Edmund Burke and the Trial of Warren Hastings

Part of the Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print book series (PERCP)


The impeachment and trial of Warren Hastings, which began in 1787 and concluded with the acquittal of the former Governor-General in 1795, brought unprecedented attention to Indian affairs in Britain.1 It also illustrated — in terms that, for Burke, were nothing less than tragic — the aesthetic difficulties inherent in constructing a sentimental depiction of India. For most of his hearers and for the British public at large, the remote and unfamiliar subcontinent simply eluded the scope of the sympathetic imagination, or was too easily displaced by objects closer to home. Nor did the trial’s prodigious length favour Burke’s cause. Hastings was charged before the House of Lords for ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ on 18 February 1788. By the time of the verdict a full eight years later, 180 changes to the peerage (in their capacity as jurors) had taken place, and the Lord Chancellor (as judge), Lord Thurlow, who opposed Hastings, was replaced by Lord Loughborough, who supported him. Outside the courtroom, the French Revolution had shaken the political and social foundations of Europe and provided Burke with an alternative animus for his political philosophy. War with nearby revolutionary France easily effaced concerns over the East India Company’s conduct in the 1770s, however much the theatre of war now extended to the Indian Ocean. Even the outpouring of literature in the 1770s and 1780s, much of which can be categorised as sentimental, which denounced the wrongdoings of British nabobs, placed domestic concerns centre stage at the expense of the Indian context.


British Literature Philosophical Enquiry Rhetorical Device Arbitrary Power British Public 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    The best factual account of Hastings’ trial is Marshall’s The Impeachment of Warren Hastings. There have also been a number of attempts to assess the wider cultural significance of the trial: see Geoffrey Carnall and Colin Nicholson (eds), The Impeachment of Warren Hastings: Papers from the Bicentenary Commemoration (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989) and Nicholas B. Dirks, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (London: Harvard University Press, 2006).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Frances De Bruyn, ‘Edmund Burke’s Gothic Romance: The Portrayal of Warren Hastings in Burke’s Writings and Speeches on India’, Criticism 29.4 (1987), pp. 415–38 (p. 425).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    David Musselwhite, ‘The Trial of Warren Hastings’, in Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, Margaret Iversen and Diana Loxley (eds), Literature, Politics and Theory: Conference Papers, 1976–84 (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 77–103 (p. 99).Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native, ed. George Woodcock (London: Penguin, 1978), p. 10.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    O’Brien’s title is a line from W.B. Yeats’s poem ‘The Seven Sages’ (1933). F.P. Lock’s biography of Burke takes a similarly ‘biographical’ line, seeing Irish identity and suffering at the root of many of his later political projects. For example, on his mother’s family: ‘the plight of aristocrats or decayed gentlefolk living in reduced circumstances always exerted a powerful emotional appeal on Burke. The Nagles first impressed this idea on his mind. He served the impoverished or dispossessed nobility of India and France chiefly through his writings and speeches’; see Edmund Burke: Volume I, 1730–1784 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), p. 14.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    Luke Gibbons, Edmund Burke and Ireland: Aesthetics, Politics and the Colonial Sublime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, ed. Adam Philips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 41.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Philip Mercer, Sympathy and Ethics: A Study of the Relationship between Sympathy and Morality with Special Reference to Hume’s Treatise (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 9.Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    See, for example, Neal Wood, ‘The Aesthetic Dimensions of Burke’s Political Thought’, Journal of British Studies 4.1 (November 1964), pp. 41–64; Tom Furniss, Edmund Burke’s Aesthetic Ideology: Language, Gender, and Political Economy in Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) and Stephen K. White, ‘Burke on Politics, Aesthetics, and the Dangers of Modernity’, Political Theory 21.3 (August 1993), pp. 507–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 16.
    See Geoffrey Carnall, ‘Burke as Modern Cicero’, in Carnall and Nicholson, The Impeachment of Warren Hastings, pp. 76–90, and H.V. Canter, ‘The Impeachments of Verres and Hastings: Cicero and Burke’, Classical Journal 9 (1914), pp. 199–211.Google Scholar
  11. 17.
    See Nicholas K. Robinson, Edmund Burke: A Life in Caricature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  12. 18.
    Isaac Kramnick first explored questions surrounding Burke’s sexuality in The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative (New York: Basic Books, 1977), making use of Burke’s then recently published correspondence. Claudia Johnson briefly pursues this line of enquiry in her Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender and Sentimentality in the 1790s. Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen (London: Chicago University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    Anthony Pasquin, i.e. John Williams, Authentic Memoirs of Warren Hastings, Esq, late Governor-General of Bengal, with Strictures on the Management of his Impeachment: to which is added, an Examination into the Causes of the Alarm in the Empire (London: J. Bew, 1793), p. 65.Google Scholar
  14. 20.
    Olivia Smith, The Politics of Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), p. 38.Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London relative to that Event, ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien (London: Penguin, 1969), pp. 169–70.Google Scholar
  16. 22.
    Thomas Babington Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays Contributed to the Edinburgh Review (London: Longman, Green & Co., 1877), p. 643. Dr William Dodd was hanged for alleged forgery in 1777. His execution was controversial and Macaulay refers to it here as a legal cause célèbre.Google Scholar
  17. 25.
    Mehta, Liberalism and Empire, p. 42, p. 21. See also Frederick G. Whelan, Edmund Burke and India: Political Morality and Empire (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), pp. 40–2.Google Scholar
  18. 26.
    Burke, Writing and Speeches, vol. 6, p. 277.Google Scholar
  19. 27.
    James Raven, Judging New Wealth: Popular Publishing and Responses to Commerce in England, 1750–1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), especially ch. 11, ‘Assumptive Gentry and the Threat to Stability’.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 28.
    William Cowper, Poetical Works (London: William Tegg, 1858), p. 174.Google Scholar
  21. 32.
    William Pitt, First Earl of Chatham, Correspondence, eds W.S. Taylor and J.H. Pringle, 4 vols (London: John Murray, 1839–40), vol. 3, p. 405.Google Scholar
  22. 33.
    See Mark Bence-Jones, Clive of India (London: Constable, 1974), pp. 279–90.Google Scholar
  23. 34.
    For popular representations of nabobs in the late eighteenth century, see James M. Holzman, The Nabobs in England: A Study of the Returned Anglo-Indian, 1760–1785 (New York, 1926); Philip Lawson and Jim Phillips, ‘“Our Execrable Banditti”: Perceptions of Nabobs in Mid-Eighteenth Century Britain’, Albion 16.3 (1984), pp. 225–41; and Michael Edwardes, The Nabobs at Home (London: Constable, 1991).Google Scholar
  24. 35.
    See also M.O. Grenby, The Anti-Jacobin Novel: British Conservatism and the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), ch. 5, ‘Levellers, Nabobs and the Manners of the Great: The Novel’s Defence of Hierarchy’.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 36.
    See Lucy S. Sutherland, The East India Company in Eighteenth-Century Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), pp. 329–414 and C.H. Philips, The East India Company 1784–1834 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1961), Appendix I.Google Scholar
  26. 37.
    Horace Walpole, Correspondence, ed. W.S. Lewis, 48 vols (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937–83), ‘To Horace Mann’, 13 July 1773, vol. 23, p. 400. Lawson and Phillips provide a counterargument to this, acknowledging that while numbers of MPs representing the East India interest rose from 12 in 1761 to 27 in 1780, nabobs never constituted a ‘unified and coherent lobby’, nor did they display any wish to subvert the political system (‘Our Execrable Banditti’, p. 228).Google Scholar
  27. 38.
    Eliza Fenwick, Secresy; or; The Ruin on the Rock, ed. Gina Luria (London: Garland, 1974), p. 225.Google Scholar
  28. 39.
    Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling, ed. Brian Vickers (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 76.Google Scholar
  29. 40.
    Further to his ironical endorsement of Burke’s position in his novel, Mackenzie expressed wariness of Burke’s motives in prosecuting Hastings in his Review of the Principal Proceedings of the Parliament of 1784; see Henry Mackenzie, Works, 8 vols (Edinburgh: James Ballantyne, 1808), vol. 7.Google Scholar
  30. 42.
    Samuel Foote, The Nabob: A Comedy, in Three Acts (London: Coleman, 1778), p. 59. Page numbers for subsequent citations are given in the text.Google Scholar
  31. 45.
    Cited in Marshall’s introduction to Burke, Writings and Speeches, vol. 5, p. 18.Google Scholar
  32. 46.
    For Burke’s early involvement with Indian affairs, see Marshall, Impeachment of Warren Hastings, pp. 1–38 and Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke (London: Chicago University Press, 1992), pp. 257–311.Google Scholar
  33. 47.
    Burke, Writings and Speeches, vol. 5, p. 403.Google Scholar
  34. 48.
    Burke, Writings and Speeches, vol. 5, p. 403.Google Scholar
  35. 50.
    Burke, Writings and Speeches, vol. 3, p. 389.Google Scholar
  36. 51.
  37. 55.
    James Sayers, Galante Show, engraving (London: T. Cornell, 6 May 1788), BM 7313.Google Scholar
  38. 56.
    James Gillray, Camera-Obscura, engraving (London: S.W. Fores, 9 May 1788), BM 7314. Gillray’s practice was to feign Sayers’s initials (J.S.F.: ‘James Sayers fecit’) on his satirical responses to specific works by Sayers.Google Scholar
  39. 57.
    Suleri, Rhetoric of English India, p. 57. The History of the Trial of Warren Hastings, Esq. (London: Debrett, Vernor & Hood, 1796) is a partisan account compiled from newspaper reports, although Suleri uses it as the basis of her reading. See also the pro-Hastings The Trial of Warren Hastings, Esq., Complete from February 1788, to June 1794; with a Preface (London: J. Owen, 1794).Google Scholar
  40. 58.
    Fanny Burney, Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay (1778–1840), ed. Charlotte Barrett, 6 vols (London: Macmillan, 1905), vol. 3, p. 413.Google Scholar
  41. 59.
    See David Marshall, The Figure of Theatre: Shaftesbury, Defoe, Adam Smith, and George Eliot (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) and The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau and Mary Shelley (London: Chicago University Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  42. 60.
    Burney, Diary and Letters, vol. 3, p. 413.Google Scholar
  43. 61.
    Marshall, introduction to Burke, Writings and Speeches, vol. 6, pp. 16–17.Google Scholar
  44. 63.
    William Davy and Joseph White (trans.), Institutes Political and Military written originally in the Mogul Language by the Great Timur (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1783). On the relativism of Hastings’ administration in Bengal, see Sen, Distant Sovereignty, which argues that ‘in the eighteenth century, and perhaps even in the early nineteenth, the self-image of British rule in India could not be fully or comfortably unfastened from the nominal regality of the Mughals. The British did not wish to be seen as an Indian power and they did not wish to assume indiscreetly the mantle of a sovereign authority in India’ (introduction, p. xiii).Google Scholar
  45. 64.
    Burke, Writings and Speeches, vol. 6, pp. 457–8.Google Scholar
  46. 65.
    Burke, Writings and Speeches, vol. 7, p. 459.Google Scholar
  47. 67.
    Burke, Writings and Speeches, vol. 6, p. 350.Google Scholar
  48. 69.
    Burke, Writings and Speeches, vol. 7, p. 245.Google Scholar
  49. 70.
    E.A. Bond (ed.), Speeches of the Managers and Counsel in the Trial of Warren Hastings, 4 vols (London: Longman and others, 1859–61), vol. 1, pp. 593–4.Google Scholar
  50. 71.
    Burke, Writings and Speeches, vol. 6, p. 275.Google Scholar
  51. 73.
    Anon., History of the Trial of Warren Hastings, vol. 6, p. 421.Google Scholar
  52. 75.
    See Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985) and Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2003).Google Scholar
  53. 77.
    Elizabeth Ryves, The Hastiniad; An Historic Poem, in Three Cantos (London: J. Debrett, 1785), p. 7.Google Scholar
  54. 78.
    Joseph Richardson, The Rolliad, in Two Parts: Probationary Odes for the Laureatship; and Miscellanies: with Criticism and Illustrations (London: J. Ridgway, 1795). The title alludes to the MP for Devonshire, John Rolle, a contemporary politician and buffoon figure.Google Scholar
  55. 79.
    Ralph Broome, Letters from Simpkin the Second to his Dear Brother in Wales; Containing a Humble Description of the Trial of Warren Hastings, Esq. With Simon’s Answer (London: J. Bell, 1788), p. 12. A second series was published by John Stockdale in 1790.Google Scholar
  56. 80.
    James Sayers, The Last Scene of the Managers Farce, engraving (London: H. Humphrey, 8 May 1795), BM 8647.Google Scholar
  57. 82.
    Sir Charles Lawson, The Private Life of Warren Hastings, First Governor-General of India (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1895), p. 42.Google Scholar
  58. 83.
    Percival Spear, The Nabobs: A Study in the Social Life of the English in Eighteenth-Century India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 147.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Andrew Rudd 2011

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations