India - Victor Surridge

How Hastings Raised Money for the Wars

From this time onward Warren Hastings had no more trouble with unruly Councillors. But there were other and even more serious difficulties to contend with. Funds were getting low; money was urgently required. Happily the Governor was possessed of a fertile and inventive mind. On more than one occasion the depleted government coffers had been filled through his ingenuity; now he spread his map before him and sought long and anxiously for some hidden stream of wealth to tap.

On the banks of the mighty Ganges a forest of domes and cupolas, tapering spires, and lofty pinnacles proclaims afar the existence of a noble town. It is indeed one of the proudest cities of Asia, rich and populous, famed for its wonderful silks, its crowded bazaars and market-places, its schools of learning, and its many shrines and temples. But not on these things alone depends its high renown. It has other and far greater claims upon the love and veneration of every pious Hindú throughout the globe. For this is none other than Benares, the great Sacred City of India, resorted to annually by innumerable pilgrims and devotees of the Sakyamunic faith, many of whom come from remote provinces for no other purpose than to die in a spot so sanctified. It was on this city that the roving eye of Warren Hastings chanced finally to rest.

Over Benares and the surrounding district ruled a Hindú prince named Chait Singh. He was a tributary of the British; annually large sums of money found their way from the princely treasure-chamber into the Company's cash-box at Calcutta. Warren Hastings raised the amount of tribute by £50,000, and for two years this extra sum was unwillingly paid. The third time it was asked for the Rajah began to wriggle. He sent Hastings a present of £20,000 to induce him to forgo his demands. But the Governor- General had a soul above bribery. The £20,000 was paid into the Company's treasury, and the disappointed Chait Singh received a polite hint to pay up cheerfully, or to put up with the consequences. Still the Rajah haggled. Hastings determined to take strong measures. It had come to light that the ruler of Benares had been engaged in treasonable correspondence with England's enemies. It was desirable to teach him that the British were not to be trifled with. A fine of £10,000 was imposed for the delay, and the Rajah was furthermore commanded to raise a body of cavalry for the Company's service.

With this request Chait Singh was by no means anxious to comply. But to save further trouble he scoured the streets of his city for a thousand of its choicest vagabonds. Half of these were mounted on the sorriest of steeds; the remainder were furnished with the most antiquated of matchlocks. From his palace windows the Rajah gleefully surveyed this unwarlike creation of his parsimonious soul. Was it not indeed a clever plan? Shortly afterwards Hastings received a bland message to the effect that the pick of the Rajah's army awaited the Governor-General's pleasure.

This generous offer was treated with disdain; the English Governor set out in person for the Sacred City. He was resolved to make Chait Singh pay dearly for his sins; and the threatened Prince paled in alarm when he heard of his coming. In a desperate effort to make amends he offered to pay the Company the sum of £200,000. Hastings replied that nothing less than half a million would be accepted. The Rajah was in despair, and rode forth in haste to greet his most unwelcome visitor.

Sixty miles from Benares the meeting took place. With the deepest humility Chait Singh removed his turban and placed it in the Governor's lap, an eastern symbol of the deepest submission and respect. But Hastings was not now to be conciliated with blandishments. With cold dignity he acknowledged these overtures and rode on towards his destination. On his arrival Chait Singh was taken severely to task; once again he shuffled, prevaricated, and made excuses. But the Governor-General was in no mood to traverse the tortuous paths of eastern diplomacy. He had not journeyed all the way from Calcutta to see a Rajah wriggle, no matter how agile the performance. It was money he wanted, not pious protestations and empty promises. So serenely indifferent to the fact that he was accompanied only by a slender bodyguard of Sepoys, he caused the aggrieved prince to be arrested and placed in captivity.

That such an indignity should be put upon their sovereign aroused his loyal subjects to passionate anger. An immense multitude gathered round the palace. Ominous scowls were bent upon the daring strangers; swords glittered, and fierce imprecations arose on every side. The spark thus fanned became a furnace; the tumult developed into a massacre. Bravely the British officers strove to quell the uproar. One by one they fell, fighting grimly to the last, the victims of overwhelming odds. Many of the Sepoys shared their hapless fate. In the confusion which arose the Rajah's guards became neglectful of their charge, and a rope made of the knotted turbans of his attendants enabled the royal captive to lower himself from a window into a tiny boat, which bore him swiftly away to the opposite shore of the Ganges.

Through all this wild commotion Hastings sat calm and unperturbed. Although only a mere handful of men stood between him and the raging mob outside, no sign of fear disturbed his placid countenance. To the messages of apology and grief which came from the escaped Rajah he did not deign to reply. Quietly he busied himself writing despatches: one to his wife to assure her of his safety; another to an envoy engaged in delicate negotiations with the Maráthás; others to commanders of British troops. But how were these missives to be sent? Who should bear them through the armed rabble even now clamouring around the building? Hastings thought of a happy expedient. It is the custom of natives of India to wear massive gold earrings. These are removed when travelling for fear of robbers, and to prevent the orifices from closing, quills or slender rolls of paper are inserted in their place. The brave messengers who volunteered the task carried the letters in their ears!

The news of the riot at Benares spread rapidly. Soon the whole province was aflame. The entire population took up arms to avenge the insult upon their ruler, and Rajah Chait Singh, who, after all, was only human, began hastily to reconsider his position. His attitude towards the British underwent a sudden change. Instead of humble supplication there was the pride of outraged dignity; tearful apologies gave way to arrogant demands and bombastic utterance. Matters were moving rapidly to a climax. To the neighbouring Rajahs Chait Singh issued a vigorous call to arms.

"My fields," he wrote, "are cultivated, my villages full of inhabitants, my country is a garden, and my subjects are happy. My capital is the resort of the principal merchants of India, from the security I have given to property. The treasures from the Maráthás, the Jauts, the Sikhs, and the most distant parts of India are deposited here. The widows and orphans convey here their property, and reside without fear of rapacity or avarice. The traveller, from one end of my country to the other, lays down his burden and sleeps in security; but look at the provinces of the Company. There, famine and misery stalk hand in hand through uncultivated fields and deserted villages. There you meet with nothing but aged men, who are unable to transport themselves away, or robbers watching to waylay the helpless. . . . Not content with my treasures, they have thirsted after my honour also. They have demanded a sum of me which it is out of my power to pay. They want the plunder of my country; they demand my fort, the deposit of my honour and my family, whom they would turn helpless into the world. Arm yourselves, my friends, let us join to repel these rapacious strangers. It is the cause of all. When your honour is lost, of what value is life? Come, my friends, and join me! These plunderers have not yet so reduced me but I have support and provision for your troops."

This stirring message, none the less noteworthy because so much of it was true, produced a great effect. Very soon the Rajah had an immense army at his disposal. But—none too soon—British troops were hastening to the scene, eager to rescue their beloved Governor from his perilous position. For all his fine words, Chait Singh proved himself no hero when it came to the pinch. Hardly had the enemy's guns boomed out their first message of defiance than the Rajah and his mighty hordes fled in confusion from the field. Rapidly were the forts and fastnesses of his province stormed. Soon all the country was in the hands of the British, and its luckless ruler fled never to return.

Thus was another fair and fertile domain added to the Company's possessions, and with it a sum of £200,000 a year in revenue. Hastings had set out to obtain funds, and his purpose had been fulfilled. But it was a sore disappointment to him that the Rajah's treasure, with which he had confidently hoped to fill the government exchequer, fell into the hands of the looting soldiery. No ready money had as yet been actually obtained, and funds were urgently required. From what quarter were they to come?

The cowardly Nabob of Oudh, who had plundered so cruelly the fair country of the Rohillas, was dead. His son and successor was, if possible, even less of a man than his father. Indolent and profligate, a lover of dissipation and vice, he had allowed the sceptre wielded by his sires to slip gradually from his feeble fingers into those of the Company. Neighbouring princes beheld with scorn this puny weakling. Dearly would they have liked to loose their armed hordes upon his province and seize his rich acres for themselves. Enemies there were also much nearer his throne than these. Many of his subjects were tired of his vicious rule and would cordially have welcomed another claimant to the crown. But in Oudh there was a force which frightened these would-be vultures from their prey—a force feared and respected through all the land of India. For well the Nabob knew that his safety was dependent entirely on the Company; yearly he paid and maintained an English brigade to defend his kingdom from aggressors.

Times, however, grew hard. Princely extravagance had swallowed up the rich revenues of the country, and the cost of maintaining the English soldiers began to weigh heavily, and yet more heavily, upon the royal purse. At length the Nabob declared that he could bear the strain no longer. The engagement he had entered into must be revoked.

But a bargain once made is not so easily broken. More especially is this so when the other party to it happens to hold the whip hand, and Warren Hastings was far from inclined to relinquish an arrangement at once so convenient and profitable. Shaking the dust of the Sacred City from his feet, he now set out for Lucknow, the beautiful capital of the Nabob's dominions. With true eastern courtesy the impoverished prince set out to meet his guest; in a tiny fortress on the beetling rock of Chunar the two exchanged the ceremonious greetings of the Orient.

It was the object of Hastings to obtain more money; it was that of the Nabob to pay less. Clearly the situation was impossible. One or other, it would seem, was bound to yield. In this case, however, there was a third alternative: if the money could be obtained from some one else, both parties surely would be satisfied!

The defunct Nabob, besides leaving behind him at his death a degenerate son and a colossal fortune, bade also a tender adieu to his mother and his wife. These ladies, known as the Begums or Princesses of Oudh, were fabulously rich. The vast treasure of the Nabob was in their hands—rumour estimated it at no less than three million pounds sterling—while an enormous rent-roll brought annually a princely income to their coffers. The Company, thought Hastings, needed this money far more urgently than they. But what pretext was there for depriving them of it?

It must be borne in mind that the Begums had little real right to their great riches. The treasure left by the late Nabob properly belonged to the state; the Begums had claimed it by virtue of a will which they never produced and which, it is probable, never existed. More than once the young prince had tried to wrest the treasure from his aged relatives, but without success. The two old ladies had applied to the British government for protection and the Council had upheld their very doubtful rights. Now, however, things were different. It was whispered that the Oudh Begums had been concerned in the recent uprising at Benares. An English officer, who had long been in the service of the Nabob, came forward and swore an affidavit to this effect. It was difficult for Warren Hastings—even had he desired to do so—to resist the conclusion that the princesses had been in active conspiracy against the British. This, added to the distressing lack of funds to carry on the wars in the Deccan,—funds which were absolutely essential if England were to remain supreme in the peninsula,—decided him in his course of action. He put his hand to an agreement whereby the Begums were to be deprived of their property which was to be handed over to the British in payment of the Nabob's debts. But the matter was not so simple as it appeared.

Back in his own country and freed from the glamour of the Governor's commanding personality, the Nabob became chicken-hearted. Long he delayed in carrying out his share of the bargain, and Hastings had to send many sharp and stern epistles before a move was made. To confiscate the lands of the Begums was a comparatively easy task; to seize their treasure was another matter altogether. Frantically the two old ladies clung to their hoarded millions. Threats and persuasion were alike useless. There was nothing for it but to use force. The palace in which the Begums lived—the "Beautiful Residence" as it was called—was surrounded by armed guards. While the princesses fled shrieking to an inner room, their two confidential ministers, who had charge of the household, were seized and placed under arrest. What followed is not pleasant reading to lovers of British honour: it is only fair to Hastings to say that he himself was quite unaware of the distressing details of the crime that was now enacted.

It was actually resolved to work upon the feelings of the Begums by ill-treating these two old men. They were imprisoned, kept without food, and their tottering limbs loaded with needless irons. To their credit, be it said, they still remained true to their trust; not even the fiendish ingenuity of eastern tortures would induce them to yield the whereabouts of the treasure. The princesses themselves were in not much better plight. Their palace was blockaded, and food allowed to enter only in such scanty quantities that they and their attendants were in danger of being starved to death. For many months this state of affairs continued, until at length the miserable Begums were induced to part with over a million pounds. Then, and not till then, the two old servants were released from their dismal cell. It is said that the scene that occurred when these faithful ministers staggered out into the fresh air of freedom was touching in the extreme. "I wish," wrote an officer who witnessed the liberation of the captives to Hastings, "you had been present at the enlargement of the prisoners, the quivering lips, with the tears of joy stealing down the poor men's cheeks, was a scene truly affecting. If the prayers of these poor men will avail, you will at the last trump be translated to the happiest regions in heaven!" It is easy to imagine the bitter smile with which the Governor read this last ingenuous sentence.

Although this affair of the Oudh Begums may appear to us harsh and unnecessarily severe, we must not be too hasty in apportioning blame. Remember that the money, to which the Begums clung so tenaciously, was never rightfully their own. Remember also the terrible predicament in which Warren Hastings was placed: wars threatening on every side, our Indian conquests in deadly peril of being lost, and an empty treasury. Never, during his long and honourable career, did Hastings act from selfish considerations; the safety of the Empire was his first care throughout, and this no other man could have preserved so well and so disinterestedly. It was a black period in English history. All over the world the mother-country had lost portions of her blood-bought empire. Only in India did she still remain serene and triumphant, and it was entirely owing to the genius and foresight of the Governor-General that this was so. Warren Hastings' reign was now nearly over. But before we follow him over the water to England, let us briefly review the course events had taken in the Deccan. In that ever-shifting kaleidescope of warring powers, where Maráthás and Muhammadans and British engaged in ceaseless conflict, many strange happenings had occurred. Among the native chiefs a new leader had arisen, terrible in his might, who threatened to put all other rivals in the shade. This was the great Haidar Ali, Rajah of Mysore, the fiercest and most daring soldier of his time. With a huge army, backed by the strongest artillery then in India, commanded by over four hundred French and European officers, he rushed from his native highlands to scatter death and destruction among the peaceful villages of the lowland plain. Against Madras he marched, and the merchants of that ill-defended town wrung hopeless hands over their losses. In the night-time, looking out from the city walls, they could see for miles around the sky reddened with the flames of burning villages. A British army of nearly four thousand men was surrounded and destroyed, a few hundreds alone escaping to fret out their lives in the dungeons of Mysore. Among these wretched captives, who were chained together two by two in their dismal prison, was Sir David Baird, a Scottish officer, noted for his irascible temperament. "I am sorry," remarked, with Spartan calm, his aged mother on hearing of her son's sad fate, "I am sorry for the man who's chained to our Davie!"

It was now that the courage and skill of the Governor-General won their most notable victory. The weak and incapable Governor of Fort St. George was suspended; money and men were despatched hastily southwards. To gallant Eyre Coote was entrusted the command of the expedition. It was a difficult task that lay before him, for matters were looking woefully black for the British. Their Empire in Southern India was all but in ruins; many forts had fallen, and only a few strongholds were now left to them. The French were preparing a great expedition with which they hoped once again to make a bid for eastern supremacy. Fortunate, indeed, was it for England that in the life and death struggle now to be enacted they had a Governor-General so able and so courageous.

The campaign was rich in opportunity for deeds of desperate valour, but none distinguished themselves more in this respect than a young English officer named Lieutenant Flint. The native Governor of Wandewash lay under suspicion of treachery, he was justly suspected by the English of meditating the surrender of the fort to Haidar All. So it came about that a hundred men, with Flint at their head, were sent to take possession of the fort. As they approached the massive building, messengers from the treacherous Governor barred their path. "Come no farther," they cried, "another step and the guns from the fort will destroy you!"

"Tell your master," replied the young lieutenant, "that I am the bearer of a highly important letter from His Highness the Nabob. It is imperative that I should deliver it into his hands alone. I pray, therefore, that I, with a few of my men, may be admitted into the fort for this purpose."

To this request the Governor refused at first to listen. Eventually, he consented to receive the letter in the space which lay between the outer and the inner barrier of the fort. Accompanied only by four faithful Sepoys, Lieutenant Flint went forward on his perilous venture. He found the Governor sitting cross-legged on a luxurious carpet. Around him stood his chief officers, while thirty swordsmen, glittering weapons in hand, acted as his personal guard. Farther behind a company of soldiers, fierce of aspect, with white teeth and gleaming eyes, bent suspicious glances upon the fearless strangers.

"Where is your letter?" demanded the Governor. The lieutenant was obliged to confess that he had not got one.

"But I have," said he, "the order of Sir Eyre Coote, who is acting in concert with the Nabob."

The Governor cared little for the orders of the British general; angrily he told the young officer to begone, and rose to depart into the fort. But before he could gain his feet, Lieutenant Flint had thrown himself forward and seized him by the throat; simultaneously the four Sepoys levelled their weapons at his breast.

"Raise a hand for rescue," cried the Englishman, "and you die."

At this moment the remainder of the British detachment rushed into the fort, and within a few minutes Wandewash was won.

Haidar All, to whom on this very day the place was to have been surrendered, strained every nerve to obtain possession of it. Bravely the lieutenant held out, but it was not until his last cartridge had been expended that the fort and its heroic defenders were relieved.

A few months previously another officer had covered himself with glory by wresting from the Maráthás the well-nigh impregnable fortress of Gwalior. From Bengal the valiant Captain Popham had set out on a perilous march through Central India. His success was phenomenal, and a series of brilliant military feats did much to restore the credit of British arms. But his crowning triumph was yet to come. The commencement of the rainy season found the intrepid officer encamped at the foot of this famous "Gibraltar of the East." It was indeed an imposing spectacle that met his eye. On the summit of a stupendous rock, scarped all around, the mighty fortress stood, its massive ramparts and Saracenic battlements and towers giving an impression of tremendous strength. To gain it by assault seemed hopeless in the extreme; even the doughty Eyre Coote had said that any such attempt would be an act of madness. But Popham had set this "glorious object," as he termed it, before him, and was resolved, come what may, to accomplish it.

For two months be lay about the fortress, maturing his bold plan with the utmost secrecy. At length, however, the fateful night arrived when he determined to put all to the hazard. With their feet wrapped in cotton, the storming party, led by Captain Bruce, silently ascended to the base of the scarped rock. By means of scaling ladders they mounted the first defence, a solid wall of smooth rock, sixteen feet high. Then a steep ascent of forty feet was climbed, and a wall thirty feet in height loomed before them. With the aid of ropes this obstacle in its turn was successfully negotiated, and the heroic company found themselves standing within the precincts of the famous stronghold. Not long was their presence undiscovered, and musket shots and warlike cries speedily awoke the echoes of the night. But the garrison were unprepared, and their resistance soon gave way before the fierce onslaught of our soldiers. Ere the dawn of another day the Union Jack, proudly floating from the topmost turret of the castle, had proclaimed to the world a notable triumph of British arms.

In the south Sir Eyre Coote was conducting a vigorous campaign. But skillful general as he was, he allowed himself to be drawn into a very awkward trap. His small force of only eight thousand men, encamped on the sea coast at Cuddalore, found itself hemmed in between two powerful enemies. Behind them on the hills was the immense army of Mysore; on the sea lay anchored a squadron of French battleships. But for the cowardice of the French admiral matters might have gone very hard for the British. In vain Haidar All prayed the admiral to stand by and assist him; never before had there been such an opportunity of annihilating the British troops. For some inexplicable reason Count d'Orves refused to fight and the angry Rajah beheld the French ships sail slowly out of sight.

Haidar All had still much the better position. Yet his mighty hosts, outnumbering the British by twenty-five to one, were of no avail against the desperate courage of their adversaries. Amid the sand-heaps of Port-Novo, Eyre Coote won a glorious victory; and over ten thousand of the enemy were left lifeless on the field.

Happily, the end was near. Haidar All died shortly afterwards, with his dying breath entreating his son to make terms with the British, while the Peace of Versailles in 1783 brought to an end our warfare with the French.

Warren Hastings had accomplished his life's work—how well, let history testify! Alas, that all his noble efforts should have been so basely rewarded! We know the history of his impeachment by the Commons; and how, sacrificed by Pitt and maligned by Francis, he was made the butt for the greatest orators in England to hurl their bitterest and most impassioned rhetoric against. We know, too, how the famous° trial dragged out a length of seven weary years before the end was reached, and the great Governor-General received his verdict of acquittal. There is no need to enter here into that sad and disgraceful episode. In spite of the ingratitude of his contemporaries, England to-day is proud to acclaim Warren Hastings among the greatest of her sons.