Warren Hastings

The English statesman Warren Hastings (1732-1818) was the first governor general of British India. He established the system of civil administration that was the basis of Anglo-Indian security and prosperity.

Warren Hastings was born on Dec. 6, 1732, in Churchill, near Daylesford, of an old but poor family. His mother died immediately after his birth, and his father, a clergyman, disappeared in the West Indies. Raised by an uncle, Hastings had a good education and attended Westminster. He became a clerk in the East India Company and reached Calcutta in October 1750. As was the custom, he augmented his salary by private trading. He was placed in charge of a factory weaving silk and cotton goods in Kasimbazar (Cossimbazar) and by 1756 was a member of the council, the local governing body of the company.

When Suraja Dowla (Siraj-ud-Daula), the nawab of Bengal, attacked and took Calcutta, Hastings was taken prisoner but was soon released to act as intermediary for the prisoners in the Black Hole. He joined Robert Clive's relief force, which recaptured the city.

In August 1758 Clive appointed Hastings resident at Murshidabad to deal with the new nawab, Mir Jafar. Three years later Hastings was named to the Calcutta council under Henry Vansittart, Clive's successor. Disgusted by the widespread corruption, Hastings retired to England in 1764 with a modest fortune. His funds gone after 4 years, he applied for reemployment and was appointed to the Madras council, arriving there in 1769. In 1772, after Vansittart and two other members were lost at sea, Hastings became governor of Bengal. Two years later he was governor general of India, a post he held until 1785.

Hastings's tenure of office was marked by constant strife in his council and in England. He faced and dealt with continual opposition to his policies. Yet by strength of character, firmness of resolve, and sense of duty he overcame all obstacles, many of which arose from the difficulty of defining his new position and its responsibilities.

Hastings carried out an aggressive policy of administrative, judicial, and fiscal reform to improve government and eliminate abuse. He suppressed banditry in the country. He put down a serious Maratha conspiracy supported by the French. He reestablished British prestige, which had declined after Clive's departure. He used military forces throughout India to prevent the fragmentation and dissolution of British power. He perhaps occasionally overstepped his prerogatives by making British forces available to the nawab of Oudh, by using questionable methods to recover from the dowager of Oudh money illegally withheld. But he vigorously maintained his authority over subordinate provincial governors despite objections to what at times seemed like his autocratic or dictatorial control.

Hastings also fostered education, encouraged the codification of Hindu law, stimulated the study of Sanskrit by European scholars, founded a Mohammedan college in Calcutta and an Indian institute in London, opened a trade route to Tibet, sponsored a survey of Bengal, and organized expeditions to explore the seas.

The passage in 1784 of Pitt's India Act, which provided a new constitution, persuaded Hastings there was little point for him to remain. Resigning, he returned to England in 1785. He was immediately charged with "high crimes and misdemeanors, " which he denied vigorously. He was impeached by Parliament in 1786, but the trial opened 2 years later and lasted 7 years. The House of Lords found him not guilty, but his personal fortune was exhausted by his defense. The East India Company came to his aid and granted him funds and an annuity.

In 1813 Hastings was asked to discuss Indian matters in Parliament and was received with extraordinary respect. In 1814 he was made a privy councilor. He died at Daylesford on Aug. 22, 1818.

Hastings was said to have "looked like a great man, and not like a bad man." He was physically slight, temperate in his habits, and reserved in his behavior. Personally neither corrupt nor cruel, he has been characterized as "the scapegoat upon whose head parliament laid the accumulated sins, real and imaginary, of the East Indian company."

Further Reading on Warren Hastings

There are three standard biographies of Hastings: Cuthbert C. Davies, Warren Hastings and Oudh (1939); Penderel Moon, Warren Hastings and British India (1947); and Keith Grahame Feiling, Warren Hastings (1954). Hastings the man is revealed in Letters of Warren Hastings to His Wife, edited by Sidney C. Grier (1905), and in H. H. Dodwell, ed., Warren Hastings' Letters to Sir John Macpherson (1927).