In the decades following Plassey, the East India Company’s armies overran approximately half of all Indian territory and brought the majority of its population under Company governance. Unprepared for administration, the EIC largely depended on local officials and patterned its policy on local precedent, farming out the collection of taxes to Indian agents who, as they had done under the Mughals, kept a share of their collections. This disordered state of affairs left the Company largely powerless to respond when famine struck Bengal in 1769. Between seven and ten million people—between one quarter and one third of the district’s population—perished without any response from officials. It was the first of many episodes that would be burned into the long memory of India.
In 1793 Lord Cornwallis, better known for losing the last major battle of the American Revolution, attempted to reform this system. Under the Mughals, the rights pertaining to land were not held by a “land owner”, but were shared between the farmer of the land, the tax farmer, and the state. Cornwallis’ new system created a model of land ownership and fixed government revenue demands in a bid to encourage tax farmers to develop the land worked by cultivators, since they would be personally entitled to keep a larger share of the increased produce. Cornwallis and the Company assumed that, recognizing their own best interest in a steady, productive workforce, the tax farmers would not overburden the peasants. In practice, however, the revenue demands of the Company were difficult for tax farmers, who had little capital to invest in improvements, to meet without forcing peasants into the cultivation of more labor-intensive cash crops. A scandal would subsequently erupt when it was discovered that some Indian agents of the Company used torture to extract the demanded revenue.
Alarmed by the tales of corruption that reached London, Parliament passed the Regulating Act in 1773, stipulating that the EIC governed Indian territory on behalf of the Crown and subject to the oversight of Parliament. Company officials were forbidden to engage in private trade or to accept gifts. The EIC’s administration was centralized and its governmental decision-making insulated from the influence of the shareholders. In the course of the floor debates, Philip Francis, a member of the Bengal Council, urged that all land should be treated as an “estate and inheritance of native land-holders and families”.
The treatment of the Indian populace became a matter of public concern during the trial of Warren Hastings, the Company’s first Governor-General in India who, on his return, had been accused of corruption by Edmund Burke. After seven years in court, Hastings was acquitted, his defense having been mounted largely on the basis that his actions were in keeping with the spirit and custom of the local culture. Against those who, like Lord North, wished to simply incorporate India as a Crown colony, and against those who, like Lord Macauley, wished to anglicize the Subcontinent, Hastings championed a more enlightened understanding of England’s role in India. With regard to the training of Company personnel, he wrote:
Every application of knowledge and especially such as is obtained in social communication with people, over whom we exercise dominion, founded on the right of conquest, is useful to the state … It attracts and conciliates distant affections, it lessens the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection and it imprints on the hearts of our countrymen the sense of obligation and benevolence … Every instance which brings their real character will impress us with more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights, and teach us to estimate them by the measure of our own … But such instances can only be gained in their writings; and these will survive when British domination in India shall have long ceased to exist …
Hastings’ words seem to us today so prophetic as to be obvious and so humane as to be self-evident, but they were uttered at a time when slavery was legal in Britain, and they defied the tradition of British rule as it had been exercised over the Welsh, the Scots, the Irish, the Québecois, the Acadians, and many other subject peoples. No words like these had been spoken in any other dominion of the expanding Empire, and none like them would be spoken (or at least not heard) in Ireland or South Africa or an hundred other corners of the world in the hundred and fifty years that would follow. It was this legacy of India’s first Governor-General that attracted to the Company’s service men like William Jones, a British judge serving in India, who founded in 1784 (the same year as Hastings’ address) the Asiatic Society, at meetings of which he would found, over the next four years, the entire modern discipline of comparative linguistics in enunciating his discovery that Sanskrit had descended from a common ancestor with Greek, Latin, and most of the languages of Europe, including English. True to Hastings’ expectations, Englishmen read the writings of India, and found themselves facing their brothers.
Not all were as impressed as Jones, however, or so well-versed in Sanskrit. Without being able to read a line of the language, Lord Macauley confidently declared that all the native literature of Asia was not worth one shelf of a good European library. Slowly, his insistence that English be made the language of administration and of instruction in the newly founded schools and universities, began to carry Company policy. The early indulgence of native customs began to give way as well, and in 1806 a decree ordering native troops to remove religious symbols caused the infamous Vellore Mutiny. Under the influence of the anglicizing faction, the Company began to see itself as a “civilizing force”, a tendency that became more pronounced after Parliament suspended its trading license in 1833, leaving administration its only function. Backed by the power of the newly invented electric telegraph and railroad, as well as a rapidly expanding system of state-administered public education (predating the establishment of the same in England), the Company set out to reform Indian society. Suttee was banned in 1829, thuggee in 1836, slavery in 1843, traditional disabilities from religious or caste conversion in 1850. The remarriage of widows was legalized in 1856.
These reforms met with mixed reactions in India. When a major revolt did break out in 1857, it was not on account of these but, ironically, on account of grievances stemming from the more tolerant aspects of British rule. Reliance on local officials had largely preserved the inequities of the caste structure and the maintenance of goodwill with the Indians upon whom the British depended had led to an emphasis, particularly within the military (the events leading up to the Vellore Mutiny notwithstanding) on respecting the traditional privileges of both caste and religious groups. In particular, the army in Bengal depended on high-caste Rajputs and Brahmins, who increasingly saw their privileges threatened by the expansion of Company domains into other parts of India and the concomitant shift to more caste-neutral models adapted to those regions. In addition, Company expansion threatened the traditional exemption of Bengalese troops from overseas service, as the English officials pressed them to accept deployments to Burma and China. The growing presence of European officers threatened the traditional seniority system and the growing presence of Christian missionaries suggested to the more alarmist-minded a plot to mass convert the ranks. This last seemed dangerously close to reality when new rifle cartridges were issued that had to be bitten off at the end. As the cartridges were greased with beef and pork fat, no practising Hindu or Muslim could place one in his mouth without violating his religion and losing caste at the same time. Disaffected soldiers began an all-out rebellion in May that would last until July of the next year.
The Company’s retribution against both those responsible for the uprising and innocent bystanders was terrible. A letter circulated in the British press boasted that “All the city’s people found within the walls … of Delhi when our troops entered were bayoneted on the spot … These were not mutineers but residents of the city, who trusted to our well-known mild rule for pardon. I am glad to say they were disappointed.” The aftermath of the Great Mutiny, like the great famine of an hundred years before, would stay long in the memory of India.
Parliament’s retribution against the Company was terrible also. By the end of the year, the EIC had been forcibly liquidated and all of its possessions seized by the Crown, which would come to declare India its greatest jewel. Before we allow Her Majesty Queen Victoria to set it, however, we must turn our attention back to her greatest rival.