The British East India Company had been reorganized in 1709 as the “United Company of Merchants of England trading to the East Indies.” Its charter from the British government entitled it to a monopoly of British trade with India. It was managed by a chairman and twenty-four directors annually elected by a “Court of Proprietors” in which every holder of £ 500 or more of stock had one vote. In India the company became a military as well as a commercial organization, and fought Dutch, French, and native armies for pieces of the crumbling empire of the Moguls. It was in one of these wars that Siraj-ud-daula, the Nawab (Viceroy) of Bengal, captured Calcutta from the company, and imprisoned 146 Europeans in the “Black Hole of Calcutta”—a room eighteen by fourteen feet, with only two small windows; 123 of the prisoners died overnight (June 20-21, 1756) from heat or asphyxiation.
Robert Clive, governor of Fort St. David, led a small force to recapture Calcutta for the company. He joined in the plot of Mir Jafar, a noble at Siraj-ud-daula’s court, to overthrow the Viceroy; with nine hundred European and 2,300 native troops he defeated fifty thousand men at Plassey (June 23, 1757); Siraj-ud-daula was put to death, and Mir Jafar was set up in his place as nawab of Bengal. Clive entered the capital, Murshidabab, as a conqueror. It seemed to him equal to London in size and perhaps superior in wealth. In the Nawab’s treasury he saw an incredible accumulation of rupees, jewels, gold, silver, and other riches. Invited to name his reward for enthroning Mir Jafar, he asked £ 160,000 for himself, £ 500,000 for his army and navy, £ 24,000 for each member of the company’s governing board, and £ 1,000,000 as indemnity for damage to the company’s property in Calcutta. It was to this occasion that Clive referred when he told the House of Commons that he marveled at his own moderation.119 He received a total of £200,000 as presents from Mir Jafar,120 and was acknowledged as British governor of Bengal. The company, by paying a yearly rental of £27,000 to Mir Jafar, was recognized as supreme landlord of 882 square miles around Calcutta. In 1759, in return for aid in suppressing a rebellion, Mir Jafar agreed to remit to Clive annually the rental paid by the company.
Secure from competition, the company exploited with scant mercy the natives subject to its rule. Armed with superior weapons, it made Indian rulers pay heavily for British protection. Far from supervision by the British government, and immune to the Ten Commandments east of Suez, its senior officials made huge profits in trade, and returned to England as nabobs capable of buying, without serious injury to their capital, a pocket borough or a member of Parliament.
Clive came home to England in 1760, aged thirty-five, expecting to enjoy fame and wealth. He bought enough boroughs to command a bloc in the Commons, and was himself elected from Shrewsbury. Some directors of the East India Company, feeling that he had stolen beyond his years, attacked him for using forged documents in dealing with Siraj-ud-daula and Mir Jafar; but when word reached London that native revolts, official venality, and administrative incompetence were endangering the position of the company in India, Clive was hurried back to Calcutta (1765) as governor of Bengal. There he labored to stem corruption among his aides, mutiny among his troops, and recurrent uprisings of native rulers against the company. On August 12, 1765, he persuaded the helpless Mogul Shah Alam to give the company full financial control of the provinces of Bengal, Behar, and Orissa, with a population of thirty million souls and an annual revenue of £4,000,000. This, and Clive’s victory at Plassey, created the British Empire in India.
His health shattered by two years of strife, Clive returned to England in January, 1767. The attack upon him by company directors was renewed, and was seconded by officials whose extortions he had checked. News of a great famine in India, and of native attacks upon company strongholds, shared in causing a panic in which prominent Englishmen suffered severe losses. In 1772 two parliamentary committees investigated Indian affairs, and revealed such exactions and cruelties that Horace Walpole cried out: “We have outdone the Spaniards in Peru! We have murdered, deposed, plundered, usurped. Nay, what think you of the famine in Bengal, in which three millions perished, being caused by a monopoly of provisions by the servants of the East India Company?”121 In 1773 one of the investigating committees called upon Clive to account to the House of Commons for his methods and gains in India. He admitted nearly all the facts, defended them as warranted by local customs and the necessities of the situation, and added that when the members came to judge of his honor they should not forget their own. The House voted, 155 to 95, that he had received £ 234,000 during his first administration of Bengal, but that he “did at the same time render great and meritorious services to his country.”122A year later, aged forty-nine, Clive killed himself (November 22, 1774).
In 1773 Lord North put through Parliament a regulatory act that advanced a loan of £1,400,000 to the company to save it [and its parliamentary shareholders] from bankruptcy, and brought all company-ruled territory in India under the presidency of Bengal, which in turn would be responsible to the British government. Warren Hastings was appointed governor of Bengal.
He had risen to this position from lowly origins. His mother died in giving him birth; his father went off to adventure and death in the West Indies. An uncle sent the boy to Westminster School, but in 1749 the uncle died, and Warren, aged seventeen, sailed to seek fortune in India. He enrolled as a volunteer under Clive, shared in the recapture of Calcutta, showed diligence and ability in administration, and was appointed to the council governing company affairs in Bengal, in 1764 he returned to England. Four years later the directors persuaded him to join the Council of Madras. On his way to India he met Baron Imhof and his wife, Marion, who became Hastings’ mistress and then his wife. He did well in Madras, and in 1774 he began his turbulent rule as governor of Bengal.
He worked hard, but his methods were dictatorial, and some of his measures provided material for attacks upon him by Sir Philip Francis in the Bengal Council, as later by Burke in Parliament. When Maratha tribes restored Shah Alam to the Mogul throne at Delhi, and he made over to them those districts of Kora and Allahabad which Clive had assigned to him, Hastings sold the districts to the Nawab of Oudh for fifty lacs of rupes ($20,-000,000?), and assigned company troops to help the Nawab recover the region. He allowed the Nawab to use company troops to invade and appropriate the territory of Rohilkhand, whose chief (said the Nawab) owed him money; the company received a large sum for these soldiers. Hastings’ action clearly violated orders given him by the directors;123 however, those directors reckoned the worth of a governor by the money he sent back to England.
An Indian official, Nuncomar, accused Hastings of accepting a bribe. Francis and other councilors credited the charge, and alleged that there was “no species of peculation from which the Honorable Governor has thought it reasonable to abstain.”124 Nuncomar was arrested on a charge of forgery, was convicted, and was put to death (1775) Hastings was suspected of having influenced the chief justice, Sir Elijah Impey (formerly a fellow student at Winchester), to exact an unusually severe penalty. In 1780 Hastings promoted Impey to an additional post bringing £ 6,500 a year. Mutual recrimination between Hastings and Francis led to a duel in which Francis was seriously wounded.
Haidar Ali, maharajah of Mysore, thought the quarrels between Hastings and his council offered an opportunity for expelling the company from India. Supported by the French, he attacked company strongholds, and won some alarming victories (1780). Hastings sent troops and money from Bengal to oppose him; Haidar Ali died (1782), but his son Tipu Sahib carried on the war till his final defeat in 1792. Probably it was to finance these campaigns that Hastings resorted to money-raising schemes that led to his impeachment.
He demanded from Chait Singh, rajah of Benares, a war subsidy additional to the revenue which that district annually paid to the company. The Rajah pleaded inability to comply. Hastings led a small force to Benares (1781), deposed Chait Singh, and exacted double the revenue from Chait’s successor.—The Nawab of Oudh, remiss in his payments to the company, explained that he could make these payments if the company would help him compel his mother and grandmother, the begums (princesses) of Oudh, to release to him some of the £ 2,000,000 left them by the Nawab’s father. The mother had already yielded him a large sum on his promise to ask for no more; the company, over Hastings’ protest, made a like promise. Hastings advised the Nawab to ignore the promise. He sent company troops to Fyzabad; by torture and near-starvation they forced the eunuch servitors of the princesses to surrender the treasure (1781). Out of this the Nawab paid his dues to the company.125
Meanwhile Sir Philip Francis, having recovered from his wounds, returned to England (1781), and expounded to the directors and to his friends in Parliament what he considered to be the crimes of Hastings. In 1782 the House of Commons censured Hastings and other company agents as having “in sundry instances acted in a manner repugnant to the honor and policy of the nation,” and ordered the directors to recall them. The directors issued such an order, but the Court of Proprietors countermanded it, probably because the Mysore revolt was continuing.
In November, 1783, Charles James Fox, as secretary of state for foreign affairs in the coalition ministry, offered Parliament an “India Reform Bill” that would have put the East India Company under control of commissioners appointed by the ministry. Critics moaned that the bill would give the Fox-Burke Whigs a rich well of patronage. It passed the House, but the King sent word to the Lords that he would consider as his enemy any man who voted for the measure; they voted against it, 95 to 76. The Commons filed a formal protest that this royal interference with legislation was a scandalous breach of parliamentary privilege. The King, claiming that the coalition ministry had lost the confidence of Parliament, dismissed it (December 18, 1783), and invited William Pitt, aged twenty-four, to form a new government. Believing that he could win a national election, George III dissolved the Parliament (March 23, 1784), and ordered his agents to spread the royal wishes and plums among the electorate to insure the return of a conservative majority. The Parliament that assembled on May 18 was overwhelmingly for Pitt and the King.
Pitt was a master of political administration and management. His meticulous devotion to his task, his detailed knowledge of affairs, his habit of careful reflection and prudent judgment gave him a superiority which nearly all his fellow ministers soon conceded. Now for the first time since Robert Walpole (for whom his son had used the term in 1773126), England had a “prime” minister, for no important action was taken by Pitt’s colleagues without his consent. In effect he established “cabinet government”—the assembled deliberation and united responsibility of the leading ministers under one leadership. Though Pitt had assumed office as favoring the royal authority, his hard work and wide information gradually raised him to a position where he guided rather than followed the King. After George Ill’s second seizure (1788) it was Pitt who ruled England.
His special acquaintance with business and finance enabled him to restore a treasury dangerously burdened by two major wars in one generation. Pitt had read Adam Smith; he listened to merchants and manufacturers; he reduced import dues, negotiated a treaty of lowered tariffs with France (1786), and delighted industrial leaders by declaring that manufacturers should in general be free from taxes. He made up for this by taxing consumption: ribbons, gauzes, gloves, hats, candles, couches, salt, wine, bricks, tiles, paper, windows; many houses boarded up some windows to reduce the tax.127 By 1788 the budget was balanced, and England had escaped the governmental bankruptcy that was leading France to revolution.
Before the election Pitt had introduced his “First India Bill,” which had been defeated. Now he offered a second bill: a Board of Control appointed by the King was to manage the political relations of the East India Company, while commercial relations and patronage were left in company hands, subject to royal veto. The bill was passed (August 9, 1784), and governed British-Indian affairs till 1858.
Fox and Burke considered this arrangement a shameful surrender to a company notorious for corruption and crime. Burke had special reasons for dissatisfaction. His patron Lord Verney, his brother Richard Burke, and his relative William Burke had invested in the East India Company, and had suffered heavy losses in the fluctuations of its stock.128 When William Burke went to India Edmund recommended him to Sir Philip Francis as one whom he loved tenderly; William was made a paymaster, and proved “as corrupt as any.”129 Francis, back in England, gave Burke and Fox his version of Hastings’ administration; he was one source of Burke’s remarkable knowledge of Indian affairs. The attack upon Hastings by the liberal Whigs was presumably motivated in part by desire to discredit and overthrow Pitt’s ministry.130
In January, 1785, Hastings resigned, and returned to England. He hoped that his long years of administration, his restoration of the company to solvency, and his rescue of British power in Madras and Bombay would be rewarded with a pension, if not with a peerage. In the spring of 1786 Burke asked the House of Commons for the official records of Hastings’ rule in India. Some were refused, some were given him by the ministers. In April he laid before the House a bill of charges against the ex-governor of Bengal. Hastings read to the House a detailed reply. In June Burke presented charges relating to the Rohilkhand war, and asked for the impeachment of Hastings; the Commons refused to prosecute. On June 13 Fox told the story of Chait Singh, and asked for impeachment. Pitt surprised his cabinet by voting with Fox and Burke; many of his party followed his lead, which may have been designed to dissociate the ministry from Hastings’ fate. The motion to impeach was carried 119 to 79.
The prorogation of Parliament and the pressure of other issues interrupted the drama, but it was resumed with éclat on February 7, 1787, when Sheridan made what Fox and Burke and Pitt called the best speech ever heard in the House of Commons.131 (Sheridan was offered £ 1,000 for a corrected copy of the address; he never found time to do this, and we know it only from subdued summaries.) With all the art of a man born to the theater, and all the fervor of a romantic spirit, Sheridan recounted the spoliation of the begums of Oudh. After speaking for over five hours, he demanded that Hastings be impeached. Again Pitt voted for the prosecution; the motion was carried, 175 to 68. On February 8 the House appointed a committee of twenty—with Burke, Fox, and Sheridan at their head—to prepare the articles of impeachment. These were presented, and on May 9 the House ordered “Mr. Burke, in the name of the House of Commons, … to go to the bar of the House of Lords and impeach Warren Hastings, Esquire, … of high crimes and misdemeanors.” Hastings was arrested and brought before the peers, but was released on bail.
After a long delay the trial began, February 13, 1788, in Westminster Hall. All lovers of literature will recall Macaulay’s gorgeous description132 of that historic assemblage: the lords sitting in ermine and gold as the high court of the realm; before them Hastings, pale and ill, aged fifty-three, height five feet six inches, weight 122 pounds; the judges under their great ear-lapping wigs; the family of the King; the members of the House of Commons; the galleries crowded with ambassadors, princesses, and duchesses; Mrs. Siddons in her stately beauty; Sir Joshua Reynolds amid so many notables whom he had portrayed; and on one side the committee, now called the “managers,” ready to present the case for impeachment. Clerks read the charges and Hastings’ reply. For four days, in the most powerful speech of his career, Burke laid upon the accused an overwhelming mass of accusations. Then, on February 15, he made the historic hall ring with his passionate demand:
I impeach Warren Hastings, Esquire, of high crimes and misdemeanors.
I impeach him in the name of the Commons of Great Britain, … whose Parliamentary trust he has betrayed. . . .
I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose laws, rights, and liberties he has subverted, whose properties he has destroyed, whose country he has laid waste and desolate.
I impeach him in the name, and by the virtue, of those eternal laws of justice which he has violated.
I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured, and oppressed in both sexes, in every age, rank, situation, and condition of life.133
With a hundred interruptions the trial proceeded, as Burke, Fox, Sheridan, and others told the story of Hastings’ administration. When it became known that at noon on June 3 Sheridan would present the evidence concerning the begums of Oudh, the streets leading to Westminster Hall were crowded from eight in the morning with persons, many of high rank, anxious to find admittance. Some who had secured cards of admission sold them for fifty guineas ($1,500?) each. Sheridan understood that a dramatic performance was expected of him; he gave it. He spoke at four sittings; on the final day (June 13, 1788), after holding the floor for five hours, he sank exhausted into the arms of Burke, who embraced him. Gibbon, who was in the gallery, described Sheridan as “a good actor,” and remarked how well the orator looked when the historian called upon him the next morning.134
That speech was the climax of the trial. Each of the score of charges required investigation; the lords took their time, and may have dallied to let the effect of eloquence wear off, and let interest in the case be diverted to other events. These came. In October, 1788, King George went mad, quite seriously mad, borne down by the stress of the trial and the misconduct of his son. George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, was fat, good-natured, generous, wasteful, and amorous. He had maintained a succession of mistresses, and had accumulated debts which his father or the nation paid. In 1785 he had privately married Mrs. Maria Anne Fitzherbert, a devout Roman Catholic, already twice widowed, and six years older than the Prince. The Whigs, led by Fox, proposed to set up a regency under the Prince, who sat up through two nights waiting for the King to be declared incompetent. George III confused matters by having lucid intervals, in which he talked of Garrick and Johnson, sang snatches of Handel, and played the flute. In March, 1789, he recovered, shed his strait jacket, and resumed the forms of rule.
The French Revolution provided another diversion from the trial. Burke gave up the chase of Hastings and ran to the aid of Marie Antoinette. The immoderation of his speeches ended the remains of his popularity; he complained that the members of Parliament slipped away when he began to speak. Most of the press was hostile to him; he charged that £ 20,000 had been used in buying journalists to attack him and defend Hastings; and unquestionably a large part of Hastings’ fortune had been so spent.135 It must have been no surprise to Burke when, at last, eight years after the impeachment, the House of Lords acquitted Hastings (1795). The general feeling was that the verdict was just: the accused had in many respects been guilty, but he had saved India for England, and had been punished by a trial that had broken his health and his hopes and had left him tarnished in reputation and ruined in purse.
Hastings survived all his accusers. The East India Company rescued him from insolvency by voting him a gift of £ 90,000. He bought back his family’s ancestral estate at Daylesford, restored it, and lived in Oriental luxury. In 1813, aged eighty-one, he was asked to testify on Indian affairs before the House of Commons; he was received there with acclamation and reverence, his services remembered, his sins washed away by time. Four years later he passed away, and of his tumultuous generation only one remained—the blind and imbecile King.