The impeachment of Warren Hastings and the patented British character of the era


The year 1786 was also the year that inaugurated the decade-long impeachment of Warren Hastings. Few political and public figures in British colonial history have generated such prodigious volumes of writing as he has. Wholly for reasons rooted in his lasting infamy. Warren Hastings as a person, as a granddaddy of English Nabobs, as a plunderer par excellence, and as the symbol and subject of jurisprudence, remains an irresistible magnet for historians, scholars, and legal minds even as we speak.

And the man who immortalised his infamy is undoubtedly Edmund Burke, his bete noire who frontally led the impeachment.

When Warren Hastings returned to England after pillaging India for a record 13 years, the East India Company had already acquired a cancerous reputation at home.

Clive’s second inquiry in 1772-73 in the backdrop of a Government bailout of the nearly-bankrupt Company, had returned a contemptuous verdict: the EIC was fatal to England itself. The Whig parliamentarian, Charles James Fox was brutal: “[Clive] is the origin of all plunders, the source of all robbery.” Clive indeed was seen as the hood of the new serpentine class that had corrupted the British society with its ill-gotten wealth, which it paraded flagrantly throughout England. Lower middle class British youth who would have otherwise lived and worked and retired and died in the same station were now beelining to enlist in the service of the Company. Why live and die as a clerk in the docks if you could sail to India and then return to buy a manor in say, Southampton?

To hardened conservatives like Burke, this was an unforgivable affront against the finest and hard-won traditions of British public life best symbolised by the Magna Carta, a living document and a prime fount of the pride of the race of Britons. Somebody had to pay for its debasement.

The impeachment of Hastings was as spectacular as the enormity of his burglary of India. But a careful reading of the proceedings of and the sustained campaign for his punishment reveals a rather patented facet of the British character of the era.

Burke was incensed more by the fact that the East India Company had grossly transformed itself from being an “empire of the seas” to becoming an evil “empire of conquest.” But Burke was only echoing his contemporary, Adam Smith’s alarm in The Wealth of Nations that, “such exclusive companies are nuisances in every respect; always…inconvenient to the countries in which they are established, and destructive to those which have the misfortune to fall under their government.” Thus, Burke’s mission was not to dismantle the British empire. To him, the Empire per se presented no ethical qualms. What plundering Englishmen like Warren Hastings had done to its reputation presented the real problem. Therefore, publicly bludgeoning criminals like Hastings was the most important step in reforming the Empire.

The scholar of British colonial history, TW Nechtman offers a valuable insight in this regard: “Burke…was not to suggest that India had infected [Hastings] — which was to say that Britons could be corrupted — but to argue that Hastings represented the basest and the most defiled type of Briton even before he left for India. British imperialism therefore, could not be faulted…rather, it had failed to weed out a wicked subset of Britons who were naturally corrupted…Hastings had never been an honourable British citizen… [he had to] be seen as the leader of a cabal of Britons in South Asia, who saw him as an example…Burke saw himself as engaged in a heroic effort save the “manners and virtues” of the British nation — the “national character…and our liberties.” (Emphasis added)

Even as the impeachment dragged along, it sent out an unmistakable warning to the Company’s employees in India: you are merchants, not rulers. What is happening to Warren Hastings could…will happen to you as well.

The impeachment was perhaps the perfect device to evoke public attention and harness the subterranean public fury against the “India Empire” of the East India Company. Singling out Warren Hastings was Burke’s attempt at translating a famous proverb into concrete, practical action: the bigger they are, the harder they fall. And the public responded wildly as we shall see.

In so many words, Edmund Burke charged Warren Hastings with not only being a criminal but as one who had singularly dented Britain’s imperial authority and had corrupted its national integrity by polluting its political class and debasing its foundations of liberty. And it hit the right spot. Anna Clark in her Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution notes how “…scandals had their greatest impact when [the public] were able to link personal problems with larger political issues.”

And Warren Hastings was the first-rate scandal.

To be continued

The author is founder and chief editor, ‘The Dharma Dispatch’. Views expressed are personal.

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The impeachment of Warren Hastings and the patented British character of the era
The impeachment of Warren Hastings and the patented British character of the era
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