Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

Warren Hastings, First Governor-General

When Clive left India, the British were really the rulers of all Bengal. There was still a Nawab, who lived in state, but he had really no power. He was a mere pretence. There was still a great Mogul, but he had neither land nor people, having been driven from his throne by the Afghans. He was even a greater pretence than the Nawab. But to him Clive agreed to pay £260,000 a year for the province in Bengal, thus still owning him as over-lord.

The revenues of Bengal, that is, all the money coming from taxes and customs, which are, as a rule, paid to the king or government, were now paid to the Company. But of this revenue they allowed the Nawab a salary, and paid the "tribute" to the Mogul.

But although the British were now, it might be said, the owners of the land, they did not trouble themselves about the happiness of the people. They took the money, but with it they took none of the duties of rulers, and soon the misery and poverty of the people became greater than before. The old Nawabs had perhaps spent their money badly, but they had at least spent it in the country. Now, that money was sent to China to buy tea and silks for the Company, or the officers of the Company took it home to spend in England. Thus, much of the wealth of India, instead of being "circulated," that is, passed from hand to hand among the people of India, was taken right out of the country, and the natives grew daily poorer and poorer.

A few only made money. These were the rent collectors. Now that the Nawab and his officers had no power, there was no one who could keep these native collectors in check. For the British did not know how much the land was worth, or how much rent the farmers paid, or ought to pay. They had to believe what the native collectors told them, and they, knowing this, ground the poor to the last farthing, paying what they chose to the Company, and growing rich themselves. In a few years the state of Bengal was again one of hopeless misery and confusion.

To make matters worse, in 1770 a fearful famine swept the land. Since then many famines have desolated India, but this was the first which had happened under British rule. Those in power were quite unprepared for it and knew not what to do.

The misery was awful. The people, worn to skeletons, died by thousands. They fell by the wayside, many lay unburied, poisoning the air, many were thrown into the rivers, until the waters became so foul that people dared not even eat the fish. The farmers sold their cattle and their tools to buy food. They even sold their children, until no one could be found to buy any more. They ate the leaves of the trees and the grass of the field, until there was no green thing left. Horrible diseases followed in the train of famine, and when at last the misery was over, a third of the people had died.

Many of those who still remained alive were ruined. It was impossible to gather rent from the starving and the penniless, and the Company received little or no money.

Now, at last, the directors at home saw that there must be a change. They had ceased from being mere merchants to become rulers, and they must take up the duties of rulers. Some one, with a mind beyond buying and selling, must be at the head of the government. So it was that in 1772, Warren Hastings was made Governor of Bengal and first Governor-General of India. As Governor-General he ruled not only over Bengal, but over Madras, Bombay, and all British possessions in India.

Warren Hastings had, you remember, been taken prisoner at Cossimbazar before the Black Hole tragedy. He had escaped from there, had fought at Plassey, and after a time gone home. He was now forty, and had been in the Company's service since the age of eighteen. He was not a soldier like Clive, he was a statesman. But, like Clive, who became a soldier without any training, he had become a statesman in the same way.

Clive, by the sword, had won a great empire. It was Hastings who kept it and made British rule in India sure.

When the new Governor came to Bengal he found a hard task before him. Everywhere there was confusion and oppression, and into this confusion he brought some rough order and justice. But in the doing of it he made many bitter enemies, enemies more bitter even than those Clive had made for himself. They hindered his work and made his life hard and difficult at the time, and they so blackened his name, that for a hundred years or more, people believed that Warren Hastings was a cruel, hard, unjust ruler. Now it has been shown that at a very difficult time he tried to do his best for the people of India and for the Company. And if he made mistakes, we may well believe that most men of his time would have made more.

One of the first things which Warren Hastings did was to place British collectors over the native collectors in order to try to find out how much rent the farmers really paid. And although, for want of money and proper helpers, he could not make things quite right, still he made them better.

He appointed judges to go round to the different towns and try those who had been thrown into prison, and often left there until they were almost forgotten. And although there were still Indian judges, a British judge, or collector, was always there to see that no cruel, barbarous punishment was carried out. In these, and other ways, Warren Hastings laid the foundations of British rule in India.

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