Home  »  Ireland (1775–1902)  »  At the Trial of Warren Hastings

The World’s Famous Orations.
Ireland (1775–1902). 1906.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

At the Trial of Warren Hastings

IF a stranger had at this time [in 1782] gone into the kingdom of Oude, ignorant of what had happened since the death of Sujah Dowlah—that man who with a savage heart had still great lines of character, and who with all his ferocity in war, had still with a cultivating hand preserved to his country the riches which it derived from benignant skies, and a prolific soil—if this stranger, ignorant of all that had happened in the short interval, and observing the wide and general devastation, and all the horrors of the scene—of plains unclothed and brown—of vegetation burnt up and extinguished—of villages depopulated and in ruin—of temples unroofed and perishing—of reservoirs broken down and dry—he would naturally inquire, What war had thus laid waste the fertile fields of this once beautiful and opulent country? What civil dissensions have happened thus to tear asunder, and separate the happy societies that once possessed those villages! What religious rage had, with unholy violence, demolished those temples, and disturbed fervent, but unobtruding piety in the exercise of its duties? What merciless enemy had thus spread the horrors of fire and sword? What severe visitation of Providence had thus dried up the mountains, and taken from the face of the earth every vestige of green?—or rather, what monsters had crawled over the country, tainting and poisoning what the voracious appetite could not devour? To such questions, what must be the answer? No wars have ravaged these lands and depopulated these villages—no civil discords have been felt—no religious rage—no merciless enemy—no affliction of Providence which, while it scourged for the moment, cut off the sources of resuscitation—no voracious and poisoning monsters—no; all this has been accomplished by the friendship, generosity, and kindness of the English nation. They had embraced us with their protecting arms—and, lo, these are the fruits of their alliance.

There is nothing, my lords, to be found in the history of human turpitude; nothing in the nervous delineations and penetrating brevity of Tacitus; nothing in the luminous and luxuriant pages of Gibbon, or of any other historian, dead or living, who, searching into measures and characters with the rigor of truth, presents to our abhorrence depravity in its blackest shapes, which can equal, in the grossness of the guilt, or in the hardness of heart with which it was conducted, or in low and groveling motives, the acts and character of the prisoner. It was he who, in the base desire of stripping two helpless women, could stir the son to rise up in vengeance against them; who, when that son had certain touches of nature in his breast, certain feelings of an awakened conscience, could accuse him of entertaining peevish objections to the plunder and sacrifice of his mother; who, having finally divested him of all thought, all reflection, all memory, all conscience, all tenderness and duty as a son, all dignity as a monarch; having destroyed his character, and depopulated his country, at length brought him to violate the dearest ties of nature, in countenancing the destruction of his parents.

This crime, I say, has no parallel or prototype in the Old World or the New, from the day of original sin to the present hour. The victims of his oppression were confessedly destitute of all power to resist their oppressors. But their debility, which from other bosoms would have claimed some compassion, at least with respect to the mode of suffering, with him excited only the ingenuity of torture. Even when every feeling of the Nabob was subdued; when, as we have seen, my lords, nature made a last, lingering, feeble stand within his breast; even then, that cold, unfriendly spirit of malignity, with which his doom was fixed, returned with double rigor and sharper acrimony to its purpose, and compelled the child to inflict on the parent that destruction of which he was himself reserved to be the final victim.

Great as is this climax in which, my lords, I thought the pinnacle of guilt was attained, there is yet something still more transcendently flagitious. I particularly allude to his infamous letter, falsely dated the 15th of February, 1782, in which, at the very moment that he had given the order for the entire destruction of the Begums, and for the resumption of the jaghires, he expresses to the Nabob the warm and lively interest which he took in his welfare, the sincerity and ardor of his friendship, and that, tho his presence was eminently wanted at Calcutta, he could not refrain from coming to his assistance, and that in the meantime he had sent four regiments to his aid. So deliberate and cool, so hypocritical and insinuating is the villainy of this man! What heart is not exasperated by the malignity of a treachery so barefaced and dispassionate? At length, however, the Nabob was on his guard. He could not be deceived by this mask. The offer of the four regiments developed to him the object of Mr. Hastings. He perceived the dagger bunglingly concealed in the hand which was treacherously extended as if to his assistance. From this moment the last faint ray of hope expired in his bosom. We accordingly find no further confidence of the Nabob in the prisoner. Mr. Middleton now swayed his iron scepter without control. The jaghires were seized. Every measure was carried. The Nabob, mortified, humbled, and degraded, sunk into insignificance and contempt.

This letter was sent at the very time when the troops surrounded the walls of Fyzabad; and then began a scene of horrors, which, if I wished to inflame your lordship’s feelings, I should only have occasion minutely to describe; to state the violence committed on that palace which the piety of the kingdom had raised for the retreat and seclusion of the objects of its pride and veneration! It was in these shades, rendered sacred by superstition, that innocence reposed. Here venerable age and helpless infancy found an asylum! If we look, my lords, into the whole of this most wicked transaction, from the time when this treachery was first conceived, to that when, by a series of artifices the most execrable, it was brought to a completion, the prisoner will be seen standing aloof, indeed, but not inactive. He will be discovered reviewing his agents, rebuking at one time the pale conscience of Middleton, at another, relying on the stouter villainy of Hyder Beg Cawn. With all the calmness of veteran delinquency, his eye will be seen ranging through the busy prospect, piercing the dirkness of subordinate guilt, and disciplining with congenial adroitness the agents of his crimes and the instruments of his cruelty.

The feelings, my lords, of the several parties at the time will be most properly judged of by their respective correspondence. When the Bow Begum, despairing of redress from the Nabob, addressed herself to Mr. Middleton, and reminded him of the guarantee which he had signed, she was instantly promised that the amount of her jaghire should be made good, tho he said he could not interfere with the sovereign decision of the Nabob respecting the lands. The deluded and unfortunate woman “thanked God that Mr. Middleton was at hand for her relief.” At this very instant he was directing every effort to her destruction. For he had actually written the orders which were to take the collection out of the hands of her agents! But let it not be forgotten, my lords, when the Begum was undeceived, when she found that British faith was no protection, when she found that she should leave the country, and prayed to the God of nations not to grant his peace to those who remained behind, there was still no charge of rebellion, no recrimination made to all her approaches for the broken faith to the English. That when stung to madness, she asked “how long would be her reign,” there was no mention of her disaffection. The stress is therefore idle, which the counsel for the prisoner have strove to lay on these expressions of an injured and enraged woman. When at last irritated beyond bearing, she denounced infamy on the heads of her oppressors, who is there that will not say that she spoke in a prophetic spirit; and that what she then predicted has not even to its last letter been accomplished? But did Mr. Middleton even to this violence retort any particle of accusation? No. He sent a jocose reply, stating that he had received such a letter under her seal, but that from its contents he could not suspect it to come from her, and begged therefore that she would endeavor to detect the forgery. Thus did he add to foul injuries the vile aggravation of a brutal jest. Like the tiger, he showed the savageness of his nature by grinning at his prey and fawning over the last agonies of his unfortunate victim.

The letters, my lords, were then enclosed to the Nabob, who no more than the rest made any attempt to justify himself by imputing any criminality to the Begums. He only sighed a hope that his conduct to his parents had drawn no shame upon his head; and declared his intention to punish not any disaffection in the Begums, but some officious servants who had dared to foment the misunderstanding between them and himself. A letter was finally sent to Mr. Hastings, about six days before the seizure of the treasures from the Begums, declaring their innocence, and referring the governor-general in proof of it to Captain Gordon, whose life they had protected, and whose safety should have been their justification. This inquiry was never made. It was looked on as unnecessary, because the conviction of their innocence was too deeply impressed already.

The counsel, my lords, in recommending an attention to the public in preference to the private letters, remarked particularly that one of the latter should not be taken in evidence, because it was evidently and abstractedly private, relating the anxieties of Mr. Middleton, on account of the illness of his son. This is a singular argument indeed. The circumstance, however, undoubtedly merits strict observation, tho not in the view in which it was placed by the counsel. It goes to show that some at least of the persons concerned in these transactions felt the force of those rites which their efforts were directed to tear asunder; that those who could ridicule the respective attachment of a mother and a son; who could prohibit the reverence of the son to the mother; who could deny to maternal debility the protection which filial tenderness should afford, were yet sensible of the straining of those chords by which they are connected. There is something in the present business, with all that is horrible to create aversion so vilely loathsome, as to excite disgust.

It is, my lords, surely superfluous to dwell on the sacredness of the ties which those aliens to feeling, those apostates to humanity thus divided. In such an assembly as the one before which I speak there is not an eye but must look reproof to this conduct, not a heart but must anticipate its condemnation. Filial piety! It is the primal bond of society. It is that instinctive principle, which, panting for its proper good, soothes, unbidden, each sense and sensibility of man. It now quivers on every lip. It now beams from every eye. It is that gratitude which, softening under the sense of recollected good, is eager to own the vast, countless debt it never, alas! can pay, for so many long years of unceasing solicitudes, honorable self-denials, life-preserving cares. It is that part of our practise where duty drops its awe, where reverence refines into love. It asks no aid of memory. It needs not the deductions of reason. Preexisting, paramount over all, whether moral law or human rule, few arguments can increase and none can diminish it. It is the sacrament of our nature; not only the duty, but the indulgence of man. It is his first great privilege. It is among his last most endearing delights. It causes the bosom to glow with reverberated love. It requites the visitations of nature, and returns the blessings that have been received. It fires emotion into vital principle. It changes what was instinct into a master passion, sways all the sweetest energies of man, hangs over each vicissitude of all that must pass away; aids the melancholy virtues in their last sad tasks of life; cheers the languors of decrepitude and age; “explores the thought, explains the aching eye!”

But, my lords, I am ashamed to consume so much of your lordships’ time in attempting to give a cold picture of this sacred impulse when I behold so many breathing testimonies of its influence around me; when every countenance in this assembly is beaming and erecting itself into the recognition of this universal principle!

The expressions contained in the letter of Mr. Middleton, of tender solicitude for his son, have been also mentioned as a proof of the amiableness of his affections. I confess that they do not tend to raise his character in my estimation. Is it not rather an aggravation of his guilt that he, who thus felt the anxieties of a parent, and who consequently must be sensible of the reciprocal feelings of a child, could be brought to tear asunder, and violate in others, all those dear and sacred bonds? Does it not enhance the turpitude of the transaction that it was not the result of idiotic ignorance or brutal indifference? I aver that his guilt is increased and magnified by these considerations. His criminality would have been less had he been insensible to tenderness, less if he had not been so thoroughly acquainted with the true quality of parental love and filial duty.

The jaghires being seized, my lords, the Begums were left without the smallest share of that pecuniary compensation promised by Mr. Middleton, as an equivalent for the resumption; and as when tyranny and injustice take the field, they are always attended by their camp followers, paltry pilfering and petty insult; so in this instance, the goods taken from the princesses were sold at a mock sale at an inferior value. Even gold and jewels, to use the language of the Begums, instantly lost their value when it was known that they came from them. Their ministers were imprisoned to extort the deficiency which this fraud occasioned, and every mean art was employed to justify a continuance of cruelty toward them. Yet this was small to the frauds of Mr. Hastings. After extorting upward of £600,000, he forbade Mr. Middleton to come to a conclusive settlement with the princesses. He knew that the treasons of our allies in India had their origin solely in the wants of the company. He could not therefore say that the Begums were entirely innocent until he had consulted the General Record of Crimes, the Cash Account of Calcutta! His prudence was fully justified by the event. For there was actually found a balance of twenty-six lacks more against the Begums, which £260,000 worth of treason had never been dreamed of before. “Talk not to us,” said the governor-general, “of their guilt or innocence, but as it suits the company’s credit! We will not try them by the Code of Justinian, nor the Institutes of Timur. We will not judge them either by the British laws or their local customs! No! We will try them by the multiplication table; we will find them guilty by the Rule of Three; and we will condemn them according to the unerring rules of—Cocker’s Arithmetic!”

My lords, the prisoner has said in his defense that the cruelties exercised toward the Begums were not of his order. But in another part of it he avows, “that whatever were their distresses, and whoever was the agent in the measure, it was, in his opinion, reconcilable to justice, honor, and sound policy.”

By the testimony of Major Scott it appears, that tho the defense of the prisoner was not drawn up by himself, yet that this paragraph he wrote with his own proper hand. Middleton, it seems, had confessed his share in these transactions with some degree of compunction, and solicitude as to the consequences. The prisoner observing it, cries out to him: Give me the pen; I will defend the measure as just and necessary! I will take something upon myself. Whatever part of the load you can not bear, my unburdened character shall assume. Your conduct I will crown with my irresistible approbation. Do you find memory and I will find character; and thus twin warriors we will go into the field, each in his proper sphere of action, and assault, repulse, and contumely shall all be set at defiance.

If I could not prove, my lords, that those acts of Mr. Middleton were in reality the acts of Mr. Hastings, I should not trouble your lordships by combating them. But as this part of his criminality can be incontestably ascertained, I appeal to the assembled legislators of this realm, to say, whether these acts were justifiable on the score of policy. I appeal to all the august presidents in the courts of British justice, and to all the learned ornaments of the profession, to decide whether these acts were reconcilable to justice. I appeal to the reverend assemblage of prelates feeling for the general interests of humanity, and for the honor of the religion to which they belong, to determine whether these acts of Mr. Hastings and Mr. Middleton were such as a Christian ought to perform or a man to avow.

My lords, with the ministers of the Nabob, Bahar Ally Cawn and Jewar Ally Cawn, was confined in the same prison that arch rebel Sumshire Cawn, against whom so much criminality has been charged by the counsel for the prisoner. We hear, however, of no inquiry having been made concerning his treason, tho so many were held respecting the treasures of the others. With all his guilt, he was not so far noticed as to be deprived of his food, to be complimented with fetters, or even to have the satisfaction of being scourged; but was cruelly liberated from a dungeon and ignominiously let loose on his parole! The Begums’ ministers, on the contrary, to extort from them the disclosure of the place which concealed the treasures, were, according to the evidence of Mr. Holt, after being fettered and imprisoned, led out on a scaffold, and this array of terrors proving unavailing, the meek-tempered Middleton, as a dernier resort, menaced them with a confinement in the fortress of Chunargar. Thus, my lords, was a British garrison made the climax of cruelties!

To English arms, to English officers around whose banners Humanity has ever entwined her most glorious wreath, how will this sound? It was in this fort, where the British flag was flying, that these helpless prisoners were doomed to deeper dungeons, heavier chains, and severer punishments. Where that flag was displayed, which was wont to cheer the depressed, and to dilate the subdued heart of misery, these venerable, but unfortunate men were fated to encounter every aggravation of horror and distress. It, moreover, appears that they were both cruelly flogged, tho one was above seventy years of age. Being charged with disaffection, they vindicated their innocence. “Tell us where are the remaining treasures,” was the reply. “It is only a treachery to your immediate sovereigns, and you will then be fit associates for the representatives of British faith and British justice in India!”

O Faith! O Justice! I conjure you by your sacred names to depart for a moment from this place, tho it be your peculiar residence; nor hear your names profaned by such a’ sacrilegious combination as that which I am now compelled to repeat! where all the fair forms of nature and art, truth and peace, policy and horror, shrink back aghast from the deleterious shade—where all existences, nefarious and vile, have sway—where we see amid black agents on one side and Middleton with Impey on the other, the great figure of the piece—characteristic in his place, aloof and independent from the puny profligacy in his train, but far from idle and inactive, turning a malignant eye on all mischief that awaits him; the multiplied apparatus of temporizing expedients and intimidating instruments, now cringing on his prey and fawning on his vengeance—now quickening the limping pace of craft, and forcing every stand that retiring nature call make to the heart; the attachments and the decorums of life; each emotion of tenderness and honor; and all the distinctions of national pride; with a long catalog of crimes and aggravations, beyond the reach of thought for human malignity to perpetrate, or human vengeance to punish; lower than perdition—blacker than despair!

It might, my lords, have been hoped, for the honor of the human heart, that the Begums were themselves exempted from a share in these sufferings, and that they had been wounded only through the sides of their ministers. The reverse of this, however, is the fact. Their palace was surrounded by a guard, which was withdrawn by Major Gilpin, to avoid the growing resentments of the people, and replaced by Mr. Middleton, through the fears of that “dreadful responsibility” which was imposed on him by Mr. Hastings. The women, also, of the Khord Mahal, who were not involved in the Begums’ supposed crimes; who had raised no sub-rebellion of their own; and who, it has been proved, lived in a distinct dwelling, were causelessly implicated, nevertheless, in the same punishment. Their residence being surrounded with guards, they were driven to despair by famine, and when they poured forth in sad procession, were beaten with bludgeons and forced back by the soldiery to the scene of madness which they had quitted. These are acts, my lords, which, when told, need no comment. I will not offer a single syllable to awaken your lordships’ feelings, but leave it to the facts which have been stated, to make their own impression.

The inquiry which now only remains, my lords, is, whether Mr. Hastings is to be answerable for the crimes committed by his agents? It has been fully proved that Mr. Middleton signed the treaty with the superior Begum in October, 1778. He also acknowledged signing some others of a different date, but could not recollect the authority by which he did it. These treaties were recognized by Mr. Hastings, as appears by the evidence of Mr. Purling, in the year 1780. In that of October, 1778, the jaghire was secured, which was allotted for the support of the women in the Khord Mahal. But still the prisoner pleads that he is not accountable for the cruelties which were exercised. His is the plea which Tyranny, aided by its prime minister, Treachery, is always sure to set up. Mr. Middleton has attempted to strengthen this ground by endeavoring to claim the whole infamy in those transactions, and to monopolize the guilt! He dared even to aver that he had been condemned by Mr. Hastings for the ignominious part he had acted. He dared to avow this because Mr. Hastings was on his trial and he thought he never would be arraigned. But, in the face of this court, and before he left the bar he was compelled to confess that it was for the lenience and not the severity of his proceedings that he had been reproved by the prisoner.

It will not, I trust, be concluded that, because Mr. Hastings has not marked every passing shade of guilt, and because he has only given the bold outline of cruelty, he is therefore to be acquitted. It is laid down by the law of England, that law which is the perfection of reason, that a person ordering an act to be done by his agent is answerable for that act with all its consequences. Quid facit per alium, facit per se. Middleton was appointed in 1777 the confidential agent—the second self of Mr. Hastings. The governor-general ordered the measure. Even if he never saw, nor heard afterward of its consequences, he was therefore answerable for every pang that was inflicted, and for all the blood that was shed. But he did hear, and that instantly, of the whole. He wrote to accuse Middleton of forbearance and of neglect! He commanded him to work upon the hopes and fears of the princesses, and to leave no means untried, until, to speak his own language, which was better suited to the banditti of a cavern, “he obtained possession of the secret hoards of the old ladies.” He would not allow even of a delay of two days to smooth the compelled approaches of a son to his mother on this occasion! His orders were peremptory. After this, my lords, can it be said, that the prisoner was ignorant of the acts, or not culpable for their consequences? It is true, he did not direct the guards, the famine, and the bludgeons; he did not weigh the fetters, nor number the lashes to be inflicted on his victims; but yet he is equally guilty as if he had born an active and personal share in each transaction. It is as if he had commanded that the heart should be torn from the bosom, and enjoined that no blood should follow. He is in the same degree accountable to the law, to his country, to his conscience, and to his God.

The prisoner has endeavored also to get rid of a part of his guilt by observing that he was but one of the supreme council, and that all the rest had sanctioned those transactions with their approbation. Even if it were true that others did participate in the guilt, it can not tend to diminish his criminality. But the fact is that the council erred in nothing so much as in a reprehensible credulity given to the declarations of the governor-general. They knew not a word of those transactions until they were finally concluded. It was not until the January following that they saw the mass of falsehood which had been published under the title of “Mr. Hastings’s Narrative.” They were then unaccountably duped to permit a letter to pass, dated the 29th of November, intended to seduce the directors into a belief that the, had received intelligence at that time, which was not the fact. These observations, my lords, are not meant to cast any obloquy on the council. They undoubtedly were deceived, and the deceit practised on them is a decided proof of his consciousness of guilt. When tired of corporal infliction, Mr. Hastings was gratified by insulting the understanding. The coolness and reflection with which this act was managed and concerted, raises its enormity and blackens its turpitude. It proves the prisoner to be that monster in nature, a deliberate and reasoning tyrant! Other tyrants of whom we read, such as a Nero or a Caligula, were urged to their crimes by the impetuosity of passion. High rank disqualified them from advice, and perhaps equally prevented reflection. But in the prisoner, we have a man born in a state of mediocrity; bred to mercantile life; used to system and accustomed to regularity; who was accountable to his masters, and therefore was compelled to think and to deliberate on every part of his conduct. It is this cool deliberation, I say, which renders his crimes more horrible and his character more atrocious.

When, my lords, the board of directors received the advices which Mr. Hastings thought proper to transmit, tho unfurnished with any other materials to form their judgment, they expressed very strongly their doubts, and properly ordered an inquiry into the circumstances of the alleged disaffection of the Begums, declaring it at the same time to be a debt which was due to the honor and justice of the British nation. This inquiry, however, Mr. Hastings thought it absolutely necessary to elude. He stated to the council, in answer, that it would revive those animosities that subsisted between the Begums and the Visier which had then subsided. If the former were inclined to appeal to a foreign jurisdiction, “they were the best judges of their own feeling, and should be left to make their own complaint.” All this, however, my lords, is nothing to the magnificent paragraph which concludes this communication. “Besides,” says he, “I hope it will not be a departure from official language to say that the majesty of justice ought not to be approached without solicitation. She ought not to descend to inflame or provoke, but to withhold her judgment, until she is called on to determine.” What is still more astonishing is that Sir John Macpherson, who, tho a man of sense and honor, is rather oriental in his imagination, and not learned in the sublime and beautiful from the immortal leader of this prosecution, was caught by this bold, bombastic quibble, and joined in the same words, “that the majesty of justice ought not to be approached without solicitation.” But, my lords, do you, the judges of this land, and the expounders of its rightful laws, do you approve of his mockery, and call it the character of justice, which takes the form of right to excite wrong? No, my lords, justice is not this halt and miserable object; it is not the ineffective bauble of an Indian pagod; it is not the portentous phantom of despair; it is not like any fabled monster, formed in the eclipse of reason, and found in some unhallowed grove of superstitious darkness and political dismay! No, my lords. In the happy reverse of all this, I turn from the disgusting caricature to the real image! Justice I have now before me, august and pure! the abstract idea of all that would be perfect in the spirits and the aspirings of men! where the mind rises, where the heart expands; where the countenance is ever placid and benign; where her favorite attitude is to stoop to the unfortunate; to hear their cry and to help them; to rescue and relieve, to succor and save; majestic, from its mercy; venerable, from its utility; uplifted, without pride; firm, without obduracy; beneficent in each preference; lovely, tho in her frown!

On that justice I rely; deliberate and sure, abstracted from all party purpose and political speculation, not on words, but on facts. You, my lords, who hear me, I conjure, by those rights it is your best privilege to preserve; by that fame it is your best pleasure to inherit; by all those feelings which refer to the first term in the series of existence, the original compact of our nature—our controlling rank in the creation. This is the call on all to administer to truth and equity, as they would satisfy the laws and satisfy themselves, with the most exalted bliss possible or conceivable for our nature—the self-approving consciousness of virtue—when the condemnation we look for will be one of the most ample mercies accomplished for mankind since the creation of the world! My lords, I have done.