Recently, I was listening to a Malcolm Gladwell podcast which spoke about the protest related to removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from some building at Cambridge. Historical figures are reevaluated. Today’s needull is a relook at Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of British India.
When Hastings retired in 1785, he left British administration in India on a sounder footing than ever before. He expected his successes to be rewarded with the same favours as Clive had received, and at first all seemed to go well. Hastings was warmly received by King George III, although Whig wits ridiculed him for showering the royal family with ‘fine diamonds’ and ‘a certain richly carved ivory bed which the Queen had done him the honour to accept from him’. London gossip was particularly cruel about the extravagance of Hastings’ beautiful, German wife, who allegedly appeared at one function wearing jewels worth a staggering £2 million in today’s money.
In the public mind, Hastings had become symbolic of the East India Company, widely unpopular for its role in buying up British MPs and corrupting British politics. His old enemy, Philip Francis, now an active Whig backbencher in Parliament, had been feeding Edmund Burke with ammunition. When Burke threatened to bring a motion of censure against him, Hastings dared him to do his worst. The result was one of the last impeachments in British history, a procedure whereby the House of Commons acts as prosecutor in a case tried by the House of Lords. It was a measure reserved for what were considered ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ beyond the remit of other courts, and it could carry the death penalty.