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A friend indeed?

  • Published at 07:26 pm August 14th, 2015
A friend indeed?

Whether Edmund Burke’s very active and vociferous intervention in the affairs of the governance of India and the East India Company, especially between 1781 and 1794, reflected his envy of the fortunes being made there by British adventurers, simple political pragmatism, or from high ideals, we may never know. It is often said that few people in positions of power and influence obtain and retain their reputation through adhering to higher standards of morality than those around them. All are human, and all, presumably, have human weaknesses.

But, what is certain is that this late 18th century Irish-born politician probably had more influence than most in moderating the cupidity and incompetence of the employees and investors of East India Company, and securing enduring reform in the governance of, in the beginning, perhaps largely the lands of the north-eastern Indian sub-continent, including those that are now Bangladesh. That those reforms laid the foundation, a century and a half later, for the independence of three nations with some democratic tradition, speaks for his heritage.

It may also be no coincidence that it was five years after the loss of the American colonies that he joined the concerns of the British parliament in investigating the activities of the British in India. There were certainly those, and, as a great patriot, Burke amongst them, who feared that the mis-government that seemed to produce the endless stream of fortunes being repatriated by returning, “nawabs,” as the British nicknamed returning millionaires, could well eventuate in another such disastrous outcome.

It may also be no coincidence that, in 1774, he had been elected member of parliament for Bristol. There is no doubt that the large merchant community of that port had long resented the complete authority granted to the East India Company to hold a monopoly on British trade with the Indian sub-continent and the Far East, considerably limiting their own freedom to trade.

To be fair, from early in his days as member for Bristol in 1775, he had very evidently recognised the justice of the demands of American colonialists, and had sought to reconcile the American rebels by introducing suggestion into parliament to achieve an outcome that did not involve independence. Of course he failed, as we know, but whether his stand was principled, or much in the interests of his constituents, as it certainly was, is also unclear.

Whatever his motives, it is fairly clear that the governance of India and the remunerative trade in the area, long recognised by such as the Bristol merchants, became a focus for the attention of this long-serving, shrewd parliamentarian.

His public involvement in “Indian” affairs probably began in 1781, when he was appointed to a parliamentary select committee, investigating the affairs of the East India Company. Any political commentator would certainly recognise how such an appointment could serve the interests of his own constituents -- the involvement of Bristol merchants in the development of the West Indies Slave trade by 1774 is well documented, and, in view of earlier involvement in trade with the east, this may well have become a substitute for the fading away of such trade under Company interference.

The Bristol merchants, in fact, had yet an interest in Indian trade. The Company may well have held a monopoly on trade in Indian goods with Britain, but since we have reason to believe that, up to a third of slaves bought from the Arab slave-dealers of Africa were paid for in cloth woven in India, there may well have been further constituency interest in the operation of trade with India and the Company monopoly.

Whatever his motives for taking such an interest in trade with India and the Company, the depth of his interest was to become clear in the ensuing decade. That, in the end, his interest should be focused on a man who, other than Clive, certainly came to represent the management and achievements of the Company in India -- Warren Hastings -- may come as no surprise.

After two years of the Select Committee work, he and his Whig political allies, known as the “Rockingham Whigs,” named for the Northamptonshire country estate of one of the leaders of his Whig faction, William Wentworth Fitzwilliam, which was led by Charles James Fox, introduced two bills before the house. The first called for the political administration of East India Company territories in India to be placed under a commission appointed by parliament, which would, effectively, nationalise such control. The second bill was that the Company’s commercial activities should also be placed under another parliamentary commission.

It is clear that, quite apart from the behaviour of the East India Company and its agents, a broader concern for the sub-continent finds echoes in the speech Burke made at the introduction of these bills. Not least of those concerns was the Persian invasion of India that culminated in 1739, with the rape and looting of Delhi, further weakening Mughal authority over the lands of India.

“The Tartar (Persian) invasion was mischievous; but it is our protection that destroys India,” he began. “It was their enmity, but it is our friendship,” the great orator thundered. “Our conquest there, after 20 years, is as crude as it was on the first day. The natives there scarcely know what it is to see the grey head of an Englishman.

“Young men (boys almost) govern there, without society, and without sympathy with the natives.

“They have no more social habits with the people than if they still resided in England; nor indeed any species of intercourse but that which is necessary to making a sudden fortune, with a view to a remote settlement.

“Animated with all the avarice of age, and all the impetuosity of youth, they roll in one after another; wave after wave; and there is nothing before the eyes of the natives but an endless, hopeless prospect of new flights of birds of prey and passage, with appetites continually renewing for a food that is continually wasting.”

Reading the records and journals of the period of those engaged in the work of the Company, and viewing the considerable evidence of wealth shifting from India to Britain, not least palaces and stately homes of returning “nawabs” as the Company fortunately were known in Britain, it may be hard to quarrel with this rich flight of oratory. Reflecting on the behaviour, especially, of London bankers of the 21st century, is it possible to find evidence of the proposition that history repeats itself?

Not that such social and economic rape and pillaging that certainly followed, first Plassey and then, in 1764, Buxar, which resulted in confirmation of the Company’s absolute control of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, had not been experienced before in these lands -- so rich an international trading centre, with a heritage of local manufacturing skills, and invaluable locally-produced raw materials.

Not for nothing were the Khilji, and the Mamluk Sultanate, the first  conquerors with origins beyond the sub-continent since Alexander, in the 13th century known as “ruthless and remorseless.” And in the 16th century well into the 17th, the Mughals struggled hard to complete their domination of these areas of north-east India, which were known to the sixth Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, as “the Paradise of Nations” for their wealth and trade.

Whatever the motives of Edmund Burke, who in his career in the British Parliament more or less defined, even until today, the ideal of a parliamentarian, for taking up the case of the Company’s gross mis-conduct and mis-management in this, probably the world’s first example of privatised conquest (one wonders if Bush and Cheney ever studied it … if so, it seems they learned no lessons) his interest was, certainly, to have enduring effect.

The Act of Permanent Settlement of 1793 gave at least a degree of stability to the conquered, and the locally recruited, trained, and managed administrators, as well as those recruited in Britain itself.

Certainly, more of the wealth of India, throughout the ensuing century, came to be reinvested locally, and private investment from Britain probably returned some of the looted wealth, both directly, in such as infrastructural development, especially railways, as well as the fruits of the Industrial Revolution, part of which was also probably financed by the fortunes acquired by the youthful adventurers so fiercely castigated by Burke.

It is probably fair to judge him an important friend at a time of great need for the lands and people of India ... whatever his motives may have been.