Friday, April 17, 2009

The timid natives

Warren Hastings, the first Governor-general of India was called back to England and faced impeachment following charges of corruption. He was later acquitted.

In 1813, a Committee was appointed by the House of Lords to examine the Company’s request for extension of charter. The Committee went through an elaborate process of interrogating a number of people about Indian natives, their behaviour, lifestyle, etc before coming to a conclusion. Warren Hastings, whose knowledge of India was extensive, was one of those called upon to depose before the Committee

Here is an extract from the Minutes Of Evidence Taken before The Lords Committees On The East India Company's Affairs. – April 5, 1813 ( see page 550). I have omitted some controversial sections.

(By Counsel.}—Are you enabled from your long residence in India, and your experience and observation of the manners, habits, and dispositions of the natives of that country, to give the Committee any general description of their national character as contrasted with that of the English ?

Hastings: In answering to this question, it will not be easy to divest my mind of certain circumstances connected with it, which do not relevantly appertain to the question itself. Great pains have been taken to inculcate into the public mind an opinion that the native Indians are in a state of complete moral turpitude, and live in the constant and unrestrained commission of every vice and crime that can disgrace human nature. I affirm, by the oath that I have taken, that this description of them is untrue, and wholly unfounded.

(The Hindoos) are gentle, benevolent, more susceptible of gratitude for kindness shown them, than prompted to vengeance for wrongs inflicted, and as exempt from the worst propensities of human passion as any people upon the face of the earth ; they are faithful and affectionate in service, and submissive to legal authority ; they are superstitious it is true, but they do not think ill of us for not thinking as they do. Gross as the modes of their worship are, the precepts of their religion are wonderfully fitted to promote the best ends of society, its peace and good order; and even from their theology, arguments may be drawn to illustrate and support the most refined mysteries of our own..

Their temperance is demonstrated in the simplicity of their food, and their total abstinence from spirituous liquors and other substances of intoxication. I think the question required that I should speak to the character of my own countrymen, as compared, or contrasted with them ; these, my lords, are almost in every instance the reverse of the other.

It is impossible that the English character should coalesce with the natives in the same state of society. In the higher class of British subjects this effect may not be deduced ; but if Europeans are admitted generally to go into the country to mix with the inhahitants, and to form establishments amongst them, the consequence must certainly and inevitably prove the ruin of the country; they will insult, plunder, and oppress the natives because they can do it with impunity; no laws can be enacted from here at such a distance, and under the cover of so many circumstances as will occur in that country, that can prevent them from committing acts of licentiousness of every kind with impunity; the arrogance and boldness of their spirit will encourage them too far to do every thing that their own interests may prompt them to.

In India, at a distance from the capital settlements, the name of an Englishman is his protection, and a sanction for many offences which he would not dare to commit at home. I must add what I have already mentioned in another place, and which perhaps may not appear to deserve the weight which I feel it possesses in my own mind ; there is a tacit idea prevails universally in the minds of all British subjects, not only in India, but I believe with a feebler or deeper impression even at home, the idea of common participation which every British subject possesses in the sovereignty of the Company :—" Since we became masters of the country:" " our native subjects," and other phrases of a similar import constantly occur in our hooks, in our writings, as well as in the language of familiar conversation.

These ideas in the lower orders of British subjects rise to the height of despotism, and are liable to all the excesses of despotism, whenever the prerogatives annexed to it can be asserted with impunity ; with such a disparity, the aggrieved Indian loses his confidence; he is timid by nature, and not easily provoked to resistance where danger may be apprehended; but though this is a part of their individual character, cases may be supposed in which the provocation of a general grievance may excite the whole people, or detached numbers of them, to all the ferocities of insurrection ; this however is not very liable to happen, and I hope never will.

Very great and .almost insuperable will be the difficulties of obtaining redress should the native Indian be under a necessity of appealing for it to the courts of justice established in the country; these will always be at a great distance from the complainant, because he cannot afford the loss of a day's labour, which procures him his daily subsistence, in appealing to them. The same difficulties will occur in collecting witnesses, and procuring their attendance ; and these combined will be more likely to prevent his complaining at all, than a too quick sense of injury to give occasion for his complaining without sufficient reason.

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