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The Trial of Warren Hastings, Episode 42 - 14/02/06


The Trial of Warren Hastings (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

The Trial of Warren Hastings, 1795
(Getty Images)
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By 1781 governor-general of British India, Warren Hastings had confirmed British authority in India. Yet he was ever under personal attack. Moreover, about to lose America, the government in London viewed India with the same importance as later administrations would see Europe in the 20th century - India was a political battleground to be fought over in Westminster.

Thus Hastings' apparent frailties were not solely seen in the context of India. He was accused of poor military judgement, undue patronage and maladministration - the latter clearly not so. One of Hastings' council or cabinet was Sir Philip Francis who was demonically against him and tried in India to get him sacked (see below).

The people with most influence against Hastings were in London. They included Edmund Burke, the dramatist and MP Richard Brinsley Sheridan and his close political friend Charles James Fox. In 1782, a Commons committee met in secret and was persuaded by these men to agree a resolution to bring Hastings home. Furthermore, he could not trust the support of his own East India Company directors. He clung on until 1785, returned to England to find he was to be impeached.

On 13 Feb 1788 his trial opened in Westminster Hall. On one side his critics led by Burke and Sheridan and on his side two unlikely supporters, the writers Fanny Burney and Hannah More. If he had not died four years earlier, undoubtedly Dr Johnson would have been at the side of Hastings. Dr Johnson admired him greatly and certainly trusted his judgement over Burke's.

After seven years, Hastings was cleared but legal costs had left him deeply in debt. The Company was generous. He had saved India for them. Yet it wasn't until 1804 that Hastings was solvent once more.

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Historical Figure

Sir Philip Francis 1740-1818

Sir Philip Francis was the sharpest thorn in the side of Warren Hastings' time as governor-general of Bengal. Francis was a Dublin born St Paul's scholar, a sometimes spiteful essayist, gambler and fibber. In 1773 he was appointed from London to the Council, the Cabinet of the governor-general and appeared to be doing everything to discredit Hastings in order to get his job. The two men eventually fought a duel and Francis was severely wounded. He returned to London in 1781 taking with him a gambling fortune and promoted the impeachment of Hastings. He is said to have been the author of the anonymous and infamous Letters of Junius that appeared in the Public Advertiser between 1769 and 1772, which were vitriolic attacks on public figures including George III and sometime prime minister, the Duke of Grafton.

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Did You Know...

That the governor-general in India was not allowed to appoint nor dismiss any member of his cabinet, the Council? Each member was a Crown appointment, partly to prevent patronage and because it was usually assumed that a governor-general would not know suitable candidates in London. Inevitably, the Council appointees relied entirely on London patronage.

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Events of this episode took place in the Indian subcontinent region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

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Contemporary Sources

Warren Hastings attempts to defend himself from the allegations against him

From a letter from Hastings to the then Prime Minister, Lord Shelburne

"I have seen the resolutions but not the reports on which they were founded. I can boldly venture to assure your Lordship that either the reports must have been garbled or they are the most positive and direct evidences of the opposite of every resolution which professes to be formed upon them, and which contains my condemnation. I have never in a single instance deserted or injured the interests of the Company. I have never sacrificed the honour of my nation. I have been the instrument in saving one Presidency from infamy, and both from annihilation."

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