The movement of Texas from the territory of Mexico to independent country to statehood took careful diplomacy. The Republic of Texas found an unexpected ally in a dangerous time from the British ambassador, Charles Elliot. As the British representative in Texas, Elliot became one of the few friends that the Republic of Texas had in a time when it was cast adrift in the tides of diplomacy.
Charles Elliot was born in 1801 in Dresden in what became Germany. His father served as British ambassador to Saxony. Raised with the idea of the importance of service to the English crown and love of country, he enlisted in the navy at age 14. Such youthful enlistments were not unusual for the time. He spent the next 13 years in the Royal Navy before entering the civil service.
In 1830, he was named to a special post in British Guiana overseeing slave sales and treatment of slaves. He was appalled by the brutality and sent his protests to London. Elliot became an important voice among the rising chorus of Britons determined to abolish slavery. As a result, in 1833, Great Britain banned slavery in all its territories across the globe. Elliot was commended by his superiors for his service and credited with helping end slavery in the British Empire.
Soon afterward, Elliot was assigned to trade posts in China, eventually becoming Chief Superintendent of all British trade in the area. However, the British insisted he was too conciliatory toward China in the events leading up to the Opium Wars. Though he helped secure Hong Kong for Britain, Elliot was fired.
In 1842, he was given a chance to redeem himself. Britain had just recently recognized Texas independence from Mexico and established an embassy in Austin. The British saw great potential in establishing trade with the Texas Republic and hoped to derail Texas annexation to the United States. Elliot was named ambassador.
Like many politicians who had come to Texas in those years, Elliot arrived in disgrace and looked for another chance. For Elliot, the assignment to Texas was a demotion. For the people of Texas, being sent an ambassador from one of the world’s most powerful nations was a great distinction. It was a sign that the plight of Texas was taken seriously in distant capitals around the globe. He quickly established a rapport with Texas President Sam Houston, and the two conversed on many different issues.
Trade was an invaluable lifeline to the world for Texas, and British factories bought huge amounts of Texas cotton thanks to Elliot’s efforts. Elliot also became an effective intermediary between Mexico and Texas when Texas had little clout with the Mexican government and even less military might to respond effectively to any use of force. In 1843, he was able to secure the release of nearly two hundred renegade Texas troops from the disastrous Mier Expedition of 1842. The troops had disobeyed orders, raiding along the disputed Rio Grande border and were captured by Mexico. It was a diplomatic and military embarrassment at a time when Texas could afford neither.
Elliot also pressed Texas to end slavery, but there were very few Texans interested in ending it. The slavery issue increasingly dominated politics in the United States, imperiling Texas annexation as much as any potential war with Mexico.
By 1844, Texas was moving toward an annexation treaty with the United States.
For Britain, a Texas leaning on British support offered far more potential rewards than a rival United States with the many resources of Texas added to it. Houston, and his successor President Anson Jones, made preparations for Texas to move in either direction depending on the outcome of annexation. Elliot tried to impress the advantages of Texas independence on both, hoping offers of British trade and protection could dissuade them. Jones carefully considered Elliot’s words in his correspondence with him, but events were moving too swiftly between Texas and the United States.
Elliot negotiated a treaty offer with Mexico in 1845. In this proposal, Mexico offered permanent recognition to Texas independence and peace between the two in exchange for the promise of Texas not to seek annexation. Texas officials declined the treaty and instead cited it as Mexican recognition of Texas independence.
Texas was officially annexed and granted statehood on December 29, 1845, as the twenty-eighth state. As J. Pinckney Henderson took the oath of office as the first governor of the new State of Texas on February 19, 1846, Great Britain quietly closed its embassy.
Elliot was recalled to London in the process, but he did not stay out of service for long. Within months, he was sent back to the New World as governor of the British colony in Bermuda. He was assigned to two other colonial posts and eventually given the honorary rank of admiral.
In 1869, Elliot retired from the civil service and returned to Britain to enjoy his retirement. He died at his home in England at the age of 74 in 1875.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.