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

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.

The most influential piece on Hastings has long been Macaulay’s essay ‘Warren Hastings’, which appeared in the Edinburgh Review in 1841. Macaulay quickly forgot Gleig’s numbingly worthy study (of which the essay was ostensibly a review), and his considered equivocations about his subject quickly set an example which most biographers have wisely followed. Equivocation seems the only stance one can take when describing a career which basked in glory before ending in muted failure, and which briefly but effectively acquired a patriotic gloss while failing to meet the standards of what his enemies called ‘natural law’, the much more sophisticated ancestor of what we choose to call, rather feebly – and often incoherently – human rights.

Hastings had entered the service of the East India Company at the age of 17, a decision taken for him by his guardian, who chose not to allow him to go to university. Some of the energy that he would otherwise have devoted to perfecting his knowledge of the classical languages was expended instead on learning Urdu and Persian. As Governor-General, Hastings was to become a patron of Oriental learning, overseeing important translations of works on Hindu law and Charles Wilkins’s pioneering translation of the Bhagavad-Gita. When Sir William Jones, the inspirational instigator of Indo-European studies, arrived in Bengal as a judge, Hastings was one of his strongest supporters. Though it has long been fashionable to denigrate such work as being Orientalist, it’s difficult to find anything in it that resembles the patronising cultural imperialism of later colonial writers. Late 18th-century Bengal was, in many ways, a multicultural society, partly as a result of the mix of Europeans who had begun to settle in the region. It was, after all, the collapse of French power in India following Clive’s victory at Plassey in 1757 which effectively opened it up to British dominance: as Browning was to put it, ‘the man Clive – he fought Plassey, spoiled the clever/foreign game,/Conquered and annexed and Englished!’ This image of ‘the game’, which seems so quintessentially Kiplingesque, was already well established in proto-imperial relations, and was to appear during Burke’s management of the attempted impeachment of Hastings. Much of the impetus behind that prolonged trial concerned the nature of ‘Englishing’, and how far the rules of the ‘great game’ had been adulterated in the process.

After Clive’s victory, India became a focus of imperial energy and national self-congratulation; even as the hero of Plassey drank himself into a rapid decline, which was to end only when he shot himself, the East India Company prospered, and scores of young men entered its service in the hope of securing fortunes with which to make a spectacular re-entry into British life. The ‘nabob’ was beginning to emerge as a source of anxiety in Britain. A young man exiled to a potentially hazardous life in the Subcontinent, where he faced constant temptation to indulge sensuality and excess – engorging and enriching himself amid the vividly imagined corruptions of the Orient – the nabob would return older, much less wise, and very wealthy. Samuel Foote’s play The Nabob characterised the type; the immediate result of the attempt to impeach Hastings was to personalise and demonise it. Many nabobs had made their way into Parliament, and it was their influence which Charles James Fox and others sought to undermine when he introduced a reforming East India Bill in 1783: had Fox succeeded, the structure of Anglo-Indian relations would have been very different; that he did not succeed was, to a very large extent, due to the fact that too many MPs had direct financial interests in the continued dominance of the Company in Bengal and beyond. (Burke, resorting to the apocalyptic imagery which enveloped his later speeches and writings, described a typical MP of this kind as ‘the antichrist of representation’.)

Their interests were well served during Hastings’s tenure as Governor-General. He instituted widespread reforms, drove an efficient proto-imperial machine, and deployed a hand-picked network of Company insiders to divide up the spoils. His relations with indigenous rulers were, on the whole, good, and he was a skilful diplomat with a genuine interest in governing India through its own richly complex legal inheritance (hence his investment in Oriental scholarship). He was also an adept military campaigner, and fought a successful, if ambivalently received, war with the Rohillas, who were seen by him as brigands and opportunists, and by Burke as ‘the most honourable and generous Nation upon earth’. Land reforms proved productive, and taxation policies were effected through a rationalisation of ancient forms of tenure; the landowning classes, the zamindari, were formerly instituted by such legislative fiat.

A series of diplomatic incidents and the promulgation of war compromised these considerable achievements, however. Hastings, always self-assured, grew increasingly arrogant in the wake of his success, and it was in a markedly despotic vein that he began to dictate the terms of his authority to the native rulers of the Indian kingdoms. He badly overreacted to the failure of one such ruler, Chait Singh, to pay the taxes imposed on him for the costs of war and, in a moment of panic, much blood was shed in Benares; similarly, the protection afforded to Oudh was endangered by Hastings’s manipulations of the Nawab’s divided family. He gained great notoriety by his alleged ill-treatment of the elderly women of the royal house, the Begums, along with their eunuchs (one of whom had a difficult time when his opium supply was allowed to run out). It was against this background of tainted success that he was called back to England in 1782; Gibbon, his Westminster contemporary, was embarrassed to be a member of a Parliament which recalled such a man at the height of his powers.

Burke and Sheridan were to be Hastings’s prime prosecutors when impeachment proceedings were instituted against him in 1786 (murmurings against him had begun earlier); Philip Francis, the author of the satirical letters of ‘Junius’, was to be his nemesis. Francis had served alongside Hastings in India, and it is clear that he had quickly become jealous of the man and his authority (Bernstein makes no secret of his dislike of Francis, and he tells the story of his adultery with the future Princesse de Talleyrand, then merely Mrs Grand – complete with disguises and ladders at midnight – rather priggishly). Francis catalogued the defects of Hastings’s administration and communicated them to England, facilitating the mechanisms of impeachment. He and Hastings had fought an inconclusive duel in Calcutta in August 1780; impeachment was to prove an equally indecisive, equally dramatic attempt to settle their differences over the government of India.

Is it an accident that the managers of the impeachment were both Irishmen? Conor Cruise O’Brien and Fintan O’Toole have argued that it was not; for ‘India’ read ‘Ireland’, and vice versa: both native populations – Hindu or Catholic – were subject to the imperial rapacities of the arrogantly Protestant English. There is something in this, but it’s easy to overstate the case. The impeachment trial was to continue, intermittently, from 1788 to 1794, years in which Burke was equally concerned with events in France, another ancient and aristocratic nation undone by the arbitrary arrogance of its new rulers. He identified the excesses of the Philosophes and their power-drunk disciples with those of the equally philistine nabobs; both were the declared enemies of the chivalric conception of Christian England which Burke defended, with a sometimes unbalanced eloquence, in the final years of his life. There was, then, something almost prophetic in the positive comparison he had made between France and Bengal in a speech in the Commons in 1783. Where Burke’s championing of France was nostalgic, that of India and its civilisation was based on deep research combined with a vigorously moral imagination: he had never been there, but this was not to compromise his sympathy with ‘a Country so distant as India; and where Religion and Manners double the Distance’. Although something of a relativist, like most of his contemporaries, Burke was determined that the brutality of a crassly self-interested East India Company (‘a Republic, a Commonwealth without a people’), would not be able to resort to a merely ‘geographical Morality’: the moral and legal standards that applied in England should also apply in India. Under Hastings, ‘the scourge of India’, such God-given standards had failed; Burke declared, just as the trial was to begin: ‘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.’

Burke’s language was as colourful as the events he described; his high moral tone is at times worryingly obsessive. Such a mastery of abuse probably did more to gain Hastings public sympathy than anything the disgraced former Governor-General had to say for himself; the newspapers, though initially sympathetic to the reasons given for the trial by its managers, rapidly grew weary of Burke’s denunciatory tone, and his hostility to the press began to inform his speeches a little too frequently for their taste. The opening of the impeachment in 1788 had been an enormous success, a piece of public theatre to which the likes of Fanny Burney felt themselves irresistibly drawn; by its close in the Lords in 1794, the number of spectators had dwindled greatly, and Burke had had to use his influence with the Speaker of the Commons to ensure the presence of even a small number of MPs.

Burke’s sympathy with the people of India was ringingly enunciated in his speeches, as was his intense hatred of Hastings, whom he unhesitatingly described as ‘a Cheat, a Sharper and a Swindler’, ‘a Weasel and a Rat’.* The ‘Captain General’ of ‘the rude, insolent and culpable criminals of the East’, Burke insisted, was a rapacious tyrant, whose resort to bribery undid the public virtue which ought to have informed every aspect of his rule. Instead, bribery and corruption proved to be the twin foundations of his arbitrary and oppressive rule of an ancient people: reversing the rhetoric of Orientalism, Burke argued that it was Hastings who had introduced despotism to a people whose jurisprudence was more ancient and impressive than that of any other nation. His period of rule had systematised fraud and peculation, leaving Burke with the unwelcome duty of detailing ‘a great encyclopedia of crimes’. He was at his oratorical best when describing the outrages of Oudh, where his championing of the Begums, those ‘unfortunate Ladies’, reflected his earlier rhapsodic evocation of Marie Antoinette in the Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The villainy of Hastings extended to his use of Mani Begum, a member of the royal house, against the Nawab in Oudh. Burke inaccurately (and repeatedly) described her as a prostitute, an elderly ex-dancer, whose dances ‘were not decent to be seen nor fit to be related’. (The evils of allegedly salacious dancing were quickly to prove one of the obsessions of the English in India.) He cast Hastings and Mani Begum as a somewhat unlikely Antony and Cleopatra, leading him to deploy a quite appalling pun when describing the brandy monopoly Hastings granted her: ‘This is the way we left the two sentimental Lovers, one consoling her self in Brandy, the other in whining.’ The language of excess and consumption favoured by Burke in the trial allowed him to evoke Anglo-Indian corruption in a whirling mass of imagery, over which he often lost control; at least one newspaper insisted that he was mad. He might have been describing his own role in this drama as much as that of Hastings when he spoke of ‘the great Opera of India, an Opera of fraud, deception, tricks and Harlequin Proceedings’. Certainly, Hastings’s subsequent acquittal affirmed Burke’s sense of an Anglo-Indian harlequinade, but his own theatrical language had encouraged a wearied House of Lords to discharge Hastings, now a ruined man.

Hastings had not been the only man Burke had sought to destroy. He was equally minded to arraign Sir Elijah Impey, Hastings’s former schoolfriend, who had early enjoyed the patronage of his fellow ‘Westminster’, ending his career in India as Chief Justice in Bengal. Impey was implicated in much of the corruption of which Hastings was accused, and he certainly played a role in a dark event which Burke could not prove against either man. In the wake of the events in Oudh, one of Hastings’s agents, Nandakumar, had produced a forged document relating to Hastings’s dealings with the Mani Begum; it was enough to discomfort Hastings and Impey. Nandakumar was accordingly charged with forgery, a capital offence, and was executed, despite his Brahminical status. Under the very laws in which Hastings had interested himself, and which Burke so warmly praised, no Brahmin could be executed. Hastings could have called for clemency, but he chose not to do so. Biographers such as Moon and Sir Keith Feiling have preceded Bernstein in seeking to excuse his role in this unfortunate affair, but not so Macaulay, who presciently claimed that only ‘idiots and biographers’ would seek to minimise Hastings’s role in what might well be described as a judicial murder.

The shadow of impeachment continued to dog Hastings for the remaining thirty years of his life, and it also dogged Impey, described by Burke as Hastings’s ‘executioner’, whose conspiratorial presence Burke had claimed to detect through ‘a strong fox sense’ of his brush and urine. Impey’s many opponents remained keen on running him to earth – when he sought to win Sheridan’s Parliamentary seat at Stafford, Sheridan’s supporters drove through the constituency with the effigy of a black man hanging from a hearse. It was in the fittingly Indian setting of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, some twenty years after the trial, that the Prince Regent tried to affect a reconciliation between Sheridan and Hastings, who had remained something of a royal favourite. Sheridan’s role in the impeachment proceedings had made him a hero to the young Byron, who wrote an elegy to him, but who, as the champion of oppressed peoples, would surely not have cared to know of his apology to the former Governor-General, consisting as it did in drawing a dubious distinction between his private opinions and his public office. Hastings had merely looked his old opponent silently in the face. The fantastic chinoiserie interior of the Regent’s Indian palace can have witnessed few stranger incidents; small wonder that Victoria should have felt the need to distance herself from such an inheritance when she thriftily sold the unloved pile to Brighton Corporation.

If Ireland had served to unite Sheridan and Burke, however briefly, it was Westminster which had long united Hastings and Impey, and it was a Westminster contemporary, William Cowper, who worried over the compromised nature of that friendship when the impeachment trial was imminent. Cowper had long been concerned with the details of English rapacity abroad, and laments for India are apparent in several of his poems, most prominently The Task. Cowper was also critical, however, of what he called ‘Mr Burke’s severe invective’, and he drafted a short poem in 1792 which he proposed for publication in the increasingly pro-Hastings newspapers. Identified only as having been written ‘By an old Schoolfellow of his at Westminster’, the untitled poem keenly demonstrated Cowper’s unhappy feelings about his famous contemporary:

Hastings! I knew thee young, and of a mind,
While young, humane, conversible and kind,
Nor can I believe thee, gentle then,
Now grown a villain and the worst of men,
But rather some suspect, who have oppress’d,
And worried thee, as not themselves the Best.

The sense of moral justice which the anxiously religious Cowper always found it hard to discover in the world was equally obscured in a letter he wrote to Lady Hesketh as the impeachment trial was due to begin in February 1788. In its sweeping, almost sublime gestures, and its descent into nostalgic regret for long lost adolescent loyalties, it bears witness to the small, incestuous world within whose confines British India was both created and maintained. Cowper urged his fashionable correspondent to attend the impeachment hearings and see for herself

the trial of a man who has been greater and more feared than the Mogul himself, and of his Myrmidon Sir Elijah. Whatever we are at home, we have certainly been tyrants in the East; and if these men have, as they are charged, rioted in the miseries of the innocent, and dealt death to the guiltless with an unsparing hand, may they receive a retribution that shall make all future Governors and Judges of ours in the distant regions tremble. While I speak thus, I equally wish them acquitted. They were both my Schoolfellows and for Hastings I had a particular value.

Cowper’s philanthropy was more than telescopic; his sense of the pervasive division between imperial and domestic loyalties is probably the most just reaction one can imagine to the career of Warren Hastings.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences