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Edmund Burke on the impeachment of Warren Hastings (1788)

Introduction: Warren Hastings (1732-1818) was the first Governor General of India (1778-1884). He resigned, returned to England, was impeached for his conduct in India and had to face a trial by Parliament. He was acquitted in 1795. Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was a Member of Parliament (House of Commons) and became known for his trenchant criticism of the French Revolution. He was the foremost speaker in the trial of Hastings and was commissioned by the House of Commons to report to the House of Lords on this trial. He addressed the House of Lords several times from February 15 to 19, 1788.
(see also AHOI, Ch.5, section: Warren Hastings: The architect of an empire)

.....The question is not solely whether the prisoner at the bar be found innocent or be found guilty, but whether millions of mankind shall be miserable or happy. You do not decide the case only; you fix a rule. For your Lordships will undoubtedly see, in the course of this cause, that there is not only a long, connected, systematic, course of misdemeanor, but an equally connected system of maxims and principles invented to justify them, upon which your lordships must judge. It is according to the judgment that you shall pronounce upon the past transactions of India, connected with those principles, that the whole rule, tenure, tendency and character of our future government in India is to be finally decided......
We have brought before your lordships the head, the chief, the captain-general in inquity – one in whom all the frauds, all the peculations, all the violence, all the tyranny in India are embodied, disciplined and arrayed....
Mr. Hastings first broke through that service (of the East India Company) by making offices which had no reference to gradation, but which were superior in profit  to those which the highest gradation might have acquired.  He established whole systems of offices.., and he filled them in such a manner as suited best his own views and purposes; so that in effect the whole of that order, whatever merit was in it, was by him broken down and subverted....
The East India Company in India is not the British nation. When the Tartars entered China... when the Normans came to England they came as a nation. The Company in India does not exist as a nation... They are a republic, a commonwealth without a people. They are a state made up wholly of magistrates... being a kingdom of magistrates, the esprit de corps is strong in it  - the spirit of the body by which they consider themselves as having a common interest... separated both from the country that sent them out and from the country in which they are, and where there is no control by persons who understand their language, who understand their manners, or can apply their conduct to the laws of the country. Such control does not exist in India.
..... But these men are sent over to exercise functions at which a statesman here would tremble. without any study, without any of that sort of experience which forms men gradually and insensibly to great affairs....... Mr. Hastings has himself, in his de fence before the House of Commons ... lamented his own situation in particular. It was much to be lamented indeed. How far it will form a justification of his conduct, when we come to examine this conduct, will be seen...... He was fourteen years at the head of that service, and there is not one single instance in which he endeavoured to detect corruption, in which he ever attempted to punish it, but this whole service with that whole mass of enormity slept, as it were, under his terror and his protection – his protection if they did not dare to move against him, his terror from his power to pluck out individuals and make a public example of them whenever he pleased.
.............
Now your lordships see the whole of the revolutions. I have stated them, I trust, with perspicuity.... You saw the native government vanish away by degrees, until it is reduced to a situation fit for nothing, but to become a private perquisite, as it has been, to Mr. Hastings, to be granted to whom he please.
... But he has told your lordships in his defence, that actions in Asia do not bear the same moral qualities as the same actions would bear in Europe. My lords, we positively deny that principle... we are to let your lordships know that these gentlemen have formed a plan of geographical morality, by which the duties of men in public and in private situations are not to be governed by their relations to the great governor of the universe, or by their relations to men, but by climates, degrees of longitude and latitude.... as if, when you have crossed the equinoctial line, all the virtues die....
Mr. Hastings comes before your lordships not as a British Governor answering to a British tribunal, but as a subahdar (Indian provincial governor), as a Pascha... He says: “I had an arbitrary power to exercise; I exercised it. Slaves I found the people, slaves they are. They are so by their constitution, and if they are, I did not make it for them. I was unfortunately bound to exercise this arbitrary power and accordingly I did exercise it....“
I charge Mr. Hastings... with having destroyed, for private purposes, the whole system of government by the six provincial councils which he had no right to destroy..... I charge him with taking bribes of Gunga Govind Sing (Ganga Govind Singh, Maharaja of Benares) ..... I charge him with having robbed those people from whom he took the bribes. I charge him with having fraudulently alienated the fortunes of widows. I charge him with having ... taken the lands of orphans and given them to wicked persons under him. ...... and with  having destroyed the landed interests, cruelly harassed the peasants, burnt their houses, seized their crops, tortured and degraded their persons, and destroyed the honour of the whole female race of that country.
            In the name of the Commons of England, I charge all this villainy upon Warren Hastings in this last minute of my application to you..........

(A.B. Keith (ed.), Speeches and Documents on Indian Policy 1750- 1921 (London, 1922), Vol. I, p. 114 f.)

 

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