India - Victor Surridge

Governor Versus Council

The 19th of October 1774 is a memorable date in Indian annals. On that day, to the thundering salute of seventeen guns, an English ship sailed up the Hugli and deposited on the landing-stage at Calcutta several very eminent persons: none other, indeed, than the new judges, whom Parliament, in its wisdom, had chosen to purify the founts of eastern justice, and three of the new Councillors. The fourth, Barwell by name, was already in Bengal and was an able and experienced servant of the Company.

Unfortunately for themselves—more unfortunately for Hastings—the newcomers entertained very exalted opinions of their office. Of India, its peoples, customs, manners, and conditions, they knew nothing. This, however, did not prevent them from forming strong views upon the subject. It was, thought they, a country given over to corruption, oppression, and vice; to them belonged the noble task of setting things to rights. Wherefore, it was agreed, Warren Hastings, in allowing them a salute of only seventeen guns, had been guilty of a grave discourtesy. Surely the benevolent saviours of a downtrodden race were entitled to at least twenty-one! Crimson with wrath the little group strode majestically down the gangway. As they stepped on shore an inquisitive crowd quickly flocked around them, and for the first time the new dignitaries beheld the people they were called upon to govern. Can you not imagine the admixture of compassion and contempt with which they regarded them? One of the judges, noticing a peculiarity in native garb, turned to a colleague in horror and bewilderment. "How terrible," he gasped, "is the plight of this unhappy people! Do you not actually see them walking about bare-legged and bare-footed? Our court, brother, was certainly not established before its time. I trust we shall not have been six months in the country before these victims of oppression are comfortably provided with shoes and stockings!"

On the day following this auspicious event, Hastings dissolved by proclamation the existing government, and took his seat at the head of the Council Board, the first Governor-General of India.

It was a difficult, well-nigh an impossible, task that lay before him. The three new Councillors were his avowed opponents; they had pledged themselves to carry out crude and ill-considered reforms; they constituted a majority of the Board. Before very long the Governor-General found himself a mere cipher. The control of affairs had passed out of his hands into those of his subordinates. Rumours of his impending fall swiftly flew from mouth to mouth. Few there were who did not regard him as a ruined man. A weaker than he would have thrown up the unequal struggle in despair; Hastings was built of sterner stuff.

Never, perhaps, has the warfare of words been more bitterly, more determinedly waged than in this little Council chamber at Calcutta. Let us try to conjure up the scene and consider for a moment what manner of men these were who took part in such rancorous controversy.

Pale of countenance, thoughtful, even mild of expression, yet grim and indomitable of purpose, sits Warren Hastings. A deep scholar, a profound thinker, steeped to the finger-tips in the knowledge of the east and its ways, he eyes his newly-arrived colleagues with little favour. What can they know, thinks he, of the vast problems constantly engaging his attention? On one side is Barwell, his friend and ally; on the other the triumphant majority consisting of Philip Francis, General Clavering, and Colonel Monson.

A study of the notorious correspondence known as the Letters of Junius  will yield a very fair idea of what Philip Francis, their reputed author, was like. Macaulay has summed up his character admirably well. "He was," wrote the great essayist, "clearly a man not destitute of real patriotism and magnanimity, a man whose vices were not of a sordid kind. But he must also have been a man in the highest degree arrogant and insolent; a man prone to malevolence, and prone to the error of mistaking his malevolence for public virtue." If this indeed be a true picture of the man who now became Hastings's inveterate foe, their fierce and headstrong rivalry, culminating in the historic duel, is easy to understand.

To trace their quarrel from its source it is necessary to go back a few years. When Lord Clive left India for the last time he had established in Bengal a system of double government by which, although the British were the real masters, the administration of the country was left in the hands of native ministers. There was also a Nabob, an infant son of the egregious Mir Jafar, who lived in regal magnificence and was treated with all courtesy and respect; but since he possessed no more authority in affairs of state than the meanest of his household, he does not figure very prominently in the story. At the time of its conception Clive's scheme was hailed as a masterpiece of ingenuity. It served its immediate purpose well enough, but after the lapse of a few years the system became unworkable. The Company made up their mind to abolish it. They decided to take the entire responsibilities of government upon themselves, and on Hastings fell the task of carrying out the revolution.

In the fair city of Murshidabad, Muhammad Raza Khán, the minister whom Clive had chosen to rule Bengal, lived in lordly state. Great, indeed, was his power; for to no one but the British was he responsible for his doings. Other wealthy natives, who had hoped that Clive's choice would fall on them, regarded his position with covetous eyes. But by none was he more envied than by the Brahmin Nanda Kumár, a great noble who added to his immense riches and vast influence a whole-souled capacity for intrigue and mendacity which could be excelled by no man. For was he not a Bengalee—that ever servile race, who make up for lack of courage and manliness by an overwhelming talent for deceit, falsehood, and chicanery? His agents were everywhere; even in London the Directors felt his power. For in the dark recesses of Nanda Kumár's mind lurked the design to oust his rival from his high position, and over the fallen body to grasp the reins of state. Unwearyingly, pitilessly, he pursued his deep-laid scheme. By every means an unscrupulous ingenuity could devise the authority of the minister was weakened and undermined. It was not only a duel between individuals; it was the rivalry of race and of creed. Raza Khán was a Persian and a Mussulman; his opponent a Hindú of the purest caste.

Of this silent struggle for place Warren Hastings was an interested spectator. To him the Brahmin's mind was like a shallow stream, the pebbly bed of which is plainly visible beneath the waters; to others, probably, it was as a still unfathomable lake, whose depths merely mirrored the faces of those who looked therein. For to very few men is it given to read the mind of a high-born Hindú priest. It is a literature no alphabet will teach; an art to which no path of learning leads. You may well imagine that Hastings, with his knowledge of Nanda Kumár's character, was very loath to entrust him with a position of responsibility. Nevertheless, when it came to a question of deposing Raza Khán, he saw that the Brahmin's cupidity might be turned to good account. His vindictive accusations, however lightly based, would serve as a pretext for the minister's arrest. The truth of them could be thrashed out afterwards.

One night Raza Khán awoke to find his palace surrounded by British troops. Calmly and with dignity he submitted to arrest. The fatalism of the east forbade any emotional display. Nor was he the only one whom Hastings found it necessary to remove. The government of Behar had been entrusted to a valiant chief named Shitáb Rái. A brave man this, who had served the English well and faithfully, and had shed his life's blood on their behalf. It may seem to us hard that his valour and fidelity should be rewarded with deposition and arrest; but under the circumstances Hastings had no alternative course. Before a British government could be set up, native rule had to come to an end, and with the rule, the rulers.

After a weary wait of many months, the fallen ministers were brought face to face with their accusers. Against Shitáb Rái no charges could be sustained; a brief hearing ended in his honourable acquittal. But his lofty and intrepid spirit had received a grievous wound, which not even the humble apology tendered, nor the marks of honour showered on him, could ever wholly salve. A short while after his release he died—many say of a broken heart.

With Muhammad Raza Khán it was otherwise. With eyes glinting with evil passions and countenance aglow with malicious triumph, Nanda Kumár poured forth a hot torrent of eloquent abuse and poisonous accusation against his old-time rival. His lean body shook with hatred as he dilated on the unhappy Persian's sins. Charges so serious, backed with such rancour and skill, were not easily got rid of; Raza Khán had some difficulty in establishing his innocence. In the end it was decided that the charges had not been made out, and the ex-minister received his freedom.

Already the Brahmin beheld himself raised to exalted rank. Not for nothing had been his scheming and toiling, his perversion and perjury! His enemy, although at liberty, was no longer in power; for the vacant throne he himself was the only possible claimant. How he must have rejoiced at the fair prospect which lay before him! Yet in his cunning he had overreached himself. The post of Minister was abolished, and Nanda Kumár found himself no better off than before! It is easy to picture his malignant rage when he discovered how he had been duped and made the unconscious tool of the Governor of Bengal? Henceforward Warren Hastings became the butt of his most deadly malice.

Thus it was that Philip Francis found a powerful ally. Both were working for the Governor's downfall; the Englishman, no doubt, with creditable, if sadly mistaken, motives, the Hindú craving only for revenge. What Nanda Kumár could do in the case of Muhammad Raza Khán, he could do with no less skill in that of Warren Hastings. He set to work and drew up an extraordinary document, wherein were tabulated charges of the most serious nature against the Governor-General. This literary curiosity he presented with great solemnity to his friend Francis. Here was a weapon indeed! It would be a slippery fish, thought they, who should elude such a finely-drawn network of circumstantial lies.

Armed with this ingenious concoction, Philip Francis betook himself to the Council Chamber, and proceeded, with much gusto, to read it aloud to the assembled members. More furiously than ever broke out the discordant elements of party strife. White with indignation, Hastings brushed aside the charges, and denounced the Brahmin in terms of bitter contempt. Nanda Kumár wished to be admitted to the Chamber in support of his allegations. Such a suggestion the Governor refused for a moment to entertain. The Council, he declared, had no right to sit in judgment on their President; they could be neither fair nor impartial in their ruling. In addition to which, it would be beneath his dignity to be confronted by such a creature as Nanda Kumár.

By virtue of their majority, Francis and his friends carried their point: they insisted that the Brahmin should be heard. Warren Hastings rose from the table in disgust, declared the meeting at an end, and left the room, followed by Barwell, his sole supporter. The others, thus left to their own devices, voted themselves a Council, heard Nanda Kumár at length, and affirmed to their own satisfaction that his absurd charges had been fully made out. Solemnly was it decided that Hastings had received bribes to the extent of nearly forty thousand pounds—a sum that, in the opinion of the truculent trio, he ought immediately to refund.

Once again the astute Bengalee had triumphed. He became the most courted man in the province. To his daily receptions flocked the wealthiest of his countrymen, eager—after the manner of their kind—to assist him in the fabrication of evidence even more preposterous than the first. But it was a dangerous thing to arouse the enmity of a man so determined, so powerful, as Warren Hastings. This the Brahmin was shortly to learn to his cost. It will be remembered that in Bengal there was a power quite independent of the Council—a power over which Francis and his colleagues had no control. This was the newly established Supreme Court of Justice. By a curious coincidence, Sir Elijah Impey, the Chief Justice, happened to be an old school-fellow of Hastings. Whether he now came to the rescue of the Governor-General in order to curry favour with his official superior, or because he was anxious to do his erstwhile classmate a good turn, it is difficult to say. But from the character of the man, the former would seem to be the more probable motive.

With dramatic suddenness were the tables turned. Nanda Kumár's glory came to a sudden and an ignominious end. Seized in the law's relentless clutches, the luckless Brahmin, to the consternation of himself, the fury of Francis, and the unbounded astonishment of everybody else, was swiftly and forcibly deposited between the four walls of the Calcutta state gaol. The real reason for his arrest was, of course, obvious; the actual charge was that he had forged a bond some six years previously.

Now began a bitter duel between the Judges and the Council—or, to be more exact, that portion of it represented by the triple alliance. The choler of the latter knew no bounds. That their favourite protégé should be treated with such scant ceremony bordered on the scandalous, it was nothing short of a personal insult to themselves. They demanded the prisoner's instant release on bail. Curtly the Judges refused to deliver up their prey. Their imperious messages being unavailing, the irate Councillors consoled themselves by heaping honours on Nanda Kumár's family. When in due time the captive was brought to trial, it was discovered that his prosecutor was an unassuming native. After a lengthy and impartial hearing, a jury of Englishmen brought in a verdict of guilty. Upon Sir Elijah Impey devolved the duty of passing sentence.

In the eyes of the Brahmin's countrymen forgery was by no means a serious crime. That Nanda Kumár was guilty in this particular instance of counterfeiting a bond there can be little doubt; it is highly probable that in the course of an eventful career he had forged dozens. But under English law the offence was much graver; the punishment was death. Elijah Impey sentenced the prisoner to be hanged.

With horror and dismay was this—to them—utterly barbarous and incomprehensible sentence received by the Hindús. By their laws no Brahmin could be put to death. Such an act would be an impious desecration of their sacred priesthood. The Muhammadans, on the other hand, were openly exultant; they rejoiced to see the enemy of their beloved Raza Khán brought to an untimely end. No one, however, dreamed for a moment that the sentence would be carried out; yet the days passed and no reprieve came; and the captive in his cell grew pale and anxious, waiting for the tidings that should tell him that he was free. He waited in vain. In spite of the frantic efforts of Francis, the denunciations of Monson, and the threats of Clavering (who declared that Nanda Kumár should be rescued even though it were at the foot of the gallows), preparations for the execution went quietly and steadily forward.

It is curious with what stoical indifference an Oriental can meet death. The reason for such sublime courage on the part of men, who in other things are often the most despicable cowards, must surely be found in their religion. For the Hindú has a wonderful creed. Through many millions, it may be, of previous existences he has woven his "Karma"—his mantle of Fate. Why should he fear death?—he who has died countless times in the remote past, who will live and die again, and yet again—what man knoweth how often?—in the distant future. For by such steps only is the mystic Wheel of Life completed, the blessed Nirvana reached, and the eternal oneness with the Universe attained.

With stately dignity Nanda Kumár mounted the scaffold. Calmly he gave the signal, the trap dropped, and motionless as a bronze idol the white-robed figure of the Brahmin hung from the fatal noose. With loud cries of woe and horror the assembled Hindús rushed headlong from the scene, to cleanse themselves from this polluting spectacle in the sacred waters of the Hugli. They had received a lesson they were not likely to forget. Never again, during Hastings' long administration, did the natives presume to bring accusations against him. Truly, as Francis wrote, "after the death of Nuncomar, the Governor, I believe, is well assured that no man who regards his own safety will venture to stand forth as his accuser."

A dark day was now dawning for the British Empire. Heavy war-clouds had drifted across the sky. The American Colonies, rebellious and disloyal, had declared their independence, and fallen from Empire as a rotten branch from a tree. France, ever eager to take advantage of England's embarrassments, had declared war. The south of India was seething with unrest. Sivaji's Maráthás, grown into a mighty power, like a giant octopus, stretched forth colossal tentacles over all parts of the peninsula. Berar was theirs and the vast central provinces; Indore, Gwalior, and Baroda owned their sway. Even Delhi, the stately city of the Moghuls, had not escaped. The feeble descendant of Aurangzebe was a prisoner in his palace. But no longer were the Maráthás bound together under one head. Powerful chiefs had arisen amongst them and established themselves as rulers of separate states. Nominally, they belonged to one Empire, over which the heir of the house of Sivaji pretended to rule.

In reality, however, the latter had little power. He was but a puny princeling, and his chief minister, or Peshwá, guided the helm of state.

It so happened that Hastings found it necessary to embark on a war with the Maráthás. He was now supreme in the Council. The death of Monson had rendered the parties numerically equal; and the casting vote possessed by the Governor-General enabled him to command a majority. But deceived by the promises of Francis, who declared that he would do nothing to interfere with the conduct of the Maráthá war, Hastings allowed Barwell to depart for England. It was a disastrous step. No sooner had the Governor's ally sailed than Francis's behaviour became more arrogant and offensive than ever.

Under this fresh provocation Hastings' sorely tried patience gave way. He accused Francis of being without honour in both public and private life. "You leave me," answered his adversary, "no alternative but to demand personal satisfaction for the affronts you have offered me."

Warren Hastings


At half past five in the morning of August 17, 1780, the two men set out with their seconds for the place of the duel. With some difficulty a suitable site was found. Weapons were loaded, and the combatants took their stand at fourteen paces distant. It was agreed that both should fire together as nearly as could be. Thrice Francis raised his pistol and took careful aim at his great opponent; the third time he pressed the trigger, but the powder was damp and the pistol missed fire. With all chivalry, Hastings lowered his weapon and waited for the other to reload, Once again with faces grim and stern the two men confronted each other. Francis fired first, and missed; a second later the report of Hastings' pistol rang out. His aim was surer. The other reeled, staggered, and fell heavily, muttering thickly that he was a dead man. "Good God, I hope not!" cried the alarmed Governor. Quickly a sheet was brought which Hastings bound tenderly around his adversary's wound, and the stricken man was carried from the field to a neighbouring house.

Fortunately the wound was not mortal. It served, however, to cure Francis of his affection for the Council Chamber at Calcutta, and shortly afterwards he returned to England, there to carry on with unceasing activity his campaign against the Governor-General.