Our Indian Empire
1. Clive and Warren Hastings
For a hundred years after Plassey the English possessions in India were still ruled by the East India Company, that is, by a trading body whose first aim was to make the highest possible profit out of a country supposed to be inexhaustibly rich. A government which thinks first of profits is likely to be bad, but the Governors whom the Directors sent out were happily often excellent. They realized their duties as well as their rights. They saw that millions of Indians, so far from being rich, were miserably poor. And they fought valiantly against oppression and corruption.
Clive, after his famous victories, ruled well and wisely. Especially, he forbade the Company's servants to trade themselves, or accept bribes and presents, lest they should neglect its interest; while he increased their pay, lest poverty should make them dishonest. But other difficulties remained, especially the uncertain division of powers between the Governors of the three Presidencies (each independent of the other), the Directors in England, and the British Government.
Just before the American Rebellion, however, the Governor of Bengal, always the chief man in India, became Governor-General of all the Company's possessions. Thus one strong man at Calcutta might guide affairs in all three provinces. And the first Governor-General—Warren Hastings—whatever else he may have been, was beyond all doubt a strong man.
Otherwise, indeed, English rule in India could hardly have survived the next ten years. For it was threatened from without by three great powers: the loose league of Mahratta chiefs in Western and Central India, whose marauding horsemen were the terror of all their neighbours; the new kingdom of Mysore in the south, built up by the great warrior Hyder Ali; and France, now helping the Americans in the far West, but helping also the enemies of England in the East, and fighting in Indian waters—and there alone—on equal terms with the English navy.
It was threatened also from within by disputes between the English authorities themselves.
Warren Hastings was never heartily supported either in England or in India. The Directors at home disapproved his methods. The other Governors in India dragged him into unwise and unjust wars, and so drove him to wring money out of native princes at the point of the sword to pay the cost. And his own councillors thwarted and insulted him at every opportunity. Only when two of them had died, and he himself had fought and wounded a third in a duel, was he really master in his own house.
Naturally, therefore, he was sometimes high-handed, and even unscrupulous. He lent English troops to one Indian prince to attack a tribe at peace with the Company. He demanded enormous sums for war expenses from another, and deposed him for refusing them. He forced the widowed Begums, or Queens, of Oudh to surrender a vast treasure, so that the new ruler might therewith pay his debts to the English, and by so doing he caused their servants to be harshly treated —even, perhaps, tortured. So, when he at last returned to England, he found himself impeached by the Commons before the House of Lords.
The trial lasted seven years. The greatest orators of the day denounced every mistake in Hastings's career. They painted in lurid colours his sternness, his immovable determination, his readiness in emergency to sweep away every scruple—all the characteristics which he shared with Charles I's minister, Strafford. They proved against him some deeds difficult, others perhaps impossible, to defend. And the end of the long trial found him poor, broken, and embittered.
Yet, after all, he was acquitted. Some of the charges against him were foolish. Others were exaggerated. All were urged by men who lacked a real knowledge of the facts. For, rightly as his accusers denounced the evils of English rule in India, they should have blamed for them the weakness of a system, not the wickedness of a man. Hastings had done strange things, but he had done them in times of extraordinary difficulty and danger. And in those times only his magnificent courage and patient endurance—his readiness to risk not only his life but even his good name for England's sake—had saved the English power in India. So the verdict of history echoes the verdict of the House of Lords—"Not guilty!"
2. Wellesley and Dalhousie
In the seventy years after Hastings's return, though the Company still ruled India, the authority of the Crown was much increased. And, sometimes fast, sometimes slowly, the English possessions expanded. Just before the war with Revolutionary France, Lord Cornwallis broke the power of Tippoo, son of Hyder Ali, and took away half his kingdom. Five years later Lord Wellesley, the elder brother of Wellington, came out to settle the question of Mysore for good. For Tippoo was now intriguing with France, and vainly hoping to be helped by Bonaparte's best troops. So in 1799 he was defeated and killed; the Company annexed the greater part of his dominion; and soon after, most of southern India came under its direct rule.
But Wellesley's hope of subduing the Mahrattas of Central India also was disappointed. He attacked them: his brother Arthur defeated them in two famous battles. But the Government, now fighting Napoleon once more, was disinclined for distant enterprises. And the Directors hurriedly recalled the Governor-General who seemed to think so sadly little of trade and profit and so dangerously much of empire and power. Thus it was not till 1818 that the final conquest of the Mahrattas brought almost all India under English rule—partly as territory directly governed by the Company, partly as vassal States under its "suzerainty," or protection.
Even then two independent powers still remained: in the north-west, Scinde; in the north, the far more powerful Punjaub. Scinde, having shown a hostile temper, was annexed in 1843. But the Sikhs, the fine warlike race who ruled the Punjaub, did not wait to be attacked. In 1845 they set out to seize Delhi and conquer all India for themselves. They fought two wars; but, when a final peace was made, instead of India's bowing to their power, the Punjaub itself became English territory. Yet the Sikhs had fought well; British troops had lost heavily, and once or twice but narrowly escaped defeat; and this was remembered long after the war was over.
Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General who annexed the Punjaub, also brought certain vassal States under direct English rule. For, when Indian princes died childless, he claimed their lands for the Company, ignoring the Indian custom which gave their adopted sons a right to succeed them. And in Oudh he actually deposed the reigning king for misgovernment, and annexed his realm. Thus ancient custom was flouted, and the rule of ancient royal houses blotted out. And the very improvements which Dalhousie introduced increased the general uneasiness. For the natives hated change and novelty, and suspected in railways and telegraphs some subtle sorcery of the restless white man.
Moreover, just then many things combined to undermine the loyalty of the Sepoys, or native soldiers of the Company. Many of them were subjects of the deposed King of Oudh. Some had lately been required to go oversea in various wars; and, to the Hindu, crossing the sea was a defilement. All had lately lost certain small but much prized privileges. The English officers, again, were less closely in touch with their men than of old. They shifted about more from corps to corps, and from military to civil posts. And, now that steamships and other inventions had brought England and India so much nearer together, they had more home interests, and were less absorbed in their Indian life.
British prestige, too, had suffered severely, not only in the Sikh Wars, but still more in a slightly earlier war in Afghanistan. An English general and all his army had been treacherously slaughtered by Afghans in the passes of the Himalayas. One officer alone had lived to tell the tale. And, though a prompt revenge was taken, things so fell out that England had eventually to recognize as the Ameer or ruler of Afghanistan the very man whom she had tried to overthrow.
So the Sepoys began to think that they could beat Englishmen. They knew, too, that owing to the Crimean War there were not just then so very many Englishmen left in India to beat. They welcomed a secret proposal to restore the old Mogul emperor at Delhi, and under his rule revive the native States that had been recently annexed. And finally they burst into mutiny under the influence of religious frenzy.
3. The Mutiny—and After
Just at this time, as it chanced, the Sepoys were being armed with the new "Enfield" rifle, the cartridges of which had to be first greased and then bitten off, one by one, by the soldiers as they were wanted. And a story was invented that the grease used was to be the fat of cows and swine. Now, according to their religions, Hindoos touching the cow and Mahometans touching the pig were defiled. So—the story ended—the new rifle was really meant to force the natives to disobey their own religions, and thus compel them to become Christians.
This ridiculous tale was, unhappily, readily believed. So two regiments mutinied at Calcutta. They were disbanded, and the danger seemed past. But early in May, 1857, there was trouble in the vast camp at Meerut, near Delhi, about the new cartridges, and some eighty Sepoys were sentenced to severe punishments. Thereupon the great mutiny began.
One Sunday, when the bells were ringing for evening church, the native soldiery suddenly broke into the prison, released their comrades, and—firing on their officers—marched off to Delhi. The Englishmen there were quickly massacred. The aged descendant of the Mogul emperors was placed, against his will, on the throne of his ancestors. And so in name the old empire was restored.
Meanwhile, mutinies broke out and Europeans were massacred throughout Oudh and in the adjoining provinces. A vast hostile tract cut off the English in the south and east from the main army in the Punjaub, under Sir John Lawrence. And for weeks and months—at Delhi, at Cawnpore, and at Lucknow—small English forces had to face an overwhelming enemy.
At Delhi a little army of Englishmen and loyal natives had seized the "Ridge" outside the walls, and proceeded to "besiege" the great city, defended as it was by a force at least ten times as numerous. One English general after another died; every battle reduced the number of the besiegers; half the survivors lay in the hospital through wounds or sickness. And meanwhile the enemy was daily reinforced. But in mid-September siege-guns arrived, the attack was renewed, the gates were battered in, and at last, after five days' tremendous fighting from street to street, the city was taken and the "emperor" captured and dethroned.
But meantime a horrible tragedy had occurred at Cawnpore, where Sir Hugh Wheeler, a veteran of seventy-five, was in command. The mutiny of his own Sepoys left him with only 240 European soldiers to protect over 800 people, including many women and children, against 4,000 rebels. Yet for more than three weeks he held out behind a rough entrenchment. Underground shelters gave some protection against shot and shell. Those who could not fight themselves loaded the muskets so that the soldiers might fire without ceasing. But red-hot shells set the crowded hospital on fire; sunstroke and thirst claimed many victims; and many more through venturing out of shelter to seek for water.
At last Wheeler surrendered; for Nana Sahib, the rebel chief, swore to provide boats and food for the safe departure of the English by the Ganges. The boats came, and the miserable survivors of the siege—most of them sick or wounded—crept down to the river-bank and began to embark. Then of a sudden a bugle sounded, and in an instant the hope of escape had vanished. The treacherous Nana's soldiers shot or cut to pieces almost every man. The wretched women and children were dragged back to Cawnpore, thrust into crowded rooms, subjected to every insult, and finally butchered in cold blood just when relief was as hand. And so, when General Havelock routed the Nana's troops and marched into Cawnpore, he found only the bloodstained floor of two rooms, strewn with the relics of once happy English nurseries, and, in the courtyard, a well—choked with the bodies of English women and children.
But in the Residency at Lucknow, some fifty miles off, a little English garrison still held out against a force ten times its size. The commander, Sir Henry Lawrence, had soon been killed, but his death-bed was cheered by the belief that in fifteen days at most Havelock would appear. That, however, was early in July, and July, and August, and half September passed, and still Havelock did not come. Urgent messages reached him, but first the swollen Ganges stopped his way, and then losses in battle compelled him to wait for reinforcements.
At last they came. They were led by Sir James Outram, who, as senior officer, had every right to take up the supreme command and gain the glory of relieving Lucknow. But Outram would not snatch from Havelock the reward of all his struggles, and, as they marched together towards Lucknow, he rode as a simple volunteer under the junior officer's command.
And now, on September 25, two thousand men fought their way through tens of thousands of the enemy, till they reached the Residency, in a scene of such wild rejoicing as no pen can picture. Yet the end had not come. The siege was not over. And the very increase in the garrison hastened the day when the food supply must fail.
But at last, late in November, another English army cut its way in through the still vastly larger forces of the enemy, and the hard-pressed garrison marched away in safety.
Then the English took the offensive. Sometimes they wreaked a terrible revenge, but the new Governor-General, by his mercy, earned the name of "Clemency Canning." And by May, 1859, the mutiny was over and the English rule over India once more undisputed.
But it was the rule now not of the East India Company, but of the Queen. For in 1858 Parliament abolished the Company, transferring its powers, its possessions, and its naval and military forces to the Crown, and the Governor-General became the Queen's Viceroy. Nearly twenty years later, in a brilliant Durbar, or State Assembly, at Delhi, the ancient seat of empire, Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. After her death a yet more gorgeous Dunbar marked the proclamation of her son Edward VII, who had visited India as Prince of Wales. And, when he too died, a third Durbar was summoned to meet king George V himself, the first English Sovereign to appear as such in his Eastern dominions.
Meanwhile the history of India was, happily, in the main peaceful. There was a second Afghan war. Burmah was annexed, and its hordes of brigands crushed. And in the far north-west the English frontier was advanced in more than one war, small in themselves, yet great in the brave deeds they called forth. But for the most part the Viceroy and his Council in India, and the Secretary of State for India at home, studied more peaceful problems. They tried to increase the prosperity of India, and especially to prevent or lessen her frequent sufferings from famine. And they tried, too, to give the native races a share in their own government without endangering the English power, and the peace and prosperity which it alone secures.