A Cheat, a Sharper and a Swindler

Brian Young

  • Dawning of the Raj: The Life and Trials of Warren Hastings by Jeremy Bernstein
    Aurum, 319 pp, £19.99, March 2001, ISBN 1 85410 753 4

Early in his career as the first Governor-General of the East India Company in Bengal, Warren Hastings instituted an annual dinner for fellow old boys of Westminster School. He paced his own contribution to these occasions superbly; while other ‘Westminsters’ drank to potentially dangerous degrees of excess in a forbidding climate, the abstemious Hastings consumed only small quantities of diluted wine along with many glasses of water. Even in the most apparently convivial of circumstances, Hastings maintained self-control, the root of the considerable personal authority which he was to exercise from his days at Westminster on (he had been a serious boy, and became Captain of the school in 1749). Westminster connections were important to Hastings, in one case damningly so, and such small, familiarly masculine worlds would continue to reinforce the ethic of empire, both at its creation and in its dismantling. (Paul Scott’s fictional Chillingborough, the school which binds together so many of the characters in the Raj Quartet, much to the outsider Merrick’s disgust, was a typically perceptive creation.)

Such establishment Anglo-Indian connections would also be made for centuries at the universities. It was from within this clubbish world that Penderel Moon, a sometime fellow of All Souls and member of the Indian Civil Service, produced an elegant biography of Hastings in 1947, a contribution to the ‘Teach Yourself History’ series commissioned by his colleague A.L. Rowse. Moon opened his admirably concise book with the timely observation that ‘Warren Hastings was our first Governor-General in India. Lord Mountbatten is to be the last.’ Two other fellows of All Souls, both lawyers, also had reason to be interested in Hastings at the time: Cyril Radcliffe served on the Boundary Commission for India, while the egregiously indolent John Sparrow would shortly be asked if he would provide a constitution for Pakistan, a request about which he made the characteristic observation, ‘Declined: too busy with my practice at Lincoln’s Inn.’ A fellow of an earlier generation, Viscount Curzon, had served his time as Viceroy of India between 1899 and 1905; his court dress, alongside that of his wife, can be seen mouldering away satisfactorily in a glass case in Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial, a graceful monument to Disraeli’s diplomatically dubious but politically effective forays into imperial window-dressing. Curzon had seen himself as something in the way of a philosopher-viceroy, a Platonic guardian sent out from Jowett’s Balliol to oversee a civilising mission, and in this respect he had been an altogether more fitting successor to the scholarly Hastings than was Victoria’s glamorously maladroit grandson, Louis Mountbatten. The beginnings of an empire in the East had been laid out by Hastings, the most able classical scholar of a Westminster generation which included the imperfectly educated Edward Gibbon, who would later prove sympathetic to the public plight of an exschoolfellow. It was also classically-educated administrators, rather more than the last Viceroy (an inept naval cadet), who would eventually oversee the immediately post-colonial future of India. The process of Indian Independence was watched over benignly by Clement Attlee, who had been educated at Haileybury, a school originally founded as the East India College. Even as the Anglo-Indian moment was brought to an end, therefore, its complex of connections was still very much at work.

The tone and argument of Moon’s biography make it clear that he considered himself to be from recognisably the same world as Hastings. His latest biographer, Jeremy Bernstein, on the other hand, writes very much as an outsider, though one with a long journalistic interest in India and Tibet. It’s clear that he and his publishers take a distinctly distant attitude to older, predominantly British perspectives on India: the dust jacket refers to Hastings’s rule as the period ‘when a small European island became master of a subcontinent ranging from the Indian Ocean to the Himalayas’. This inversion of ‘our island story’ is a useful reminder of the vicissitudes of global power, but it also imputes a degree of fixity to Anglo-Indian relations which does less than justice to a complex past. Hastings’s first biographer, the Rev. G.R. Gleig, was far from squeamish when introducing his controversial subject in an official, three-volume biography in 1841 (castigated as virtually ‘worthless’ by Bernstein, who is condescending to his numerous predecessors). Gleig’s admonitory words are worth citing:

Finally, there is one great and obvious truth of which no candid inquirer, when he sits down to try the moral probity, not of Mr Hastings alone, but of other Englishmen by whom the affairs of India had been administered, will ever be forgetful: the whole of our proceedings in Asia, have been from the first, and still are, grounded upon moral wrong. We are usurpers there of other men’s rights, and hold our empire by the tenure of the sword. For this neither the nation, nor individuals, may be in strict propriety responsible, because the current of events, and not their own ambitious plans, swept the India Company onwards to the position which they now hold; yet the facts are as I have stated them to be, and we cannot escape from them.

Indeed we can’t, and much of what has since been written about Hastings and British India has paid heed to the ‘truth’ so discerned, from Gleig himself to Moon and on.

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[*] The quotations from the trial are taken from The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. VII. India: The Hastings Trial 1789-94, edited by P.J. Marshall (Oxford, 728 pp., £75, 13 April 2000, 0 19 820809 x).