Home Honours Speech On The East India Bill By Edmund Burke Summary & Analysis

Speech On The East India Bill By Edmund Burke Summary & Analysis

speech on east India bill

Speech On The East India Bill Summary & Analysis

Although the Orientalists shared a sympathetic understanding of India, in the case of the impeachment of Warren Hastings, we can also discern a deep rift dividing them. The process of impeaching Hastings was started in 1786 in the House of Commons, with a motion made by Edmund Burke (1729-1797), a famous statesman and conservative thinker, and his friends in the Fox group of the Whigs. Hastings was charged with abuse of his authority as Governor-General and misrule of India. Burke produced twenty-two “Articles of Charges of High Crimes and Misdemeanors” against Hastings. Some of them were passed and Burke succeeded in persuading the House of Commons to impeach Hastings. In 1788, the impeachment trial before the House of Lords started. At first, many people showed a tremendously large interest in the trial held at Westminster Hall, but this interest lasted for that year only and after 1789, people rapidly lost interest. Hastings was ultimately acquitted in 1795. At the time of his acquittal, only twenty-nine members of the House of Lords were in attendance. As part of this long trial, a vast number of arguments concerning India were produced.  However, both the accusers and the accused were famous orientalists,” sharing a pro-Indian attitude. How and why did such a long and bitter dispute flare-up between people fundamentally Sympathy and Prejudice adhering to the same stance, and what was the main issue at stake? To answer these questions, we

have to turn to the two key concepts of “despotism” and “nabob.” The entire affair started with a careless remark made by Hastings. In his defense against a charge leveled against him, he said that the “whole history of Asia is nothing more than precedents to prove the invariable exercise of arbitrary power” (Journals of the House of Commons ).

This statement seems out of character for him, as he was a great patron of Oriental studies in India and sought to rule India following indigenous law and custom. In fact, it has been argued that this part of his defense was not written by himself, but by N. B. Halhed, an Orientalist and writer for the East India Company.  The statement intended to show that some of Hasting’s policies that appeared despotic were in fact merely a continuation of the authority that the local ruler had had over the area

that came under the rule of the East India Company. However, this was clearly an ill-advised strategy, as this statement allowed Burke to harshly attack Hastings himself as a despot.

Mr. Hastings comes before your Lordships not as a British Governor,… but as a Soubahdar, as a Bashaw [Pasha] of three tails. He says: I had an arbitrary power to exercise; I exercised [it]… It was disagreeable to me, but I did exercise it, and no other power can be exercised in that Country… Here he has declared his opinion that he is a despotic prince, that he is to use arbitrary power, and of course all his acts are covered with that shield… He to have arbitrary power!… We have no arbitrary power… We are all born in subjection…to one great, immutable, pre-existent law… All power is of God… I do insist upon it that Oriental Governments know nothing of this arbitrary power… The law is given by God, and it has the double sanction of law and religion, with which the Prince is no more to dispense than anyone else. (Burke 1991 [1788]: 346-53)

Hasting’s careless statement gave Burke ample ammunition for criticism. Burke wanted to take the side of the Indian people and attack Hastings from this position. For this purpose, it was advantageous to depict Hastings as a despot. To take the side of India and maintain a positive image of it, it was necessary to avoid the old negative image of Indian despotism. Hence, Burke attributed all the negative elements in the image of India to Hastings and the East India Company. With this argumentative move, India could be treated not as a culture of despotism, but as a religious culture ruled by law.

A Critique of Nabobs and the Distorted Structure of Sympathy

The attitude outlined above has much to do with criticism leveled in wider British society at the group of so-called nabobs. The term “nabob ” is derived from “nawab,” meaning a Mughal governor or nobleman. “Nabob” was the name given to wealthy retired British who had returned from India with a large fortune. This new class of social upstarts became the target of envy and criticism, as their existence was a threat to the old British social hierarchy. In fact, the impeachment of Hastings was in a sense an indirect attack on these nabobs, and antipathy towards them was one of the main motivational factors in the impeachment. When people began to criticize this new class of nouveau riche, they used the word “nabob.” In the attacks on the nabobs, we can discern the same pattern as that found in Burke’s critique of Hastings. The intention was to criticize a class of upstarts while showing a sympathetic attitude

toward India at the same time.

However, to do so, the critics used existing negative images of Indian society and simply attributed them to the nabobs and Hastings. There were some contradictions inherent in this strategy. On the one hand, the critics denied the existence of indigenous despotism in India, but on the other hand, they used the image of Oriental despotism itself to criticize the nabobs and maintain a sympathetic image of India. Everything negative that could be said about India was simply attributed to the nabobs, who were not only social upstarts but can also be described as representing a group of Indianized British. In this sense, it can be said that the arguments of the critics of the nabobs actually betray a hidden fear and antipathy toward India. Under the veneer of their Indophilia lay an Indophobia that had to be dealt with through subtle manipulation of their distribution of sympathy and antipathy. The antipathy toward the nabobs was quite useful in helping them maintain a sympathetic attitude toward India. It also shows how difficult it is to maintain sympathy toward different cultures. To do this, we normally tend to create a hypothetical enemy to which we can attribute all the “bad” elements of the culture with which we seek to sympathize.

Sympathy and Prejudice: Different Orientalist Perspectives on the Understanding of  Others

(1) Burke’s Concept of “Prejudice” and an Alternative Way to Understand Others

The Orientalists’ understanding of India was a quite sympathetic one. However, to create and maintain this sympathy required the construction of an alternative “Other” onto which any negative elements could be deflected—such as the nabobs and Hastings. Sympathy can indeed be an important tool for understanding and accepting the Other, but it is also true that the same sentiment can result in the creation of a new Other. However, an example of the ideas of further Orientalist shows yet another possibility. Edmund Burke’s idea of “prejudice” is of great interest regarding the Orientalists’ attempts to understand other cultures.

Burke, the famous conservative thinker, placed great importance on tradition, which he understood to be the result of cultural refinement achieved through a society’s long history. This idea is clearly shown in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (Burke 1989 [1790]). He rejected the French Revolution, as it aimed to realize an ideal society through the destruction of the old social system. What Burke wanted to be a gradual reform based on a continuation of tradition. He thought that societies should rest on a basis that was formed by “inheritance” and prescription.” For him, without the refinement brought by these two factors, any idealism is empty and dangerous, where “Men would become little better than the flies of a summer” (Burke 1989 [1790]: 145). Burke referred to this approval and refinement of culture provided by history as “prejudice.” For Burke, those elements rejected by the French revolution as old abuses were in fact the most important things.

When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer. (Burke 1989 [1790]: 129) YOU see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings, that, instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them.

(Burke 1989 [1790]: 138)

His understanding of religion is also based on this concept of prejudice.

First, I beg to leave to speak of our church establishment, which is the first of our prejudices, not a prejudice destitute of reason, but involving in its profound and extensive wisdom. (Burke 1989 [1790]: 142) We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. (Burke 1989 [1790]: 142)

According to this idea, culture, especially religious culture, needs no rational basis. It is “prejudice,” and hence, it is important. When we think of the Orientalists’ understanding of India, Burke’s understanding of culture and religion is quite interesting and important because his ideas enable the acceptance of all kinds of different religious cultures. As different cultures are perceived through the lens of the concept of “prejudice,” adherents to Burke’ s position can accept other cultural traditions without any rational reasoning or sympathetic understanding. Through this way of thinking lies the possibility of breaking out of the stereotyped dichotomy between a rational Occident and a religious Orient. As King argues, it is certainly true that this Orientalist dichotomy has been and still is dominant. However, this argument does not apply to the same extent to eighteenth-century Orientalists’ ideas of India. What Burke rejected was not the religious Orient, but a too-rational and -idealist French Revolution. For him, compared to a rational revolution, a religious India was easier to understand and accept. Here, the dual concept is not a rational Occident versus religious Orient, but a religious/conservative society versus rational revolution.

 Outside the Framework of Sympathy and Prejudice

However, elements are existing outside this dichotomy of sympathy and prejudice. They are those aspects that appeared barbaric to Westerners, something even Orientalists could not sympathize with and wanted to remove from their image of India. The Orientalists tried to include India in their sphere of the “Self,” but this ultimately proved to be practically impossible. We can find one example of this difficulty in the following quote by Jones.

With all my admiration of the truly learned Brahmins, I abhor the sordid priests craft of Durga’s ministers, but such fraud no more affects the sound religion of the Hindus…. (Jones 1970: vol. 1, 856)

Even for Jones, not all aspects of India were acceptable. Another example can be seen in Burke. The quote below is part of a speech by Burke on Fox’s India Bill. Here, too, we can see a strong effort to include India in the sphere of the “Self” by trying to bring it into the realm of the familiar and exorcising elements from his image of India deemed “barbaric.” This multitude of men does not consist of an abject and barbarous populace; much less of gangs of savages, like the Guaranies and Chiquitos, who wander on the waste borders of the river of Amazons, or the Plato; but a people for ages civilized and cultivated;… If I were to take the whole aggregate of our possessions there, I should compare it, as the nearest parallel I can find, with the empire of Germany…  It is an empire of this extent, of this complicated nature, of this dignity and importance, that I have compared to Germany…; not for an exact resemblance, but as a sort of a middle term, by which India might be approximated to our understandings, and if possible to our feelings; to awaken something of sympathy. (Burke 1991 [1788]: 389-90)

Even Orientalists like Burke needed something to which they could attribute all the negative images that India was associated with, all the things that went beyond their understanding and ability to familiarize themselves. As seen before, Hastings and nabobs could serve as this “something.” In the above speech, the role of this “something” was fulfilled by “Guarantees” and “Chiquitos.” Had Burke coherently adhered to his own principle of “prejudice,” he would not have treated these societies as barbaric and used them as a negative cultural marker. He should have equally understood and accepted the significance of these cultures.

This was, however, apparently impossible for him. As he tried to incorporate India into his sphere of understanding, he simultaneously needed to produce something that lay outside this sphere of sympathy and familiarity to which India could be favorably compared. Even Burke himself showed the limits and difficulty inherent in understanding another culture based on his own concept of “prejudice.” If we strictly adhere to this concept, we are forced to accept all forms of different values, regardless of our own likes and dislikes, simply because they represent the “prejudice” of the culture. As we have seen, this extreme relativism was in the end unacceptable to the Orientalists in their understanding of India. However, we can also see that it was in this relativism that lay the possibility of breaking down the simplistic dichotomy between East and West that proved equally to be part of their thought. Orientalists in this period established their understanding of India standing on two different bases. While they sought to understand India based on sympathy, they also showed the possibility of just accepting other cultures without the help of sympathetic understanding, although it proved practically impossible to maintain such a relativist attitude. Here, we can see two different and conflicting ways of facing the Other coexisting in a subtle and fragile balance.

 Colonial India: From Extortion Racket to compulsory Public School

The Company’s presence in India began during the 16th century together with the Portuguese and the French trading companies. Initially, the Company traded in spices and later also in silk and cotton. In the second half of the 18th century enormous profits were made by exporting Indiangrown opium to China and importing Chinese tea to the western markets. At that time the Indian subcontinent was divided into a myriad of more or less independent principalities and fiefdoms as well as two big states, the Mogul Empire in the north and the Federation of the Marathas in the west. Bengal, which was crucial for the China trade, was a fief of the Moguls. In 1757 Bengali forces were defeated by Company troops in the Battle of Plassey (Pôlashir Juddho) after quarrels on tax issues between the Company and the ruler of Bengal had descended into violence.

A little later the Mogul Emperor granted the Company the right to collect taxes in Bengal as well as in Bihar and Orissa (Odhisha). Thereby the Company became the true sovereign of a very rich territory the size of France while the former rulers of Bengal became its puppets. To secure these territorial gains the Company got increasingly involved in Indian politics and protected its possessions with as many ensuing wars as necessary to get rid of all rivals in India, especially the French and the Maratha Empire. During the first century after Plassey, India was directly and indirectly ruled by the Company, but after the Rebellion of 1857 3 the Crown took British India commonly known as the Raj  remained a British colony until 1947. A colony is basically an extortion racket on an international scale. Edmund Burke (1729–1797) gave the following description of this system in India:

The Tartar [= Mogul] invasion [in India] was mischievous; but it is our protection that destroys India. It was their enmity but is our friendship. Our rule there [in Bengal], at her twenty years, is as crude as it was the first day. The natives scarcely know what it is to see the grey head of an Englishman. Young men (boys almost) govern, without society, and without sympathy for the natives. They have no more social habits with the people than if they still resided in England – nor, indeed, any species of intercourse, but that which is necessary to making a sudden fortune, with a view to a remote settlement. Animated with all the avarice [greed] of age, and all the impetuosity of youth, they roll in one after another; wave after wave; and there is nothing before the eyes of the natives but an endless, hopeless prospect of new flights of birds of prey and passage, with appetites continually renewing for a food that is continually wasting. Every rupee of profit made by an Englishman is lost for ever to India.

Yet, this system of extortion could be justified if the British did any good in India, if they collected taxes not to enrich themselves but to enrich the country they were governing. But this is not the case as Burke goes on:

With us are no retributory superstitions, by which a foundation of charity compensates, through ages, to the poor, for the rapine and injustice of a day. With us no pride erects stately monuments which repair the mischiefs which pride had produced, and which adorn a country out of its spoils. England has erected no churches, no hospitals, no palaces, no schools; England has built no bridges, made no highroads; cut no navigations, dug out no reservoirs. Every other conqueror of every other description has let some monument, either of state or beneficence, behind him. Were we to be driven out of India this day, nothing would remain, to tell that it had been possessed during the inglorious period of our dominion, by anything better than the orang-utan or the tiger.

The situation thus described by Burke could not last forever. On the one hand the British got increasingly involved in the Indian’s troubles, and the more they got involved the less the racket paid. 9 On the other hand their heart softened; »the third generation makes the gentleman« the saying goes.

The white man questioned himself whether greed was a justification for exploiting another nation because it belonged to another race. And the answer was that his rule over the »black« man could not be justified as plain exploitation but only as recompense for bestowing on the black man the blessings of the white man’s culture and civilization – just as Burke points out. 11 Without being noticed – the process took place in a »fit of absence of mind« 12 – the business changed: the extortion racket was turned into something like a compulsory public school 13 with an Empress as headmistress,  a Viceroy as Provost and an ancient and civilized people as pupils paying high fees. The school metaphor is all the more justified when one thinks of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s (1800–1859) most influential ›Minute on Education‹. Its declared aim was to create a class of Indians »in blood and color who were to be »English in taste, in morals, and intellect.

Yet, the benefits of this new system were less noticed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer than by the Minister of Labour: 17 This enormous public school needed an immense staff of teachers and beadles. 18 Though one will not get rich as a teacher or beadle one can earn a lot of prestige and give one’s life meaning. And there is even a further, a more spiritual benefit and that is racism.19 The meanest or most humble member of the teacher nation stands – in racist terms – above the highest dignitary of the schoolboy nation.

To give an example: In the British clubs all over the subcontinent, »natives«, even if they were Indian Princes, were not admitted, with the sole exception of the Calcutta Club. This club was founded in 1905 on the initiative of the Viceroy Lord Minto, who had found it impossible to invite an important native Indian industrialist to dinner in the existing Bengal Club in Calcutta (Kolkata). This opportunity to look down on somebody else simply because he was shorter and darker than oneself assuaged the great tension within the highly stratified teacher nation.  Eventually this public school idyll also became intolerable, not so much because of its inhumanity but because it became increasingly difficult to justify. The teacher-nation had educated so many pupils that the pupil-nation had acquired all the skills scheduled in the curriculum.

So why should the head and stomach of the body politic remain white and the sweating limbs remain black? The only possible explanation was that the black man was inferior, of a lesser breed in the words of the Raj’s poet laureate, Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936).  At this moment racism lost its character as a comfortable side effect and became essential to legitimize the whole enterprise. The more it gained importance the more it became uncompromising and malicious  – just remember Gandhi’s (1869–1948) train-coach incident.  James Fitzjames Stephen (1829–1894), an important colonial administrator and theorist, observed on the question whether native Indian magistrates should have the power to try not only native Indian but also European subjects in an open letter to The Times:

The British Indian government is essentially an absolute government, founded, not on consent, but on conquest. It does not represent the native principles of life or government, and it can never do so until it represents heathenism and barbarism. It represents a belligerent civilization, and no anomaly can be so striking or so dangerous as its administration by men who, being at the head of a government founded upon conquest, implying at every point the superiority of the conquering race, of their ideas, their institutions, their opinions, and their principles, and having no justification for its existence except that superiority, shrink from the open, uncompromising, straightforward assertion of it, seek to apologize for their own position and refuse, from whatever cause, to uphold and support it.

The same line of thought was perfectly put into words by Kipling with that touch of romanticism and bad taste which was also part of the Raj:

Take up the White Man’s burden-

Send forth the best ye breed-

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild,

Your new caught, sullen peoples,

Half-devil and half child.

Putting Greed on Trial: the Impeachment of Warren Hastings

Our main concern, however, is not this final stage of colonialism but the beginning of it. That means the period when the colonial rule shifted from extortion racket to compulsory public school. In India this transition is marked by the personalities of the first three significant Governors of Bengal. The first one was Robert Clive (1725–1774), the conqueror of Bengal and founding father of the Raj.  Clive was a man of action, driven forward by insatiable personal greed, supported by a sturdy constitution and the absence of any scruple. He was so effective that he came back to England as one of the richest men of his time. Warren Hastings (1732–1818),  the second in line, was more sophisticated and cultivated, especially as an orientalist. His greed was less personal than corporate. With Machiavellian cunning and, if necessary, blithe ruthlessness he sucked up all the riches he could get out of the territories under his command.  The third one, Lord Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805), was a moderate soldier and honest administrator, inspired by ancient virtue more than by modern greed.  He was the first truly respectable of the Raj’s many rulers and has been called the Justinian of India.  The change from Hastings to Cornwallis, from racketeering to respectability, coincides with the famous impeachment trial of Hastings. Impeachment is the juridical process, in which ministers and other powerful persons are accused by the House of Commons and tried by the House of Lords for high crimes and misdemeanors committed in choice.

Hastings’ main opponent was the already mentioned Edmund Burke. He was responsible for the House of Common’s decision to impeach Hastings and later became one of the managers of his prosecution before the House of Lords. In British History there have not been many impeachment trials and the one for Hastings is regarded as a major political event of the 18th century. This eminence is due to the high rank of the persons involved, the issues at stake, and the scandalous implications of the charges. Hastings certainly had been a most deficient colonial administrator. His achievements in defending the Company’s position against the Marathas and the French would have won him a peerage and high choice in government, had he not come under a cloud by his impeachment. Burke was a prominent politician in his time and remains one of the most important political thinkers. It has been justly observed that there were greater statesmen for Burke was never tested in high choice, that there were more systematic and more original philosophers and – given his defects of delivery – even greater orators, though his written speeches were regarded as the acme of oratory throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

But possibly there has never been a statesman capable of understanding practical political problems from their roots to their ramifications with such a degree of philosophical insight, political acumen, and moral stamina. In Burke’s mind the highest theory and morale of politics and the practical ends and exigencies of the day merged. His most famous achievement, his stance against the French Revolution, can be seen as a continuation of his opposition to the British rule in Ireland and India. When all Europe succumbed to the blandishments of revolutionary ideology, Burke refuted single-handedly the Revolutionaries’ dogma that mankind could be saved by what Burke called armed doctrine. He meant a political doctrine which, though the fruit of theoretical deliberations, acknowledged no higher law than the will of those in power. For he knew that they would use this power for their own purposes. This made him the founding father of conservatism in public opinion,  a claim that is only partly justified. Conservatism tout court is merely a formal principle – there are even conservative communists. Burke, however, did not support the conservation of every status quo but that of a distinct set of moral rules: Natural Law. 40 In this, as in many other respects, Burke shows himself a true pupil of Cicero.  For it is above all Cicero who imported Natural Law to Rome from Athens.

Natural Law against Geographical Morality

Since antiquity many philosophers, lawyers, and Fathers of the Church have held the opinion that there is a body of legal rules in force without our consent and not alterable by our will. The main exponents of this doctrine are Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and St. Tomas Aquinas.  This body of rules is derived from nature to all mankind thanks to reason. The underlying concept of ›nature‹ is not purely materialistic but nature is seen as imbued with reason, especially Aristotle’s ›four causes‹ among them the all-important final cause. Natural law is not simply divine law and, therefore, tied to a certain religion, Christianity in this case. Its binding force and the possibility of its perception are not bound to any particular religious belief. Among the Ten Commandments the first three do not belong to Natural Law. These commandments are binding only for the people of Israel and later for the Church. But the commandments four to ten are the very core of Natural Law and binding for everyone.  These rules are the basis for developing more detailed and explicit rules for specific situations under changing circumstances. According to Natural Law the happiness of human society lies in keeping to these rules.

From these principles follows the precept of Natural Law that there is no order of precedence among human races; a universal law can make no exemptions to the advantage of one of the harms of other groups of people.  Slavery infringes also Natural Law because it gives man absolute power over man. And absolute power violates Natural Law: »power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely« (Dalberg-Acton). This corruption necessarily leads to the breach of the commandments four to ten. As the case of slavery shows insight into the vicious nature of an institution can take time and its abolition even more time but in the end Natural Law prevails. Natural Law is the very core of Burke’s political philosophy 53 and he uses this thinking against Hastings who asserted that doing wrong in Britain did not mean doing wrong in India:

[Y]our Lordships know that these gentlemen [belonging to the Company] have formed a plan of geographical morality, by which the duties of men, in public and private situations, are not to be governed by their relation to the great Governor of the Universe, or by their relation to mankind, but by climates, degrees of longitude, parallels, not of life, but latitudes: as if when you have crossed the equinoctial, all the virtues die … This geographical morality we do protest against; Mr. Hastings shall not screen himself under it …

To understand Burke’s wrath against Hastings and the East India Company it is helpful to know some biographical details: Burke was Irish by birth, his mother and sister were Roman Catholics. Most probably Burke himself was a crypto-Catholic during his lifetime; at least he wanted to be received into the Church on his deathbed.  As an Irishman with Catholic roots he knew exactly what oppression by a foreign power meant. By attacking Hastings Burke presumably attacked the archetype of the cold-blooded and expedient Englishman, who had for centuries destroyed, ransacked, and ravaged Ireland. India was for him, to a certain degree, a metaphor for Ireland.

The charges against Hastings

Over the years Burke had collected evidence for 22 charges of impeachment against Hastings. The House of Commons accepted only four of them as a due basis for impeachment before the House of

Lords.  These charges were:

  1. Benares:

The princedom of Benares (Varanasi) belonged to Bengal in some way or another. After taking over Bengal the Company had made a financial settlement with the ruler of Benares. According to the prosecution Hastings had made unjustified demands on the ruler to cover the financial needs of the Company during wartime and thus provoked him to revolt. Hastings defended himself by asserting that this ruler had been a scoundrel and the Company had absolute power over him anyway.

  1. The Begums of Oudh (Awad):

Oudh at that time was not under the Company’s suzerainty but still under that of the Mogul Emperor. Yet, the Company had an agreement with it whereby the Company would station troops there for which Oudh had to pay. Oudh was seen as a buffer state for Bengal so both sides were considered to benefit from this settlement. The prosecution’s case was that Hastings had recovered the ruler’s debt to the company by robbing his mother and grandmother, the famous Begums of Oudh, brutally: The zenana (the women’s quarters) had been stormed by British troops and the Begum’s eunuchs had been questioned under torture. Hastings’s defense was similar to the one in the case of Benares: he maintained the Begums had supported rebellions in Oudh and other places and their dowries had been liable for the ruler’s debt.

  1. Presents:

Company servants were not allowed to receive »presents« (bribes) from Indians. Public administration should not be on sale. The prosecution tried to prove that Hastings had nonetheless accepted bribes for the Company, also pocketing some of the money for himself. This accusation touched the very essence of British rule in India. In practice the Company apparently sold everything to the highest bidder: kingdoms, high choices, and the right to collect taxes. After having acquired the right to collect taxes in Bengal, the Company had sold it at the district level to the highest bidding »tax farmer«. After rumors of serious disturbances had arisen in the district of Rangpur, a report was commissioned by the Company. Burke used the report to describe the effects of this system:

And here, my Lords, began such a scene of cruelties and tortures as I believe no history has ever presented to the indignation of the world … they began by winding cords around the fingers of the unhappy freeholders [free peasants] of those provinces until they clung to and were almost incorporated with one another; and then they hammered wedges of iron between them, until, regardless of the cries of the sufferers, they bruised to pieces and forever crippled those poor, honest, innocent, laborious hands, which had never been raised to their mouths, but with a penurious and scanty proportion of the fruits of their own soil; but those fruits [i.e. opium] (denied to the wants of their own children) have for more than fifteen years past furnished the investment of our trade with China, and been annually sent out, and without recompense, to purchase for us that delicate meal with which your Lordships, and all this auditory, and all this country, have begun every day for these fifteen years at their expense [i.e. tea]. To those beneficent hands that labor for our benefit the return of the British government has been cords and hammers and wedges.

Burke, who had never been to India, was not an eye-witness of these scenes. He had gathered all his knowledge from reports given to him by opponents of Hastings within the Company. Burkes’s description of the »Tax Britannica« (an old pun) may, therefore, be a bit, yet, not completely exaggerated. Otherwise, his following prophetic exhortation would not have found favor with the Lords:

But there is a place where these crippled and disabled hands will act with resistless power. What is it that they will not pull down when they are lited to heaven against their oppressors? Then what can withstand such hands? Can the power that crushed and destroyed them? Powerful in prayer, let us at least deprecate [to seek to avert the evil by prayer] and thus endeavor to secure ourselves from the vengeance which these mashed and disabled hands may pull down upon us. My Lords, it is an awful consideration: let us think of it. It looks as if this charge was well-founded. The legal situation has been quite clear since the Regulating Act of 1773 prohibiting the acceptance of gifts. Hastings did not contradict the accusation of having taken presents; he denied they were bribes.

  1. Contracts:

This charge regarded contracts the Company had entered with traders and personnel on extreme terms. These were exceedingly uneconomical for the Company as well as useless and wasteful for the creation of jobs within the Company itself. Both kinds of corruption intended to enhance Hastings’ power base with the Company. Everything here depended on evidence. Therefore it was quite easy for Hastings to defend himself by suggesting everything he had done was perfectly correct and by the Company’s interest.

Burke’s commitment was inspired by political, moral, and legal reasoning: He denounced the oppression of the Indians because for him all men had equal natural rights. And he was opposed to arbitrary rule in India because it inevitably led to oppression and eventually to rebellion with all the dire consequences for the Indians as well as the British. In addition he pilloried the corruption of British politics by unjustly enriched former Company servants, the so-called Nabobs. This motive is obviously derived from Roman history, which is an important inspiration for Burke: During the

republican era the relationship of the provinces to the city of Rome was the paramount constitutional problem. And the career of someone like Caesar clearly showed what could happen if outstandingly successful provincial administrators participated in metropolitan politics with the help of their gold and the loyalty of their former subordinates.

  1. Natural Law against »arbitrary power

During the impeachment trial two legal issues were of overriding importance: the intricate question of evidence and the even more difficult question of applicable law.  The House of Lords had established the principles of judging questions of evidence by applying the strict standards of Common Law.  It was an almost impossible task to prove any of Hastings’ wrongdoings by such standards. Hastings had had all the time, means, and opportunities to tamper with the facts – just consider that it took an East Indiaman half a year to sail from Britain to Bombay (Mumbai). Apart from that many prejudicial questions of Indian law were highly controversial. Obviously, the person who knew Indian ways best was Hastings himself, having done business in India for over 35 years. Was India just a victim of the Company’s corporate and Hastings’ personal greed, just as the prey is the victim of the lion? Were the Company and Hastings as its executive chief bound by rules of law? If the Company was bound by law, which law would it be?

There was no positive law regulating the Company’s relationships with Indians and Indian states. Common-Law only applied to the members of the British community in India. Native law, that is to say Muslim or Hindu law just regarded the Company’s relationship to Indians – if at all, not to Indian states like the Mogul Empire or the principality of Oudh. Concerning these relationships the only possibility was International Law as laid down in the classic of Vattel’s ›Le Droit des gens‹ (1758). But did it apply? For Burke, however, the decisive issue was not which law should be applied. As a true believer in Natural Law he was convinced that »robbing others was a crime by any law:

Mr. Hastings has no refuge here. Let him run from law to law; let him fly from common law, and the sacred institutions of the country in which he was born; let him fly from acts of parliament … still the Mohamedan law condemns him … let him fly where he will – from law to law – law, thanks to God, meets him everywhere – arbitrary power cannot secure him against law; and I would as soon have him tried on the Koran, or any other eastern code of laws, as on the common law of this kingdom.

Hastings maintained he had held »arbitrary power« in his capacity as Governor-General of Bengal; his actions were not to be judged by any rules, be they Natural Law, Indian law, or whatever else. Hastings held the theory that in Bengal the Mogul Empire had bestowed its arbitrary power on the company.  The arbitrariness of the Asian government is one of the oldest and most deep-rooted western prejudices regarding the East and was one justification for the Raj.  Briefly summarized the argument is:

The Asians are less than the Europeans because the individual does countless in the East than it does in the West. A ruler in Asia can do as he pleases because the individual does have no value (»oriental despotism «).

Because of that Asians are servants and Europeans their masters by nature. In the following excerpt Burke refutes this view at length. Burke first points out that »abusus non to lit usum«, that abuse does not take away use, that it is not an argument against proper use:

Will you ever hear the rights of mankind made subservient to the practice of government? It will be your Lordships’ duty and joy – it will be your pride and triumph to teach men, that they are to conform their practice to principles, and not to derive their principles from wicked, corrupt and abominable practices of any man whatever. Where is the man that ever before dared to mention the practice of villains, of all the notorious predators, as his justification? To gather up, and put it all into one code, and call it the duty of a British governor. I believe so audacious a thing was never before attempted by man.speech on east India bill

Having done so Burke analyzes the idea of arbitrary power in itself.

Under Natural Law such a thing as arbitrary power cannot exist, the very idea is wicked. He [viz. W. Hastings] have arbitrary power? My lords, the East India Company have no arbitrary power to give. The king has no arbitrary power to give. Neither your lordships, nor the Commons, nor the whole legislature has arbitrary power to give. Arbitrary power is a thing which no man can give. My lords, no man can govern himself by his own will; much less can he be governed by the will of others. We are all born – high as well as low – governors as well as governed – in subjection to one great immutable, pre-existing law, a law before all our devices and all our conspiracies, paramount to our feelings, by which we are connected in the eternal flame of the universe, and out of which we cannot stir. This great law does not arise from our combinations and compacts; on the contrary, it gives them all the sanction they can have. Every good and perfect gift is of God: all power is of God; and He who has given the power, and from whom alone it originates, will never suffer it to be corrupted. Therefore, my lords, if this be true – if this great gift of government be the greatest and best that was ever given by God to mankind, will He suffer it

to be a plaything of man, who would place his own feeble and ridiculous will on the throne of divine justice?

The fight against arbitrary power, be it in Ireland, France, or, as in this case, India, is the very core of Burke’s political endeavor. Man is given power in order to make other men comply with the precepts of Natural and not to use them as the puppets of his whim. Power can, therefore, never be arbitrary but is always contained by the precepts of Natural Law like the Commandment

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s” (Ex. 20,17).

But what if man declared that he would prefer to be governed by someone whose power is not contained by Natural Law but by someone who has arbitrary power? Here is Burke’s answer:

If then, all dominion of man over man is the effect of the divine disposition, it is bound by the eternal laws of Him that gave it, with which no human authority can dispense; neither he that exercises it, nor even those who are subject to it; and, if they were mad enough to make an express compact, that should release their magistrate from his duty, and should declare their lives, liberties and properties, dependent upon, not rules and laws, but his mere capricious will, that covenant would be void. This arbitrary power is not to be had by conquest. Nor can any sovereign have it by succession [like the Company from the Mogul Emperor]; for no man can succeed in fraud, rapine, and violence. Those who give and those who receive arbitrary power are alike criminal; and there is no man but is bound to resist it to the best of his power, wherever it shall show its face to the world. Law and arbitrary power are in eternal enmity. Any kind of contract bestowing arbitrary power upon someone or any act trying to transfer it must be void because it is against Natural Law.

But, there is also a more practical argument against arbitrary power. How will those who have it use it? To their good or to that of others? For us who have seen the consequences of arbitrary power in the last century Burke’s answer may be a bit commonplace but it must have been pretty audacious when he pronounced it for the first time: The rule of will inevitably leads to the rule of greed, as Burke observes. The order of Natural Law will be destroyed if the will of the individual becomes supreme:

An arbitrary system indeed must always be a corrupt one. My lords, there never was a man who thought he had no law but his own will, who did not also find that he had no ends but his own profit.

Corruption and arbitrary power are of natural unequivocal generation, necessarily producing one another. What should the Company have done in Burke’s view? For a merchant profit is the essence of his profession and the same held true for the Company. It was a corporate commercial interest and as such dedicated to the profit of its shareholders. Such a commercial interest on political terms is a contradiction because one cannot combine the merchant’s dedication to profit with the sovereign’s dedication to the welfare of his subjects. And the common good according to Natural Law is the ultimate goal of society.

  1. “Eundem negotiator et dominum”

“A Company dedicated to profit and having the power of a sovereign would become a »big robbery “ in St. Augustine’s words.  Burke expressed this idea in the form of a legal maxim of Roman law:

“[T]he India Company came to be what it is a great Empire, carrying on, subordinately, a great commerce: it became that thing, which was supposed by the Roman law irreconcilable to reason and propriety »under negotiator et dominum«: the same power became the general trader, the same power became the supreme lord. “

This quotation needs some explication: Agency did not exist under Roman law. Therefore wealthy Romans had their own traders (negotiators) in important ports like Alexandria. Usually these tradesmen were slaves.  The terms used by Burke, therefore, have the literal meaning that one cannot be master (dominus) and servant (negotiator) at the same time. In a figurative sense it says one cannot do two incompatible things at the same time, especially not govern and do business. Unfortunately it has not been possible to track down this maxim to any known source of Roman

law as yet.  Though, there is a dictum of Common Law, which may be a source of our maxim:

“Nemo potest esse tenes et dominu”.

But in my opinion the maxim is a summa extracted from Cicero, especially his Verrine orations.  In his speeches Burke refers to Hastings as a kind of Verres, the greedy and corrupt governor of Sicily, on several occasions: »We have all, in our early education, read the Verrine Orations … In these orations you will find almost every instance of rapacity and peculation which we charge upon Mr. Hastings  “under negotiatorem et dominum«, is the very essence of Burke’s criticism of the East India Company and Hastings’ governorship. The government for the sake of profit is contrary to good government and the essence of tyranny. According to this maxim Burke considered it necessary to apply British standards of justice and morale in Bengal instead of abiding by a »geographical morale and justice« as Hastings had done. These were the principles underlying the impeachment of Hastings. However, after almost ten years of trial the House of Lords acquitted Hastings in 1795. Whether or not this acquittal had been justified has been debated ever since. Hastings was acquitted because he had saved India for Britain, not because he was innocent concerning the four charges brought up against him. He even made a remark proving his guilt: “The primary exigencies of the Company conflict with the interest of the Indian peoples who are subject to its authority.”  This would only be acknowledged if

you accepted Indians not to have any rights and if you treated them accordingly.

  1. Taming the Beast or killing it?

Probably Hastings’ acquittal was inevitable for political reasons but it only did little harm to Burke’s achievement, at least in his own view. Sometime later he wrote:

But, in truth, these services I am called to account for are not those on which I value myself the most. If I were to call for a reward (which I have never done), it should be for those in which for fourteen years, without intermission, I showed the most industry and had the least success: I mean in the affairs of India. They are those on which I value myself the most; most for the importance; most for the labor; most for the judgment; most for constancy and perseverance in the pursuit. Others may value them most for the intention. In that, surely, they are not mistaken.

Thanks to Burke the blunt and crude greed as depicted in The East offering its Riches to Britannia became unthinkable in the administration of India. He had made it clear that greed does not justify anything:

[T]he affairs of India must be restored to their natural order. The prosperity of the natives [i.e. Indians] must be previously secured before any profit from them whatsoever is attempted. For as long as a system prevails which regards the transmission of great wealth to this country, either for the Company or the state, as its principal end, so long will it be impossible that those who are the instruments of that scheme should not be actuated by the same spirit for their own private purposes. It will be worse:

they will support the injuries done to the natives for their selfish ends by new injuries done in favor of those before whom they are to account. It is not reasonable to be expected that a public rapacious and improvident should be served by any of its subordinates with disinterestedness or foresight.

After Burke the Raj turned into a compulsory public school and the Company no longer was a  band of robbers but a board of teachers. That the public school model eventually became intolerable does not influence its progressive character at the time it was taken up. To exemplify this proposition just compare the abovementioned allegory ›The East offering its Riches to Britannia‹ with a significant detail from Tiepolo’s contemporary (1750–53) allegory of the four continents in the stairwell of the Bishop of Würzburg’s residence 85  (Würzburg was one of the most important Catholic   bishoprics in the Holy Roman Empire):

The former is an allegory of extortion, the latter of commerce: The European is holding a purse in his hand to pay for the pearl necklace offered to him by the Asian tradesman.

The juxtaposition of these two allegories shows where interracial relations according to Natural Law – believed in by Burke as well as by the Bishop of Würzburg – will lead to and where the Company’s self-righteous

the ideology of European supremacy will lead to commerce in the former, exploitation in the latter case. In the end Burke’s insistence on the separation between commerce and government was successful in India: the rule of law replaced the rule of greed. He helped to establish what he had called »a Magna Carta of Hindostan “ John Morley (1838–1923), Secretary of State for India from 1905 to 1910, as well as a distinguished political theorist and writer observed in his biography

on Burke:

If he did not convict the man [Hastings], he overthrew a system, and stamped its principles with lasting censure and shame…The lesson of his impeachment had been taught … the great lesson that Asiatics have rights and that Europeans have obligations.

Burke’s Influence on the Indian Independence Movement

Burke with his Natural Law ethics and the politics of evolution that go with it were an inspiration to the Independence Movement in two respects. As mentioned before it is highly probable that Hastings’ impeachment decisively contributed to making the Raj more humane. This more humane character of the Raj was a precondition of Gandhi’s tactics of non-violence. As George Orwell (1903–1950) rightly observed, Gandhian tactics of non-violence would not have been possible in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. Under a comparable regime Gandhi would have perished in some camp, if he had chosen to become a martyr. He was quite aware of this himself and prepared to switch to armed resistance in case of a Soviet invasion of India, as Orwell also points out. Without the rule of law established by harsh colonialists like Fitzjames Stephen there would have been no Gandhi and without him there would have been no generally peaceful transition of power in 1947. Without such a transition of power India would have experienced serious drawbacks, violence, and maybe some totalitarian regime. Burke’s second contribution to the liberation of India was his direct influence on the philosophy of the independence movement. One of its key figures was the already mentioned politician and university teacher Gokhale, Gandhi’s »political guru«. In his obituary on him Gandhi described the strategy Gohkale envisaged for the future independence of India:

To be sure, we cannot rise again till our political condition changes for the better; but it is not true that we shall necessarily progress if our political condition changes, irrespective of how it is brought about. If the means employed are impure, the change will be not in the direction of progress but very likely the opposite. Only a change brought about in our political condition by pure means can lead to real progress.

Gokhale knew Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” by heart and used to cite from it on every occasion. Burke was not only read by Gokhale but everywhere in India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some British authorities even tried to prevent the Indians from reading Burke by taking his works off the shelves of public libraries. Indirectly Burke thus became an inspiration to Gandhi and his tactics of non-violence.

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