Struggle for Sea Power - M. B. Synge

The Trial of Warren Hastings

"When mercy seasons justice."


While Captain Cook was discovering new lands for his country, and America was asserting her independence, events of great importance were taking place in India.

Robert Clive, the victor of Plassey and founder of the Indian Empire, was dead, but the East India Company had found an able successor in Warren Hastings, a man whose name is "writ large across a very important page of Indian history."

Warren Hastings was born in 1732, at a time when the fortunes of his family were at a very low ebb and the old home of his ancestors had passed into strangers' hands. His father was very poor, and little Warren went to the village school. But at the age of seven the boy made a plan. It was to lead him through many glories and many crimes. One bright summer day he lay on the bank of a stream that flowed through the lands of his forefathers, and as he gazed at the old dwelling of his race he swore to himself that some day he would win back his inheritance.

At the age of seventeen he sailed to India as a clerk in the employ of the East India Company. Before long he came under the notice of Clive, who noted him as promising; and he was soon appointed to posts of importance, first at Bengal, then at Calcutta, and later at Madras. In 1771, a few years after Clive's retirement, he was made Governor of Bengal. Here his work was gigantic. He brought order out of chaos; he extended the British Empire in India by his genius, by his patience, by his untiring energy. He enriched the East India Company, and in 1773 he became Governor-General of all the English possessions in India. But his rule henceforth was one of oppression, and misery followed in its train. When he marched against the great Indian warrior, Hyder Ali, who had overrun lands under British sway, he allowed whole native villages to be set on fire, slaughtered the inhabitants, or swept innocent people into captivity.

Here is a story of that injustice which afterwards brought Warren Hastings into such trouble at home. He wanted money not only for himself but for the Company. The Raja of Benares, on the Ganges, was bound to render a certain sum of money to the East India Company every year. The Governor-General now called on him to pay an additional sum, but the Raja delayed. Then Warren Hastings fined him for his delay, and went to Benares to collect the sum himself. With reckless courage he entered the city on the Ganges with a mere handful of men. The Raja still refused to pay the extra fine, and Warren Hastings had him arrested at once and shut in his palace. The palace was guarded by two companies of sepoys or native soldiers, under English officers. But the men of Benares were furious: they killed the Englishmen and slaughtered the sepoys. The Raja then lowered himself to the ground by a rope made of turbans, crossed the Ganges, and made his escape.

Warren Hastings meanwhile was in great peril. He fled for his life, under cover of darkness, from the angry city. Then he sent troops against the mutinous Raja, declared his estates forfeit, and obtained large sums of money, much of which never found its way at all into the treasury of the East India Company.

Rumours of his conduct reached England, and when he returned home in the summer of 1785 he found many of his countrymen boiling with wrathful indignation. There was a statesman named Burke who had a passion for justice. In his eyes the whole career of Warren Hastings in India was stained by a long succession of unjust acts. He had watched the growing empire in India for years with rising wonder and wrath. If England's glory in the East depended on unjust deeds, then he, for his part, would have "refused the gain and shuddered at the glory." With the return of Hastings the time was ripe to strike a severe blow at this system of oppression.

A new spirit of mercy and pity was abroad in England. A sympathy for the sufferings of mankind was moving Englishmen to improve the condition of their jails, to raise hospitals for the sick, to send missionaries to the heathen, and to make crusades against the slave trade. So when Burke made known the conduct of Warren Hastings in India, there was a general outcry throughout the land.

On February 13, 1788, the famous trial that was to last seven years opened in London at Westminster Hall. The great historic place was crowded to overflowing. Its old grey walls were hung with scarlet; the approaches were lined with soldiers; 170 peers attended in robes of scarlet and ermine. The Prince of Wales—afterwards George IV.—was there. All the rank and beauty of England seemed gathered in the great hall on this winter morning.

Warren Hastings entered. He was a small man; his face was pale and worn. He was dressed in a plain poppy-coloured suit of clothes; he bore himself with courage and dignity.

But it was not until Burke, his accuser, rose to speak that the feelings of that great audience were stirred. As England's great orator rose, a scroll of papers in his hand, there was a breathless silence. He began by giving his hearers a vivid picture of Eastern life and customs. Then he accused Warren Hastings of having defied the laws of these Indian people over whom he was ruling in the name of England, of outraging their old customs, destroying their temples, and taking their money by dishonest means. To such a pitch of passion did Burke rise, that every listener in that vast hall, including Warren Hastings himself, held his breath in an agony of horror. So great grew the excitement, that women were carried out fainting, smelling bottles were handed round, while sobs and even screams were heard on every side. The orator ended his famous speech with these words: "Therefore hath it with all confidence been ordered by the Commons of Great Britain that I impeach Warren Hastings of high crimes and misdemeanours; I impeach him in the name of the English nation, whose ancient honour he hath sullied; I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose rights he hath trodden under foot and whose country he has turned into a desert; lastly, 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."

This was the beginning of the trial: the end was very different. As year after year passed, it still continued. Public interest in it almost ceased as other great events claimed the attention of England. It was not till 1795—seven years afterwards—that the verdict was at last given. Meanwhile public feeling had changed. Pity had arisen for the little Governor-General of India,—the man who had once ruled over fifty millions of people,—as the trial dragged on. And when he was acquitted, there was almost universal applause. Burke had failed to convict the man, but he taught Englishmen that mercy and justice must play their part in the government of the British Empire beyond the seas, and that national honour must go hand in hand with national prosperity.

And Warren Hastings himself? He was a free man now, and he spent the rest of his days at the old home of his forefathers, towards which he had yearned as a little boy, and which he had now won back through much toil and tribulation.