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The Trial of Hastings

Warren HastingsThe issue of corruption is long-standing in India. In the late 18th Century the indignation of the Parliament and people of England had been roused to fever heat by the mismanagement of the British East India Company's affairs in India. While Englishmen were returning from Bengal with enormous fortunes, reports were rife of the sufferings of the natives and wrongs of deposed Nawabs. Warren Hastings was appointed Governor-General of all the English possessions in India, including Bengal. An Indian statesman by profession, and thoroughly acquainted with the wants both of native and European populations, he had entered upon the duties of the Government of Bengal in 1772. The post was not a light one: in India a people in the last stages of distress, a Government full of abuses, a small dominant population who believed their sole duty was to acquire wealth rapidly; in England a factious and fluctuating body of governors whose chief object was high dividends. Such were the conditions under which Hastings had to act.

Rumours were afloat that Reza Khan, the finance minister, was peculating largely. On the accusation of Nuncomar, the chief of the Bengal Brahmins and his old rival, he was apprehended by Hastings, who either believed the charges or acted in obedience to the Company's orders. On examination he was acquitted, but not replaced in his office, nor was Nuncomar appointed to succeed him. By 1775 a host of native informers began to bring charges of bribery and corruption against Hastings. Among others, the wealthy Brahman of bad character, Nuncomar, who had been heavily disappointed at not receiving the vacant place of Reza Khan, accused Hastings of having received a bribe from a member of the Nawab's family at Murshedabad, in return for an appointment as manager of the Nawab's household; and another bribe from Muhammad Reza Khan for having connived at his embezzlements.

There is no doubt that Nuncomar was a villain. It was known that he had forged letters and seals, and carried on a treasonable correspondence with the French; and consequently no reliance could be placed upon his accusations unless they were proved by undeniable evidence from other quarters. Nuncomar was suddenly arrested on a charge of forgery, and brought to trial in the Supreme Court before a jury of Englishmen. In those days forgery was a capital offence under English law, but had never been treated as such in India. Nevertheless Nuncomar was found guilty by the jury, and sentenced to death by the judge, Sir Elijah Impey. Impey, an old schoolfellow of Hastings, whose career showed him not to be above suspicion, is by many held to have acted corruptly. Nuncomar was publicly hanged at Calcutta, to the bewilderment of the natives, who could not understand why a man should be put to death for forgery, or why a Brahman should be executed whatever might have been his crime. From that moment, however, no more charges were brought against Hastings in India. The death of Nuncomar secured the supremacy of Hastings. There was no one brave enough to bring charges either true or false against one whose vengeance seemed to have struck down the head of their religion.

Hastings came home in June 1785 on the natural expiration of his office. At home he was well received, but he had two vindictive enemies in the House of Commons, one, Edmund Burke, whose imagination had always been strongly drawn towards the majestic history of Hindostan, and whose hatred of oppression had been strongly fired by the accounts which had lately been received from India; the other, Philip Francis, the rancorous and defeated rival of the late Governor-General. Hastings had scarcely arrived in England before Burke gave notice that he should call attention to his conduct. The feeling in England that Hastings had on the whole done a great work was so strong, that, although the ministry had shown him many marks of favor, it is possible that even Burke might have left him untouched had not his injudicious and wearisome agent, Major Scott, challenged inquiry. Burke accepted the challenge, and in April produced specific charges.

In February 1785 Edmund Burke delivered one of the most famous of all his speeches, that on the nabob of Arcot's debts. The real point of this superb declamation waa Burke's conviction that ministers supported the claims of the fraudulent creditors in order to secure the corrupt advantages of a sinister parliamentary interest. His proceedings in Parliament against Hastings had a deeper spring. The story of Hastings's crimes, as Macaulay says, made the blood of Burke boil in his veins.

The trial of Warren Hastings started in February 1788 at Westminster Hall, the Peers sitting as judges, presided over by the Lord Chancellor, and the accusations being supported by the managers appointed by the House of Commons, assisted by the most eloquent men in England, among their number, Fox, Sheridan, Wyndham and Burke. The very talents of the accusers, together with the exaggerated and unlawyerlike style of Burke, tended to the safety of the accused. The trial became a mere exhibition of rhetoric; people crowded to hear the speeches, but withdrew as the legal points were argued, or the evidence produced, while Burke's language was so intemperate that the Lord Chancellor and even the House of Commons censured him.

Addressing the Lords, Burke asked the Lords to consider " ... what may be our future moral and political condition when the persons who come from that school of pride, insolence, corruption, and tyranny, are more intimately mixed up with us of purer morals. Nothing but contamination can be the result, nothing but corruption can exist in this country, unless we expunge this doctrine out of the very hearts and souls of the people. It is not to the gang of plunderers and robbers, of which I say this man is at the head, that we are only, or indeed principally, to look. Every man in Great Britain will be contaminated and must be corrupted, if you let loose among us whole legions of men, generation after generation, tainted with these abominable vices, and avowing these detestable principles."

In another speech to the Lords in 1788, Burke declaimed " ... pecuniary corruption forms not only, as your lordships will observe in the charges before you, an article of charge by itself, but likewise so intermixes with the whole, that it is necessary to give, in the best manner I am able, a history of that corrupt system, which brought on all the subsequent acts of corruption. I will venture to say, there is no one act, in which tyranny, malice, cruelty, and oppression can be charged, that does not at the same time carry evident marks of pecuniary corruption. ... the principles upon which Mr. Hastings governed his conduct in India, and upon which he grounds his defence. These may all be reduced to one short word, arbitrary power. My lords, if Mr. Hastings had contended, as other men have often done, that the system of government, which he patronizes, and on which he acted, was a system tending on the whole to the blessing and benefit of mankind, possibly something might be said for him for setting up so wild, absurd, irrational, and wicked a system. Something might be said to qualify the act from the intention; but it is singular in this man, that, at the time he tells you he acted on the principles of arbitrary power, he takes care to inform you, that he was not blind to the consequences. Mr. Hastings foresaw that the consequence of this system was corruption. An arbitrary system indeed must always be a corrupt one. My lords, there never was a man who thought he had no law but his own will, who did not soon find that he had no end but his own profit. Corruption and arbitrary power are of natural unequivocal generation, necessarily producing one another."

Edmund Burke had a native abhorrence of cruelty, of injustice, of disorder, of oppression, of tyranny, and all these things in all their degrees marked Hastings's course in India. They were, moreover, concentrated in individual cases, which exercised Burke's passionate imagination to its profoundest depths, and raised it to such a glow of fiery intensity as has never been rivalled ia our history. For it endured for fourteen years, and was just aa burning and as terrible when Hastings was acquitted in 1795.

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Page last modified: 31-08-2011 18:05:06 ZULU