Warren Hastings - British Colonial Administrator

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Knowledge Author
P.J. Marshall
Author Description
Rhodes Professor Emeritus of Imperial History, King's College, University of London. Author of The Impeachment of Warren Hastings and others.

Warren Hastings, (born December 6, 1732, Churchill, near Daylesford, Oxfordshire, England—died August 22, 1818, Daylesford), the first and most famous of the British governors-general of India, who dominated Indian affairs from 1772 to 1785 and was impeached (though acquitted) on his return to England.

Early life The son of a clergyman of the Church of England, Hastings was abandoned by his father at an early age. He was brought up by an uncle, who gave him what was probably the best education then available for a boy of his inclinations, at Westminster School in London. Hastings showed great promise as a schoolboy and seems at Westminster to have acquired the literary and scholarly tastes that were later to give him a serious interest in Indian culture and civilization. His school days were, however, cut short by his uncle’s death in 1749. He was then taken away from school and granted a writership (as the junior appointments in the East India Company were called), and in 1750, at age 17, he sailed for Bengal.

In 1750 British contact with India was still the monopoly of the East India Company, which was engaged in buying and selling goods at small settlements in Indian ports. As one of the company’s servants, for the early part of his career Hastings was employed in the company’s commercial business. But after 1756 the outlook for both the company and its servants was radically altered. The company became involved in hostilities in India both with the French and with Indian rulers, and under Robert Clive its army was able to depose the nawab, or Indian governor, of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Although the company did not at this stage intend to set itself up as the actual ruler of the province, it was now so powerful that the new nawabs became its satellites. Thus, the servants, including Hastings, began to be drawn more and more into Indian politics. Hastings served as the company’s representative at the court of the nawabs of Bengal from 1758 to 1761 and then on the company’s Council, the controlling body for its affairs in Bengal, from 1761 to 1764. His career was cut short, however, by bitter disputes within the Council. Finding himself in a minority, Hastings resigned from the company’s service and returned to England in 1765.

Governorship of Bengal Short of money, Hastings sought service in India again. In 1769 he was appointed second in Council in Madras. Two years later he received his great opportunity when he was sent back to Bengal as governor in charge of the company’s affairs there. Since he had last been in Bengal, the disintegration and demoralization of the normal Indian government of the province, begun after Plassey, had gathered speed; yet the company had been reluctant to create a new system in its place. In practical terms Bengal was in the power of the British, who were also virtually its legal rulers after being granted in 1765 the powers called the dewanee by the Mughal emperor. But the business of government was still conducted by Indian officials, with very limited European participation. Hastings recognized that this situation could not go on and that the British must accept full responsibility, make their power effective, and involve themselves more closely in the work of government, even if he shared his contemporaries’ objections to excessive involvement. His view of the role of the British in India was later to be regarded as a very conservative one. He saw no “civilizing” or modernizing mission for them. Bengal was to be governed in strictly traditional ways, and the life of its people was not to be disturbed by innovation. To ensure good government, however, he felt that the British must actively intervene. In what was to be the most constructive period of his administration, from 1772 to 1774, Hastings detached the machinery of the central government from the nawab’s court and brought it to the British settlement in Calcutta under direct British control, remodeled the administration of justice throughout Bengal, and began a series of experiments aimed at bringing the collection of taxation under effective supervision.

Political rivalries Hastings’s period of undisputed power in Bengal came to an end in 1774 with changes in the company’s government. He acquired the new title of governor-general and new responsibilities for supervising other British settlements in India, but these powers had now to be shared with a Supreme Council of four others, three of whom were new to India. The new councillors, who were led by an army officer, Sir John Clavering, and included the immensely able and ambitious Philip Francis, immediately quarreled with Hastings. Hastings’s admirers have had little patience with Clavering and Francis; but it is possible to see that Francis had a genuine point of view in his opposition to Hastings and that there was still much in Bengal, even after Hastings’s reforms, to shock men fresh from Britain. (Bribery, extortion, and other abuses of power by Englishmen, which had been so common since Plassey, undoubtedly continued.) The quarrel between the new councillors and Hastings paralyzed the government of Bengal and produced a number of squalid episodes in which the newcomers, to discredit Hastings at home, encouraged Indians to bring accusations of malpractices against him, while his friends used various methods to deter such accusations. The most notorious of these episodes concerned one Maharaja Nandakumar, who made accusations against the governor-general but was in his turn accused of forgery and hanged for it. Hastings was certainly not guilty of procuring a judicial murder, but recent research does suggest that he knew in advance of the counterplot against Nandakumar.

War in India The death of Clavering in 1777 put Hastings once again in possession of full power, although Francis’s opposition dragged on for another three years. It ended in a pistol duel between Hastings and Francis; the latter was wounded, and he returned to Europe. But by 1777 the energies of the Bengal government were becoming more and more absorbed in war. War against Indian states was always a likely consequence of the company’s conquest of Bengal. As full participants in the unstable world created in India by the fall of the Mughal Empire, the company now found it difficult not to be drawn into the rivalries of the powers that had set themselves up in the ruins of the empire. Hastings’s policy was to avoid further conquest and war but to maintain peaceful relations with neighbouring states by a series of alliances. He had, however, already taken part in one war in 1774, when he helped the company’s ally on the northwestern boundary of Bengal, the vizier of Oudh, to take over territory occupied by a people called the Rohillas; and in 1778 he became involved in war with the Marathas, a loose federation of Hindu peoples in western and central India. Rightly or wrongly, Hastings came to believe that it was necessary for the safety of the British in India to ensure that the Maratha leaders were friendly to the company and that he would be justified in applying military pressure to achieve this end. After the entry of France into the American Revolution in 1778, he was also confronted with French expeditionary forces in the Indian Ocean. Finally, in 1780, Hyder (Haidar) Ali, the ruler of the south Indian state of Mysore, attacked the British at Madras. War on several fronts brought out the best in Hastings, and his achievement in organizing the company’s military and financial resources to counter every threat was a remarkable one. The Marathas were brought to peace in 1782, as was Mysore in 1784, and the French were held in check until peace was made in Europe in 1783. But war stretched the company to the limit, disrupting its trade and thus antagonizing opinion at home. War also forced Hastings (or so he believed) into dubious acts to raise extra funds, two of which—the demand for a subsidy to the company from Chait Singh, the raja of Banaras, and the requisitioning of the treasures of the begums of Oudh (the mother and grandmother of the vizier)—were to count heavily against him later.

Retirement and impeachment It was, however, an India at peace and with British dominions fully intact that Hastings finally left in 1785. But even before his retirement the allegations of Francis and the reports of wars, whether justly or unjustly undertaken, had damaged his reputation; and the passionate moral concern about the standards of the British in India felt by Edmund Burke, the great Whig parliamentarian, had come to be focused on Hastings. Most historians, while recognizing Burke’s absolute sincerity, now feel that Burke was attempting to pin the evils of a situation on one individual and that he had chosen the wrong one. But Hastings was vulnerable on episodes such as the execution of Nandakumar and his treatment of the begums of Oudh and Chait Singh and even on some aspects of his personal finances, where he had acquired money in excess of his official allowances. In 1786, when Burke introduced an impeachment process against him (a prosecution by the House of Commons before the House of Lords), these blemishes were enough to persuade the House of Commons and in particular William Pitt the Younger, the prime minister, that Hastings ought to be sent to trial. The trial before the House of Lords lasted from 1788 to 1795, when he was acquitted. It is difficult not to regard this long-drawn-out ordeal as a serious injustice. At the most it made some contribution to the process by which standards were being laid down for the future conduct of British rule in India.

After his acquittal, Hastings lived to age 85 as a retired country gentleman—unassuming, mild-mannered, and of scholarly tastes, as he had been during his active career.

Legacy As the first governor-general of Bengal, Hastings was responsible for consolidating British control over the first major Indian province to be conquered. In his term of office he initiated solutions to such problems as how vast Indian populations were to be administered by a handful of foreigners and how the British, now themselves a major Indian power, were to fit into the state system of 18th-century India. These solutions were to have a profound influence on Britain’s future role in India. Hastings’s career is also of importance in raising for the British public at home other problems created by their new Indian empire—problems of the degree of control to be exercised over Englishmen in India and of the standards of integrity and fair dealing to be expected from them—and the solutions to these problems were also important for the future.

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