Empires People

Warren Hastings: The British Governor-General Who Laid the Foundations of Modern India

Warren Hastings
Zareer Masani
Written by Zareer Masani

The impeachment of Warren Hastings was an act of imperial soul-searching unparalleled in history. Although Hastings was eventually acquitted, his trial was a warning to all future imperial proconsuls that they too could be called to account by the British Parliament.

It was the first British Governor-General who launched India’s cultural renaissance way back in the 1780s.  Of all Britain’s imperial proconsuls, Warren Hastings was undoubtedly the most curious and learned about Indian culture and famously declared: “I love India a little more than my own country”.  He became fluent in Bengali and had a good working knowledge of Urdu and Persian, the languages of the Mughal elite.  One of his most enlightened acts as Governor-General was to promote the founding of the Calcutta Asiatic Society in 1784, under the presidentship of the very distinguished Orientalist Sir William Jones, whom Hastings imported from England.  Alongside his day job as a Supreme Court judge, Jones presided for a decade over a cultural revival which flowered in the Bengali Renaissance of the 19th century and laid the basis of India’s future nationalist cultural narrative.

Particularly significant, after seven centuries of mostly benign neglect under Muslim rulers, was the rediscovery under Hastings of the subcontinent’s classical Hindu and Buddhist past.  His patronage promoted the revival of Sanskrit, the ancient classical language, and rescued it from the narrow confines of a corrupt and oppressive Brahmin priesthood.  Under the Governor-General’s patronage, the Asiatic Society pioneered an ambitious programme to translate Hindu religious classics like the Bhagvad Gita from Sanskrit into English and the local vernaculars.  Hastings’s introduction to the first ever English translation of the Gita said passages of it were “elevated to a track of sublimity into which our habits of judgement will find it difficult to pursue.”

Judged by contemporary accounts, Warren Hastings was the most popular of all British Governor-Generals among his Indian subjects.  So why was he alone of all colonial administrators in India put on trial for crimes against humanity, in a seven-year-long impeachment in the British Parliament, led by the great Whig orator and philosopher, Edmund Burke?  The answer lies in the clash between two very different visions of empire: one, led by Hastings, respectful of indigenous customs and traditions and crudely labelled “Orientalist”, the other inspired by a Whig brand of westernising liberal intervention.

Hastings’s impeachment before the British Parliament was the first human rights trial of modern times.  Given his respect for Indian sensibilities, it’s ironical that the charges against him focussed on his alleged persecution of Indian subjects and allies.  Edmund Burke, in his historic, four-day-long opening speech  –  an unrivalled model of parliamentary invective  –  accused Hastings of having “gorged his ravenous maw…feeding on the indigent, the dying and ruined”, like “the ravenous vulture…devouring the carcasses of the dead.”  “I impeach him in the name of the English nation, whose ancient honour he has sullied,” Burke thundered.  “I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose rights he has trodden under foot, and whose country he has turned into a desert.”

Hastings, unlike his aristocratic successors as Governor-General, had to work his way up from modest beginnings.  He began in 1750, aged 17, as a clerk in the East India Company’s service in Bengal, sent to an up-country factory, where he “depended for society mainly on the natives of the country” and mixed with them on an equal footing never open to most British administrators.

Hastings’s excellent Indian connections helped him to emerge unscathed from the battles of the 1750s between the Company and the Nawab of Bengal, the viceroy of the now much weakened Mughal emperor at Delhi.  Appointed by Robert Clive, the all-conquering general, to the post of Resident at the court of a new, British-appointed Nawab, Hastings supported the latter’s fragile authority against European inroads, complaining that the Nawab was being exposed “to daily affronts such as a spirit superior to that of a worm when trodden on could not have brooked.”

Promoted to the Governor of Bengal’s Council in 1761, Hastings continued to support the Nawab’s attempts to curb the illegal, private trading privileges that corrupt Company employees were claiming to evade local taxes.  “Such a system of government,” Hastings protested, “cannot fail to create in the minds of the wretched inhabitants an abhorrence of the English name and authority, and how would it be possible for the Nawab, whilst he hears the cries of his people which he cannot redress, not to wish to free himself from an alliance which subjects him to such indignities?”

Matters came to a head when an energetic, new Nawab decided it was time for the worm to turn.  He abolished all internal customs duties in Bengal and established free trade, thereby denying British traders their unfair advantages.  The Company, despite Hastings’s opposition, retaliated by declaring war on the Nawab.  Hastings was accused of being the latter’s “hired solicitor” and hit in the face by an angry fellow Council member.  The decisive British victory at the Battle of Buxar in October 1764 marked the end of any autonomy for future Nawabs.

Hastings, “disheartened and disillusioned”, resigned his post and returned to England, “being unwilling…to give authority to past measures of which I disapprove”.  There his Indian career might have ended unnoticed, had he not been compelled by financial near-bankruptcy to seek re-employment by the Company four years later.  He returned to India in 1769 to a minor post in Madras.  Two years later, he was unexpectedly appointed Governor of Bengal, a post later elevated to that of Governor-General, with authority over the two subordinate Presidencies of Madras and Bombay.

It was a poisoned chalice, with the so-called “Dual System”, in which policing and criminal law were left to an increasingly impotent Nawab, undermined by the arrogant and lawless freebooting of the Company’s own servants.  Writing to his still very influential predecessor, Lord Clive, Hastings bravely made it clear that he intended to tackle his dubious legacy “in a different line from that which a different situation of affairs required Your Lordship to pursue.”  This was necessitated, he wrote, by “the general licentiousness which seems to have prevailed since we took the internal administration…out of the hands of the former [Nawab’s] Government and placed them without any fixed system in those of our agents.”  Hastings intended to revive, as far as possible, the decayed Mughal administration and to avoid measures “which the original constitution of the Mogul Empire hath not before established and adopted and thereby rendered familiar to the people.”

He was keen to confine European institutions and personnel to the bounds of Calcutta, the Company’s Bengal capital, and to leave the actual collection of revenues and administration of justice to Indian intermediaries.  He believed that European administrators were more prone to abuses of power.  “There is a fierceness,” he warned, “in the European manners, especially among the lower sort, which is incompatible with the gentle temper of the Bengalee…”, whereas “native oppression was less truculent, more easily punished, more familiar to the people and in every way preferable to the corrupt tyranny of overbearing Englishmen”.

And yet it was that very tyranny of which Hastings stood accused at the end of his Indian career.  Heading the list of his alleged victims were the Rohillas, Afghan settlers who ruled over a prosperous area known as Rohilkhand, on the borders of the kingdom of Oudh, an independent ally of the Company.  Strapped for cash, struggling with demands to remit larger revenues back home to London, Hastings had rented out Company troops to the Nawab of Oudh in return for a handsome subsidy.  The charge of war crimes arose when he allowed the Nawab to use these mercenaries to invade and annex the Rohilla lands.

According to Hastings’s later accusers at his impeachment, he looked callously on while Rohilla “villages were burnt, their children butchered, and their women violated”.  In reality, the Rohilla War was no more violent than any other Indian conflict of its time, and Hastings was quick to warn the Nawab of Oudh against any excesses.  The charge of war crimes against the Rohillas, cast as noble victims by Edmund Burke, was based on fictitious reports fed back to the British press by Hastings’s formidable political nemesis, the Whig politician and columnist, Sir Philip Francis.  He was one of a new batch of Council members sent out to Calcutta in 1773, took an instant dislike to Hastings and spent the next decade opposing his every move.  The enmity between the two eventually escalated into a duel with pistols, from which Francis emerged wounded but unrepentant.

A more fatal casualty of this battle was a Hindu banker called Nandakumar, a powerful ally of the Francis faction, who alleged that Hastings had accepted bribes from him and the Nawab’s stepmother.  Although his accusations could not be substantiated, this wily Brahmin became a centre for opposition to Hastings, who complained: “Nandakumar holds his darbar in complete state, sends for zamindars [landlords] and their wakils [lawyers], coaxing and threatening them for complaints, which no doubt he will get in abundance, besides what he forges himself.”

Thanks to his popularity among both the Indian notables of Calcutta and the Company’s officials, Hastings was able to turn the tables on his enemies.  Based on evidence from Indian informants, Nandakumar was charged with forgery and arraigned before Calcutta’s new Supreme Court, presided over by Hastings’s old school friend, Sir Elijah Impey.  Though a minor offence in India, forgery then carried the death penalty under British law.  With the encouragement of Hastings and his supporters, Nandakumar was found guilty by a European jury, sentenced to death and hanged.  His execution marked a major turning point in Hastings’s political fortunes in Calcutta, deterring any future Indian collaboration with his opponents.  Today the judicial murder of his chief Indian opponent stands out as a dramatic and opportunist departure from Hastings’s own much proclaimed view that Indians should be governed according to Indian, not European, laws.

Hastings’s finest hour came during the War of American Independence, when his leadership managed to defeat an anti-British coalition between the French and two dominant regional powers, the Hindu Marathas in Western India and the Muslim warlord Haidar Ali in the South.  While these wars were essential to the Company’s survival, they imposed major new strains on the Governor-General’s already overstretched purse-strings.  These financial strains accounted for two major crimes of extortion, of which Hastings later stood accused.  The first was his treatment of an independent-minded Hindu nobleman, Raja Chait Singh of Benares.

As feudal lord of Hinduism’s most sacred city, the Raja was both immensely wealth and widely respected.  Hastings decided that he was fair game for the extraction of funds badly needed for the war effort.  It began with a special levy from him of the relatively modest sum of approximately four million pounds a year in today’s money.  He paid reluctantly “after much procrastination and many unreal pleas of poverty”.  More seriously, he was believed to be in correspondence with the Company’s military opponents, the Marathas.  And to cap it all, he was cosying up to the hostile Francis faction on Hastings’s own Council.

In 1780, the Governor-General resolved to teach the Raja a lesson and made the journey up the Ganges to deal with him in person.  Chait Singh, we are told, “met him in a very contrite mood…, laid his turban at his feet in token of his complete submission, begged forgiveness and assured him that all his property was at his disposal.”   But when Hastings insisted on a written apology, the Raja responded with a polite refusal.

What followed reflected a serious error of judgement.  Hastings sent his sepoys to arrest Chait Singh, whereupon the Raja’s far more numerous retainers mounted an armed rescue of him.  It was Hastings who now found himself under virtual siege from the rebels, until reinforcements arrived to rescue him.

The rebellion was suppressed, but Hastings failed to extract the financial or military aid which had been the purpose of the whole exercise.  His biographer, Sir Penderel Moon, himself a veteran of the “heaven-born” Indian Civil Service, concludes that Hastings’s treatment of the errant Raja “judged even by despotic standards was both severe and unwise; and, judged by his own high standards of courtesy and consideration towards Indian notables, it was deplorable”.

Another episode soon after won Hastings even more opprobrium back home, because it involved the intimidation of two venerable old princesses allied to the Company, the Begums of Oudh, mother and grandmother of its Nawab.  The kingdom of Oudh, bordering Bengal to the north and west, was both a valuable buffer against the Marathas and a rich source of subsidies paid for the hire of Company troops.  But its extravagant, young ruler, Asaf ud-Daula, had been running up huge debts, and his kingdom was descending into chaos.  Hastings was determined to restore Oudh to the status of a solvent and stable neighbour.  It was a formidable challenge because the Nawab, though a great patron of the arts, was renowned for the decadence and debauchery of his court, reputed to include a male harem.

Hastings was especially keen to rescue the Nawab from the Company’s own officers, who had been seconded to his service and were now shamelessly sponging on his generosity and lending him money at exorbitant rates of interest to fund it.  Asaf’s biggest debts were to the Company, and Hastings badly needed these funds to finance the wars in the south.  He decided that the quickest way of getting them was by persuading Asaf to recover some of his father’s huge wealth, which had been appropriated by the late Nawab’s widow and mother.

Egged on by Hastings, the Nawab, with the British Resident and Company troops to support him, laid siege to his wealthy mother and grandmother in their fortress-palace of Faizabad.  When the Begums refused to part with their inheritance, the Nawab arrested their two favourite eunuchs, put them in irons and starved them of food.  These tactics appear to have worked, because the eunuchs coughed up “from the most secret recesses of their houses” the huge sum of 100 lakhs of rupees (about £80 million today).

At Hastings’s impeachment, his treatment of the Oudh dowagers provoked some of the most emotive outbursts from Edmund Burke, always a champion of princesses in distress.  Most dramatic of all were the carefully rehearsed attacks of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the Whig MP who was also the most popular playwright of his day.  His speeches were full of “love-passion” for the wronged Begums, and even seasoned MPs could not recollect weeping “so heartily and copiously on any public occasion.”

Hastings was accused of personally instigating physical torture of the imprisoned eunuchs and of starving the Begums into submission.  But Penderel Moon points out that the Begums themselves were later reconciled with Hastings, sent messages of support to him at his trial and bore him no ill will, “rightly believing him to be the well-wisher of the family and the helper and protector of their weak and foolish Asaf-ud-Daula.”

The Governor-General’s fondness for the cultural riches of the court of Oudh are illustrated by a remarkable painting he commissioned from the society portraitist Johann Zoffany.  Entitled “Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match”, this extraordinary canvas, now at Tate Britain, is full of visual puns and ambiguities.  It shows Asaf ud-Daula, possibly with an erection, in a supplicant pose in relation to the arrogant but androgynous figure of his handsome English captain of guard.  They are surrounded by Indian and European notables mixing freely on an equal footing.  Even the Indian servants and water-sellers are portrayed as individuals, with no ethnic stereotyping.  Hastings himself is conspicuous by his absence.  Since the painting later hung in his study in England till the end of his life, one must assume that it encapsulated a way of life which he wanted to remember, but without being tarred by association with its more dissolute aspects.

The great Whig historian and imperial policy-maker, Thomas Macaulay, though critical of Hastings’s alleged abuses of power, conceded that “he made himself beloved by both the subject many and by the dominant few” and “enjoyed among the natives a popularity…such as no other governor has been able to attain.”  During his own years in Calcutta half a century later, Macaulay could still hear “nurses sing children to sleep with a jingling ballad about the fleet horses and richly caparisoned elephants of Sahib Warren Hosein”.  Hastings left British administration in India on a sounder footing than ever before.  The corrupt excesses of the Company’s servants had been significantly curbed, French and other military threats had been resoundingly beaten off, and the “Company Sahib” was now the dominant power in the subcontinent.

When Hastings retired in 1785 and took ship back to England, he expected his Indian successes to be rewarded with the same favours as Clive had received.  At first, all seemed to go well.  Hastings was warmly received by George III, although the Whig wits ridiculed him for showering the royal family with “fine diamonds” and “a certain richly carved ivory bed which the Queen had done him the honour to accept from him.”  London gossip, always envious of the fabled wealth of India-returned Nabobs, was particularly cruel about the extravagance of Hastings’s beautiful, German wife, Marian, who allegedly appeared at one function wearing jewels worth a staggering £2 million in today’s money.

Hastings’s old enemy, Philip Francis, now an active Whig backbencher in Parliament, had been feeding Edmund Burke with ammunition; and Burke threatened in the House to “make a motion respecting the conduct of a gentleman just returned from India”.  In a display of hubris that would cost him dear, Hastings dared Burke to make good his threat.  The trial that ensued cost Hastings the modern equivalent of £8 million, almost his entire fortune.

For seven long years, Hastings’s trial in Westminster Hall was the most popular show in town, and the packed audiences included Queen Charlotte, the Prince of Wales and sundry dukes and society hostesses.  London’s fashionable society queued from dawn to buy tickets, which changed hands for as much as £50 each (£4,000 today).  Hastings, a poor public speaker, had to reckon with the oratory, not merely of Burke and Sheridan, but of other prominent Whigs like Charles James Fox and Charles (later Earl) Grey.  Their very theatrical performances excited the ladies present to “a state of uncontrollable emotion” and “handkerchiefs were pulled out; smelling bottles were handed out; hysterical sobs and screams were heard: and Mrs. Sheridan was carried out in a fit.”  Burke himself made the most impassioned speeches, which could last for more than 3 hours at a stretch, until the speaker himself collapsed in a faint.

Hastings survived all this and lived on in semi-retirement till the grand old age of 85.  In 1813, both Houses of Parliament rose spontaneously to give him a standing ovation when he gave evidence on new legislation about India.  In a letter which would be his last political testament, Hastings had warned his successor, the Marquess of Hastings (no relation), that Indians had been misrepresented “as sunk in the grossest brutality and defiled with every abomination”, thereby justifying British attempts “to reform them, nay to ‘coerce’ them into goodness”.  Instead, he exhorted his namesake, “it will be better to leave them as they are…”  He concluded with a plea for racial equality, remarkable for its time:

“Among the natives of India, there are men of as strong intellect, as sound integrity and honourable feelings, as any of this Kingdom.  I regret that they are not sufficiently noticed, sufficiently employed nor respected…  Be it your Lordship’s care…to lessen this distance…and by your example make it the fashion among our countrymen to treat them with courtesy and as participators in the same equal rights of society…”

Hastings’s sympathetic, “Orientalist” approach to India lost out to a Whiggish, Westernising sense of imperial mission, summed up by Burke’s dictum that “it was the duty of a British Governor to enforce British laws, to correct the opinions and practices of the people, not to conform his opinion to their practice”.  Half a century later, British administrators led by Macaulay put this precept into practice with anglicising reforms designed to create a new class of “Brown Sahibs”.  Warren Hastings would not have approved.

Despite its failure, the Hastings impeachment was an act of imperial soul-searching unparalleled in history.  For seven long years, British MPs and peers examined and debated in the most minute detail almost every document that had crossed the desk of their Indian Governor-General.  Many were inspired by hostility to the East India Company, whose tentacles were corrupting British politics.  But there was also very genuine concern for the human rights of the Company’s Indian subjects and how their treatment reflected on British justice.  Although Hastings was eventually acquitted, his trial was a warning to all future imperial proconsuls that they too could be called to account by the British Parliament.  That at least would have afforded Warren Hastings some consolation for all the hardship he suffered.

About the author

Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani is an author and broadcaster, whose books include Indira Gandhi: A Biography (1976), Indian Tales of the Raj (1990) and Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist (2013).