"Mr. Sheridans celebrated Speech on the fourth charge; viz. the Resumption of the Jaghires and the Confiscation of the Treasures of the Princesses of Oude." 7 Feb. 1787. Speeches of the Late Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Ed. by A Constitutional Friend. 5 vols. London: Patrick Martin, 1816. 1: 273-96.
Mr. Sheridan commenced by observing that, had it been possible to have received, without a violation of the established rules of parliament, the paper* which the honourable member, Mr. Dempster, had just now read, he should willingly have receded from any forms of the house, for the purpose of obtaining new lights and farther illustrations on the important subject then before them; not, indeed, that, on the present occasion, he found himself so ill prepared, as merely, for this reason, to be prevented from proceeding to the discharge of his duty; neither, to speak freely, was he inclined to consider any explanatory additions to the evidence of Sir Elijah Impey so much framed to elucidate, as to perplex and contradict. Needless to his present purpose was it for him to require Sir Elijah, legally, to recognize what had been read, in his name, by the honourable gentleman. In fact, neither the informality of any subsisting evidence, nor the adducement of any new explanations from Sir Elijah Impey, could make the slightest impression upon the vast and strong body of proof which he should now bring forward against Warren Hastings. Yet, if any motive could have so far operated upon him, as to make him industriously seek for renewed opportunities of questioning Sir Elijah, it would result from his fresh and indignant recollection of the low and artful strategem of delivering to the members, and others, in this last period of parliamentary inquiry, printed hand-bills of defence, the contents of which bespoke a presumptuous and empty boast of completely refuting all which, at any time, had, or even could be advanced against Mr. Hastings, on the subject of the fourth article in the general charge of a right honourable member (Mr. Burke). But even this was far beneath his notice. The rectitude and strength of his cause were not to be prejudiced by such pitiful expedients, and he should not waste a moment in counteracting measures, which, though insidious, were proportionately frivolous and unavailing. Nor would he take up the time of the committee with any general arguments to prove, that the subject of the charge, which had fallen to his lot to bring forward, was of great moment and magnitude. The attention which parliament had paid to the affairs of India, for many sessions past, the voluminous productions of their committees on that subject, the various proceedings in that house respecting it, their own strong and pointed resolutions, the repeated recommendation of His Majesty, and their reiterated assurances of paying due regard to those recommendations, as well as various acts of the legislature, were all of them undeniable proofs of the moment and magnitude of the consideration; and incontrovertibly established this plain, broad fact, that parliament directly acknowledged that the British name and character had been dishonored, and rendered detested throughout India, by the malversation and crimes of the principal servant of the East India Company. That fact having been established beyond all question, by themselves, and by their own acts, there needed no argument, on his part, to induce the committee to see the importance of the subject about to be discussed that day, in a more striking point of view than they themselves had held it up to public observation. There were, he knew, persons without doors who affected to ridicule the idea of prosecuting Mr. Hastings; and who not inconsistently redoubled their exertions, in proportion as the prosecution became more serious, to increase their sarcasms upon the subject, by asserting that parliament might be more usefully employed; that there were matters of more immediate moment to engage their attention; that a commercial treaty with France had just been concluded; that it was an object of a vast and comprehensive nature, and in itself sufficient to engross their attention. To all this he would oppose these questions. Was parliament mis-spending its time, by enquiring into the oppressions practised on millions of unfortunate persons in India, and endeavoring to bring the daring delinquent, who had been guilty of the most flagrant acts of enormous tyranny and rapacious peculation, to exemplary and condign punishment? Was it a misuse of their functions to be diligent in attempting, by the most effectual means, to wipe off the disgrace affixed to the British name in India, and to rescue the national character from lasting infamy? Surely no man who felt for either the one or the other would think a business of greater moment, or magnitude, could occupy his attention; or that the house could, with too much steadiness, too ardent a zeal, or too industrious a perseverance, pursue its object. Their conduct in this respect, during the course of the preceding year, had done them immortal honour, and proved to all the world, that however degenerate an example of Englishmen some of the British subjects had exhibited in India, the people of England collectively, speaking and acting by their representatives, felt, as men should feel on such an occasion, that they were anxious to do justice, by redressing injuries, and punishing offenders, however high their rank, however elevated their station.
Their indefatigable exertions in committees appointed to enquire concerning the affairs of India; their numerous, elaborate, and clear reports; their long and interesting debates; their solemn addresses to the throne; their rigorous legislative acts; their marked detestation of that novel and base sophism in the principles of judicial enquiry (constantly the language of the Governor-Generals servile dependents!), that crimes might be compounded; that the guilt of Mr. Hastings was to be balanced by his successes; that fortunate events were a full and complete set-off against a system of oppression, corruption, breach of faith, peculation, and treachery; and, finally, their solemn and awful judgment that, in the case of Benares, Mr. Hastingss conduct was a proper object of parliamentary impeachment; had covered them with applause, and brought them forward in the face of all the world, as the objects of perpetual admiration. Not less unquestionably just, than highly virtuous, was the assertion of the commons of Great Britain, that there were acts which no political necessity could warrant; and that amidst flagrancies of such an inexpiable description, was the treatment of Cheit Sing. To use the well-founded and emphatic language of a right honourable gentleman (Mr. Pitt), the committee had discovered in the administration of Mr. Hastings, proceedings of strong injustice, of grinding oppression, and unprovoked severity. In this decision the committee had, also, vindicated the character of his right honourable friend (Mr. Burke), from the slanderous tongue of ignorance and perversion. They had, by their vote on that question, declared, that the man who brought the charges was no false accuser; that he was not moved by envy, by malice, nor by any unworthy motives to blacken a spotless name; but that he was the indefatigable, persevering, and, at length, successful champion of oppressed multitudes, against their tyrannical oppressor. With sound justice, with manly firmness, with unshaken integrity, had his right honourable friend, upon all occasions, resisted the timid policy of mere remedial acts--even the high opinion of Mr. Hastingss successor; even the admitted worth of Lord Cornwalliss character, had been deemed by his right honourable friend, an inadequate atonement to India for the injuries so heavily inflicted on that devoted country. Animated with the same zeal, the committee had, by that memorable vote, given a solemn pledge of their farther intentions. They had audibly said to India--you shall no longer be seduced into temporary acquiescence, by sending out a titled Governor, or a set of vapouring resolutions.--It is not with stars, and ribands, and all the badges of regal favor, that we atone to you for past delinquencies. No--you shall have the solid consolation of seeing an end to your grievances, by an example of punishment for those that have already taken place. The house has set up a beacon, which, whilst it served to guide their own way, would also make their motions more conspicuous to the world which surrounded and beheld them. He had no doubt but in their manly determination, to go through the whole of the business with the same steadiness which gave such sterling brilliancy of character to their outset, they might challenge the world to observe and judge of them by the result. Impossible was it for such men to become improperly influenced by a paper, bearing the signature of Warren Hastings, and put, not many minutes before into their hand, as well as his own, on their entrance to the house. The insidious paper he felt himself at liberty to consider as a second defence, and a second answer to the charge he was about to bring forward; a charge replete with proof of criminality of the blackest dye,--of tyranny the most vile and premeditated,--of corruption the most open and shameless,--of oppression the most severe and grinding,--of cruelty the most hard and unparalleled. But he was far from meaning to rest the charge on assertion, or on any warm expressions which the impulse of wounded feelings might produce. He would establish every part of the charge, by the most unanswerable proof, and the most unquestionable evidence; and the witness whom he would bring forth to support every fact which he would state, should be, for the most part, one whom no man would venture to contradict--Warren Hastings himself. Yet, this character had friends, nor were they blameable. They might believe him guiltless, because he asserted his integrity. Even the partial warmth of friendship, and the emotions of a good, admiring, and unsuspecting heart, might not only carry them to such lengths, but incite them to rise with an intrepid confidence in his vindication. Again (Mr. Sheridan added), would he repeat that the vote of the last session, wherein the conduct of this pillar of India, this corner-stone of our strength in the East, this talisman of the British territories in Asia, was censured, did the greatest honor to this house, as it must be the fore-runner of speedy justice on that character, which was said to be above censure, and whose conduct we were given to understand was not within the reach even of suspicion; but whose deeds were indeed such as no difficulties, no necessity could justify; for where is the situation, however elevated, and in that elevation however embarrassed, that can authorize the wilful commission of oppression and rapacity. If, at any period a point arose, on which enquiry had been full, deliberate, and dispassionate, it was the present. There were questions on which party conviction was supposed to be a matter of easy acquisition; and if this enquiry was to be considered merely as a matter of party, he should regard it as very trifling indeed; but he professed to God, that he felt in his own bosom the strongest personal conviction; and he was sensible that many other gentlemen did the same. It was on that conviction that he believed the conduct of Mr. Hastings, in regard to the Nabob of Oude and the Begums, comprehended every species of human offence.--He had proved himself guilty of rapacity at once violent and insatiable--of treachery, cool and premeditated--of oppression, useless and unprovoked--of breach of faith, unwarrantable and base--of cruelty, unmanly and unmerciful.--These were the crimes of which, in his soul and conscience, he arraigned Warren Hastings; and of which he had the confidence to say he should convict him. As there were gentlemen ready to stand up his advocates, he challenged them to watch him--to watch if he advanced one inch of assertion for which he had not solid ground; for he trusted nothing to declamation.--He desired credit for no fact which he did no prove, and which he did not indeed demonstrate beyond the possibility of refutation. He should not desert the clear and invincible ground of truth, throughout any one particle of his allegations against Mr. Hastings, who uniformly aimed to govern India by his own arbitrary power, covering with misery upon misery a wretched people, whom providence had subjected to the dominion of this country; whilst in the defence of Mr. Hastings, not one single circumstance grounded upon truth was stated.--He would repeat the words, and gentlemen might take them down;--the attempt at vindication was false throughout. Mr. Sheridan now pursuing the examination of Mr. Hastingss defence, observed that there could not exist a single plea for maintaining that that defence against the particular charge now before the committee was hasty. Mr. Hastings had had sufficient time to make it up; and the committee saw that he had thought fit to go back as far as the year 1775, for pretended ground of justification, from the charge of violence and rapacity. Mr. Sheridan here read a variety of extracts from the defence, which stated the various steps taken by Mr. Bristow, in the years 1775 and 1776, to procure from the Begums aid to the Nabob. Not one of these facts, as stated by Mr. Hastings, was true. Groundless, nugatory, and insulting were the affirmations of Mr. Hastings, that the seizure of treasures from the Begums, and the exposition of their pilfered goods to public auction (unparalleled acts of open injustice, oppression, and inhumanity!) were in any degree to be defended by those encroachments on their property, which had taken place previous to his administration, or by those sales which they themselves had solicited as a favorable mode of supplying a part of their aid to the Nabob. The relation of a series of plain, indisputable facts would irrecoverably throw a subterfuge so pitiful,--a distinction so ridiculous! It must be remembered, that, at that period, the Begums did not merely desire, but they most expressly stipulated, that of the thirty lacks promised, eleven should be paid in sundry articles of manufacture. Was it not obvious, therefore, that the sales of goods, in the first case, far from partaking of the nature of an act of plunder, became an extension of relief, of indulgence, and of accommodation? But, however, he would not be content, like Mr. Hastings, with barely making assertions, or, when made against his statement, with barely denying them; on the contrary, whenever he objected to a single statement, he would bring his refutation, and almost in every instance Mr. Hastings himself should be his witness. By the passages which he should beg leave to read, Mr. Hastings wished to insinuate, that a claim was set up, in the year 1775, to the treasure of the Begums, as belonging of right to the Nabob. Mr. Sheridan, from a variety of documents, chiefly from the minutes of the supreme council, of which Mr. Hastings had been president, explained the true state of that question. Treasure, which was the source of all the cruelties, was the original pretence which Mr. Hastings had made to the Company for the proceeding; and through the whole of his conduct he had alleged the principles of Mohamedanism in mitigation of the severities he had sanctioned; as if he meant to insinuate that there was something in Mohamedanism which rendered it impious in a son not to plunder his mother. But to shew how the case precisely stood when Mr. Hastings began the attacks, Mr. Sheridan read the minutes of General Clavering, Colonel Monson, and Mr. Francis, who severally spoke of a claim which had been made by the Nabob on the Bhow Begum, in the year 1775, amounting to two one-half lacks. The opinion contained in those minutes was, that women were, on the death of their husbands, entitled by the Mahomedan law only to the property within the Zenana where they lived. This opinion was decisive--Mr. Bristow used no threats--no military execution or rigor were even menaced; the Begums complied with the requisition then made, and the disputed property then claimed was given up. After this, the farther treasure, namely, that which was within the Zenana, was confessedly her own--No fresh right was set up--no pretence of any kind was made to the residue--nay, a treaty was signed by the Nabob, and ratified by the resident, Mr. Bristow, that, on her paying thirty lacks, she should be freed from all farther application; and the Company were bound, by Mr. Bristow, to guarantee this treaty. Here then was the issue. After this treaty thus ratified, could there be an argument as to the right of the treasure of the Begums? And if the Mahomedan law had ever given a right, was not that right then concluded? To prove, however, the reliance which the Princesses of Oude had entertained, even in the year 1775, of receiving protection and support from the British government; an expectation so fatally disappointed in latter times, Mr. Sheridan read an extract of a letter from the Begum, the mother of the Nabob, to Mr. Hastings, received at Calcutta December 22, 1775, wherein she says, "If it is your pleasure that the mother of the late Nabob, myself, and his other women, and infant children, should be reduced to a state of dishonor and distress, we must submit; but if, on the contrary, you call to mind the friendship of the late blessed Nabob, you will exert yourself effectually in favor of us, who are helpless." And, again, "if you do not approve of my remaining at Fyzabad, send a person here in your name, to remove the mother of the late Nabob, myself, and about 2000 other women and children, that we may reside with honor and reputation in some other place." Mr. Sheridan, in a regular progression of evidence, proceeded to state the successive periods, and finally to bring down the immediate subject in question to the day in which Mr. Hastings embraced the project of plundering the Begums; and, to justify which, he had exhibited in his defence four charges against them, as the grounds and motives of his own conduct.
1. That they had given disturbance at all times to the government of the Nabob, and that they had long manifested a spirit hostile to his and to the English government.
2. That they excited the Zemindars to revolt, at the time of the insurrection at Benares, and of the resumption of the Jaghires.
3. That they resisted by armed force the resumption of their own Jaghires; and,
4. That they excited, and were accessary to, the insurrection at Benares.
To each of these charges, Mr. Sheridan gave distinct and separate answers. First, on the subject of the imputed disturbances which they were falsely said to have occasioned, he could produce a variety of extracts, many of them written by Mr. Hastings himself, to prove that on the contrary they had particularly distinguished themselves by their friendship for the English, and the various good offices which they had rendered the government.
Mr. Hastings (Mr. Sheridan observed,) left Calcutta in 1781, and proceeded to Lucknow, as he said himself, with two great objects in mind; namely, Benares and Oude. What was the nature of these boasted resources?--that he should plunder one, or both,--the equitable alternative of a highwayman, who in going forth in the evening, hesitates which of his resources to prefer--Bagshot, or Hounslow. In such a state of generous irresolution, did Mr. Hastings proceed to Benares and Oude. At Benares he failed, in his pecuniary object. Then, and not till then--not on account of any ancient enmities shown by the Begums--not in his resentment of any old disturbances, but because he had failed in one place, and had but two in his prospect, did he conceive the base expedient of plundering these aged women. He had no pretence--he had no excuse--he had nothing but the arrogant and obstinate determination to govern India by his own corrupt will to plead for his conduct. Inflamed by disappointment in his first project, he hastened to the fortress of Chunar, to meditate the more atrocious design of instigating a son against his mother, of sacrificing female dignity and distress to parricide and plunder. At Chunar was that infamous treaty concerted with the Nabob Vizier, to despoil the Princesses of Oude of their hereditary possessions;--there it was that Mr. Hastings had stipulated with one, whom he called an independent prince, "that as great distress has arisen to the nabobs government from the military power and dominion assumed by the Jaghhierdars, he be permitted to resume such as he may find necessary; with a reserve, that all such, for the amount of whose Jaghiers the company are guarantees, shall, in case of the resumption of their lands, be paid the amount of their net collections, through the resident, in ready money;--and that no English resident be appointed to Furruckabad."
No sooner was this foundation of iniquity thus instantly established, in violation of the pledged faith and solemn guarantee of the British government; no sooner had Mr. Hastings determined to invade the substance of justice, than he resolved to avail himself of her judicial forms; and accordingly dispatched a messenger from the chief justice of India, to assist him in perpetrating the violations he had projected. Sir Elijah having arrived, Mr. Hastings, with much art, proposed a question of opinion, involving an unsubstantiated fact, in order to obtain even a surreptitious approbation of the measure he had predetermined to adopt. "The Begums being in actual rebellion, might not the nabob confiscate their property?" "Most undoubtedly," was the ready answer of the friendly judge. Not a syllable of inquiry intervened, as to the existence of the imputed rebellion; nor a moments pause as to the ill purposes to which the decision of a chief justice might be perverted. It was not the office of a friend to mix the grave caution and cold circumspection of a judge, with an opinion taken in such circumstances; and Sir Elijah had previously declared, that he gave his advice not as a judge, but as a friend; a character he equally preferred, in the strange office which he undertook, of collecting defensive affidavits on the subject of Benares.
Mr. Sheridan said, it was curious to reflect on the whole of Sir Elijahs circuit at that perilous time. Sir Elijah had stated his desire of relaxing from the fatigues of office, and unbending his mind in a party of health and pleasure: yet wisely apprehending that very sudden relaxation might defeat its object, he had contrived to mix some matters of business, to be interspersed with his amusements. He had, therefore, in his little airing of nine hundred miles, great part of which he went post, escorted by an army, selected those very situations where insurrection subsisted, and rebellion was threatened; and had not only delivered his deep and curious researches into the laws and rights of nations and of treaties, in the capacity of the Oriental Grotius, whom Warren Hastings was to study; but likewise in the humbler and more practical situation of a collector of ex parte evidence. In the former quality, his opinion was the premature sanction for plundering the Begums;--in the latter character, he became the posthumous supporter of the expulsion and pillage of the Rajah Cheit Sing. Acting on an unproved fact, on a position as a datum of the Duke of Richmonds fabrication, he had not hesitated, in the first instance, to lend his authority as a license for unlimited persecution. In the latter, he did not disdain to scud about India, like an itinerant informer, with a pedlars pack of garbled evidence and surreptitious affidavits. What pure friendship, what a voucher of unequivocal attachment from a British Judge to such a character as Warren Hastings! With a generous oblivion of duty and of honor; with a proud sense of having authorized all future rapacity, and sanctioned all past oppression, this friendly judge proceeded on his circuit of health and ease; and whilst the Governor-General, sanctioned by this solemn opinion, issued his orders to plunder the Begums of their treasure, Sir Elijah pursued his progress; and passing through a wide region of distress and misery, explored a country that presented a speaking picture of hunger and of nakedness, in quest of objects best suited to his feelings, in anxious search of calamities most kindred to his invalid imagination.
Thus whilst the executive power in India was perverted to the most disgraceful inhumanities, the judicial authority also became its close and confidential associate--at the same moment that the sword of government was turned to an assassins dagger, the pure ermine of justice was stained and soiled with the basest and meanest contamination. Under such circumstance did Mr. Hastings complete the treaty of Chunar;--a treaty which might challenge all the treaties that ever subsisted, for containing in the smallest compass the most extensive treachery. Mr. Hastings did not conclude that treaty, till he had received from the Nabob a present, or rather a bribe, of 100,000l.
The circumstance of this present were as extraordinary as the thing itself. Four months afterwards, and not till then, Mr. Hastings communicated the matter to the company. Unfortunately for himself, however, this tardy disclosure was conveyed in words which betrayed his original meaning; for, with no common incaution, he admits the present "was of a magnitude not to be concealed." Mr. Sheridan stated all the circumstances of this bribe; and averred that the whole had its rise in a principle of rank corruption. For what was the consideration for this extraordinary bribe? No less than the withdrawing from Oude not only all the English gentlemen in official situations, but the whole also of the English army; and that too at the very moment when he himself had stated the whole country of Oude to be in open revolt and rebellion. Other very strange articles were contained in the same treaty, which nothing but this infamous bribe could have occasioned, together with the reserve which he had in his own mind of treachery to the Nabob; for the only part of the treaty which he ever attempted to carry into execution was to withdraw the English gentlemen from Oude. The Nabob, indeed, considered this as essential to his deliverance; and his observation on the circumstance was curious;--for though Major Palmer, said he, has not yet asked any thing, I observe it is the custom of the English gentlemen constantly to ask for something from me before they go. This imputation on the English Mr. Hastings was most ready, most rejoiced, to countenance as a screen and shelter for his own abandoned profligacy; and therefore, at the very moment that he pocketed the extorted spoils of the Nabob, with his usual grave hypocrisy and cant, "Go," he said, to the English gentlemen, "go, you oppressive rascals, go from this worthy unhappy man, whom you have plundered, and leave him to my protection. You have robbed him--you have plundered him--you have taken advantage of his accumulated distresses; but, please God, he shall in future be at rest; for I have promised him he shall never see the face of an Englishman again." This, however, was the only part of the treaty which he even affected to fulfil; and, in all its other parts, we learn from himself, that at the very moment he made it, he intended to deceive the Nabob; and accordingly he advised general instead of partial resumption, for the express purpose of defeating the first views of the Nabob; and, instead of giving instant and unqualified assent to all the articles of the treaty; he perpetually qualified, explained, and varied them with new diminutions and reservations. Mr. Sheridan called upon gentlemen to say, if there was any theory in Machiavel, any treachery upon record, if they had ever heard of any cold Italian fraud which could in any degree be put in comparison with the disgusting hypocrisy, and unequalled baseness which Mr. Hastings had shewn on that occasion.
After having stated this complicated infamy in terms of the severest reprehension, Mr. Sheridan proceeded to observe, that he recollected to have heard it advanced by some of those admirers of Mr. Hastings, who were not so implicit as to give unqualified applause to his crimes, that they found an apology for the atrocity of them, in the greatness of his mind. To estimate the solidity of such a defence, it would be sufficient merely to consider in what consisted this prepossessing distinction, this captivating characteristic of greatness of mind. Is it not solely to be traced in great actions directed to great ends? In them, and them alone, we are to search for true estimable magnanimity. To them only can we justly affix the splendid title and honors of real greatness. There was indeed another species of greatness, which displayed itself in boldly conceiving a bad measure, and undauntedly pursuing it to its accomplishment. But had Mr. Hastings the merit of exhibiting either of these descriptions of greatness;--even of the latter? He saw nothing great--nothing magnanimous--nothing open--nothing direct in his measures, or in his mind;--on the contrary, he had too often pursued the worst objects by the worst means. His course was an eternal deviation from rectitude. He either tyrannised or deceived; and was by turns a Dionysus and a Scapin. As well might the writhing obliquity of the serpent be compared to the swift directness of the arrow, as the duplicity of Mr. Hastingss ambition to the simple steadiness of genuine magnanimity. In his mind all was shuffling, ambiguous, dark, insidious, and little: nothing simple, nothing unmixed: all affected plainness, and actual dissimulation;--a heterogeneous mass of contradictory qualities; with nothing great but his crimes; and even those contrasted by the littleness of his motives, which at once denoted both his baseness and his meanness, and marked him for a traitor and a trickster. Nay, in his stile and writing, there was the same mixture of vicious contrarieties;--the most groveling ideas were conveyed in the most inflated language; giving mock consequence to low cavils, and uttering quibbles in heroics; so that his compositions disgusted the minds taste, as much as his actions excited the souls abhorrence. Indeed this mixture of character seemed by some unaccountable, but inherent quality, to be appropriated, though in inferior degrees, to every thing that concerned his employers. He remembered to have heard an honorable and learned gentleman (Mr. Dundas) remark, that there was something in the first frame and constitution of the company, which 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. Alike in the political and the military line could be observed auctioneering ambassadors and trading generals;--and thus we saw a revolution brought about by affidavits; an army employed in executing an arrest; a town beseiged on a note of hand; a prince dethroned for the balance of an account. Thus it was they exhibited a government, which united the mock majesty of a bloody sceptre, and the little traffic of a merchants counting-house, wielding a truncheon with one hand, and picking a pocket with the other. Mr. Sheridan now went into a long statement to shew the various irrefragable proofs exhibited in the minutes of the Bengal council, of the falsity of the charge, viz. That the Begums were the antient disturbers of the government. And equally to prove that the second charge also (namely, that the Begums had incited the Jaghiredars to resist the Nabob) was no less untrue; it being substantiated in evidence that not one of the Jaghhiredars did resist.
Mr. Sheridan maintained that it was incontrovertible that the Begums were not concerned either in the rebellion of Bulbudder, or the insurrection at Benares; nor did Mr. Hastings ever once seriously believe them guilty. Their treasures were their treasons, and Asoph ul Dowlah thought like an unwise prince, when he blamed his father for leaving him so little wealth. His father, Shulah ul Dowlah, acted wisely in leaving his son with no temptation about him, to invite acts of violence from the rapacious. He cloathed him with poverty as with a shield, and armed him with necessity as with a sword.
The third charge was equally false. Did they resist the resumption of their own Jaghiredars? Though if they had resisted, he contended that there would have been no crime; for those Jaghiredars were by solemn treaty confirmed to them; but, on the contrary, there was not one syllable of charge against them. The Nabob himself, with all the load of obloquy which he incurred, never imputed to them the crime of stirring up an opposition to his authority.
To prove the falsehood of the whole of this charge, and to shew that Mr. Hastings originally projected the plunder; that he threw the odium, in the first instance, on the Nabob; that he imputed the crimes to them before he had received one of the rumours which he afterwards manufactured into affidavits, Mr. Sheridan recommended a particular attention to dates; and he deduced from the papers these facts:--that the first idea was started by Mr. Hastings on the 15th of November, 1781; that Mr. Middleton communicated it to the Nabob, and procured from him a formal proposition on the 2d of December; that on the 1st of December Mr. Hastings wrote a letter to Mr. Middleton, confirming the first suggestion made through Sir Elijah, which letter came into the hands of Mr. Middleton on the 6th of December. He stated all the circumstances of the pains taken by Mr. Middleton to bring the Nabob at length to issue with the Perwannas, and coupled this with the extraordinary minute written by Mr. Hastings on his return to Calcutta, where he stated the resistance of the Begums to the execution of the resumption on the 7th of January, 1782, as the cause of the measure in November 1781. Mr. Sheridan then proceeded to prove, that the Begums were, by their condition, their age, and their infirmities, almost the only souls in India who could not have a thought of distressing that government, by which alone they could hope to be protected; and that to charge them with a design to depose their nearest and dearest relation, was equally absurd. He did not endeavour to do this from any idea, that because there was no motive for the offences imputed to these women, it was therefore a necessary consequence that such imputations were false. He was not to learn that there was such a crime as wanton, unprovoked wickedness. Those who entertained doubts on this point need only give themselves the trouble of reading the administration of Mr. Hastings. But, as to the immediate case, the documents on the table would bear incontrovertible testimony that insurrections had constantly taken place in Oude. To ascribe it to the Begums was wandering even beyond the improbabilities of fiction. It were not less absurd to affirm, that famine would not have pinched, nor thirst have parched, nor extermination have depopulated--but for the interference of these old women. To use a strong expression of Mr. Hastings on another occasion, "The good which these women did was certain--the ill was precarious." But Mr. Hastings had found it more suitable to his purposes to reverse the proposition; yet wanting a motive for his rapacity, he could find it only in fiction. The simple fact was, their treasure was their treason. But "they complained of the injustice." God of Heaven, had they not a right to complain! After a solemn treaty violated;--plundered of all their property, and on the eve of the last extremity of wretchedness, were they to be deprived of the last resource of impotent wretchedness--complaint and lamentation! Was it a crime that they should croud together in fluttering trepidation like a flock of resistless birds on seeing the felon kite, who, having darted at one devoted bird, and missed his aim, singled out a new object, and was springing on his prey with redoubled vigor in his wing, and keener vengeance in his eye. The fact with Mr. Hastings was precisely this:--Having failed in the case of Cheit Sing, he saw his fate; he felt the necessity of procuring a sum of money somewhere, for he knew that the never-failing receipt to make his peace with the directors at home. Such, Mr. Sheridan added, were the true substantial motives of the horrid excesses perpetrated against the Begums!--excesses, in every part of the description of which, he felt himself accompanied by the vigorous support of the most unanswerable evidence; and upon this test would he place his whole cause. Let gentlemen lay their hands upon their hearts, and with truth issuing in all its purity from their lips, solemnly declare whether they were or were not convinced that the real spring of the conduct of Mr. Hastings, far from being a desire to crush a rebellion (an ideal, fabulous rebellion!) was a malignantly rapacious determination to seize, with lawless hands, upon the treasures of the devoted, miserable, yet unoffending victims.
Mr. Sheridan now adverted to the affidavit made by Mr. Middleton; and after stating how futile were the grounds upon which he had, to the satisfaction of his conscience, proceeded to the utmost extremity of violence against the Begums; he exclaimed, the God of Justice forbid that any man in this house should make up his mind to accuse Mr. Hastings on the ground which Mr. Middleton took for condemning the Begums; or to pass a verdict of guilty for the most trivial misdemeanor against the poorest wretch that ever had existed. He then revised and animadverted on the affidavits of Colonel Hannay, Colonel Gordon, Major MDonald, Major Williams, and others. Major Williams, among the strange reports that chiefly filled these affidavits, stated one that he had heard--namely, that 50 British troops, watching 200 prisoners, had been approached by 6000 of the enemy, and relieved by the approach of nine men. And of such extraordinary hearsay-evidence were most of the depositions composed. Considering, therefore, the character given by Mr. Hastings to the British army in Oude, "that they manifested a rage for rapacity and peculation," it was extraordinary that there were no instances of stouter swearing. But as for Colonel Gordon, he afforded a flagrantly conspicuous proof of the grateful spirit and temper of affidavits designed to plunge these wretched women in irretrievable ruin. Colonel Gordon was, just before, not merely released from danger, but preserved from imminent death by the very person whose accuser he thought fit to become; and yet, incredible as it may appear, even at the expiration of two little days from his deliverance, he deposes against the distressed and unfortunate woman who had become his saviour, and only upon hearsay evidence accuses her of crimes and rebellion. Great God of Justice! (exclaimed Mr. Sheridan) canst thou from thy eternal throne look down upon such premeditated turpitude of the heart, and not fix some mark of dreadful vengeance upon the perpetrators?--Of Mr. MDonald, he said, that he liked not the memory which remembered things better at the end of five years than at the time, unless there might be something so relaxing in the climate in India, and so affecting the memory as well as the nerves, "the soft figures melting away," and the images of immediate action instantaneously dissolving, men must return to their native air of England, to brace up the mind as well as the body, and have their memories, like their sinews, restrung.
Having painted the loose quality of the affidavits, he said, that he must pause a moment, and particularly address himself to one description of gentlemen, those of the learned profession, within those walls. They saw that that house was the path to fortune in their profession; that they might soon expect that some of them were to be called to a dignified situation, where the great and important trust would be reposed in them of protecting the lives and fortunes of their fellow-subjects. One right honorable and learned gentleman, in particular (Sir Lloyd Kenyon) if rumour spoke right, might suddenly be called to succeed that great and venerable character, who long had shone the brightest luminary of his profession, whose pure and steady light was clear even to its latest moment, but whose last beam must now too soon be extinguished. That he would ask the supposed successor of Lord Mansfield, to calmly reflect on these extraordinary depositions, and solemnly to declare, whether the mass of affidavits taken at Lucknow would be received by him as evidence to convict the lowest object in this country? If he said it would, he declared to God he would sit down, and not add a syllable more to the too long trespass which he had made on the patience of the committee.
Mr. Sheridan went farther into the exposure of the evidence, into the comparison of dates, and the subsequent circumstances, in order to prove that all the enormous consequence which followed from the resumption, in the captivity of the women, and the imprisonment and cruelties practised on their people, were solely to be ascribed and to be imputed to Mr. Hastings. After stating the miseries which the women suffered, he said that Mr. Hastings had once remarked, that a mind touched with superstition might have contemplated the fate of the Rohillas with peculiar impressions. But if indeed the mind of Mr. Hastings could yield to superstitious imagination; if his fancy could suffer any disturbance, and even in vision, image forth the proud spirit of Sujah Dowlah, looking down upon the ruin and devastation of his family, and beholding that palace which Mr. Hastings had first wrested from his hand, and afterwards restored, plundered by that very army with which he himself had vanquished the Maharattas; seizing on the very plunder which he had ravaged from the Rohillas; that Middleton, who had been engaged in managing the previous violations, most busy to perpetrate the last; that very Hastings, whom, on his death bed, he had left the guardian of his wife and mother, and family, turning all those dear relations, the objects of his solemn trust, forth to the merciless seasons, and to a more merciless soldiery! A mind touched with superstition must indeed have cherished such a contemplation with peculiar impressions!--That Mr. Hastings was regularly acquainted with all the enormities committed on the Begums there was the clearest proof;--It was true that Middleton was rebuked for not being more exact. He did not, perhaps, descend to the detail; he did not give him an account of the number of groans which were heaved; of the quantity of tears that were shed; of the weight of the fetters; or of the depth of the dungeons: but he communicated every step which he took to accomplish the base and unwarrantable end. He told him, that to save appearances they might use the name of the Nabob, and that they need go no farther than was absolutely necessary; this he might venture to say without being suspected by Mr. Hastings of too severe a morality. The Governor-General also endeavored to throw a share of the guilt on the council, although Mr. Wheeler had never taken any share, and Mr. Macpherson had not arrived in India when the scene began. After contending that he had shrunk from the inquiry ordered by the court of directors, under a new and pompous doctrine, that the majesty of justice was to be approached with supplication, and was not to degrade itself by hunting for crimes; forgetting the infamous employment to which he had appointed an English chief justice, to hunt for criminal charges against innocent, defenceless women.--Mr. Sheridan said, he trusted that that house would vindicate the insulted character of justice; that they would demonstrate its true quality, essence, and purposes--they would demonstrate it to be, in the case of Mr. Hastings, active, inquisitive, and avenging.
Mr. Sheridan remarked, that he heard of factions and parties in that house, and knew they existed. There was scarcely a subject upon which they were not broken and divided into sects. The prerogative of the crown found its advocates among the representatives of the people. The privileges of the people found opponents even in the house of commons itself. Habits, connexions, parties, all led to diversity of opinion. But when inhumanity presented itself to their observations, it found no division among them: they attacked it as their common enemy; and, as if the character of this land was involved in their zeal for its ruin, they left it not till it was completely overthrown. It was not given to that house, to behold the objects of their compassion and benevolence in the present extensive consideration, as it was to the officers who relieved, and who so feelingly described the extatic emotions of gratitude in the instant of deliverance. They could not behold the workings of the heart, the quivering lips, the trickling tears, the loud and yet tremulous joys of the millions whom their vote of this night would for ever save from the cruelty of corrupted power. But though they could not directly see the effect, was not the true enjoyment of their benevolence increased by the blessing being conferred unseen? Would not the omnipotence of Britain be demonstrated to the wonder of nations, by stretching its mighty arm across the deep, and saving by its fiat distant millions from destruction? And would the blessings of the people thus saved, dissipate in empty air? No! if I may dare to use the figure,--we shall constitute Heaven itself our proxy, to receive for us the blessings of their pious gratitude, and the prayers of their thanksgiving.--It is with confidence, therefore, Sir, that I move you on this charge, "that Warren Hastings be impeached."
*A paper from Sir Elijah Impey, amending his evidence.[return to text]