What the Dark Corners of the East India Company's Loot of India Reveals about the Innate British Character

What the Dark Corners of the East India Company's Loot of India Reveals about the Innate British Character

A deep dive into some of the details of the East India Company's heartless loot of India gives us several insights into the intrinsic Briton character that was at the root of England's colonisation of large parts of the globe.

— 1 — 

HECTOR SUTHERLAND MUNRO, son of Hector Munro, the British Major instrumental in the triumph in the crucial Battle of Buxar, aspired for similar glory in India. As a cadet in the military service of the East India Company, Munro Jr was headed towards Madras from Bengal. On December 21, 1792, he headed out on a tiger-hunting trip in the Saugor Island with his friends Downey and Lt. Pyefinch. 

The July 12, 1793 edition of The Sheffield Register narrates what transpired next:

…an immense royal tyger sprang upon the unfortunate Munro, who was sitting down. In a moment, his head was in the beast’s mouth, and he rushed into the jungle with him, with as much ease as I could lift a kitten; tearing him through the thicket bushes and trees… [Munro] lived for twenty-four hours in the extreme of torture; his head and skull were all torn and broke to pieces…[His friends were thankful that they were able to] recover his body rather than to leave him to be devoured limb by limb.

Hector Munro Jr was only seventeen. 

The gruesome mauling described so graphically, obviously hurled Hector Munro—now a “Sir”— into depression. Elsewhere, it had infused enormous glee. In rather expected quarters. In faraway Srirangapattana, Tipu Sultan not only guffawed with delight but decided to commemorate Munro Jr’s death. A derisive celebration. Tipu had a good reason. Just five months ago, he had surrendered more than sixty percent of his territory and had sent two of his sons as hostages to be released upon the full and final settlement of ₹ 33 Lakhs as war indemnity to the disgusting Christians of the East India Company.  And now, Tipu made a mechanised sculpture, a symbol of his exultation at Munro’s ghastly death. It showed a ferocious tiger sitting atop a ruddy European. A switch activated the device. Immediately, the European’s arms flapped and flailed, trying to push the tiger off his chest. A small musical instrument inside the tiger emitted guttural sounds mimicking a tiger’s growl. The toy was seized by Cornwallis’ army after Tipu died in the ill-fated Fourth Anglo-Mysore War. Nicknamed Tipu’s Tiger, it remains a tourist attraction in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The Sheffield Register’s explicit description of the young Munro’s mangling was also impelled by an ulterior motive and echoed a popular public sentiment of the period. 

For about three decades past, an impossible array of exotic fauna was being imported into London from across the globe with Indian species making up the bulk. The Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London had been thrown open to the public as a tourist destination around 1780. The menagerie’s pens and stalls and cages bloated almost in direct proportion to the expansion of the British colonial empire—premised ostensibly on commerce but executed through excesses. Tourist guidebooks lavished their attention on the special prevalence of Indian “lions, tygers, elephants &c., in every street in town.” The books further lured the tourists  by emphasising that London also boasted of “birds of paradise, a serpent whose size is most remarkable…and many other animals…which came from India and are being kept to gratify the curiosity of the publick.” Tigers, cheetahs, leopards, snakes, elephants, civets, gazelles and exotic tropical birds were given as gifts to Dukes and Earls and Lords…it seemed as if no British aristocrat worth his salt did not have an Indian animal either as a pet or a collectible or both. In 1759, King George III received the gift of a caracal christened Shah Ghost, which was originally a gift given to Robert Clive by the Nawab of Bengal. Not just the animal, but its keeper had also been shipped to England from Bengal for it would obey only him. In March 1795, The Caledonian Mercury thrillingly reported the arrival of a new elephant in London. Almost immediately, massive crowds flocked to see this “most wonderful beast” paying one shilling per head. Indeed, Indian animals were responsible for making entire careers cutting across a cross-section of British society. Artists like George Stubbs made a fortune by painting Indian animals and selling them at exorbitant prices in the galleries of London. Britain’s leading scientists and zoologists got a firsthand opportunity to examine these beasts and fit them into an orderly taxonomy that conformed to Linnaeus’ principles. 


THIS SCALE OF UNRESTRAINED IMPORT of animals and birds from across the world simply reflected another dark tinge of the unflattering rainbow of British colonial plunder. While ordinary British citizens thronged the zoos, not everyone was amused. Quite the contrary, a steady outrage had been simmering in some influential sections of the British society for roughly the same three or four decades. The source of the outrage included but was not limited to these imported animals. It spanned diamonds, expensive jewellery, “vulgar” eastern dresses, trinkets, turbans, exotic furniture and sprawling acres of prime real estate. The source really was the sudden, explosive wealth flooding into and fattening select realms of British society. The source was embodied in the officials and agents of the East India Company. 

As with every excess that the East India Company has perpetrated, its Indian roots lie with Robert Clive, arguably the first English Nabob. Even in this specific case, Clive set the precedent for importing Indian animals into England. His granddaughter, Charlotte apparently kept a gazelle as her bedside pet and underwent sustained depression when it died. But by the 1780s, Indian animals in Britain had begun to serve more insidious purposes. 

In 1786, India’s first governor-general, Warren Hastings gifted six exotic tropical birds to King George III and a hyena to the Prince of Wales. 

Which is where our story begins. 

— 2 — 

THE YEAR 1786 WAS ALSO the year that inaugurated the decade-long impeachment of Warren Hastings. Few political and public figures in British colonial history have generated such prodigious volumes of writing as he has. Wholly for reasons rooted in his lasting infamy. Warren Hastings as a person, as a granddaddy of English Nabobs, as a plunderer par excellence, and as the symbol and subject of jurisprudence, remains an irresistible magnet for historians, scholars, and legal minds even as we speak. 

And the man who immortalised his infamy is undoubtedly Edmund Burke, his bete noire who frontally led the impeachment. 

When Warren Hastings returned to England after pillaging India for a record 13 years, the East India Company had already acquired a cancerous reputation at home. 

Clive’s second inquiry in 1772-73 in the backdrop of a Government bailout of the nearly-bankrupt Company, had returned a contemptuous verdict: the EIC was fatal to England itself. The Whig parliamentarian, Charles James Fox was brutal: “[Clive] is the origin of all plunders, the source of all robbery.” Clive indeed was seen as the hood of the new serpentine class that had corrupted the British society with its ill-gotten wealth, which it paraded flagrantly throughout England. Lower middle class British youth who would have otherwise lived and worked and retired and died in the same station were now beelining to enlist in the service of the Company. Why live and die as a clerk in the docks if you could sail to India and then return to buy a manor in say, Southampton?

To hardened conservatives like Burke, this was an unforgivable affront against the finest and hard-won traditions of British public life best symbolised by the Magna Carta, a living document and a prime fount of the pride of the race of Britons. Somebody had to pay for its debasement. 

THE IMPEACHMENT OF WARREN HASTINGS was as spectacular as the enormity of his burglary of India. But a careful reading of the proceedings of and the sustained campaign for his punishment reveals a rather patented facet of the British character of the era.

Burke was incensed more by the fact that the East India Company had grossly transformed itself from being an “empire of the seas” to becoming an evil “empire of conquest.” But Burke was only echoing his contemporary, Adam Smith’s alarm in The Wealth of Nations that, “such exclusive companies are nuisances in every respect; always…inconvenient to the countries in which they are established, and destructive to those which have the misfortune to fall under their government.” Thus, Burke’s mission was not to dismantle the British empire. To him, the Empire per se presented no ethical qualms. What plundering Englishmen like Warren Hastings had done to its reputation presented the real problem. Therefore, publicly bludgeoning criminals like Hastings was the most important step in reforming the Empire. The scholar of British colonial history, T.W. Nechtman offers a valuable insight in this regard:

…Burke…was not to suggest that India had infected [Hastings] — which was to say that Britons could be corrupted — but to argue that Hastings represented the basest and the most defiled type of Briton even before he left for India. British imperialism therefore, could not be faulted…rather, it had failed to weed out a wicked subset of Britons who were naturally corrupted…Hastings had never been an honourable British citizen… [he had to] be seen as the leader of a cabal of Britons in South Asia, who saw him as an example…Burke saw himself as engaged in a heroic effort save the “manners and virtues” of the British nation — the “national character…and our liberties.”

Even as the impeachment dragged along, it sent out an unmistakable warning to the Company’s employees in India: you are merchants, not rulers. What is happening to Warren Hastings could…will happen to you as well. 

The impeachment was perhaps the perfect device to evoke public attention and harness the subterranean public fury against the “India Empire” of the East India Company. Singling out Warren Hastings was Burke’s attempt at translating a famous proverb into concrete, practical action: the bigger they are, the harder they fall. And the public responded wildly as we shall see.     

In so many words, Edmund Burke charged Warren Hastings with not only being a criminal but as one who had singularly dented Britain’s imperial authority and had corrupted its national integrity by polluting its political class and debasing its foundations of liberty. And it hit the right spot. Anna Clark in her Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution notes how “…scandals had their greatest impact when [the public] were able to link personal problems with larger political issues.”

And Warren Hastings was the first-rate scandal.

While his equally notorious predecessor and his inspiration, Robert Clive had escaped rather lightly, Hastings had his whole life and career pried open in public in a two-pronged fashion. One, by intense and prolonged public interrogation by Burke & Co. And two, by himself. He had been put on the stand and forced to defend his doings in India.        

Burke’s crusade was assisted by a battery of seasoned politicians and splendid orators, foremost of whom was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, arguably England’s most popular dramatist and theatre owner. It was an impeachment, a legal trial. It was also an awesome theatrical production. 

— 3 — 

IT WAS SHERIDAN AND NOT EDMUND BURKE who delivered the first punch to Warren Hastings. In his opening speech on February 7, 1787 before the House of Commons, Sheridan’s masterly performance lasted six hours and was instantly hailed as one of the finest pieces of oratory. 

A year later, after finishing his concluding remarks before the House of Lords, Sheridan dramatically swooned backwards into the waiting arms of Edmund Burke, whispering to the Lords, “My Lords, I have done,” before fainting. Gilbert Elliot, a manager for the prosecution on Burke’s team noted how “there were few dry eyes in the assembly.” 

It was Burke’s turn next, and he administered the same if not greater impact as Sheridan. What Sheridan had done with his skill as a dramatist, Burke had surpassed with his matchless eloquence. T.B. Macaulay in his Warren Hastings paints the scene after Burke was done with the assembly: 

…the ladies in the galleries unaccustomed to such displays of eloquence…were in a state of uncontrollable emotion. Handkerchiefs were pulled out; smelling-bottles were handed round; hysterical sobs and screams were heard; and Mrs. Sherdian was carried out in a fit.

Although the impeachment of Warren Hastings was carried out in the solemn climate of both Houses, it was really carried out in the court of public opinion. Arguably, it was the first of its sort measured on the scale of sheer drama. And the crowds swelled each day. To cite Gilbert Elliot again: 

[the audience]…will have to mob…at the door till nine, when the doors open, and then there [is] a rush as there is at the pit of the playhouse when Garrick plays King Lear…The ladies are dressed and mobbing it in the Palace Yard by six…and they sit from nine till twelve before the business begins…Some people and, I believe even…ladies have slept at the coffeehouses adjoining Westminster Hall, that they may be sure of getting to the door in time.

What the general public didn’t know was the Burke & Co had ransacked the finest traditions of English theatre dating back to Shakespeare’s time and had employed them with devastating effect. To paraphrase the scholar Anna Clark, Burke’s team had ensured that Warren Hastings’ impeachment was the 18th century’s most spectacular scandal. 

Even a brief peek into the proceedings reveals the savagery of Burke’s frontal assault against Hastings. Here are some excerpts from his addresses before the House of Lords in 1788 (from February thru May). 

Do you want a criminal, my Lords? When was there so much iniquity ever laid to the charge of any one? No, my Lords, you must not look to punish any other such delinquent from India. Warren Hastings has not left substance enough in India to nourish such another delinquent… He is a robber. He steals, he filches, he plunders, he oppresses, he extorts,— all for the good of the dear East India Company…all in gratitude to the dear perfidious Court of Directors…He is not only a practitioner of bribery, but a professor, a doctor upon the subject…We have not chosen to bring before you a poor, puny trembling delinquent…[rather] we have brought before you the first man of India in rank, authority and station…a captain-general of inquiry, under whom all the fraud, all the peculation, all the tyranny in India are embodied, disciplined, arrayed and paid…

Members of both Houses were both captivated and convinced, and they not only agreed with Burke but charged Warren Hastings in choicest language. The House of Lords indicted Hastings with

ferocity, treachery, cruelty, malignity of temper; in short, nothing that does not argue a total extinction of all moral principle, that does not manifest an inveterate blackness of heart, dyed in the grain of malice, vitiated, corrupted, gangrened to the very core.

The conservative and the proud Briton in Burke had not only drawn the first blood but had attracted legions of supporters across England. And they descended torrentially. Newspapers, journals, activists and public-spirited individuals rallied behind his cause and vied with one another in blasting Warren Hastings. 

Edmund Burke had finally given them the channel for venting their decadal outrage. 

— 4 — 

THE SUPPORTERS OF EDMUND BURKE’s impeachment of Warren Hastings belonged to two broad categories. The first were genuine believers of Burke—the fanboys and loyalists. The second were the die-hard and long-time haters of the East India Company. The chief source of their ire was the thorough vulgarisation that its officials and agents had sullied the British society with. The second category — of EIC haters — merits deeper examination. 

From Robert Clive onwards, these English Nabobs had not only burgeoned their private fortunes on an unprecedented scale but were flaunting their purloined continental goodies with impunity. These had become a standing mockery of the British society. Wherever ordinary British citizens looked, the teeming parade of India-looted wealth assaulted their faces and corroded their dearly-cherished morals. Clive’s diamond-studded house jeered the British nation by its mere presence. A broken column hitched onto an EIC building in Leadenhall Street was originally a part of a palace in Bengal. 

If this was not enough, this obscene class of the nouveau riche also had the temerity to place advertisements in papers declaring their intent to buy their way into Parliament. An ad dated February 17, 1774 in The Public Advertiser offered£2,500 for an “Honourable Seat.” 

Writing in the 19th century, Macaulay unsparingly assesses the whole scenario in his biographical essay on Clive: 

[They] had sprung from obscurity…they acquired great wealth…they exhibited it insolently…they spent it extravagantly… [which] raised the price of everything in their neighbourhoods, from fresh eggs to rotten boroughs… their liveries outshone those of dukes…their carriages were finer than the Lord Mayor [of London]…the examples of their large and ill governed households corrupted half the servants in the country… with all their magnificence, [they] could not catch the tone of good society…they were still low men…

The laundry list of the practical sins of these English Nabobs encompassed everyone’s fury. In Macaulay’s acerbic pen, “Methodists and libertines, philosophers and buffoons, were for once on the same side. “ So were playwrights and novelists: “If any of our readers will take the trouble to search in the dusty recesses of circulating libraries for some novel published sixty years ago, the chance is that the villain or sub-villain of the story will prove to be a savage old Nabob, with an immense fortune, a tawny complexion, a bad liver, and a worse heart.” 

But Macaulay was merely borrowing from the lived experiences described by Englishmen who had inhabited that era of ill-gotten opulence, a phenomenon that peaked in Macaulay’s time. 

Here is Horace Walpole for example, writing a letter to his friend, Horace Mann in 1761. Just four years after the fateful Battle of Palashi. 

The dearness of everything is enormous and intolerable. The country is so rich that it makes everybody poor…unless…my Lord Clive send(s) over diamonds enough for current coin, I do not see how one shall be able to purchase necessaries… [Britain] beats Rome in…extravagance; and Spain in avarice and cruelty. 

The condensed essence of all these condemnations was straightforward: the British empire had enlarged private fortunes while simultaneously destabilising the nation. To invoke T.W. Nechtman once more, “Those same fortunes were turning young Britons into Nabobs, and the fear was that Nabobs would not only upset the social order but would buy their way into the nation’s political institutions.” But this purchase of political power and influence was also impelled by a keen self-awareness on the part of the Nabobs themselves: they were fabulously, grotesquely wealthy but they were also social pariahs. The taint of their low birth never left them. 

And it was precisely this vulnerability that both Burke and the supporters of Warren Hastings’ impeachment aimed their guns at. 

Note: The subsequent chapters of this dark tale will be narrated in future essays. 

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