Warren Hastings: First Governor of India
Lady Robert is delighted with P. and P., and really was so, as I understand, before she knew who wrote it, for, of course, she knows now. He told her with as much satisfaction as if it were my wish. He did not tell me this, but he told Fanny. And Mr. Hastings! I am quite delighted with what such a man writes about it. Henry sent him the books after his return from Daylesford, but you will hear the letter too.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
Sept. 15, 1813
Warren Hastings (December 6, 1732 – August 22, 1818) was the first governor-general of British India, from 1773 to 1785. He was famously impeached in 1787 for corruption, and acquitted in 1795. He was made a Privy Councillor in 1814.
Hastings was born at Churchill, Oxfordshire. He attended Westminster School before joining the British East India Company in 1750 as a clerk. In 1757 he was made the British Resident (administrative in charge) of Murshidabad. He was appointed to the Calcutta council in 1761, but was back in England in 1764. He returned to India in 1769 as a member of the Madras council and was made governor of Bengal in 1772. In 1773, he was appointed the first Governor-General of India.
In late 1752 or early 1753 George Austen’s sister, Philadelphia Austen was taken from her post, apprenticing to a Milliner, and sent off to India to “find a husband”. Both George and Philadelphia had been orphaned early in life and educated at the expense of an Uncle. Already in her twenties and without prospects in England, this trip was her last chance to marry. Six months after her arrival she married an elderly surgeon, Tysoe Hancock, who was a friend to Warren Hastings. Eight years later, a daughter was born to Philadelpia. Was she the product of a long and loveless marriage or was she, as some gossips of the time claimed, Warren Hasting’s “natural child”? We may never know for certain, but we do know that years later, Eliza named her only son Hastings and was left a financial legacy in Mr. Hasting’s will. The Austen family always felt a kinship to Mr. Hastings and Jane Austen sent him a copy of Pride and Prejudice.
During Hastings’ time as governor, a great deal of precedent was established pertaining to the methods which the British Raj would use in its rule over India. Hastings had a great respect for the ancient scripture of Hinduism and fatefully set the British position on governance as one of looking back to the earliest precedents possible. This allowed Brahmin advisors to mold the law, as no Englishman understood Sanskrit until Sir William Jones; it also accentuated the caste system and other religious frameworks which had, at least in recent centuries, been somewhat incompletely applied. Thus, British influence on the ever-changing social structure of India can in large part be characterized as, for better or for worse, a solidification of the privileges of the caste system through the influence of the exclusively high-caste scholars by whom the British were advised in the formation of their laws. These laws also accepted the binary division of the people of Bengal and, by extension, India in general as either Muslim or Hindu (to be governed by their own laws).
In 1781 Hastings founded Madrasa ‘Aliya, meaning the higher madrasa, in Calcutta showing his relations with the Muslim population. In addition, in 1784 Hastings supported the foundation of the Bengal Asiatik Society by the Orientalist Scholar William Jones, which became a storehouse for information and data pertaining to India.
As Hastings had few Englishmen to carry out administrative work, and still fewer with the ability to converse in local tongues, he was forced to farm out revenue collection to locals with no ideological friendship for Company rule. Moreover, he was ideologically committed at the beginning of his rule to the administation being carried out by ‘natives’. He believed that European revenue collectors would “open the door to every kind of rapine and extortion” as there was “a fierceness in the European manners, especially among the lower sort, which is incompatible with the gentle temper of the Bengalee”.
British desire to assert themselves as the sole sovereign led to conflicts within this ‘dual government’ of Britons and Indians. Moreover, the unsustainable levels of revenue extraction and exportation of Bengali silver back to Britain led to the famine of 1769-70, in which it is estimated that a third of the population died, led to the British characterising the collectors as tyrants and blaming them for the ruin of the province.
Some Englishmen continued to be seduced by the opportunities to acquire massive wealth in India and as a result became involved in corruption and bribery, and Hastings could do little or nothing to stop it. Indeed, it was argued, unsuccessfully, at his subsequent impeachment trial, that he participated in the widespread exploitation of these newly conquered lands.
Hastings resigned in 1784 and returned to England. He was charged with high crimes and misdemeanors by Edmund Burke, and Sir Philip Francis whom he had wounded in a duel in India. He was impeached in 1787 but the trial, which began in 1788, ended with his acquittal in 1795. Hastings spent most of his fortune on his defence, although the East India Company did contribute towards the end of the trial.
The city of Hastings, New Zealand and the Melbourne outer suburb of Hastings, Victoria, Australia were both named after him.