Elgin was born into a prominent Whig family. Briefly elected MP for Southampton at the 1841 general election, he was unseated on petition and became a colonial administrator, serving as Governor of Jamaica (1842-46) and Governor General of Canada (1847-54) where he presided over the first moves towards self-government in the province. In 1857 Elgin was appointed High Commissioner in China and the Far East and presided, much to his distress, over one of the more disgraceful periods of empire, involving the Second Opium War and the destruction of the Summer Palace in Beijing. He returned to Britain to sit in Palmerston’s cabinet for a year as Postmaster General and then returned east to sign the Convention of Peking which ceded Hong Kong to Britain. His last appointment in 1862 was as Viceroy of India where he died the following year from a heart attack while crossing a rope bridge, aged only 52.