Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 8. Warren Hastings

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

I. Edmund Burke

§ 8. Warren Hastings

The distinction is of importance, because it explains the fact that these speeches, despite the occasional splendour of their eloquence, are of less vital interest than the American, Irish, or French revolution speeches and pamphlets; and because, in oratory of this description, the faults of Burke’s judgment and temperament-made themselves, at times, only too apparent. It is impossible to read the most eloquent of indictments, especially of individuals, based on alleged facts, without the wish to hear the other side. The force of the indictment, we feel, depends on the strength of the evidence advanced in support of the speaker’s charges, and these, in Aristotle’s phrase, are proofs which depend neither on the arguments nor the eloquence of the orator but on the credibility of witnesses, and the authenticity and interpretation of documents. And the more vehement, the less judicial in tone, the orator, the more insistent becomes the thoughtful reader’s demand for relative evidence. But, in the Indian speeches, Burke’s tone is never judicial; when Hastings is in question, it is never either temperate or fair. The Verrine orations of Cicero are not more fiercely vituperative than the speeches of Burke before the House of Lords. But, from what we know otherwise of Verres, he was all that Cicero tells us. The history of Warren Hastings’s government has been the subject of careful investigation, and, whatever we may think of his faults, he was certainly no Verres. Burke’s whole treatment of that great case was vitiated by his determination to find the sole motive of every crime with which Hastings was charged in a base, selfish, corrupt cupidity,—“Money is the beginning, the middle, and the end of every kind of act done by Mr. Hastings—pretendedly for the Company, but really for himself.” But, of all charges, this is the least true. Hastings was not scrupulous in his choice of means, and he was responsible for acts both of extortion and cruelty, but the motives which actuated them were public not private, the service of the company and the preservation of British rule in India at a season of the utmost peril. The fury with which Burke assailed Hastings’s character was, therefore, misdirected. He fledged the arrows of his eloquence with the vindictive malice of Francis, and, in so doing, obscured and weakened what is the main burden and justification of his indictment, and of all his labours in the cause of India—the distinction, which he places in the forefront of his opening addresses to the House of Lords, and recurs to in his final replies between absolute authority and arbitrary power. In so far as he meets Hastings’s claim to arbitrary power by an appeal to the authority of law as formulated in the codes of the Hindoos, the Mohammedans and the Tartars, the argument is more interesting (“there never was such food for the curiosity of the human mind as is found in the manners of this people” i.e. the Gentûs or Hindoos) than relevant, for, at the time when Warren Hastings was struggling with the Mahrattas and Hyder Ali, all law in India was in suspension. If, in the anarchy which prevailed, Hastings had fettered himself by the ideal prescripts of Timur or Mohammed, the British power in India would, indeed, have been Swift’s “single man in his shirt” contending with eleven armed men. But, in his appeal to the eternal laws which no human power may abrogate any more than it may dispense with physical laws, Burke (as has been already indicated) was stating the fundamental principle of his political philosophy, and, at the same time, helping, almost as effectively as Hastings himself, to lay the foundation of British rule in India. In the American and Indian speeches of Burke is contained, one might say without exaggeration and making full allowance for the faults of the Indian series, the grammar of British empire—the free self-government of white communities, the just rule of peoples for whom representative government is impracticable, the qualification of absolute government by an entire regard for the welfare and the prejudices of the governed.

The great instrument of Burke’s oratory in the Indian, as in the American, speeches is the philosophical imagination. The same faculty that evoked a vivid and instructive picture of the spirit and enterprise of a people “yet in the gristle” elaborates, in the speech on Fox’s East India bill, a sublimer and more moving vision of the ancient civilisation of India,

  • princes once of great dignity, authority, and opulence … an ancient and venerable priesthood, the depository of their laws, learning and history, the guides of the people while living and their consolation in death … millions of ingenious manufacturers and mechanics; millions of the most diligent and not the least intelligent, tillers of the earth … almost all the religions professed by men, the Braminical, the Mussulman, the Eastern and the Western Christian.
  • And, over against this picture, he places that of English rule, the rule of merchants intent only on profits and corrupt gain. The sentences seem to ring for ever in the ear, in which the orator describes the young men who ruled India, with all the avarice of age and all the impetuosity of youth, rolling in wave after wave, birds of prey and passage who leave no trace that England has been represented in India “by anything better than the ourang-outang or the tyger,” for “their prey is lodged in England; and the cries of India are given to seas and winds, to be blown about at every breaking up of the monsoon over a remote and unhearing ocean.” But the most terrible and the most faithful picture of British misrule which Burke painted, and of what that misrule meant for the wretched natives, is that in the speech On the Nabob of Arcot’s Debts; and nothing in Burke’s speeches is more Miltonic in its sublimity and gloom than the description of the vengeance taken by Hyder Ali on the “abused, insulted, racked and ruined” Carnatic. Of the epideictic or panegyric oratory with which Burke occasionally illumines his tenebrous and fiery denunciations of waste and oppression, the Indian speeches afford the most sustained and elaborate example in the eulogy of Fox which closes the speech on the East India bill, “a studied panegyric; the fruit of much meditation; the result of the observation of nearly twenty years.”