The Oudh Begums and Warren Hastings
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
[Ed. This short section follows on from the revolts of Haidar Ali and Tippu Sahib, and the annexation of Benares, and covers the measures introduced by Hastings and Impey to exert greater British control over Bengal]
The Oudh Begums
Next comes the affair of the Oudh Begums. Asaf ud-Daulah, having his revenues seriously curtailed as compared with those of his father by the action of the Bengal government controlled by the Triumvirate, failed to meet his obligations. The Bengal government threatened him, whereupon he pointed out that he would have been able to meet his obligations if the British had not guaranteed to the Begums the treasure which ought to have been at his disposal. That guarantee had been given by the vote of the majority of the council, in flat defiance of the Governor-General. But the Triumvirate was now dissolved, and Hastings considered himself at liberty to withdraw the guarantee. Moreover, there was again the excuse that the Begums were more than suspected of having encouraged and supported Cheyte Singh.
Hastings cancelled the guarantee; the wazir proceeded to make seizure of the treasure; the Begums resisted, and were declared to be in a state of rebellion, which justified his intervention. With the help of the British, the wazir had no difficulty in enforcing his claims; but, as in the case of the Rohillas, no proper steps were taken to prevent him from adopting oriental methods in the treatment of the Begums and their supporters, although ultimately the Begums were placed upon a fairly liberal allowance.
There is no possible doubt that in both these cases Hastings was actuated by the pressing need of replenishing the exchequer, and that a severity was exercised for which only extreme need could furnish a plausible excuse. But indubitably the extreme need was there, and, judged by native standards and native practice, the Governor-General's action was a mere matter of course.
A third matter which has been employed to blacken the fair fame not so much of Hastings as of Chief Justice Impey is the contest between the supreme court and the council, and the compromise by which it was terminated. We have seen that the judges sent out from England claimed to be responsible only to the Crown, not to the council in India or to the directors and proprietors at home. They seem to have regarded it as their special function to call government officials to account. The company's officers were perpetually haled before the court sitting at Calcutta by every wine, with a grievance real or fictitious, until the administration was brought almost to a standstill.
At length the council, who had control of the troops, were driven to ordering the orders of the courts to be ignored. Such a state of things could not be allowed to continue. Hastings had no wish to rob the supreme court of legitimate authority, but an authority which endeavoured to override the Government itself could not be regarded as legitimate.
As matters stood, the ordinary jurisdiction in the country for criminal cases was in the hands of the nawab's officials, while the fiscal and civil jurisdictions were in the hands of the company's revenue officers, the fiscal questions being those of primary importance. Hastings separated the civil and fiscal courts, and constituted a court of appeal in Calcutta; and he offered the presidency of this court of appeal to Impey as an officer of the company. By this means the practical supervision of legal administration was put in the hands of the Chief Justice, although, acting as an officer of the company, he was, in that position, responsible to the council.
The compromise was a perfectly reasonable method of getting rid of a hopeless deadlock. Macaulay has succeeded in translating the transaction into a huge piece of corruption on the part of Impey, because a substantial salary was attached to his new position; but in fact it was only by the expedient of enabling him to exercise supervisory functions as a servant of the company that he could be freed from the necessity of exercising them as an independent authority, and he could not exercise them as an independent authority without coming into collision with the council.
The arrangement was a modus vivendi which required sanction from home to be rendered permanent, and the purpose in view was substantially achieved. Impey, however, was consistently a supporter of Hastings, and consequently his conduct, like that of Hastings himself, was habitually distorted and misrepresented by the cabal in England, whose presentation of the case against Hastings generally won public acceptance until the investigations of a later age revealed their injustice.