were thrown open to Ionians. He then, in a series of breathless dispatches between January and July 1848, advocated the freedom of the press, financial autonomy, and free elections to both the municipalities and assembly; in January of the following year he proposed an extension of the franchise, and in May the introduction of the secret ballot. Earl Grey, the secretary of state, then in the process of furthering colonial self-government throughout the empire, was generally sympathetic, though informed opinion within the Colonial Office, already alarmed at Colborne's taste for deficit financing and distrustful of his impulsiveness and assumption of Ionian willingness to actually work his reforms, was more cautious. As it was, a revolt in Cephalonia in September 1848 notwithstanding, his projects were blithely adopted in principle, but left to his successor, Sir Henry Ward, to implement (June 1849) (cf. Parl. papers, 1850, 36, 1276). When it became apparent that reform, far from proving a panacea for legitimate grievances, had provided Ionians with the means for loudly expressing discontent and agitation for union with Greece, Colborne's proceedings were attacked (most notably, and with considerable personal animus, by G. F. Bowen, in The Ionian Islands under British Protection, 1851, and Quarterly Review, 91, 1852, 315–52). Warmly defended by Ionian supporters (for example George Dracatos Papanicolas (d. 1862), in The Ionian Islands: what they have Lost and Suffered, 1851, and Antonios Dandolo (1783–1872), in Des Îles Joniennes, 1851), he published his own Apologia (Edinburgh Review, 97, 1853, 41–86).

Although in his seventies and suffering from intermittent ill health, Colborne, long associated with the peacetime reform of the armed forces (for example 'Our defensive armament', Edinburgh Review, 96, 1852), and combining immense practical experience, an open mind, and a thorough theoretical knowledge, made an ideal choice for the command of the experimental manoeuvres at Chobham camp in June–August 1853. Promoted general in June 1854—age and infirmity precluded his appointment as Lord Raglan's successor in the Crimea and as commander-in-chief following the resignation of his friend, Lord Hardinge—he was still sufficiently robust to accept the command of the forces in Ireland in January 1855. There, at a time of relative tranquillity, he occupied himself with the reform of the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham, in training the regular troops and militia, and instituting a series of annual reviews at Curragh. His term of office having expired in March 1860, he was raised to the rank of field marshal in April and appointed an Irish privy councillor. Having purchased the house and grounds of Beechwood, by Sparkwell in Devon in 1856, Seaton spent his remaining years in improving his estate and promoting the welfare of the parish. Still consulted by government ministers—Colborne advised Sir George Cornewall Lewis on the defence of Canada when aged eighty-three in December 1861—he was gazetted colonel of the rifle brigade in February 1862, in succession to the prince consort at the express wish of the queen (having previously been colonel of the 94th foot, December 1834; 26th foot, March 1839; 2nd Life Guards, and bearer of the gold stick, March 1854). Following a lengthy illness he died at Valetta House, Torquay, Devon, on 17 April 1863, and was buried in the churchyard of Newton Ferrers on 24 April. He was succeeded by his eldest son, James (1815–1888), army officer.

Seaton was a man of many parts and wide sympathies, a Christian gentleman, and an inspiration and example to those with whom he served. 'J'ai grande confiance dans Colborne', said General Alava:

officier du premier ordre, tres aimé tant de Sir J. Moore comme du Duc de Wellington, et quel bel éloge! Il est non seulement excellent militaire, mais qualifié pour tout espèce de commandement, et d'une moralité et probité dignes d'autres temps.

He was a soldier of singular abilities and a colonial governor of note, a man whose influence was decisive in the Canadas and whose Ionian administration determined, for good or ill, the ultimate fate of the protectorate; John Colborne, Field Marshal Lord Seaton, was, in fine, a most distinguished man in a most distinguished age.

In addition to his many English honours Colborne was appointed to the order of the Tower and the Sword of Portugal in March 1813, and was made knight of the Habsburg order of Maria Theresia and the Russian order of St George in August 1815. A bronze statue, by George Adams, raised by public subscription, was unveiled at Mount Wise, Devonport (November 1866), a cairn having already been erected in 1844 by the Glengarry Highlanders on an island in Lake St Francis, Ontario, with the inscription 'To the Saviour of Canada'.

Sir Francis Colborne (1817–1895), army officer, Colborne's second son, was born at Florence on 23 April 1817. He was educated at Elizabeth College, Guernsey (1824–9), became an infantry officer (ensign 15th foot, October 1836), served in the Crimea, commanded the troops at Hong Kong (1874–8), commanded the Perak expedition (1875–6), was promoted general in April 1882, and retired in April 1883 (CB July 1855, KCB March 1876). He died unmarried at Hembury fort, Buckerell, near Honiton, on 26 November 1895.

John Colborne (1830–1890), army officer, Colborne's fifth son, was educated at Eton College, became an infantry officer (ensign 30th foot, August 1848), served in the Crimea, and sold out in June 1872. He became a colonel in the Egyptian army, served on Hicks Pasha's staff in the Sudan in 1883, published With Hicks Pasha in the Soudan (1884), and died unmarried at Cairo on 13 February 1890.