The Law of Civilization and Decay/Chapter X
In the words of Mr. Froude: "Before the sixteenth century had measured half its course the shadow of Spain already stretched beyond the Andes; from the mines of Peru and the custom-houses of Antwerp the golden rivers streamed into her imperial treasury; the crowns of Aragon and Castile, of Burgundy, Milan, Naples, and Sicily, clustered on the brow of her sovereigns." (1) But with all their great martial qualities, the Spaniards seem to have been incapable of attaining the same velocity of movement as the races with which they had to compete. They never emerged from the imaginative period, they never developed the economic type, and in consequence they never centralized as the English centralized. Even as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century this peculiarity had been observed, for the Duke de Sully remarked that with Spain the "legs and arms are strong and powerful, but the heart infinitely weak and feeble."
Captain Mahan has explained the military impotence of the mighty mass which, scattered over two continents, could not command the sea, and in the seventeenth century an intelligent Dutchman boasted that "the Spaniards have publicly begun to hire our ships to sail to the Indies. . . . It is manifest that the West Indies, being as the stomach to Spain (for from it nearly all the revenue is drawn), must be joined to the Spanish head by a sea force"; (2) and the glory of the Elizabethan sailors lay not only in having routed this sea force, but in having assimilated no small portion of the nutriment which the American stomach should have supplied to the Spanish heart.
As Spain lingered long in the imaginative age, the priest and soldier there reigned supreme after the mercantile and sceptical type had begun to predominate elsewhere; and the instinct of the priest and soldier has always been to exterminate their rivals when pressed by their competition. In the Spanish peninsula itself the Inquisition soon trampled out heresy, but by the middle of the sixteenth century the Low Countries were a hotbed of Protestantism, and in Flanders these opposing forces fought out their battle to the death. The war which ruined Antwerp made England.
In 1576 Antwerp was sacked and burned; in 1585 the town was reduced to starvation by the Duke of Parma, and its commerce having been scattered by successive disasters, some of it migrated to Amsterdam, and some sought shelter in the Thames. In London the modern man was protected by the sea, and the crisis of the combat came in 1588, when the Spaniards, having decided to pursue their enemy to his last stronghold, sent the Armada to perish in the Channel. With that supreme effort the vitality of the great imaginative empire began to fail, disintegration set in, and on the ruins of Spain rose the purely economic centralization of Great Britain.
Like the Venetians, the British laid the basis of their high fortune by piracy and slaving, and their advantage over Spain lay not in mass, but in a superior energy, which gave them more rapid movement. Drake's squadron, when he sailed round the world, numbered five ships, the largest measuring only one hundred and twenty tons, the smallest twelve, but with these he succeeded because of their speed. For example, he overtook the Cacafuego, whose ballast was silver, and whose cargo gold and jewels. He never disclosed her value, but the Spanish government afterward proved a loss of a million and a half of ducats, beside the property of private individuals. In like manner the Armada was destroyed by little ships, which sailed round their clumsy enemy, and disabled him before he could strike a blow in self-defence.
The Spanish wars were halcyon days for the men of martial blood who had lost their land; they took to the sea by thousands, and ravaged the Spanish colonies with the energy and ferocity of vikings. For nearly a generation they wallowed in gold and silver and gems, and in the plunder of the American towns. Among these men Sir Francis Drake stood foremost, but, after 1560, the southern counties swarmed with pirates; and when, in 1585, Drake sailed on his raid against the West Indies, he led a force of volunteers twenty-five hundred strong. He held no commission, the crews of his twenty-five ships served without pay, they went as buccaneers to fatten on the commerce of the Spaniard. As it happened, this particular expedition failed financially, for the treasure fleet escaped, and the plunder of the three cities of Santiago, Saint Domingo, and Carthagena yielded only £60,000, but the injury done to Spain was incalculable.
No computation can be attempted of the spoil taken during these years; no reports were ever made; on the contrary, all concerned were anxious to conceal their doings, but certain prizes were too dazzling to be hidden. When Drake surprised three caravans on the Isthmus, numbering one hundred and ninety mules, each mule loaded with three hundred pounds of silver, the fact became known. No wonder Drake ate off "silver richly gilt, and engraved with his arms," that he had "all possible luxuries, even to perfumes," that he dined and supped "to the music of violins," and that he could bribe the queen with a diamond cross and a coronet set with splendid emeralds, and give the lord chancellor a service of plate. What he gave in secret he alone knew.
As Francis Drake was the ideal English corsair, so John Hawkins was the ideal slaver. The men were kinsmen, and of the breed which, when driven from their farms at the end of the Middle Ages, left their mark all over the world. Of course the two sailors were "gospellers," and Mr. Froude has quoted an interesting passage from the manuscript of a contemporary Jesuit, which shows how their class was esteemed toward the close of the sixteenth century: "The only party that would fight to the death for the queen, the only real friends she had, were the Puritans, the Puritans of London, the Puritans of the sea towns." (3) These the priest thought desperate and determined men. Nevertheless they sometimes provoked Elizabeth by their sermonizing. The story is told that one day after reading a letter of Hawkins to Burleigh she cried: "God's death! This fool went out a soldier, and has come back a divine."
Though both Drake and Hawkins possessed the predatory temperament, Hawkins had a strong commercial instinct, and kept closely to trade. He was the son of old William Hawkins, the first British captain who ever visited Brazil, and who brought from thence a native chief, whom he presented to Henry VIII. As a young man John had discovered at the Canaries "that negroes were a very good commodity in Hispaniola," (4) and that they might easily be taken on the coast of Guinea. Accordingly, in 1562, he fitted out three ships, touched at Sierra Leone, and "partly by the sword and partly by other means," he obtained a cargo, "and with that prey he sailed over the ocean sea" to Hispaniola, where he sold his goods at a large profit. The West India Islands, and the countries bordering the Gulf of Mexico, cannot be cultivated profitably by white labourers; therefore, when the Spaniards had, by hard usage, partially exterminated the natives, a fresh supply of field hands became necessary, and these could be had easily and cheaply on the coast of Africa.
At first Spain tried to exclude foreigners from this most lucrative traffic; but here again the English moved too quickly to be stopped. Wherever Hawkins went, he went prepared to fight, and, if prevented from trading peaceably, he used force. In his first voyage he met with no opposition, but subsequently, at Burburata, leave to sell was denied him, and, without an instant's hesitation, he marched against the town with "a hundred men well armed," and brought the governor to terms. Having supplied all the slaves needed at that port, Hawkins went on to Rio de la Hacha, where he, in like manner, made a demonstration with "one hundred men in armour," and two small guns, and in ten days he had disposed of his whole stock.
As at that time an able negro appears to have been worth about £160 in the West Indies, (5) a cargo of five hundred ought to have netted between seventy and eighty thousand pounds, for the cost of kidnapping was trifling. No wonder, therefore, that slaving flourished, and that, by the middle of the eighteenth century, England probably carried not far from one hundred thousand blacks annually from Africa to the colonies. The East offered no such market, and doubtless Adam Smith was right in his opinion that the commerce with India had never been so advantageous as the trade to America. (6)
Both slavers and pirates brought bullion to England, and presently this flow of silver began to stimulate at London a certain amount of exchange between the East and West. The Orientals have always preferred payment in specie, and, as silver has usually offered more profit than gold as an export, the European with a surplus of silver has had the advantage over all competitors. Accordingly, until Spain lost the power to protect her communications with her mines, the Spanish peninsula enjoyed almost a monopoly of the trade beyond the Cape; but as the war went on, and more of the precious metal flowed to the north, England and Holland began to send their silver to Asia, the Dutch organizing one East India Company in 1595, and the British another in 1600.
Sir Josiah Child, who was, perhaps, the ablest merchant of the seventeenth century, observed that in 1545 "the trade of England then was inconsiderable, and the merchants very mean and few." (7) Child's facts are beyond doubt, and the date he fixed is interesting because it coincides with the discovery of Potosi, whence most of the silver came which supplied the pirates and the slavers. Prior to 1545 specie had been scarce in London, but when the buccaneers had been scuttling treasure galleons for a generation, they found themselves possessed of enough specie to set them dreaming of India, and thus piracy laid the foundation of the British empire in Asia.
But robbing the Spaniards had another more immediate and more startling result, for it probably precipitated the civil war. As the city grew rich it chafed at the slow movement of the aristocracy, who, timid and peaceful, cramped it by closing the channels through which it reached the property of foreigners; and, just when the yeomanry were exasperated by rising rents, London began to glow with that energy which, when given vent, was destined to subdue so large a portion of the world. Perhaps it is not going too far to say that, even from the organization of the East India Company, the mercantile interest controlled England. Not that it could then rule alone, it lacked the power to do so for nearly a hundred years to come; but, after 1600, its weight turned the scale on which side soever thrown. Before the Long Parliament the merchants were generally Presbyterians or moderate Puritans; the farmers, Independents or Radicals; and Winthrop, when preparing for the emigration to Massachusetts, dealt not only with squires like Hampden, but with city magnates like Thomas Andrews, the lord mayor. This alliance between the rural and the urban Puritans carried through the Great Rebellion, and as their coalition crushed the monarchy so their separation reinstated it.
Macaulay has very aptly observed that "but for the hostility of the city, Charles the First would never have been vanquished, and that, without the help of the city, Charles the Second could scarcely have been restored." (8) At the Protector's death the Presbyterians abandoned the farmers, probably because they feared them. The army of the Commonwealth swarmed with men like Cromwell and Blake, warriors resistless alike on land and sea, with whom, when organized, the city could not cope. Therefore it scattered them, and, throwing in its lot with the Cavaliers, set up the king.
For about a generation after the Restoration, no single interest had the force to impose its will upon the nation, or, in other words, parties were equally balanced; but from the middle of the century the tide flowed rapidly. Capital accumulated, and as it accumulated the men adapted to be its instruments grew to be the governing class. Sir Josiah Child is the most interesting figure of this period. His acquaintance remembered him a poor apprentice sweeping the counting-house where he worked; and yet, at fifty, his fortune reached £20,000 a year, a sum almost equal to the rent-roll of the Duke of Ormond, the richest peer of the realm. Child married his daughter to the eldest son of the Duke of Beaufort, and gave her £50,000, and his ability was so commanding that for years he absolutely ruled the East India Company, and used its revenues to corrupt Parliament. On matters of finance such a man would hardly err, and he gave it as his opinion that in 1635 "there were more merchants to be found upon the Exchange worth each one thousand pounds and upwards, than were in the former days, viz., before the year 1600, to be found worth one hundred pounds each."
- "And now . . . there are more men to be found upon the Exchange now worth ten thousand pounds estates, than were then of one thousand pounds. And if this be doubted, let us ask the aged, whether five hundred pounds portion with a daughter sixty years ago, were not esteemed a larger portion than two thousand pounds is now; and whether gentlewomen in those days would not esteem themselves well clothed in a serge gown, which a chambermaid now will be ashamed to be seen in. . . . We have now almost one hundred coaches for one we had formerly. We with ease can pay a greater tax now in one year than our forefathers could in twenty. Our customs are very much improved, I believe above the proportion aforesaid, of six to one; which is not so much in advance of the rates of goods as by increase of the bulk of trade. . . .
- "I can myself remember since there were not in London used so many wharves or keys for the landing of merchants goods, by at least one third part, as now there are, and those that were then could scarce have employment for half what they could do; and now, notwithstanding one-third more used to the same purpose, they are all too little, in time of peace, to land the goods at, that come to London." (9)
Child estimated that, within twenty years, wages had risen one-third, and rents twenty-five per cent, while "houses new-built in London yield twice the rent they did before the fire."(10) Farms that "their grandfathers or fathers bought or sold fifty years past . . . would yield, one with another, at least treble the money, and in some cases, six times the money, they were then bought and sold for." (11) Macaulay has estimated the population of London in 1685 at half a million, and believed it to have then become the largest city in Europe.
The aristocracy were forced to tolerate men of the predatory type while they feared a Spanish invasion, but after the defeat of the Armada these warriors became dangerous at home, and the oligarchy, very naturally, tried to purge the island of a class which constantly menaced their authority. Persecution drove numbers of Nonconformists to America, and the story of Captain John Smith shows how hardly society then pressed on the race of adventurers, even where the bitterness of the struggle did not produce religious enthusiasm.
Smith lived a generation too late. Born in 1579, he was a child of nine when the Armada perished, and only sixteen when Drake and Hawkins died at sea. Smith's father had property, but when left an orphan his guardians neglected him, and at fifteen let him set out on his travels with only ten shillings in his pocket. At home no career was open to him, for the Cecils rather inclined to imprison and behead soldiers of fortune than to reward them. Accordingly he went abroad, and by twenty-five had seen service in most countries of the Continent, had been enslaved by the Turks, had escaped and wandered to Barbary, had fought the Spanish on a French man-of-war, and at last had learned that the dreams of his youth belonged to a past age, and that he must enter a new path. He therefore joined himself to a party bound for Virginia, and the hardship of the times may be gauged by the fact that out of a company of a hundred, fifty-two were gentlemen adventurers as needy as himself, none of whom sought exile for religion.
Smith's voyages to America brought him nothing but bitterness. He returned to England and passed his last years in obscurity and neglect, and perhaps the fate that awaited soldiers under James, has been nowhere better told than in Smith's own words. He spent five years and more than five hundred pounds in the service of Virginia and New England, yet "in neither . . . have I one foot of land, nor the very house I builded, nor the ground I digged with my own hands, nor ever any content or satisfaction at all, and though I see ordinarily those two countries shared before me by them that neither have them, nor know them but by my descriptions." (12)
As long as the Tudor aristocracy ruled, Great Britain afforded small comfort for men like Smith. That aristocracy had genius neither for adventure nor for war, and few Western nations have a sorrier military history than England under the Stuarts. Yet beneath the inert mass of the nobility seethed an energy which was to recentralize the world; and when capital had accumulated to a certain point, the men who gave it an outlet laid their grasp upon the State. In 1688 the commercial adventurers conquered the kingdom.
The change was radical; at once social, political, and religious. The stronghold of the Tories had been the royal prerogative. The victors lodged the power of the Crown in a committee chosen by the House of Commons. The dogma of divine right immediately vanished, and with it all that distinguished Anglicanism. Though perverted by the Tudors, this great tenet of the Church of Henry VIII. had been at least a survival of an imaginative age; and when the merchants swept it away, all trace of idealism departed. Thenceforward English civilization became a purely materialistic phenomenon.
In proportion as movement accelerates societies consolidate, and as societies consolidate they pass through a profound intellectual change. Energy ceases to find vent through the imagination, and takes the form of capital; hence as civilizations advance, the imaginative temperament tends to disappear, while the economic instinct is fostered, and thus substantially new varieties of men come to possess the world.
Nothing so portentous overhangs humanity as this mysterious and relentless acceleration of movement, which changes methods of competition and alters paths of trade; for by it countless millions of men and women are foredoomed to happiness or misery, as certainly as the beasts and trees, which have flourished in the wilderness, are destined to vanish when the soil is subdued by man.
The Romans amassed the treasure by which they administered their Empire, through the plunder and enslavement of the world. The Empire cemented by that treasure crumbled when adverse exchanges carried the bullion of Italy to the shore of the Bosphorus. An accelerated movement among the semi-barbarians of the West caused the agony of the crusades, amidst which Constantinople fell as the Italian cities rose; while Venice and Genoa, and with them the whole Arabic civilization, shrivelled, when Portugal established direct communication with Hindostan.
The opening of the ocean as a highroad precipitated the Reformation, and built up Antwerp, while in the end it ruined Spain; and finally the last great quickening of the age of steam, which centralized the world at London, bathed the earth in blood, from the Mississippi to the Ganges. Thus religions are preached and are forgotten, empires rise and fall, philosophies are born and die, art and poetry bloom and fade, as societies pass from the disintegration wherein the imagination kindles, to the consolidation whose pressure ends in death.
In 1688, when the momentum of England suddenly increased, the change was equivalent to the conquest of the island by a new race. Among the family of European nations, Great Britain rose as no people had risen since the Punic Wars. Almost instantly she entered on a career of conquest unparalleled in modern history. Of the hundred and twenty-five years between the Boyne and Waterloo, she passed some seventy in waging ferocious wars, from which she emerged victorious on land and sea, the mistress of a mighty empire, the owner of incalculable wealth, and the centre of the world's exchanges. Then, from this culminating point of expansion by conquest, she glided subtly, and almost imperceptibly, into the period of contraction, as Rome went before her under the Caesars.
Although abundant metallic currency does not, probably, of itself, create mercantile prosperity, such prosperity is hardly compatible with a shrinking stock of money; for when contraction sets in and prices fall, producers and debtors are ruined, as they were ruined in Italy under the later emperors. Toward the close of the seventeenth century Europe appeared to be on the brink of such a contraction, for though Peru had lavishly replenished the supply of the precious metals a hundred years previously, the drain to Asia and the increasing demands of commerce had been so considerable, that the standard coin had generally depreciated. From the reign of Augustus downward, commerce between Europe and Asia has usually favoured Asia, and this was particularly true of the seventeenth century, when the value of bullion fell in the West, and therefore encouraged lavish exports to the East, where it retained its purchasing power. According to Adam Smith, "the banks of Venice, Genoa, Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Nuremberg, seem to have been all originally established" to provide an ideal currency for the settlement of bills of exchange, and the money "of such banks, being better than the common currency of the country, necessarily bore an agio, which was greater or smaller, according as the currency was supposed to be more or less degraded below the standard of the State." (13)
Smith estimated the depreciation at Hamburg at fourteen per cent, and at Amsterdam, early in the previous century, at nine per cent; in short, all European countries suffered, but in England the evil reached a climax through the inertia of the new aristocracy.
In England, silver had always been the standard, and by the third year of Elizabeth the coin had been restored to its proper fineness, which thenceforward was scrupulously maintained. But though the metal was not degraded by the government, the stock of bullion, if not constantly replenished from without, tended to diminish in proportion to the growth of the country and the export of specie to Asia. After the discovery of America, the value of silver in relation to gold fell, in Europe, to about fourteen or fifteen to one, while in China or India it stood pretty steady at from ten to twelve to one. Consequently from 1600 downward, silver remained the most profitable cargo which could be sent round the Cape of Good Hope, and, unhappily for British prosperity, at the very moment when the East India Company came into being, piracy ceased. The chief supply of bullion being thus cut off, the strain of the export trade fell upon the coin, and within a little more than a generation the effect become apparent in a degeneration of the currency.
To make good her position as a centre of exchanges, England had no choice but to supply her necessities by force. Cromwell understood the situation perfectly, and had hardly assumed the office of Protector when he laid plans to cut the evil at the root by conquering Spanish America, and robbing Spain of her mines. To this end he fitted out his great expedition against Saint Domingo, which was to serve him as his base; but for once his military genius failed him, his commanders blundered, the attack miscarried, and the island of Jamaica was all that came of the campaign.
Meanwhile, however, that no time might be lost while fighting for the mines themselves, Cromwell sent Blake to intercept the treasure ships off the coast of Spain. At first Blake also had ill-luck. In 1655 the plate fleet escaped him, but the next year, though forced himself to go to port for supplies, he detached Captain Stayner, with six sail, to cruise off Cadiz, and on September 19, General Montague was able to report that his "hart [was] very much warmed with the apprehension of the singular providence of God," who had permitted Stayner to meet, "with the Kinge of Spain's West India fleete," and take among other prizes "a gallion reported to have in her two million pieces of plate." (14) If the "plate" were Mexican "pieces of eight" at four shillings and sixpence, the cargo was worth £450,000, or considerably more than the whole annual export to the East at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Had the Protector lived, there can be little doubt that, by some such means as this, he would have fostered British resources, and maintained the integrity of British coin; but in less than two years from the date of Montague's dispatch, Cromwell was dead, and the inertia of the Tory landlords paralyzed the nation for another generation. No foreigner was robbed, and the stock of domestic silver dwindled from year to year, until at the Revolution the golden guinea, which, from its first issue in 1662 down to the accession of William and Mary, had been nominally current for twenty shillings, actually sold in the market for thirty shillings of the money in use.
- "This diminishing and counterfeiting the money was at this time so excessive, that what was good silver was worth scarcely one-half of its current value, whilst a great part of the coins was only iron, brass, or copper plated, and some no more than washed over." (15)
One of the first acts of the new government was a complete recoinage, which was finished in 1699; but the measure failed of its purpose, for the reason that the exports of silver regularly exceeded the imports.
In 1717, a committee of the House of Lords considered the condition of the currency, and Lord Stanhope then explained very lucidly the cause of the scarcity of silver. Among other papers he produced a report from the Custom House, by which it appeared that, in the year 1717, "the East India Company had exported near three million ounces of silver, which far exceeding the imports of the bullion in that year, it necessarily followed that vast quantities of silver specie must have been melted down, both to make up the export, and to supply the silversmith." (16) For the decade from 1711 to 1720 the annual export of bullion by the East India Company averaged £434,000. (17) At the accession of George III., in 1760, Lord Liverpool estimated that shillings had lost one-sixth, and sixpences one-quarter of their original weight, while the crown-piece had almost wholly disappeared. (18) Even Adam Smith admitted that because of this outflow silver had risen in value, and probably purchased "a larger quantity both of labour and commodities" than it otherwise would. (19)
In this emergency the British merchants showed the resource which has always been their characteristic, and, in default of an adequate supply of specie, relieved the strain upon their currency by issuing paper. Mediæval banking had gone no further than the establishment of reserves of coin, to serve as a medium for clearing bills of exchange; the English took the great step of accelerating the circulation of their money, by using this reserve as a basis for a paper currency which might be largely expanded. The Bank of England was incorporated in 1694, the Bank of Scotland in 1695, and the effect was unquestionably considerable. Adam Smith has thus described the impetus received by Glasgow:—
- "The effects of it have been precisely those above described. The business of the country is almost entirely carried on by means of the paper of those different banking companies, with which purchases and payments of all kinds are commonly made. Silver very seldom appears except in the change of a twenty shillngs bank note, and gold still seldomer. But though the conduct of all those different companies has not been unexceptionable . . . the country, notwithstanding, has evidently derived great benefit from their trade. I have heard it asserted, that the trade of the city of Glasgow doubled in about fifteen years after the first erection of the banks there; and that the trade of Scotland has more than quadrupled since the first erection of the two public banks at Edinburgh." (20)
But although by this means a certain degree of relief was given, and though prices rose slowly throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, the fundamental difficulty remained. There was insufficient silver for export, exchanges were adverse, and that stock of coined money was lacking which is the form in which force clothes itself in highly centralized communities. How England finally supplied her needs is one of the most dramatic pages of history.
As Jevons has aptly observed, Asia is "the great reservoir and sink of the precious metals." From time immemorial the Oriental custom has been to hoard, and from the Mogul blazing with the diamonds of Golconda, to the peasant starving on his wretched pittance, every Hindoo had, in former days, a treasure stored away against a day of trouble. Year by year, since Pizarro had murdered the Inca Atahualpa for his gold, a stream of bullion had flowed from America to Europe, and from Europe to the East: there it had vanished as completely though once more buried in the bowels of the mine. These hoards, the savings of millions of human beings for centuries, the English seized and took to London, as the Romans had taken the spoil of Greece and Pontus to Italy. What the value of the treasure was, no man can estimate, but it must have been many millions of pounds—a vast sum in proportion to the stock of the precious metals then owned by Europeans. Some faint idea of the booty of the conqueror may be drawn from Macaulay's description of the first visit of an English soldier to an Oriental treasure chamber:—
- "As to Clive, there was no limit to his acquisitions but his own moderation. The treasury of Bengal was thrown open to him. There were piled up, after the usage of Indian princes, immense masses of coin, among which might not seldom be detected the florins and byzants with which, before any European ship had turned the Cape of Good Hope, the Venetians purchased the stuffs and spices of the East. Clive walked between heaps of gold and silver, crowned with rubies and diamonds, and was at liberty to help himself." (21)
The lives of few men are better known than those of Clive and Hastings, and yet there are few whose influence upon the fate of mankind has had such scant appreciation. It is not too much to say that the destiny of Europe hinged upon the conquest of Bengal. Robert Clive was of the same stock as Drake and Hawkins, Raleigh, Blake, and Cromwell; he was the eldest son of one of those small farmers whose ancestors had held their land ever since the Conquest, and who, when at last evicted and driven out to sea, had fought and conquered on every continent and on every ocean. Among the throng of great English adventurers none is greater than he.
He was born in 1725, and from childhood displayed those qualities which made him pre-eminent on the field of battle; fighting was his delight, and so fierce was his temper that his family could not control him. At last, when eighteen, his father gladly sent him to Madras as a clerk in the service of the East India Company; and there, in a torrid climate which shattered his health, poor and neglected, lonely and forlorn, he pined, until in melancholy he twice attempted suicide. But he was destined to found an empire, and at last his hour came.
When Clive went to India, the Company was still a purely commercial concern, holding only the land needed for its warehouses, and having in their pay a few ill-disciplined sepoys. In the year 1746, when Clive was twenty-one, the war of the Austrian Succession was raging, and suddenly a French fleet, commanded by Labourdonnais, appeared off Madras, and attacked Fort Saint George. Resistance was hopeless, the place surrendered, and the governor and chief inhabitants were taken to Pondicherry. Clive, however, managed to escape, and, volunteering, received an ensign's commission, and began his military career.
Shortly after, peace was made in Europe, but in India the issue of the struggle lay undecided between the French and English, the prize being the peninsula. Dupleix, the French governor of Pondicherry, was a man of commanding intellect, who first saw the possibility of constructing a European empire in Hindostan by controlling native princes. Following up his idea, he mixed in a war of succession, and having succeeded in establishing a sovereign of the Deccan, he made imself master of Southern India. The Nizam's treasure was thrown open to him, and beside many jewels of price, he is said to have appropriated two hundred thousand pounds in coin. This was the man whom Clive, when only a clerk of twenty-five, without military education or experience, attacked and overthrew.
Clive began his campaigns by the capture and defence of Arcot, one of the most daring deeds of a generation given over to perpetual war. Aided by their native allies, the French had laid siege to Trichinopoly, and Clive represented to his superiors that with the fate of Trichinopoly was bound up the fate of the whole peninsula. He recommended making a diversion by assaulting Arcot, the capital of the Carnatic; his plan met with approval, and, with two hundred Europeans and three hundred sepoys, he marched to fight the greatest power in the East. He succeeded in surprising and occupying the town without loss, but when within the city his real peril began. Arcot had neither ditches nor defensible ramparts, the English were short of provisions, and the Nabob hurried forward ten thousand men to relieve his capital. With four officers, one hundred and twenty British, and two hundred sepoys, Clive held the town for fifty days, and when the enemy assaulted for the last time he served his own guns. He won a decisive victory, and from that hour was recognized as among the most brilliant officers of the world.
Other campaigns followed, but his health, undermined by the tropics, gave way, and at twenty-seven he returned home to squander his money and contest an election to Parliament. He soon reached the end of his resources, and, just before the opening of the Seven Years' War, he accepted a lieutenant-colonel's commission, and set sail to take command in Hindostan. The Company appointed him governor of Fort Saint David, a settlement near Madras; but he had hardly assumed his office before an event occurred which caused the conquest of Bengal. The Nabob of Bengal captured Calcutta, and imprisoned one hundred and forty-six of the English residents in the "Black Hole," where, in a single night, one hundred and twenty-three perished.
Clive was summoned, and acted with his usual vigour. He routed the Nabob's army, recovered Calcutta, and would have taken vengeance at once had not the civilians, who wanted to be restored to their places, interfered.
Long and tortuous negotiations followed, in which Clive displayed more than Oriental cunning and duplicity, ending in a march into the interior and the battle of Plassey. There, with one thousand English and two thousand sepoys, he met and crushed the army of the Nabob, sixty thousand strong. On June 23, 1757, one of the richest provinces of Asia lay before him defenceless, ripe for plunder. Eight hundred thousand pounds were sent down the Hooghly to Calcutta, in one shipment; Clive himself took between two and three hundred thousand pounds.
Like Drake and Hawkins, Clive had done great things for England, but he was a military adventurer, one of the class in whom the aristocracy recognized an enemy; and though in London he was treated with outward respect, and even given an Irish peerage, the landed interest hated him, and tried to destroy him, as in the next generation it tried to destroy Hastings.
Upon the plundering of India there can be no better authority than Macaulay, who held high office at Calcutta when the administration of Hastings was still remembered; and who less than any of the writers who have followed him, was a mouth-piece of the official class. (22) He has told how after Plassey "the shower of wealth" began to fall, and he has described Clive's own gains: "We may safely affirm that no Englishman who started with nothing has ever, in any line of life, created such a fortune at the early age of thirty-four." (23) But the takings of Clive, either for himself or for the government, were trifling compared to the wholesale robbery and spoliation which followed his departure, when Bengal was surrendered a helpless prey to a myriad of greedy officials. These officials were absolute, irresponsible, and rapacious, and they emptied the private hoards. Their only thought was to wring some hundreds of thousands of pounds out of the natives as quickly as possible, and hurry home to display their wealth.
- "Enormous fortunes were thus rapidly accumulated at Calcutta, while thirty millions of human beings were reduced to the extremity of wretchedness." "The misgovernment of the English was carried to a point such as seems hardly compatible with the very existence of society. The Roman proconsul, who, in a year or two, squeezed out of a province the means of rearing marble palaces and baths on the shores of Campania, of drinking from amber, of feasting on singing birds, of exhibiting armies of gladiators and flocks of camelopards; the Spanish viceroy, who, leaving behind him the curses of Mexico or Lima, entered Madrid with a long train of gilded coaches, and of sumpterhorses trapped and shod with silver, were now outdone." (24)
Thus treasure in oceans flowed into England through private hands, but in India the affairs of the Company went from bad to worse. Misgovernment impoverished the people, the savings of long years of toil were exhausted, and when, in 1770, a drought brought famine, the resources of the people failed, and they perished by millions: "the very streets of Calcutta were blocked up by the dying and the dead." Then came an outbreak of wrath from disappointed stockholders; the landed interest seized its opportunity to attack Clive in Parliament; and the merchants chose Hastings to develop the resources of Hindostan.
As Sheridan said, the Company "extended the sordid principles of their origin over all their successive operations; connecting with their civil policy, and even with their boldest achievements, the meanness of a pedlar and the profligacy of pirates." In Hastings the Company found a man fitted to their hands, a statesman worthy to organize a vast empire on an economic basis. Able, bold, cool, and relentless, he grasped the situation at a glance, and never faltered in his purpose. If more treasure was to be wrung from the natives, force had to be used systematically. Though Bengal might be ruined, the hoards of the neighbouring potentates remained safe, and these Hastings deliberately set himself to drain. Macaulay has explained the policy and the motives which actuated him:—
- "The object of his diplomacy was at this time simply to get money. The finances of his government were in an embarrassed state, and this embarrassment he was determined to relieve by some means, fair or foul. The principle which directed all his dealings with his neighbours is fully expressed by the old motto of one of the great predatory families of Teviotdale, 'Thou shalt want ere I want.' He seems to have laid it down, as a fundamental proposition which could not be disputed, that, when he had not as many lacs of rupees as the public service required, he was to take them from anybody who had. One thing, indeed, is to be said in excuse for him. The pressure applied to him by his employers at home, was such as only the highest virtue could have withstood, such as left him no choice except to commit great wrongs, or to resign his high post, and with that post all his hopes of fortune and distinction." (25)
How he obtained his money, the pledges he violated, and the blood he spilt, is known as few passages of history are known, for the story has been told by Macaulay and by Burke. How he robbed the Nabob of Bengal of half the income the Company had solemnly promised to pay, how he repudiated the revenue which the government had covenanted to yield to the Mogul as a tribute for provinces ceded them, and how, in consideration of four hundred thousand pounds, he sent a brigade to slaughter the Rohillas, and placidly saw "their villages burned, their children butchered, and their women violated," has been described in one of the most popular essays in the language. At Hastings' impeachment, the heaviest charge against him was that based on his conduct toward the princesses of Oude, whom his creature, Asaph-ul-Dowlah, imprisoned and starved, whose servants he tormented, and from whom he wrung at last twelve hundred thousand pounds, as the price of blood. By these acts, and acts such as these, the treasure which had flowed to Europe through the extermination of the Peruvians, was returned again to England from the hoards of conquered Hindoos.
(1) History of England, viii. 425.
(2) Influence of the Sea Power upon History, Mahan, 41.
(3) English Seamen of the Sixteenth Century, 6.
(4) Anderson's History of Commerce, i. 400.
(5) S. P. Dom. Eliz., 53.
(6) Wealth of Nations, book 4, ch. i.
(7) Discourse of Trade, Child, ed. 1775, 8.
(8) History of England, ch. iii.
(9) Discourse of Trade, Josiah Child, ed. 1775, 8, 9, 10.
(10) Ibid. Pref. xxxi.
(11) Ibid., 41.
(12) American Biography, Sparks, ii. 388.
(13) Wealth of Nations, bk. iv. c. 3, pt. 1.
(14) Thurloe's State Papers, v. 433, 434.
(15) Annals of the Coinage of Britain, Ruding, iii. 378.
(16) Annals of the Coinage, Ruding, iii. 470.
(17) Investigations in Currency and Finance, Jevons, 140.
(18) Annals of the Coinage, Ruding, iv. 26.
(19) Wealth of Nations, bk. iv. c. 1.
(20) Wealth of Nations, bk. ii. c. 2.
(21) Lord Clive.
(22) Macaulay's essays have been the subject of much recent adverse criticism; but, in regard to the plundering of Hindostan, nothing of consequence has been brought forward against him. All recent historical work relating to India must be taken with suspicion. The whole official influence has been turned to distorting evidence in order to make a case for the government.
(23) Lord Clive.
(24) Lord Clive.
(25) Warren Hastings.