The Better Days of John Company

The Better Days of John Company

The history of the next seventy years is a triple strand. A trading company passes from a corrupt administration of shopkeepers into a government only, it proceeds to the lordship of all India, it does away with inhuman practices of its subjects and dependent princedoms.

Hastings’ successor, Sir John Macpherson, for a year carried on what the next Governor-General, Lord Cornwallis, called “a system of the dirtest jobbing.” Habits of rapine are more readily established than eradicated. Our writers have had a deal to say about “Oriental corruption,” but the plain truth is, the first half-century of British administration of India is such that we are entitled to throw very few stones, least of all to fling bout the word “Oriental.” The steps by which our rule was cleansed were these. First, the constant scandals made the home authorities very both to appoint Indian Civil Servants to the Governor-Generalship. After Macpherson, only three held it, and one or two acted in an interregnum. Then the Company’s charter was renewed every twenty years, and at each renewal some of its monopoly was taken away. In 1793, Glasgow, Liverpool, and other great seaports and manufacturing towns clamoured that the Indian trade should be thrown open; they got a meagre concession – the use of 3,000 tons of shipping. In 1813, despite the dismal prophecies of war and revolution with which Indian diehards have met every reform, all except the China trade was made free. In 1833 the China trade ceased to be a monopoly, and the Company’s dividends were fixed at ten per cent., to be a charge on Indian revenue. In 1853, by the most unpopular change of all, the Indian Civil Service was thrown open to competition, and the directors and the British ruling classes lost an enormously valuable patronage. But more than trade and patronage was gradually conceded. In 1813 missionaries were allowed under licence; in 1833 every British subject was at last free to travel in India, and to buy land, and also no native of India was to be “disabled from holding any place, office, or employment, by reason of his religion, place of birth, descent, or colour.” This last concession for long was verbal only. But the concession that permitted British citizens other than servants of the Government to visit India freely or reside there made it possible for unofficial views of events and administration to reach England. The reader, noting the bitter reluctance with which the Company surrendered its privileged position, will understand why criticism of Indian affairs has been so resented as an unpardonable impertinence, and also why criticism has often been so exasperated and unfair. (The irony of this situation was they never thought in their wildest thoughts that the natives of the British Empire would be able to come to Britain and reside here as far as they were concerned this would never happen? How life has shown otherwise).

When Cornwallis was appointed Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief, with power – which Hastings lacked – to overrule a majority in his Council, India found a ruler whose sensitiveness to corruption in his administration was as quick as his own practice was pure. The Civil Service was divided into separate branches, judicial and executive, and its members were well paid, instead of left to pick up what they could, so long as they did not cause open scandal. By this time the Company’s trading was a comparatively small proportion of its activities.

We must turn to the conquest of the country, passing over the almost countless smaller wars, though they were crowded with incident and interest, and indicating merely the more important annexations or readjustments. With the Napoleonic wars French officers became busy in Indian courts; the Governor-General, Lord Wellesley, was eager to fight England’s battles, and was served by his brother, afterwards the famous Duke of Wellington, and other exceptionally able generals. He established a system of “subsidiary alliance,” by which native states became subordinates and paid for their protection by cessions of territory. He also annexed large tracts without having to fight. But Mysore did not go under until its capital, Seringapatam, was stormed in 1799, in the last of several fierce wars, and Tipu killed. The kingdoms, which had suffered successive strippings, was further reduced, and a puppet ruler found in a child of the Hindu family that Haidar Ali had dispossessed. No one cares to say anything in defence of either Haidar or Tipu, who were barbarous in their rule; they but put up a magnificent resistance, and it could be shown that they often had hard measure.

The Marathas, whose power straddled across Central India, were broken in detail, their chiefs being too jealous mutually to fight together. Arthur Wellesley won the Battles of Assaye and Argaum, and Lake in the north won Delhi and Laswari. The Mogul, a blind man of eighty-three, who had invaded Bengal forty years before and made treaties with Clive, was found sitting under a tattered canopy, and taken under our protection. Sindhia made peace. His army had been disciplined by French officers – he had numerous European adventurers in his service, three hundred in one brigade alone – and his conqueror’s terms insisted that the ghost of France, so long lurking in these states, should be exorcised. The Governor-General’s bullying interpretation of the treaty left his enemies bitter, and the campaign against Sindhia was followed by one, chequered with disaster, against Holkar and the Raja of Bharatpur. The British failed against Bhartpur, losing over 3,000 men in four assaults – the worst defeat they ever endured in India.

Wellesley’s pride and wars the latter doubling the Company’s debt, caused his recall. A brief period of quiescence ensued, carried so far that the Company abandoned some of their Rajput allies to the vengeance of the Marathas. In 1806, South of India experienced a rehearsal of the Great Mutiny of 1857. Regulations forbidding the Madras sepoys to wear caste marks, and in other ways seeming to threaten their religion, caused a mutiny at Vellore and a massacre of over a hundred European soldiers, followed by the usual vengeance. In 1813, Lord Hastings became Governor-General, and another forward movement began. From 1814 to 1816 the British waged a disastrous was against Nepal. But their defeats, in frontal attacks on mountain stockades held by tiny forces of men whom all the world now knows to be second to none in valour, had a valuable result. Peace was made on terms which kept Nepal permanently our ally, and the Gurkhas have long been famous among our best troops. In 1817 a huge “drive” was made over Central India, with an enormous army, to exterminate the Pindaris. These were marauding bands, a legacy from the disorders that had long been vexing the land. The Pindaris’ connection with the Maratha powers was close enough for the operations to pass in another Maratha war, which the Company won. The Peshwa was deposed, but given a large pension; the refusal to continue it to his adopted son, Nana Sahib, gave us one of our bitterest enemies in the Mutiny.

In spite of the wars, relations between the British and Indians were as satisfactory, in the period between Lord Wellesley’s going and about 1835, as they have ever been. As long as independent native states existed there was of necessity intercourse on an equality, and Englishmen showed an ability to understand Indian points of view that was largely lost in the period of vigorous reduction to subordination that followed. Even today the British soldiers and officials of widest knowledge and most generous and liberal views are often those who have served in native states such as those of Central India and Raijputana. The Mutiny has bulked vastly in our eyes, and our admiration for its great names has been excessive. In all essentials of character – in valour, patience, modesty, willingness to forego a personal viewpoint rather than be unjust, such men of the pre-Mutiny era as Tod, Malcolm, Thomas Munro, Mountstuart Elphinstone, and a host of others, obscure to the personal public, are more than the equals of their infinitely better-known successors. They thought as individuals and not in groups; the opinions of Munro, for example, from his arrival in India to his death as Governor of Madras in 1827, are stamped on every sentence with independence and careful thought. These men formed genuine intimacies with Indians, and their spirit was that of an administrator of our own day when he said, in a note censured as culpably unofficial in its tone: “I have not been able to forget that I am pleading the cause of 2 ½ millions of my personal friends.” In 1821, Sir Thomas Munro, writing to Canning, expressed himself with a wisdom and sympathy such as we shall hardly find in any Englishman after Henry Lawrence and Outram had died. “Our present system of government, by excluding all natives from power, and trust, and emolument, is much more efficacious in depressing, than all our law and school-books can do in elevating their character. We are working against our own designs, and we can expect to make no progress while we work with a feeble instrument to improve, and a powerful one to deteriorate. The improvement of the character of a people, and the keeping them, at the same time, in the lowest state of dependence on foreign rulers to which they can be reduced by conquest, are matters quite incompatible with each other. There can be no hope of any great zeal for improvement, when the highest acquirements can lead to nothing beyond some petty office, and can confer neither wealth not honour.”

Yet for a time subordination was inevitable. The enlightened practice of Hinduism today is a very different thing from that of a century ago. By the testimony of the earliest Hindu reformers, the Brahmo Samaj, no less than by that of the missionaries, it was then a degraded and beastly business, and sooner or later the alien rulers, when they had cleansed their own administration, were bound to interfere with it. Wellesley did so in 1803, forbidding the throwing of female children into the sea at Suagur lsland. William Carey, the great missionary, drew to Wesllesley’s attention to the prevalence of suttee; (William Carey preaching the Good Word but also had printed the New Testament into different Indian languages including Sanskrit under the radar of the Company who wanted him out as a trouble maker so the Danish with their enclave allowed him to live there and carry on his work and this sparked within Indian people their own self worth of their own history so the spark of independence was ignited and why there is a university in honour of him as the William Carey University his work was encouraged by an Indian Brahmin) but until 1829 Government merely vacillated. It passed orders that in Hindu eyes legalized the rite and in the first four years for which returns were made the number of widows burnt doubled, being 839 in 1818. But the thirty years of timidity and vacillation were also years full of acts of individual courage and protest. The missionaries aroused the conscience of Britain; Rammohan Roy, a Brahmin whose abilities and character place him among the three or four most admirable Indians that ever lived, addressed his own countrymen in pamphlets; many British officials prohibited suttee in their own jurisdiction, and to Government expressed their entire willingness to take the risks of the rebellion that some predicted if it were suppressed.

Abolition was the work of one man, Lord Bentinck, in 1829; and with it we enter on thirty years’ intensive campaign against barbarities. Native states were gradually persuaded to abolish suttee and female infanticide, mutilation and torture. The Thugs, robber bands who strangled their victims, were hunted down; “during the years 1831-7, 3,266 Thugs were disposed of in one way or another” (Oxford History of India). Human sacrifice was put down in Orissa, where it existed as a fiendishly cruel system, this process took from 1837 to 1854.

The effects of these years of warring against savagery sanctioned by religion seems never to have been noticed. It was summary work, often indistinguishable from the gamekeeper’s when he extirpates vermin. It bred an inevitable high-handiness, and scorn for the people whose ethics included such cruelties, and all this ultimately exploded in the self-righteousness that, at that time and afterwards, could see nothing in the Mutiny outbreaks but villainy. Yet the British conviction of superiority was, perhaps, inevitable. Scorn for a people who expected the woman to serve the man throughout his life, and then to burn with his corpse was deserved, if ever scorn was. It is easy to deride Macaulay’s Minute in 1833, which decided that education should be on a Western basis and contemptuously pushed aside Hindu civilization as of little worth; but – apart from the fact that the system of education adopted has by means been the failure that it is usually asserted to have been – Macaulay’s mind held what the fruits of Hindu civilization had been. It is not reasonable for us to blame men, who saw constantly what has long disappeared for ever, because they did not see the lofty thought that also was a part of Hinduism.

These years were a strain on the administration, new wars and annexations demanding a personnel that did not exist. There were Burmese wars in 1824-6, and again in 1852. After Lord Bentinck, Lord Auckland brought in a period of disregard for the rights of native states that made the atmosphere of India one of fear, distrust, and hatred. In 1839 the Amirs of Sind were forced into a subsidiary alliance, and their independence made a farce. “In many other respects the chiefs were fleeced and treated unfairly, but it is needless to pursue further the unpleasant subject “ (Oxford History of India). British territory and spheres of influence were pushed up to the borders of the last independent power in India – the Sikh. An unprovoked war against Afghanistan led to the disaster of our retreat after taking Kabul, hen only one man of an army of 16,000 reached India again. Subsequent fighting improved matters, but the war was a dishonourable episode. Even worse was the Sind was next year (1843). As Sir Charles Napier, who made and won it, noted in his diary at the time: “We have no right to seize Sind, yet we shall do so, and a very advantageous, useful, humane piece of rascality it will be.” Henry Lawrence said: “My opinion is that from beginning to end the Ameers have been treated harshly, and most of them unjustly.” The Amirs were exiled, Napier receiving £70,000 as private prize-money. His friend and subordinate, Outram, indignantly gave his share to charities, and in England pleaded for the Amirs. But though no one defends the war, the country was kept, and Napier had a tumultuous reception when he returned to England. His jesting despatch, “Peccavi” (“I have sinned”), reflects the cynical spirit of the time. In 1843 the last Maratha war resulted in the defeat of Singhia, after hard fighting.

Ranjit Singh, “the Lion of the Panjab,” died in 1839. Six years of desperate wickedness followed in the Panjab – a monotonous story of civil war, assassinations, and wholesale suttees. In 1845 the Sikhs turned their fierceness against the British, in the severest war the latter ever fought in India. In less than three months four great battles were fought; at Ferozeshah the British escaped ruin by a miracle, but the last battle, Sobracon, was a complete victory. A brief peace, with Henry Lawrence as Resident at the Sikh court, was broken in 1848. The Second Sikh War was one of equally terrific fighting, and the Battle of Chilianwala, January  13, 1849, is cherished by Indian opinion as a surpassingly glorious episode in their land’s history. After the victory at Gujarat the Panjab was annexed, and the Panjab tradition of the Indian Civil Service began. Even today appointment to this province is eagerly sought by Englishmen who have passed the I.C.S. examination. Its first administrators were by nature masterful, and by exercise of their disposition became doubly so. Government was beneficent but very severe. The reader will not understand the political situation of recent years, or Indian history during the past eighty years, unless he realizes that the Panjab was a province apart, in which events quite inconceivable in any other part of India have happened. Sir Henry Lawrence, who was out of sympathy with these newer methods, and who told Robert Montgomery that in his opinion – he had had experience of the Panjab and of Oudh, under both native and British rule – the people were happier under their own rule than under ours, was soon sent to Rajputuna. Then his brother John gathered round him of men, afterwards famous. Everyone had heard of the men who made their names on the wild Panjab-Afghanistan frontier, and in the hardly less wild province itself – Nicholson, Herbert Edwardes, Hodson, and others. They had to improvise an administration, and the Afghan and Sikh wars had shown by stormlight the quality of the people they had to watch or govern. The Panjab tradition was one in which success justified what was done, and a pretty free hand was given so long as success was obtained. The men who made this tradition were sternly religious, which further strengthened their place in their countrymen’s esteem. It is only recently that we have begun to question whether consciousness of our own rectitude, even when joined to admirable personal efficiency and vigour, guarantees the justice of all we do.

Dalhousie (1848-56) enforced a doctrine of “lapse,” annexing territories on their rulers’ death, if no natural heir existed. He brushed aside the right of adoption, which Indian rulers cherish. Oudh was annexed on other grounds – its misgovernment. The extirpation of evil practices continued vigorously. Dalhousie lost patience with the Rajput states that still permitted suttee; he threatened, and in some cases practised, interference. The enormous excitement of these twenty years of expansion previous to the Mutiny, years filled with sense of giant power sustained and augmented amid such dangers and battles as India had not known for many years, is brought out in the charming and vivacious letters written by English ladies such as Miss Eden. But the period saw the rapid disappearance of the British soldier or official who had Indian friends whom he genuinely respected as equals, and saw the emergence of a harder, sterner type.

Dalhousie’s annexations have been blamed for the Mutiny. Yet his annexations had an ethical compulsion and were very different from the bullying of Napier and Auckland. A man of unusual nobility, he did not act from the earth-hunger so often ascribed to him. We can see that the inefficiency of native governments annoyed him, as it later annoyed Lord Curzon; and, with reason, he honestly believed that ordinary humanity demanded that he should let pass no chance of annexation. His exasperation at the slowness with which native states abolished female infanticide and suttee shows what a fire burned under the tenacity with which he pursued his purpose of bringing all India under an administration free from these enormities.

Lord Canning succeeded in 1856; in 1857 the Mutiny broke out. It began with military severity and stupidity on one side, and murder on the other, and was a war without chivalry or quarter. The cruel sufferings of the British were, in part, the result of a ruthlessness that left their foe without inducement to show mercy, since he received none, and made even women valueless as hostages. The valour of our people, especially of isolated groups, was wonderful and very moving; but our blood had always proved its quality in danger, of which we have in every age had our sufficient trial, and the whole earth is grave-eloquent of the deeds of the English. Our foes also fought with bitter heroism, and Indians are entitled to kindle as they remember such men as Kumar Singh and the Moulvi of Faizabad.

The war has been often described. How fiercely it kept its fire, even when it seemed in ashes, was shown by the way it blazed out afresh in places where it seemed finished. It began on May 10th; Delhi was recaptured on September 14th; Lucknow was relieved on September 25th, but besieged again with the relieving force within, and finally made safe next March. In 1858 an arduous campaign in Central India reduced the rebellion there. The war died out in 1859, when the sepoy army had ceased to exist, except for the few who escaped into Nepal or to Arabia.

In November, 1858, the Crown took over the Government of India. This was an excellent thing, but one could wish that it had been brought about by less awful events. The Mutiny persuaded the people of Britain to cancel an outworn system; but it also postponed by decades the admission of the people to a share in their own rule. India became what it was not before – a conquered country. The day is almost here when to us, looking back, it will seem a thing nigh incredible that we governed it so long without dreaming that its people wished, or were entitled, to be consulted in the matter of their own rule.

Much of the prejudice taken over from 1857 by the victors is traceable to the very word “mutiny.” But the mutiny was one of men who wished to drive out alien rule, and had seen the sphere in which they could rise to influence and power steadily and rapidly lessoned; the majority of even the mutineers were from Oudh, which admittedly fought to recover the independence that had just been taken away. There was also the last despairing outflare of the long-smouldering Maratha resentment, and a Mohammadan effort to regain a lost empire. It is not possible to dismiss the mutiny a war fought over so vast a territory and by an alliance which, though imperfect, included more diverse forces than had ever united in India against any conqueror from outside. Even if the military authorities had not introduced the cartridges which precipitated the outbreak, something like the Mutiny was bound to have happened. Among the minor causes should be mentioned our bungling of the Crimean War, and the memory of the tremendous fight the Sikhs had put up, which made a deep impression in India.