Our Empire Story - H. E. Marshall
Although Hastings was no soldier he had battles to fight.
The Máráthas were a tribe of warlike Indians who every year swept over the land plundering and destroying. At first they were little more than mounted robbers, burning villages, wasting harvests, leaving a track of death and desolation behind them. But, as years went on, their power grew greater and greater. From a band of raiders they had grown to be a wealthy nation with a great army of well-drilled soldiers, and now they declared that they would conquer all India.
Another people, called the Rohillas, lived in Northern India. Rohilla means mountaineer. These mountaineers were a wild and warlike set of raiders who had come from the hills of Afghanistan and settled in Northern India. The land of which they had taken possession they called Rohilkhand, or the land of the Rohillas.
The Máráthas now made war on the Rohillas, and they, in their need, begged the Nawab of Oudh to help them. The Nawab promised to do this if they would pay him a large sum of money. This the Rohillas gladly said they would do, but when, with the Nawab's help, the Máráthas had been driven back, the Rohillas refused to pay.
For this the Nawab of Oudh resolved to punish them, and he asked Hastings to help him.
Hastings did not want to fight the Rohillas. Neither did he want to offend the Nawab of Oudh, who was now friendly. For Oudh lies next to Bengal, and Hastings was anxious to keep a friendly state between British India and the states around, where the princes were always fighting with each other. He wanted a "buffer state" in fact—a state to soften the blows which might be aimed at him.
He was also in need of money, for the directors kept writing letters saying, "Be just, govern well, but send us money." It was very hard to do both as things then were. So now Hastings decided that, although the British had no quarrel with the Rohillas, it would be well to help the people of Oudh to fight them if the Nawab would pay for the help. The Nawab readily promised a large sum of money, and the Company's soldiers were sent to help him against his enemies.
In a battle, which the British leader called the battle of St. George because it was fought on St. George's day, the Rohillas were utterly defeated and their leader slain.
The most of the fighting had as usual fallen to the share of the British. But when the Rohillas had been beaten, when they broke and scattered, when before the glitterimg bayonets of the redcoats they swept forward in mad flight, then the men of Oudh dashed after them and began a fearful slaughter and pillage. The Rohillas left all their camp baggage behind, and while the men of Oudh plundered it, the British soldiers looked on somewhat scornful and discontented. "We have the honour of the day, these robbers the profit," they said as they saw the piles of gold and gems and rich stuffs laden upon camels and elephants to be carried back to Oudh.
But the Nawab paid the money he had promised, and the British had still a friendly state upon their borders.
Soon after this, three new councillors were sent out from England to Calcutta. These three men knew nothing of India or of the Indian people. They were jealous of Hastings and angry at the things he did. On the council there were now five—Hastings, and one friend, and these three. But as the three always voted together, and against the Governor and his friend, for some years they did very much as they liked, and although he was Governor-General, Hastings had really little power.
The natives soon began to see that Sahib Warren Hostein, as they called him, was no longer all powerful, and now one of them, who hated him, thought that the time was come when he might be overthrown.
This man was called Nuncomar. He was one of the most important among the natives, but he was a bad old man. Yet, although he was bad, he was clever and useful. So the directors told Hastings to employ him. Hastings did, but he disliked the old villain so much that he would rather have had nothing to do with him. Nuncomar knew this very well, and he became the Governor-General's deadly enemy.
Now, knowing that the three English gentlemen on the council were also the enemies of Hastings, Nuncomar wrote a letter to them, accusing Hastings of taking bribes and of other wickedness.
The letter was read at the council, and the three wished to bring Nuncomar in to hear what he had to say. The idea that these Englishmen should take the word of a wicked old Indian against one of themselves was more than Hastings could bear. He was very angry. "I will not suffer Nuncomar to appear before the board as my accuser," he said. "I know what belongs to my dignity as head of it. I will not sit at this board as a criminal, nor do I acknowledge the members as my judges." The Hastings left the room.
But the council would not be stopped, for they intended to ruin Hastings. When he had gone they made one of themselves chairman. Nuncomar was called in and questioned, and without more ado, and without any proof, they decided that Hastings had been guilty of bribery, and ordered him to repay the money he had taken.
Hastings of course refused. He did not admit that the three had any right to try or condemn him. And now other natives, terrified by the threats of Nuncomar, or bribed by his gold, made bold to accuse Hastings of all manner of cruelty and injustice. It seemed as if the authority of the Governor-General was at an end, and that there was nothing left for him but to give up his post and go home.
Then suddenly bad old Nuncomar was accused in his turn of forgery. To forge, in this sense, means to make something false, meaning, for some wicked reason, to pretend that it is real. Nuncomar had written out a paper making believe that it was written by someone else, and by this means had got a large sum of money to which he had no right.
This was only one of the many bad things which Nuncomar had done in his life. But it was enough. He was seized, put in prison, and tried before four British judges. They, finding that he was guilty, condemned him to death. Nowadays no man would be hanged for forgery, but in those days it was the law of Britain. It was not, however, the law among the Indians. Indeed lying and cheating did not seem to them to be very wicked.
Besides, Nuncomar was a Brahmin. The people of India were divided into castes or classes. Of the four chief castes, the highest and sacred class was the Brahmin. Next came the Royal caste, then the Merchant, and last, the Sudras or slave or servant caste. Each caste kept strictly to itself, and no man might marry any one who was not of his own caste, so they never became mixed. There are still castes in India, but the two middle classes have almost passed away, and the Sudras are split up into many sub-castes.
Brahmins were looked upon as sacred. If any one killed one even by mistake, the deed was looked upon with horror. Now the people of India found it hard to believe that their terrible white masters really meant, of set purpose, to put a Brahmin to death. They shuddered at the thought. But Nuncomar was hated by all, and no man, either British or Indian, not even his friends the three councillors, tried to save him.
And so one August morning a great crowd, brown-faced, bright-eyed, eager and wondering, gathered to see the end of the mighty Brahmin. Nuncomar marched to death in a calm and stately manner. His white head was bowed to a dishonoured grave, but he showed neither fear nor shame. Around him his friends wept and howled in an agony of farewell. But he stood unmoved. It was God's will, he said. And so with unshaken, eastern calm he died.
Breathless, wide eyed, the swaying crowd watched. Then when all was over, they fled shrieking with fear and horror, many in their terror plunging into the waters of the Hooghly. So great was the shock of this deed to the Indian mind that not a few Brahmin families fled from the town altogether, and for years it was looked upon as a place accursed.
The death of Nuncomar removed Hastings' greatest enemy, and because he was Hastings' enemy, and because one of the judges was Hastings' friend, it was said that the Governor-General had tried to have Nuncomar hanged. But there was never any real reason for believing that. Nuncomar was hanged, not because he was Hastings' enemy, but because he was found guilty of forgery, and, according to the ideas of the time, was deserving of death.
One enemy was thus removed, yet Hastings had still to fight his councillors, who hated him as much or even more than before. But first one died, and then another, and the third and bitterest went home, leaving Hastings at last free to rule as he thought best.
Meantime, while Hastings was struggling to hold and rule British India, the government at home was flinging away the colonies on the other side of the world, for the war of American Independence had begun. The French helped the Americans, and war between Great Britain and France was declared. In India, too, there was war—in Bombay, Madras, and Bengal. There was war with the Máráthas; there was a war with a fierce Mohammedan leader called Hyder Ali, who, after deposing the rightful ruler of Mysore, swept the Carnatic with his terrible host, and swore to conquer all Southern India; there was war with the French who still possessed Pondicherry and some other towns. They helped the Máráthas, and still more they helped Hyder Ali. There were battles and sieges, defeats and victories.
But in 1782 Hyder Ali died, weary of warring against a powerful nation who might have been his friends and begging his son to make peace. The Máráthas, too, made peace, promising no more to help the enemies of the British, and in 1783, the news of the Peace of Versailles reached India and put an end to the war between French and British. So everywhere there was peace.
Then in 1785, after sixteen years of toil, Warren Hastings sailed home, leaving all India at rest.
At first Hastings was received with honour even as Clive had been. But his enemies had been at work, and before many months had passed, he was called to account for many of his deeds in India.
Hastings was impeached. In Great Britain to impeach means the process by which any man may be called upon by the Commons to defend himself before the house of Lords, for treason or other high crimes against the state.
Hastings was accused of cruelty, bribery, and misrule in many ways. He knew that the charges brought against him were for the most part untrue, or so twisted by hate as to seem much worse than they were, and he defended himself well. "Every department of the government which now exists in Bengal," he said, "is of my making. The office formed for the service of the revenue, the courts of civil and criminal justice were created by me. To sum up all, I kept these provinces in a state of peace, plenty, and safety, when every other member of the British Empire was full of wars and tumults. The valour of others won; I enlarged and gave shape to the dominion you hold there. I preserved it. I maintained the wars which were of your making or that of others, not of mine. I am accused of desolating the provinces in India which are the most flourishing of all the states in India. It was I who made them so. I gave you all; and you reward me with confiscation, disgrace, and a life of impeachment."
But in spite of all that Hastings might say, the trial dragged on for seven long years, filling his life with anxiety and trouble. But at last it came to an end, and the Lords declared Hastings "not guilty."
So the little, bald old man, who yet looked every inch a great man, went away to live quietly in his beautiful house, there to forget in a simple country life the glories and the troubles of the first Governor-General of India.
Once, many years later, when Parliament wished to know something about India, Hastings was called upon to attend. As he entered, the Commons received him with cheers. They listened respectfully to what he had to say, and, when he had finished, they rose to a man and stood bareheaded until he had passed from the hall. The Lords, too, treated him with like honour. So it seemed that even in his own day, his name was cleared. Yet there were many people who still believed that Hastings had been a cruel ruler. There are many who believe so to this day. Of course many things were done in those first years of British rule in India which would seem very terrible to us now. But we cannot judge those times as we would our own. And the people of Bengal did not think of Hastings as cruel. To them he was a deliverer rather than a tyrant. The men admired him, and the women sang their children to sleep with songs of the wealth and the might of the great Sahib Warren Hostein.
At last, at the great age of eighty-seven, Hastings died. To the end he was a kindly, cheerful, brave old man, taking an interest in all around him, and ruling his estate with as great care as he had ruled the broad lands of India.