Warren Hastings, after the portrait by Lawrence
Warren Hastings, after the portrait by Lawrence

While King George's government was forcing on the rupture with the colonies in America, while the British nation was fighting its own offspring, and losing the major portion of its empire in the Western Hemisphere, and finally was struggling desperately to preserve its own existence as the premier maritime Power, events of hardly less importance were fixing firmly the foundations of British dominion in India. Almost Warren Hastings might have said, "Alone I did it." The achievement was his, for almost without exception his colleagues thwarted and counteracted him at every turn, and half of the difficulties which were not imposed upon him by their actual malice were the outcome of the blundering stupidity of authorities who acted without reference to him. He had no voice in the selection of the colleagues or the authorities who thwarted him. The. directors from home sent him admirable moral instructions, but instead of providing means for carrying them out, clamoured for handsome profits. He was. forced into wars with the country powers, while his own country could spare neither ships nor troops to help him. And in the face of these enormous difficulties he preserved the British power and left it on a footing which enabled his successors to secure a decisive ascendency.

Clive did much to reduce the evils which had followed naturally upon the sudden acquisition of a vast irresponsible power by a trading company. But he could not create an imperial system single-handed. The company's servants still evaded their responsibilities, still utilised their opportunities to make improper profits, and still neglected to make it their first aim to learn how the new territories ought to be governed. There was still no central British authority in India. The three Presidencies of Madras, Bengal, and Bombay were governed each by its own governor and council, and by land no one of them could even communicate with another except across Maratha territory.

Hastings appointed
In 1772 Warren Hastings, then acting as second official in Madras, was made Governor of Bengal, where before Clive's last visit to India he had been honourably distinguished by his efforts to support Vansittart in check­ing the general misrule. It was not till two years later that the Governor of Bengal was elevated into the position of Governor-General of the British dominions in India. An account of the career of Warren Hastings must still to a very large extent take the form of a defence, because the literary forces ' which were arrayed to denounce him during the best part of a century were so powerful and were applied with such picturesque effect as to produce the almost indelible but exceedingly misleading impression of an able but unscrupulous and tyrannical governor, who achieved his ends very largely by grossly iniquitous methods.

The Rohilla War
The first instance is that of the Rohilla war which took place while he was only Governor of Bengal. Macaulay's exceedingly picturesque account, given in his essay on Warren Hastings, is a quite astonishing distortion of demonstrable truth. Just before the outbreak of hostilities between French and British, about the time when Nadir Shah swept over the north-west of India and sacked Delhi, a band of Mohammedan Afghans called the Rohillas made themselves masters of the territory lying on the north-western frontier of the province of Oudh. In 1770 some forty thousand Rohillas dominated the very much larger Hindu population in occupation of the soil. They were lords there by right of conquest and nothing else; they had been there for considerably less than half a century. They were a fighting race, and they rendered considerable service to Ahmed Shah when he smote the Marathas at Paniput. The Marathas wanted to punish them; they appealed to the wazir of Oudh for defence against the Marathas, and the wazir, counting them a valuable buffer against Maratha aggression, promised to defend them in consideration of a large indemnity.

The Rohillas did not pay the indemnity, and the wazir believed, or pretended to believe, that they were arranging a compact with the Marathas for the partition of Oudh. He put the case to Hastings that the expulsion of the Rohillas and the annexation of Rohilkhand to Oudh were necessary for the preservation of Oudh against an alliance between Marathas and Rohillas. And he invited Hastings to participate by lending him troops, for which assistance substantial payment would be made. The preserva­tion of Oudh was an essential feature of the policy laid down by Clive and adopted by Hastings, who acceded to Shujah Daulah's proposals and sent a force to help in the suppression of the Rohillas. Experience had not yet taught the necessity of stipulating that British assistance should not be given unless the operations of war were carried on under British control. The wazir conducted the war upon oriental principles, in spite of protests from the British commander; but the suggestion that Hastings lent himself to an act of wanton aggression by a greedy and cruel potentate against an idyllic community for the sake of a bribe is preposterously remote from the fact.

The Regulating Act
Meanwhile, Government at home had awakened to the fact that the British nation must accept some share of responsibility for the government of India. A commission of inquiry gave an opening for a virulent attack upon Clive in parliament, but, to the credit of the country, the House rejected a proposed vote of censure, and affirmed instead that Clive had rendered great services to the state. But while parliament exonerated the man to whom the country owed so much, it applied itself also to a singular experiment in constitution making. It devised for India the system of Lord North's Regulating Act. The Governor of Bengal was to be Governor General of India; the governors of fhe other two Presidencies being subordinate. But he was to have a nominated council consisting of four members besides himself. The votes of the five members of council were of equal force, the Governor-General having a casting vote only when the voting was otherwise equal. Also there was to be a High Court of Justice consisting of four judges, who were to be responsible not to the Govern­ment of India but to the Crown. Three members of the new council were sent out from England, who apparently regarded themselves as a com­mittee appointed for the express purpose of overriding the will of the Governor-General in every particular. It would hardly have been possible to devise a scheme more hopelessly impracticable. Moreover, the Government of India was itself in the long run responsible to the management of the East India Company in London, which was vested in two bodies, the court of directors and the court of proprietors or large shareholders.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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