The impeachment of the first governor-general of Bengal

The decay of the Mughal Empire was bad for business, and as parts of the interior descended into civil war and chaos, the trading companies dotted around India became concerned for their profits. At the same time, rapid advances in Western military tactics and technology began to offer even small detachments of European soldiers decisive advantages over local troops.

But it was initially Vasco da Gama who hired an Indian navigator in Kenya that brought them on a journey from the east coast of Africa to what is now Kozhikode in what is now the south Indian state of Kerala. This then led six years to the "Portuguese State of India" with its headquarters in what is now the state of Kerala. And in the face of encroachments by other European powers was later followed by the Portuguese East India Company with the purpose of scotching the menace of French (la Compagnie des Indes) including the relevant Dutch and English companies.

Not of little importance was that at the height of the Mughal empire in the seventeenth century, cash and credit, a wide range of goods, and even people circulated on a much larger scale than in earlier times.

Of even more significance was the impact of European firearms.

The rise of Robert Clive

Matters came to a head in 1744 with the declaration of war in Europe between England and France. The French, led by the energetic Joseph-François Dupleix, governor-general of all French possessions in India, seized Madras from the British on October 1746, only to return it in 1748 under the terms of the Aix-la-Chapelle treaty. One of the English defenders of Madras who be­came a prisoner of the French was Robert Clive, a young copywriter in the service of the British East India Company and who would later become its most successful defender.

Then when in 1756 the Seven Years War broke out in Europe, the French renewed their efforts against the British in India under Thomas-Arthur de Lally, who had been sent to India in 1758. Unfortunately for the French, Lally's campaigns were a series of disasters and blunders. His first mistake was to recall Gen. Charles de Bussy from Hyderabad just when the general had all but taken over this powerful kingdom.

While the British fought the French in southern India, they also carried out a protracted campaign in Bengal to expand their territories and influence. Thus in the 17th century, the English East India Company had been given a grant of the town of Calcutta by the Mughal Prince Shah Shuja. At this time the Company was effectively another tributary power of the Mughal.

Bengal was a province of the Mughal Empire, and an appointed military governor, or faujdar, oversaw its administration. After the fall of the Mughal Empire the Nawab of Bengal, Ali Vardi Khan (who had toppled the Nasiri Dynasty) broke away from Delhi's weak control in 1742. He ruled until his death in 1756, after which his son Siraj-ud-Daulah succeeded him. Both father and son maintained extremely rigid control of the Europeans at the trading posts in Bengal. The British, who had the largest presence in the region, however, resented this control and on 1752 Robert Orme, in a letter to Robert  Clive, noted that the company would have to remove Ali Vardi Khan in order to prosper.

Once the Treaty of Allahabad was signed on 12 August 1765, between the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, son of the late Emperor Alamgir II, and Robert Clive, of the East India Company, as a result of the Battle of Buxar of 22 October 1764, the East India Company next started to collect taxes.

Underneath, the Mughal emperor Shah Alam hands a scroll to Robert Clive, the governor of Bengal, which transferred tax collecting rights in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to the East India Company. Illustration: Benjamin West (1738–1820)/British Library

When money took over

The collecting of Mughal taxes was subcontracted to a multinational corporation whose operations were protected by its own private army. Within a few months, 250 company clerks backed by a force of 20,000 locally recruited Indian soldiers had become the effective rulers of the richest Mughal provinces. An international corporation was, for the first time, transforming itself into an aggressive colonial power.

Before long "the Company" was straddling the globe.

The ferried opium east to China, and in due course fought the Opium Wars in order to seize an offshore base at Hong Kong and safeguard its profitable monopoly in narcotics.

To the West it shipped Chinese tea to Massachusetts, where its dumping in Boston harbor triggered the American War of Independence.

And while thus the company under Clive transformed itself from a modest trading venture into a powerful corporate machine as Philip Francis, one of its leading critics, put it, instead of seeking “moderate but permanent profit”, the company had recklessly pursued “immediate and excessive returns”.

During the first century of the East India Company's expansion in India, most people in India lived under regional kings or Nawabs. By the late 18th century many Moghuls were weak in comparison to the rapidly expanding Company as it took over cities and land, built railways, roads, and bridges. The first railway of 33.8 km, known as the Great Indian Peninsula Railway ran between Bombay (Mumbai) and Tannah (Thane) in 1849.

Researching the Bengal famine

While it is true that famines where common in India already before the British arrived there to date, there has been an ongoing discussion (where Robert Clive is often described as a psychopath) about the coming about of  the private East India Company on 22 September 1599 whereby then when in the ensuing decades numeral complaints were logged (many of these also because it was seen as if the "company" did not enough to prevent the famines) "the Company" then lost all its administrative powers following the Government of India Act of 1858. Here the provisions called for the complete liquidation of the British East India Company and the transference of its functions to the British Crown.                                           

Questions about how, and why, "the company" turned into an empire have recently become historical battlefields, with traditionalists insisting that the indigenous Mughal Empire’s decay forced the company to take up arms to restore order, while those on the left respond that the company created the chaos that it exploited. Making war, he argues, was rarely the company’s only option, yet it really did have violent enemies, and the French really were plotting against it. Similarly, the company’s men were often wicked and arrogant; they bribed, robbed and killed those who crossed them, even their Indian opponents could commit even more appalling acts of violence.                                     

While it was only later (it took 6 weeks to travel from to India at the time meaning letters took accordingly) that word would start to spread about Bengal's famine, already on on 22 January 1770 former Prime Minister William Pitt in his state of the nation at the House of Lords felt compelled to say that:  "The riches of Asia have been poured in upon us," he declared at the despatch box, "and have brought with them not only Asiatic luxury, but, I fear, Asiatic principles of government. Without connections, without any natural interest in the soil, the importers of foreign gold have forced their way into Parliament by such a torrent of private corruptions as no private hereditary fortune could resist."

Pioneering work in this field has been done by Richard Eaton who, in his study of the Bengal frontier, argues that the provincial Mughal officials deepened the roots of their authority in the countryside through encouraging intensive wet rice cultivation at a time when the Mughal power in Delhi was steadily diminishing. This patronage system, introduced by the Nawabs, which had played a decisive role in the steady growth of food grains, ended in 1760 with the paramountcy of the East India Company in the Bengal region.1

Rajat Datta's, Society, Economy and the Market: Commercialisation in Rural Bengal, c1760– 1800 (chapter five, pp. 238– 84) in turn argued that while military conquests, political dislocations, and Company exactions certainly contributed to the vulnerability of peasants, there had been a major shift in agriculture and the economy under the Company which contributed to the intensity of the famine. Bengal’s prosperity was vulnerable and ecologically it was undergoing major changes. The flow of the rivers was moving eastward and cultivation was spreading eastward too. While the west of Bengal was drying out, which made it desperately vulnerable to famine if the rains failed, the east was flourishing. It escaped the 1769–70 famine, although as Datta shows, flooding was to devastate it later. Bengal had witnessed a long intensification of wet rice cultivation under the Nawabs. This was a long-drawn-out process of ecological transformation whereby the eastern Bengal delta constituted an agrarian frontier where provincial Mughal officials had directly encouraged forest clearing, water control and wet rice cultivation from the later sixteenth century up to the middle of the eighteenth century.2

Rajat Datta, rejects the widely quoted figure given by Warren Hastings (who was in London at the time). He instead has shown that while the famine was at its worst in West Bengal, and that large parts of Eastern Bengal were unaffected, 76,000 died in Calcutta between July and September. "The whole province looked like a charnel house," reported one officer. The total numbers are disputed, but in all perhaps 1.2 million, one in five Bengalis starved to death in what became one of the greatest tragedies of the province’s history.

Datta’s account emphasizes the expansion of the regional market in grains which may have made peasants more exposed to price shocks. He also makes an important point about the geographical imbalance of the famine, which he believes was more severe in western Bengal and Bihar and practically non-existent in eastern Bengal. The veteran historian Peter Marshall largely agrees with Datta’s account.

The territory of the famine included what today would be West Bengal, Bangladesh, and parts of Assam, Odisha, Bihar, and Jharkhand.

Rajat Datta is skeptical of the decisive influence of the British, let alone of specific individuals, on the fortunes of the province. There, of course, can be no doubt that Bengal was potentially a highly fertile and productive province. It had developed a sophisticated commercialized economy … The British stimulated commercialization by the growth of their export trades and of the great conurbation at Calcutta. Did their access to political power have adverse effects? Probably. They may well have taxed more severely, even if they had no capacity to extract directly from the mass of peasants. They regulated some trades, such as high-quality textiles or salt, to their own advantage and to the disadvantage of indigenous merchants and artisans, but the huge grain trade was surely beyond their capacity to interfere insignificantly. On the whole, there is serious doubt whether the British either “caused” the famine or if one could credit Hastings with the recovery of Bengal since it was neither or any other British individual’s capacity to bring about such a thing.

These are clearly complicated matters, involving ecological as well as economic history, and the jury remains out. However, whether or not the Company was directly responsible for the famine, or whether ecological factors played a more important role, its incompetent response made the famine in West Bengal much more deadly, while its excessive tax collecting hugely exacerbated the sufferings of the Bengalis under its rule, which was certainly the opinion of many observers, both Indian and British, who wrote accounts of the disaster at the time.

As W. W. Hunter mentioned in The Annals of Rural Bengal also some Company officials did their best to help the starving. In several places, the hoarding and export of rice were successfully prevented. In Murshidabad, the Resident, Richard Becher, ‘opened six centers for the free distribution of rice and other supplies’. He also warned the Calcutta Council about the dire consequences of failing to provide for the starving and noted that the normally peaceful highways had become unsafe and that highway robberies, once unknown, were now occurring every day as the desperate and needy struggled to find ways to survive. The latter also mentions that; "The biggest cause of death by famine was not the absence of grain but inflation, a rapid increase of the price of rice."

The Governor of Calcutta, John Cartier, also worked hard to alleviate the distress in the Company’s capital: he maintained ‘a magazine of grain with which they fed fifteen thousand every day for some months, and yet even this could not prevent many thousands dying of want. The streets were crowded with the most miserable objects, and there were 150 dead bodies picked up in a day, and thrown into the river.

But in many of the worst affected areas, Company efforts to alleviate the famine were contemptible. In Rangpur, the senior EIC officer, John Grose, could only bring himself daily to distribute Rs5 (81 $ today) of rice to the poor, even though ‘half the laboring and working people’ had died by June 1770 and the entire area as Rajat Datta described was being reduced to graveyard silence.

The famine was a severe humanitarian catastrophe and an ugly blot on Britain’s colonial record. Scottish economist Adam Smith, a severe critic of colonial greed and the East India Company, believed that it would have been no more than a manageable food-shortage had the Company pursued a policy of free trade.

Although it has no exact equivalents, the Company was the ultimate prototype for many of today’s corporations. The most powerful among them these days do not need their own armies: They can rely on governments to protect their interests and bail them out.

As Baron Thurlow remarked in the late 1700s, when the Company was being criticized for its misdeeds and its governor-general, Warren Hastings the head of the Supreme Council of Bengal was on trial, “Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned. They therefore do as they like.”

Edmund Burke, the English Demosthenes, charged Hastings at the bar of the House of Lords on the tyranny and misdemeanor and also in the name of humanity, the English nation, and the Indians and called him an enemy of humanity. He in his inimitable style and rehetoric said in conclusion of his charge, “Therefore, hath it with all confidence being ordered, by the Commons of Great Britain, that I impeach Warren Hastings of high crimes and misdemeanours. I impeach him in name of the Commons’ House of Parliament whose trust he has betrayed. I impeach him in the name of the people of India, their right he has trodden under foot, and whose country he has turned into a desert. Lastly, I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, in the name of both sexes, in the name of every age, in the name of every rank. I impeach the common enemy and oppressor of all.”

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.

Warren Hastings survived his impeachment, but parliament did finally remove the East India Company from power following the great Indian Uprising of 1857, some 90 years after the granting of the Diwani and 60 years after Hastings’s own trial. On 10 May 1857, the East India Company’s security forces rose up against their employer and on successfully crushing the insurgency, after nine uncertain months, the company distinguished itself for a final time by hanging and murdering tens of thousands of suspected rebels in the bazaar towns that lined the Ganges, probably the most bloody episode in the entire history of British colonialism.

The corporation, the idea of a single integrated business organization stretching out across the seas, was a revolutionary European invention contemporaneous with the beginnings of European colonialism that upended the trading world of Asia and Europe, and which helped give Europe its competitive edge.


Continued in part two.


1) See Richard M. Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204–1760, Berkeley, 1993, p. 5.

2) On this see also J. F. Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World, Berkeley, 2003, p. 33.









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