In Defence of Warren Hastings

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In 1773, Warren Hastings was appointed Governor-General of Bengal by the East India Company, specifically because of a long earned reputation for incorruptibility. Just fifteen years later, he would be hauled before the House of Lords, accused of “high crimes and misdemeanours.” What is curious is that, in many ways, the House of Lords had caught the wrong man; while it is certainly true that imperial India played host to a vast gallery of comically corrupt officials, Hastings himself should not be counted amongst them. Indeed, while his time in India was punctuated by several scandals, the work he did to reform British rule in Bengal should earn him a place amongst the more enlightened imperialists.

The task facing Hastings upon his arrival in India was immense, as corruption had reached colossal proportions. A House of Commons Select Committee had discovered over £2 million (around £210 million in today’s money): “had been distributed as presents, almost all of it finding its way into the pockets of EIC employees locally.” Edmund Burke, the silver tongued architect of modern conservatism,  memorably described the Company as “a state in the guise of a merchant”, but the EIC more frequently donned the guise of a robber. Accordingly, when in 1765 the Company was granted Diwani, or the right to tax the population of Bengal, Robert Clive looked on the region “merely as a Buccaneer would look on a galleon.”

Clive’s corruption soon caused the Great Bengal Famine of 1770-1771. A horrific incident in Indian history, one commentator noted how “dogs, jackals, vultures and every bird and beast of prey grew fat on the flesh of man.” The Company’s handling of the situation was criminally negligent; while there were isolated cases of Company officials helping locals, the majority “thought only of enriching themselves as the local population starved to death.” Rather than granting tax breaks, coordinating a response and making structural changes to prevent a repeat of the famine, the Company actually increased collection by 10% in certain areas. Company traders, ever eager to make a killing, hoarded rice and sold it back to Indians for between eight to ten times its original price. Finally, some £100 million in modern currency was siphoned from India to London during the famine. Five million died.

Of more concern to the EIC Directors, however, was that Company stock began to plummet. Famine, it transpired, was bad for business. With shares falling by around 36% in one year, the almighty corporation was forced to request a gargantuan bailout from the Bank of England. In return, however, Parliament acquired some measure of control over the Company, through Lord North’s 1773 Regulating Act. As part of this greater effort to rein in the corporation, Warren Hastings was appointed Governor-General of Bengal, and was further added to a council of five men who had to be consulted on all matters in the Subcontinent. As he departed, Hastings was ordered to root out the corruption that had plagued British India.

Hastings seemed to be the man for the job. In the early years of Company rule, when the young man could have traded in his morals for a substantial fortune, Hastings did not partake in underhand activities. Instead, he tried to fight them, with Sir Alfred Lyall writing: “It must be allowed that Warren Hastings had passed with credit and integrity through the most discreditable and corrupt period in the annals of the East India Company.” He wrote a series of letters lamenting the maladministration of India by the EIC, complaining in 1762 that “I beg leave to lay before you a grievance which calls loudly for redress. I mean oppressions committed under sanction of the English name.” In another letter he was more direct, denouncing “the oppressions of the East India Company agents” whom he saw as “people who are strangers to justice, remorse or shame.”

Lord Acton’s dictum that “power tends to corrupt” notably did not apply with Hastings. When he was Governor (not yet Governor-General) of Bengal in 1772, he immediately and eagerly dismantled the cumbersome “Dual Government” established by Robert Clive. Under this system, the Company had the right to tax the inhabitants of Bengal, while a Nawab (a Mughal ruler) of Bengal retained Nizamat, the “responsibility for the defence of the province, the maintenance of law and order and the enforcement of criminal justice.” Hastings brought the two branches of government under one roof, simplifying administration. The capital of Bengal was moved from Murshidabad to Calcutta, dispensing with the illusion that the Nawab held any real influence. Hastings built granaries to prevent any future famines (such as that of 1770-1771) and withdrew British revenue collectors, whom he saw as “prone to abuses of power” and replaced them with locals. 

A series of legal reforms were passed during Hastings’ tenure. The Governor-General felt that Indians ought to be subject to Indian laws, believing “it was wrong to apply to Indians a system of criminal law evolved in a different country and climate, which they were incapable of understanding.” However, we ought to note that Hastings was far from a perfect enforcer of justice. In 1774, Nandakumad, a former advisor to the Nawab of Bengal, provided false evidence that Hastings had received bribes of £40,000. When it was discovered that these charges were bogus, Nandakumar was sentenced to death by Sir Elijah Impey, one of Hastings’ friends from Westminster. Under Indian law, forgery carried with it a relatively minor sentence – only under British law was it to be punished with the capital penalty.

Although accusations that Hastings had ordered this “judicial murder” to benefit himself have since been proven to be untrue, we ought to note Hastings was willing to set aside his preference for Indian laws on this notable occasion.

Yet Hastings was far from a mere administrator, indeed, during his tenure he oversaw a “cultural revival.” In 1784, he founded the Calcutta Asiatic Society along with the famed Orientalist, Sir William Jones. This organisation existed to oversee “the rediscovery … of the subcontinent’s classical Hindu and Buddhist past” through the translation of texts from Sanskrit into English and local dialects, making them more widely accessible. The most notable of the works transcribed was the Bagavad Gita, the seminal piece of Hindu scripture. Hastings went as far as writing an introduction to the great work, in which he declared “I fear … that prejudice is [not] yet wholly eradicated, though surely abated. Every instance which brings their real character home will impress us with a more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights, and teach us to estimate them by the measure of our own.” He finishes with a telling coda: “In truth, I love India a little more than my own country.”

Hastings had a passion for the local languages, and was appalled at how few British officials could actually communicate with their subjects. Even after he had left his post, he was writing letters arguing vociferously that “the study of other languages … should be made obligatory and indispensable.” This appreciation for Indian civilisation and culture informed his reforms, which were designed to assist Indian subjects rather than Company Directors at Leadenhall Street. Hastings was determined to “to rule this people with ease and moderation according to their own ideas, manners and prejudices.” 

However, Hastings’ time in Calcutta was blighted by conflicts. Burke, the mellifluous Irish politician, damned Hastings as a blood-thirsty land-grabbing warmonger. The reality was the opposite. Hastings had attempted to create a series of alliances to prevent armed clashes, but these attempts were thwarted. In order to defend Oudh, a vital ally of Bengal, Hastings ordered a campaign against the Rohillas, a militant people on the northern border. After they had been subdued, other campaigns (against the Marathas and the French) were successfully prosecuted.

Unfortunately, these wars drained the EIC’s financial reserves. To pay for his constant conflicts, Hastings began raising capital using dubious financial means. His treatment of the Begums of Oudh, the mother and grandmother of the Nawab of Oudh, was enormously extracting; Hastings encouraged the Nawab to besiege the Begums to force them into providing around £80 million in today’s money. When the Raja of Benares refused to furnish Hastings with greater taxes, the Governor-General despatched a squadron of sepoys to arrest him – though we also ought to note the Raja had, at that time, been aligning with the enemies of the EIC. 

It seems strange that it was Hastings, and not Clive, that had to endure a seven-year trial before the highest court in the land, the House of Lords. The reasons for his impeachment are murky and political, but it was essentially in the interests of all the dominant figures of the age (including Pitt the Younger, Fox and Burke) to demand that Hastings be put on trial, even though he was eventually acquitted of all charges.

Hastings was far from perfect. He could be high-handed and ruthless, especially with regard to the Begums of Oudh and the Raja of Benares. Yet his is a story that ought to be understood. He was that rare and most curious of creatures: an imperial official who appears to have genuinely tried to live up to the promise of empire. His time as Governor-General saw the administration of India presided over by a conscientious, respectful and capable figure, who attempted to rule in an enlightened manner. Perhaps the greatest testament to Hastings is that Ghulam Hussein Khan, a contemporary Indian historian who was certainly no supporter of British rule, wrote: “May the Almighty Bestower of Graces and Favour reward the Governor [Hastings].”

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Frankopan, P., 2015. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Vintage Books

Hastings, G., 1909. A Vindication of Warren Hastings. Henry Frowde

Lyall, S., 1889. Warren Hastings. Read Books

Tharoor, S., 2016. Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India. C Hurst & Co Publishers