The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 1/Number 1/British India

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410130The Atlantic Monthly — British India.1857Charles Creighton Hazewell


The year 1757 was one of the gloomiest ever known to England. At home, the government was in a state of utter confusion, though the country was at war with France, and France was in alliance with Austria; these two nations having departed from their policy of two centuries and a half, in order that they might crush Frederic of Prussia, England's ally. Frederic was defeated at Kolin, by the Austrians, on the 18th of June, and a Russian army was in possession of East Prussia. A German army in British pay, and commanded by the “Butcher” hero of Culloden, was beaten in July, and capitulated in September. In America, the pusillanimity of the English commanders led to terrible disasters, among which the loss of Fort William Henry, and the massacre of its garrison, were conspicuous events. In India, the English were engaged in a doubtful contest with the viceroy of Bengal, who was supported by the French. Even the navy of England appeared at that time to have lost its sense of superiority; for not only had Admiral Byng just been shot for not behaving with proper spirit, but a combined expedition against the coast of France ended in signal failure, and Admiral Holburne declined to attack a French fleet of Louisburg. No wonder that the British people readily believed an author who then published a work to establish the agreeable proposition, “that they were a race of cowards and scoundrels; that nothing could save them; that they were on the point of being enslaved by their enemies, and that they richly deserved their fate.” Such a succession of disasters might well discourage a people, some of whom could recollect the long list of victories which commenced with Blenheim and closed with Malplaquet, and by which the arrogance of the Grand Monarque had been punished.

Yet it is from this very year of misfortune that the power of modern England must take its date. “Adversity,” said El Hakim to the Knight of the Leopard, “is like the period of the former and of the latter rain,—cold, comfortless, unfriendly to man and to animal; yet from that season have their birth the flower and the fruit, the date, the rose, and the pomegranate.” In the summer of 1757 was formed that ministry which succeeded in carrying England's power and glory to heights which they did not reach even under the Protectorship of Cromwell or the rule of Godolphin. Then were commenced those measures which ended in the expulsion of the French from North America, and gave to England a territory here which may perpetuate her institutions for ages after they shall have ceased to be known in the mother-land. Then was America conquered in Germany, and not only was Frederic so assisted as to be able to contend successfully against the three great houses of Bourbon, Habsburg, and Romanoff, and a horde of lesser dynasties, but British armies, at Minden and Creveldt, renewed on the fields of the continent recollections of the island skill and the island courage. Then was a new spirit breathed into the British marine, by which it has ever since been animated, and which has seldom stopped to count odds. Then began that dashing course of enterprise which gave almost everything to England that was assailable, from Goree to Cuba, and from Cuba to the Philippines. Then was laid the foundation of that Oriental dominion of England which has been the object of so much wonder, and of not a little envy; for on the 23rd of June, 1757, was fought the battle of Plassey, the first of those many Indian victories that illustrate the names of Clive, Coote, Wellesley, Gough, Napier, and numerous other heroes. It seems odd, that the interest in Indian affairs should have been suddenly and strangely revived in the hundredth year after the victory that laid Bengal at the feet of an English adventurer. Had the insurgent Sepoys delayed action but a few weeks, they might have inaugurated their movement on the very centennial anniversary of the birth of British India.

There is nothing like the rule of the English in India to be found in history. It has been compared to the dominion which Rome held over so large a portion of the world; but the comparison has not the merit of aptness. The population of the Roman Empire, in the age of the Antonines, has been estimated at 120,000,000, including that of Italy. The population of India is not less than 150,000,000, without counting any portion of the conquering race. Rome was favorably situated for the maintenance of her supremacy, as she had been for the work of conquest. Her dominion lay around the Mediterranean, which Italy pierced, looking to the East and the West, and forming, as it were, a great place of arms, whence to subdue or to overawe the nations. Cicero called the Hellenic states and colonies a fringe on the skirts of Barbarism, and the description applies also to the Roman dominion; for though Gaul and Spain were conquered from sea to sea, and the legions were encamped on the Euphrates, and the valley of the Nile was as submissive to the Cæsars as it had been to the Lagidæ, yet the Mediterranean was the basis of Roman power, and a short journey in almost any direction from it would have taken the traveller completely from under the protection of the eagles. Not so is it with British India. From no European country is India so remote as from England. The two regions are separated by the ocean, by seas, by deserts, and by some of the most powerful nations. Their sole means of union are found in the leading cause of their separation. England owes her Indian empire to her empire of the sea. India will be hers just so long, and no longer, as she shall be able to maintain her naval supremacy. Those who predict her downfall in the East, either as a consequence of the natives throwing of her rule, or through a Russian invasion, forget that she entered India from the sea, and that until she shall have been subdued on that element it would be idle to think of dispossessing her of her Oriental supremacy. Were the long cherished dream of Russia to be realized,—a dream that is said to have troubled the sleep of Peter, and which certainly haunted the mind of Catharine,—and Russian proconsuls ruling on the Ganges, India could no more be to Russia what she has been to England, than the Crimea, had he kept it, could have been to Louis Napoleon what it is to the Czar. The condition of Indian dominion is ocean dominion.

In one respect the Indian empire of England resembles the Roman empire. The latter comprised many and widely different countries and races, and so is it with the former. We are so accustomed to speak of India as if it constituted one country, and were inhabited by homogeneous people, that it is difficult to understand that not even in Europe are nations to be found more unlike to one another than in British India. In Hindostan and the Deccan there are ten different civilized nations, resembling each other no more than Danes resemble Italians, or Spaniards Poles. They differ in moral, physical, and intellectual conditions,—in modes of thought and in modes of life. This is one of the chief causes of England's supremacy, just as similar state of things not only promoted the conquests of Rome, but facilitated her rule after they had been made. The Emperors ruled over Syrians, Greeks, Egyptians, and other Eastern peoples, with ease, because they had little in common, and could not combine against their conquerors. They did the same in the West, because the inhabitants of that quarter, if left to themselves, would have passed their time in endless quarrels. The old world abounded in great cities, all of which owned the supremacy of Rome, from Gades to Thapsacus; and in modern India the most venerable places are compelled to bow before the upstart Calcutta.

The peculiar condition of India a hundred years since enabled the English to lay the foundations of their power in that country so broadly and so deep that nothing short of a moral convulsion can uproot them, though the edifice erected upon them may be rudely shaken by internal revolts, or by the consequences of external wars. Fifty years sooner or forty years later, the English could have made no impression on India as conquerors. Seventy years before the conquest of Bengal the English traders had been plundered by a viceroy who anticipated the tyranny of Surajah Doulah. They determined not to submit to such exactions. They resolved upon war. But the great Aurungzebe was then on the throne of Delhi; and though the Moghul empire had declined somewhat from the standard set up by Akbar and maintained by Shah Jehan, the fighting merchants were soon taught that they were but as children in the hands of its chief. They were driven out of Bengal, and Aurungzebe thought of expelling them from his whole empire. The punishment of death was visited upon some of the East India Company's officers and servants by the Moghul. This severe lesson made a deep impression on the English. They resumed their humble position as traders on sufferance. They never thought of conquest again. It was not until every man who had been concerned in that business had long been in his grave, that the English dared so much as to think of making another war. Though the Moghuls rapidly became powerless after the death of Aurungzebe, the blows struck by anticipation in their behalf protected them for forty years against the ambition of the intrusive Occidentals, and even for some time after Nadir Shah's Persian invasion had demonstrated that their dynasty was as weak as that of Lodi had been found when Baber came into the land. Whether the English have been right or wrong in making themselves masters of India, it is certain that they were forced upon the work against their own wishes and inclinations, and in self-defence. The very expedition which Clive made use of to effect the subjugation of Bengal had been undertaken on defensive grounds; and so fearful was even that great man of the consequences of a union of the forces of the Moghul with those at the command of the French in the East, that he was at first desirous of making peace with Surajah Doulah himself. When the arrival of reinforcements had induced him to take a bolder course, and the destruction of that fierce viceroy had been resolved upon, it was not until after much doubt and hesitation, and against his original judgment, that that course of action was entered upon which ended in the victory of Plassey. He knew the risk that was run in fighting a pitched battle against force nearly twenty times larger than his own; and had the viceroy been either a respectable ruler or a good soldier, the English, humanly speaking, must have then failed as signally as their predecessors of 1687; but as he was as destitute of humanity as of courage and skill, and could neither animate his followers by affection nor command them by force of character, he was utterly routed. Not six hundred men fell in the battle of Plassey, on both sides, and most of these were on the side of the vanquished. Seldom has it happened that so mighty a change has been effected with so little slaughter. One is reminded of the battles fought by the few Romans under Lucullus against the entire array of the Armenian monarchy.

Had circumstances not led to the display of British power at the time when great prizes were sure to follow even from minor exertions, England never could have become mistress of India. Had the English remained traders forty years longer,—or even for half that time, perhaps,—they would have encountered very different foes from those which they overthrew so easily when forced to fight for property and life. India was breaking up in 1757, and the process of reformation as about to begin. Had not the English been brought into the vast arena, either a number of powerful monarchies would have been formed, or the whole country would have passed under some new dynasty, which would have revived the power of the state with that rapidity which is so often exhibited in the East, when new and able men assume the reins of government. Hyder Ali might have made himself the master of all India, had it been his lot to contend only with native rulers and native races. Had this been the course of events, and had circumstances brought him into collision with the East India Company when he had made himself the Moghul's successor, can it be believed that he would have experienced any more difficulty in dealing with them than was found by Aurungzebe? We know that the English found in Hyder a very able foe, with but limited means at his disposal, and when they were masters of half the country, and had been almost uniformly victorious. Can it be supposed that they could have effected anything against all India, ruled by so consummate a statesman as Hyder Ali? There seems to have been something providential in the events that caused them to pass from traders to conquerors, at the only time when such a transition could be made either with safety or success. That their career of conquest has been occasionally marked by injustice and crime proves nothing against the position that they may have been appointed by a higher Power to work out a revolution in the East. “The dark mystery of the moral world,” in this as in a thousand other instances, remains impenetrable. Heaven selects its own agents, and all that it becomes us to say concerning such relations is, that they do not appear in all cases to be made from among men specially entitled to the honors of canonization.

The English have frequently been denounced, not only for their errors in governing India, but for their conquest of that country. The French have been especially fervent in these denunciations. It is a fact, however, that the French saw nothing wrong in subduing India until all their own plans to that end had utterly failed. The device originated with them, but the English applied it. Dupleix planned for France what Clive executed for England. The French adhered to their plans for years, and it was not until a very recent period that the last remnants of their influence disappeared from India. They saw not the evil involved in the overthrowing of virtuous nabobs and venerable viceroys, until time and a whole train of events had proved that England alone was competent to the full performance of the work. The English in India have not, on all occasions, been saints; but we are unable to see what moral right the French have to reproach them with the enumeration of their errors. In the East, France was “overcrowded” by England; and that is the sole and the very simple cause of the vast amount of “sympathy” which the French have bestowed upon suffering Indian princes, whose condition in no sense would have been improved, had fortune favored the Gallic race, instead of the Saxon, in their struggle for supremacy in Hindostan.

The prejudice that exists in many minds against England, concerning her Indian empire, is in no small degree owing to something of which she is justly proud; to the talent that characterized the prosecution—his friends called it the persecution—of Warren Hastings. No man, not even Strafford, when borne down by the whole weight of the country party in the first session of the Long Parliament, ever encountered so able a host as that which set itself to erect the ruin of the great British proconsul. He was acquitted by his judges, but he stands blackened forever on the most magnificent pages of his country's eloquence. Burke's speeches are yet read everywhere; and to Burke, Hastings was the principle of Evil incarnate. The two great divisions of civilized mankind hold Burke in lasting remembrance,—the liberals for his labors in the early part of his life, and the conservatives for his writings against the French Revolution; and it is impossible to admire him without condemning Hastings. It is equally impossible to condemn Hastings without condemning the nation for which he performed deeds so vicious and cruel, and which formally acquitted him of each and every charge preferred by Burke and his immortal associates, in the name of the Commons of England. Even those charges were the result, not of conscientious conviction on the part of the Commons, but of Mr. Pitt's determination to crush one who promised to become formidable political rival. The arguments and eloquence of such men as Burke, Fox, Sheridan, and Grey, constitute a splendid armory, from which the enemies of England can forever draw admirable weapons with which to assail her Indian policy; and they have not been backward in making use of this mighty advantage. No one, who has ever sought to defend England's course in the East, but has had experience of the difficulties which those great men have placed in the way of a successful vindication of their country's cause. Either they were honest, or they were not. If honest, what shall be said of the nation which would not listen to them? If dishonest, what are we to think of men, the first statesmen of their age, who, for mere party ends, had persecuted to his ruin one who was in no respect their inferior, and who had saved India for England? Our own opinion is that Burke and his associates were honest, and that the only dishonest men in the prosecuting party were William Pitt and Henry Dundas,—the first being chief minister, and the other second only to the premier himself in the government. Pitt talked much of his conscience, after having absolved Hastings on the very worst of the charges that had been preferred against him, and then condemned him on lighter charges. When Roger Wildrake heard the landlord at Windsor talk much of his conscience, he was led to observe that his measures were less and his charges larger than they had been in those earlier times when sin was allowed to take its natural course. It was so with Pitt, who was guilty of gross injustice, according to his own arguments, and then threw his conscience into the scale against the accused party, when he saw that that party's acquittal would probably lead to his being converted into a successful political rival. Hastings deserved severe censure, and no light punishment, for some of his deeds; but not even Burke would have condemned him to the slow torture to which he was sentenced by one who believed him to be innocent, and the object of party persecution. But the nice distinctions which Englishmen and Americans can make in the cause and course of this famous state trial, because they live in the very atmosphere of party politics, are utterly unknown to the men of continental Europe; and until the end of time, England will be condemned out of the mouths of her most brilliant sons, whenever her foes—and she is too great not to have many and bitter foes—shall discuss the history of her Indian empire.

Every nation condemns conquest, and every nation with power to enter upon a career of conquest rushes eagerly upon it. The harshest condemnation that has visited England because of her Indian successes has proceeded from nations who have never been backward in seizing the lands of other nations. She has been stigmatized as a usurper, and as having destroyed the independence of Indian states. The facts do not warrant these charges. She has rarely had a contest with any power which was not as much an intruder in India as herself. The Moghul dynasty was as foreign to India as the East India Company, or the house of Hanover; and the viceroys sent to rule over its vast and populous provinces had the same bases of power as were possessed by Clive, and Hastings, and Wellesley, and Bentinck, and Ellenborough, and Dalhousie. The Moghuls obtained Indian dominion by conquests that were rendered easy by Indian troubles; and this is precisely the history of England's Oriental dominion. What difference there is, is favorable to England. The Moghuls were deliberate invaders of India; the founder of that dynasty being an adventurer who sought an empire sword in hand, and won it by violence which no man had provoked. Baber was to India what the Norman William was to England. He long contemplated the conquest of the country, showing a wolf-like perseverance in hunting down his prey. For two-and-twenty years he had his object in view, and invaded India five times before he obtained the throne of Delhi. The English were forced to assume the part of conquerors, and would gladly have remained traders. They did not commence their military career until the Moghul had become a mere shadow, and when that potentate was altogether unable to protect them against the tyrannical practices of his lieutenants. They had to choose between war and extermination, and they belonged to a race which never hesitates when forced to make such a choice. Their wars were waged with the Moghul's viceroys, who were aiming at the foundation of dynastic rule, each in his own government, or with other princes, who were equally usurpers with those viceroys, the Mahratta chiefs, for example, and Hyder Ali. One war led to another, in all of which the English were victorious, until their power extended itself over all India. In one hundred and six years—dating from the capture of Madras by the French in 1746, which event must be taken as the commencement of their military career in India, and closing with the annexation of Pegu, December 28, 1852,—they had completed their work. That, in the course of operations so mightily, and relating to the condition of so many millions of people, they were sometimes guilty of acts of singular injustice, is true, and might be inferred, if there were no facts upon which to base the charge. It is impossible that it should have been otherwise, considering the nature of man, and the character of many of the instruments by which great enterprises are accomplished. But we think it may safely be said, that never was there a career of conquest of such extent accompanied with so little of wrong and suffering to the body of the people. As against the wrong that was perpetrated, and the suffering that was inseparable from wars so numerous and long-continued, are to be set the reign of order and law, under which the mass of the inhabitants have been able to cultivate their fields in quiet, and with the assurance that they should reap where they had sowed, undisturbed by the incursions of robber-bands. The cessation of the Mahratta invasions alone is an ample compensation for whatever of evil may have marked the course of British conquest. The stop that has been put to the cruelties of the native rulers ought not to be forgotten in estimating the amount of evil and of good which that conquest has brought upon India. The world has been shocked by the cruelties of which the rebellious Sepoys have been guilty; but they can astonish no one who is familiar with the history of the races to which these mutineers belong. An indifference to life, and a love of cruelty for cruelty's sake, are common characteristics of most of the Orientals, and are chiefly conspicuous in the ruling classes. The reader of Indian history sickens over details compared with which all that is told of the horrors of the Black Hole of Calcutta is tame and common-place. The English have prevented repetitions of those outrages on humanity, wherever it has been in their power to coerce the princes. They have pared the claws and drawn the teeth of these human tigers. They have acted humanely; yet it may be doubted if they would not have consulted their own immediate interests more closely, if they had acted the part of tyrants rather than of protectors. By ruling through the princes, and allowing them to act as “middle-men,” they would have been less troubled with mutinies, and could have amassed greater sums of money. It is to their credit that they have pursued the nobler course; nor ought they to repent of it even in the midst of disasters brought upon them, we are firmly convinced, as much by the mildness of their rule as by any other cause that can be mentioned.

It is yet too early to attempt to account for the rebellion of the Bengal army. That rebellion took the world by surprise, and nowhere more so, it would seem, than in England. A remarkable proof of this is to be found in the tone and language of the debate that took place in the British House of Commons on the 27th of July, in which Mr. Disraeli, Lord Palmerston, Lord John Russell, Mr. Whiteside, Mr. T. Baring, Sir T. E. Perry, Mr. Mangles, Mr. Vernon Smith, and others, participated. That debate was most lively and interesting; and the reading of the ample report in the “Times” revives the recollection of the great field-days of the English senate. Mr. Disraeli's speech is a masterpiece, and would have done honor to times when eloquence was far more common than it is now. Yet the conclusion to which the careful reader of the report must come is, that neither Mr. Disraeli, nor the Premier, nor the President of the Board of Control, nor the Chairman of the Directors of the East India Company, nor any other of the speakers, had a definite idea of the cause of the sudden mutiny of the Sepoys. It is impossible not to admire Mr. Disraeli's talents, as displayed in this speech; and equally impossible is it to find in that speech anything, that an intelligent observer of Indian affairs can regard as settling the question, Why did the Sepoys of the Bengal army mutiny in 1857? Everything that he brought forward as a cause of the mutiny was distinctly proved not to be worthy of the name of a cause. Yet the men who could show that he had failed to clear up the mystery could themselves throw no light upon it. The government was especially ignorant of all that it should have known; and there is something almost ludicrous in the tone of the speech made by the President of the Board of Control.

It is not for us to speak authoritatively as to the cause of the Sepoy mutiny, but we venture to express our concurrence with those who have regarded it as, in considerable measure, of Mahometan origin. The Mahometan rule was displaced by the British rule. The Mahometans were for centuries the aristocracy of India, standing to the genuine Indians in pretty much the same relation that the Normans held to the Saxons in England; only it is but justice to them to say, that they rarely bore themselves so offensively towards the Indians as the Normans were accustomed to bear themselves towards the English. They have never lost the recollection of their former status, or ceased to sigh for its restoration. Nor is the time so very remote when they were yet great in the land. Old men among them can recollect when Tippoo Saib was treated as an equal by the English, and have not forgotten how powerful was his father, Hyder. Some few aged Mussulmans there may be yet living who heard from their sires or grandsires, who saw it with their mortal eyes, of the glories of the magnificent Aurungzebe, ere the Persian, or the Affghan, or the Mahratta had carried fire and sword into Shahjehanabad. Two not over-long lives would measure the whole interval of time between the punishment of the English by Aurungzebe and the mutiny at Meerut. Time enough has not yet elapsed to cause the Mahometans to forget what they have been, or to cease to hope that they may yet surpass their fathers. They are not actuated by anything of a sentimental character, but desire to win back, and to enjoy at the expense of the Indian races, the solid advantages of which they have been deprived through the ascendancy of a Christian people in the East. “Mahometans in India sigh for the restoration of the old Mahometan régime,” says Colonel Sleeman, “not from any particular attachment to the descendants of Tymour, but with precisely the same feelings that Whigs and Tories sigh for the return to power of their respective parties in England; it would give them all the offices in a country where office is everything. Among them, as among ourselves, every man is disposed to rate his own abilities higher, and to have a good deal of confidence in his own good luck; and all think, that if the field were once opened to them by such change, they should very soon be able to find good positions for themselves and their children in it. Perhaps there are few communities in the world, among whom education is more generally diffused than among the Mahometans in India. He who holds an office worth twenty rupees a month commonly gives his sons an education equal to that of a prime-minister.”[1] This very capability for rule must render them not only all the more desirous of obtaining it, but exceedingly dangerous as seekers after it. They are not an ignorant rabble, but men who have an intelligent idea of what they want, and rational modes of effecting its realization. Colonel Sleeman adds, “It is not only the desire for office that makes the educated Mahometans cherish the recollection of the old régime in Hindostan; they say, 'We pray every night for the Emperor and his family, because our forefathers ate of the salt of his forefathers,'—that is, our ancestors were in the service of his ancestors, and consequently were of the aristocracy of the country. Whether they really were so matters not; they persuade themselves or their children that they were.” In this way the idea of superiority has been kept up among the Mahometans of India; and they have continued to hope for the restoration of their old political supremacy, as pious Jews dream of the rebuilding of Zion. That they were at the bottom of the Meerut mutiny may be taken for granted. That they took for their leader the heir of the Moghul shows the Mahometan nature of the outbreak. At the same time, we believe that if it had not been for the imbecility of Hewitt, who commanded at Meerut, the mutiny never would have occurred, or the mutineers would have been promptly put down. Even after they had escaped from Meerut, Delhi never could have fallen into their hands, if that city—so important, morally and geographically, as well as in a military point of view—had not been without a garrison. That a station of such consequence, stored so abundantly with all the munitions of war, should have been left in an utterly defenceless condition, is a fact that creates inexpressible astonishment, notwithstanding all that happened during the Russian war. Mr. Whiteside, in the debate of the 27th of July, stated that the late General Sir C. J. Napier “said of Delhi, that to guard against surprise, considering its position, its treasures, and its magazines, it should always be defended by twelve thousand picked men.” From all that appears, there were not twelve hundred men, or anything like that number, of any kind, in Delhi, last May, to protect either the inhabitants or the stores there deposited. Such another instance of neglect it would be impossible to find in history, after due warning given. Long ago, Albany Fonblanque said, “The sign of the fool with his finger in his mouth, and the sentiment, 'Who'd have thought it?' is the precise emblem of English jurisprudence.” The same sign would seem to be applicable to some other branches of the English public service, as well as to that of the law. Perhaps it was because of the warning that nothing was done,—that being the usual course with governments; while it was thought a duty to treat with sort of spiteful neglect every warning that came from Sir C. J. Napier, because he had a rough, fiery way of expressing his opinion of the folly of those who are perpetually giving occasion for warnings which they never heed,—as if in all ages roughness and fire had not been especial characteristics of the prophetic office.

  1. Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official, Vol. II. pp. 282, 283.—Colonel Sleeman's work is one of the best ever published on India,—learned, liberal, and philosophical. It has been highly praised by so competent a judge as Mr. Grote.

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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