Not even a couple of dozen Congresspersons would know the names of four Britishers, each of whom became President of the Indian National Congress.
The man who took the initiative to founding the Congress was a retired ICS officer. He was Allan Octavian Hume, 1829-1912. He did not become President but was apparently General Secretary of the 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 the Congress was held in December 1885 in Bombay under the Presidentship of Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee. The 1888 session was convened at Allahabad under the presidentship of George Yule (1829-1892). He was a businessman. He was head of Andrew Yule and Co in Calcutta, besides its Sheriff. He was also President of the Indian Chamber of Commerce.
Yule was widely known in Indian circles for his enlightened outlook, liberal views and genuine sympathy for Indian aspirations. He was an influential and forceful figure in the public life of Bengal. He helped to enlarge India’s national perspective.
The Congress deputation that went to London in 1889, to press upon the British government to grant India political reforms, met Yule, who was helpful and sympathetic.
Sir William Wedderburn (1838-1918) presided at the annual session of the Congress in 1889 in Bombay and at Allahabad in 1910. He passed the ICS examination in 1859 and left for India in 1860. At the time of his retirement in 1887, he was Chief Secretary to the Government of Bombay.
During his service he devoted much time to famine relief and problems of agricultural indebtedness. His concern with these problems brought him in touch with the Congress.
After retirement he entered Parliament in 1893. He formed the Indian Parliamentary Committee, of which he was Chairman till 1900. He came to India in 1901, for investigating into famines and proposing preventive measures.
In 1904, he came again to attend the 20th Session of Congress in Bombay, which was presided by Sir Henry Cotton.
As a Liberal, William Wedderburn believed in the principle of self-government. He welcomed the formal proclamation made by Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu and Viceroy Lord Chelmsford in 1917, assuring establishment of self-government (in reality, this did not happen).
Wedderburn’s main contribution to the promotion of national consciousness was his lifelong labour on behalf of the India Reform Movement (by this time Gandhi was non-violently 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, was “a period of marking time”. I quote a paragraph from his Presidential Address. It may not be inspiring, but it is worth recalling: “Politics are among the most ennobling most comprehensive spheres of human activity, and none should eventually be excluded from their exercise. There is much that is said, much that is deplorable about them. Yet they remain, and ever will remain, the most effective field upon which to work for the good of our fellows. The political atmosphere, that which we here hope to breathe, is one into which no thought of ‘greed or lust or low ambition’ should enter. We desire the good of all. We work for all.”
Sir Henry Cotton (1845-1915) belonged to a family that worked in India for five generations. Henry Cotton served in India from 1867 to 1902. He became Congress President in 1904 at the Bombay Session. He, after retiring, became a member of the House of Commons, joining the India Group. His two books, “New India or India in Transition” and “India and Home Memoirs” were well received in England and India.
In his address, he said, “…The Indian National Congress has thus its own functions, which I take it upon myself to say, as a watchful eye-witness from its birth, it has discharged with exemplary fidelity, judgement and moderation.
Yours is a distinguished past. If you have not in any considerable measure succeeded in moulding the policy of Government, you have exercised an immense influence in developing the history of your country and the character of your countrymen. You have become a power in the land, and your voice peals like a trumpet note from one end of India to the other. Your illustrious leaders have earned a niche in the Temple of Fame, and their memory will be cherished by a grateful posterity.”