Edmund Burke, the 18th century English philosopher-statesman, believed that Indians were systematically exploited by the East India Company, whose abuse of power led to the creation of one of the most degenerate species of government that the civilised world had ever seen
Richard Bourke | 09 Sep, 2015
The great statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke was born in Ireland in 1730. He was educated at Trinity College Dublin before moving to England in 1750. He would spend the rest of his career there until his death in 1797, three years after his retirement from the House of Commons. Having trained as a barrister, and having then spent over a decade seeking success as a writer and publicist, Burke entered the British parliament in January 1766. From that point on he devoted himself to the major issues of the day, beginning with the mounting resistance in the American colonies. In due course his interests encompassed constitutional reform in Ireland, assorted developments on the domestic front in Britain, and the great European crisis unleashed by the French Revolution. Yet, looking back in the 1790s on the trajectory of his career, Burke saw his engagement with India as the most important of his life—as a commanding moral issue demanding urgent attention.
Burke explained the depth of his commitment in 1792 to Henry Dundas, at the time the Minister for War in the government of Pitt the Younger: it was India that had been for him “the object of far the greatest and longest labour of a very laborious life”. Burke never regretted the mental toil he had invested. The effort had been called forth by the scale of the corruption that he believed had been evident in the British administration of the Subcontinent. But what exactly had been happening in India, and why did the activities of the East India Company seem so nefarious to Burke?
By the time that Burke first came to address the question of how Britain should govern India, the East India Company had been trading in Asia since the Elizabethan era. Over the centuries, the character of eastern trade had been transformed. As a result of British overseas competition with France around the middle of the eighteenth century, the Company, which had originally been incorporated as a joint-stock enterprise, had become increasingly embroiled in the politics of the Subcontinent. After 1756, the military power of the corporation began to expand. By 1765, when certain taxation rights in Bengal known as the diwani were acquired by the Company, the British in India assumed the status of a territorial power. This, by any reckoning, was an extraordinary development. Having conquered Ireland over the course of several hundred years, and peopled North America with assorted colonies, Britain was now a significant political presence on the Subcontinent. However, British responsibility for its territories in Asia was not direct—rather, a trading corporation had taken charge of local affairs.
This situation was not entirely welcome at Westminster. India had not been conquered at the behest of parliament or ministry but as a result of Company expansion on the ground. Yet who should benefit from the expected opportunities for power and riches? Within months of Burke’s arrival in parliament, Pitt the Elder, now Lord Chatham, was encouraging fellow ministers to probe this question. The British exchequer was now straining under a mountain of national debt, much of which had been acquired during the Seven Years’ War. The American colonies, which had loyally supported Britain in the contest, were now proving a further drain rather than a means of alleviation. As attempts to tax the settlements in North America faltered, Chatham applied himself to India as a potential source of supply. With untold wealth believed to be flooding into the coffers of the East India Company on account of its acquisition of the diwani, Chatham’s followers began to ask to whom these funds ultimately belonged.
The Company claimed that the diwani ought to be regarded as its own property, bequeathed to it as a free gift from the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II, in recognition of its territorial strength. Yet according to Chatham the Emperor had acted under duress: the taxes had been acquired in the course of international war and therefore ought to be regarded as national spoil. Cleaving to its corporate rights the Company dissented. It was during the ensuing debates that Burke first became involved in the question of how to manage Britain’s empire in the east. For him, the Company’s right to the proceeds of the diwani was unimpeachable. Suspicious of the ambitions of the reigning monarch George III, and therefore of the policies of his ministers in parliament, Burke insisted that the property of the Company was sacrosanct, and thus its wealth should be protected from the grasping hands of government. As Burke listened to the Chathamites and their successors plead the case for reforming the constitution of the Company, he could only see a conniving attempt to swindle property rights. Certainly the administration of British territories in India fell short of a perfect system of justice and restraint, yet Burke still viewed the corporation as best placed to stamp out malfeasance. Meanwhile, the ministry in London should rescind its spurious claims to the revenues of Bengal.
The legal entitlement to Company funds derived from local taxation was never satisfactorily resolved. Essentially the debate was overtaken by events, beginning with developments on the Coromandel Coast. Three years after the passage of Lord North’s Regulating Act, which had sought to repair deficiencies in Company organisation, Lord Pigot, the Governor of Madras, who was openly connected to Burke’s friends in parliament, was violently deposed and imprisoned. This forced Burke’s party, organised around Lord Rockingham, to address the situation in southern India. Before long, Burke was applying his intelligence to the affairs of the region, above all to relations between the Nawab of Arcot, based in the Carnatic, and the Raja of the prosperous Kingdom of Tanjore. In investigating the intricate geopolitics of the south, Burke grew steadily more infuriated and appalled. British investors had been lending enormous sums to the Nawab, in effect supporting his marauding military ambitions at the expense of vulnerable territories in the Deccan.
Burke’s dismay led to the publication in 1779 of a jointly authored pamphlet on the Policy of Making Conquests for the Mahometans. In it both he and his long-standing friend, William Burke, charged the East India Company with enabling a programme of conquest by supporting the brutal exploits of Muslim adventurers like the Nawab of Arcot. From that point on until his retirement from the Commons, the affairs of India would exhaust a major portion of Burke’s time. He came to believe that Indians were being systematically exploited on account of the feckless conduct of Company servants. Given its power in the region, a colossal responsibility for the welfare of the natives had fallen to a British trading corporation. Yet instead of rising to the occasion, it consistently abused its position, leading in Burke’s opinion to the creation of one of the most degenerate species of government that the civilised world had ever seen.
Burke’s involvement in India deepened further. In 1781 he was appointed to a Select Committee charged with investigating legal abuses in Bengal. The Committee assembled evidence until 1783, disseminating its findings in eleven successive Reports. Burke was himself the author of a majority of the Reports and masterminded the approach to Company policy. There was by now a general consensus in the House of Commons that events were out of control in the eastern provinces of the Empire. In addition to the conquest- by-proxy promoted by delinquent Company creditors to local rulers like the Nawab of Arcot, in the north oppression was more direct although no less of an affliction. In diagnosing the cause of this affliction, Burke developed his mature account of Company misgovernment.
Eighteenth-century Europe was a world of empires as well as states. Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain all had colonies or factories on faraway continents—most commonly in one or both of the ‘two Indies’. The wider world was a scene of expanding imperial ambition too, most obviously on the Indian Subcontinent itself, where the gradual dissolution of Mughal authority since the 1720s had opened the way to competition between aspiring powers, including the Marathas and the rulers of Mysore. Yet while empire was taken for granted, its power to corrupt was a source of alarm. The fate of Rome after annexing large territories in the east was widely known. The behaviour of the Spaniards towards their settlements in the New World had been all but universally condemned. Given this past, there was immediate suspicion of the advances of the East India Company. Yet nothing had prepared contemporaries for the scale of the problem, or the systematic nature of imperial exploitation.
The first task was to account for the way the East India Company behaved. Since the original business of the Company had been trade, how had it come to wield its might to such devastating effect? Burke’s explanation was complex, yet incisive. The first unusual feature that he noted about the corporation was that, despite its mercantile character, it was not principally driven by trade. The promise of wealth from territorial revenues had diverted it into government. Gradually the administrative bureaucracy expanded. The prospect of controlling offices was more enticing than regular profit, drawing shareholders and directors into politics instead of commerce. Yet while the Company had been transformed from a trading enterprise into a sovereign power, it was not motivated by the principles that usually guided governments. Under ordinary circumstances, political power was exercised for the good of those subject to it—or at least that was the standard justification for systems of secular rule. But the Company had no interest in the welfare of its subjects. Since in theory its objective was securing commercial profit, it was determined to maximise its selfish corporate interest: the interest of Indians was no part of its concern.
Therefore the Company, as Burke saw it, was a hybrid monster: a mercantile sovereign bent upon exploitation. Given its systemic malformation, it was incapable, he now argued, of reforming its behaviour. Regulation would consequently have to come from without. Working towards that objective during his second stint as Paymaster General of the Forces under the Fox-North coalition in 1783, Burke drafted what became known as Fox’s India Bill. The purpose of the Bill was to vest control of the Company in a board of Commissioners to be drawn from and appointed by the Houses of Parliament in the first instance, and subsequently to be appointed by the crown. The Commission was to act in a quasi-judicial capacity, subjecting Company government to expert scrutiny. The British were presiding over what Burke described at this time as ‘an oppressive, irregular, capricious, unsteady, rapacious, and peculating despotism’ in India. Company servants were involved in bribery, extortion and degradation. Company arms had been employed to upset the geopolitics of the north-east. Local rulers had been mishandled, whole populations had been abused. The House of Commons seemed to offer the only hope of redemption as a tribunal that could call the Company’s servants to account.
Fox’s India Bill, however, was soon to fail. George III conspired against its passage in the House of Lords, and proceeded in the election that followed to campaign against his erstwhile ministers. Burke, now out of office, with his plans for India in ruins, turned to the only avenue available for redress: the public prosecution of the Governor General of the Company, Warren Hastings.
Hastings, who was Burke’s junior by two years, had joined the Company at 18 and steadily risen through its ranks. In 1773 he was appointed to the new post of Governor General. As the British on the Subcontinent confronted hostile or competing forces, Hastings became embroiled in various theatres of conflict, expanding the radius of British interference and deepening Company involvement in the affairs of neighbouring regimes. What ultimately disturbed Burke was not merely what looked like Hastings’s wayward stewardship of British interests, but above all his justification for his conduct. Hastings’s defence of his leadership came in 1788 after Burke had formally launched impeachment proceedings against him. This consisted in the claim that the Company’s mode of administration was well adapted to the culture of the east. Since the local population had long been accustomed to despotic rule, high-handed behaviour on the part of the Company was deemed appropriate under the circumstances. Government, Hastings argued, should cater to the opinions of the governed: in the case of India it should accommodate the slavish principles that had formed them.
Hastings’s attitude had deep roots in European perceptions of the ‘orient’. The French political commentator, the Baron de Montesquieu, had described South Asian society as incorrigibly despotic. Private property there was allegedly insecure and public authority supposed to lack restraint. These views were derived from assumptions spread by Jesuit travel literature, yet by the middle of the 1760s theywere being challenged by British historians with practical experience of Madras and Bengal. However despite this deepening appreciation of Indian civilisation, including the scurity of rights under Mughal rule, Hastings continued to capitalise on the old perceptions. Burke saw his task as dismantling this system of prejudice, and so he took issue with its conclusions on two grounds.
First, Burke followed the recent literature which denied earlier accounts of Asian despotism, pointing to a tradition of government by law that had arisen out of the historic pattern of accommodation between Muslim conquerors in India and the Hindu population. Second, he claimed that even if Indian history revealed a past of cruel oppression, an unjust precedent could never justify ongoing subjugation. The idea that a people’s habituation to abuse could validate its continuing mistreatment seemed to Burke at once incoherent and impious. It was impious because it subverted the basic tenets of natural law, which stipulated that the exercise of the trust of government was ultimately answerable to a higher cause.
Burke’s impeachment of Warren Hastings was drawn out over eight long years. He persisted with the prosecution through his most frenetic period in parliament as he fought to recover Ireland from the brink of strife and to stem the tide of Revolution in France. Surveying the scene of politics from Europe to the Ganges, everything he valued seemed under threat: religion was in danger, established government under fire, and the institution of property in peril. As Burke strove to defend these principles in his campaign against France, so he sought to safeguard their integrity in his assault on Hastings. The final acquittal of the Governor General therefore came as a terrible blow. The British parliament, Burke commented, had ‘dishonored itself forever’. Hastings was rewarded with a pension for his trouble, causing Burke what he described as ‘inexpressible’ pain. It was a bitter end to a protracted fight, the memory of which would pursue Burke to the grave.
The issues involved in the Hastings trial were larger than the reputation of a single man. To Burke the Governor General was a wanton reprobate, but he also saw him as presiding over a perverted form of rule. What Burke’s indictment of Hastings ultimately pointed to was a depraved system of imperial administration. After the early twentieth century, the tyrannical oppression of overseas populations came increasingly to be condemned in terms of the language of ‘imperialism’. As this concept was developed between JA Hobson and VI Lenin, it became associated with a project of territorial annexation carried out with a view to economic exploitation. It is debatable whether this brand of economic imperialism truly guided the ambitions of the European powers after the middle of the nineteenth century. Certainly the British Empire in the eighteenth century cannot plausibly be analysed in these terms. As Burke showed, the East India Company was neither purely economic in character nor coherently imperial in its aims. Its abuses are better understood in terms of the anomaly that it was.
Since the 1980s, European imperial adventures of the past have largely been criticised from the perspective of multiculturalism: in terms, that is, of a collision between cultures or ‘identities’. The resulting analysis has tended to present itself as post-liberal in nature, yet liberalism was in truth its inspiration. What is omitted in this approach is an account of power relations that were political and economic at the same time—or, as Burke realised in the case of the East India Company, neither entirely economic nor political at all. For Burke the British Empire was best understood with the tools supplied by political economy. If we want to grasp the fate of the Indian Subcontinent in the eighteenth century, these are weapons we would do well to employ.