The Imperial Afterlife of Warren Hastings, 1818-1947

In today’s blog we hear from Alfie Banks formerly of the University of Southampton, winner of the History of Parliament Undergraduate Dissertation Competition 2020. Here Alfie has adapted his winning essay, exploring the legacy of the controversial figure Warren Hastings and the insights that his afterlife can provide into imperial thought in 19th and 20th century Britain.

The History of Parliament’s 2021 Undergraduate Dissertation Competition is open for entries until 30 September. Find all the details here.

Between 1818 and 1947, Warren Hastings was transformed from a highly controversial figure into one of Britain’s most revered imperial heroes. His legacy or posthumous reputation provides a powerful lens through which to explore imperial sentiment in Britain.

Warren Hastings (1732-1818) was one of the key figures in establishing the East India Company’s empire in Asia. As the first Governor-General of Bengal, he played a crucial role in consolidating the territories won by Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. His career was overshadowed by the political storm that followed the creation of the Company’s empire, and in 1788 Hastings was impeached by Edmund Burke in the House of Lords for ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’. As the figurehead of the Company, he was placed on trial as a scapegoat for its corruption and abuses. But even Burke’s zealous efforts failed to halt the tide of imperial confidence that swept across Britain during the French Wars, and Hastings was acquitted after seven years.

Warren Hastings; Joshua Reynolds; National Portrait Gallery via Art UK

The controversial nature of Hastings’s trial gave him a remarkably contentious afterlife that has severely distorted our understanding of him. The political storm that surrounded his impeachment has clouded the judgement of generations of historians, who have invariably failed to separate his character from the debate attached to his name.

Between his death in 1818 and Indian independence in 1947, Hastings’s afterlife followed three phases. In the first, 1818-1890, Hastings emerged as a flawed hero, or an empire-builder guilty of ‘crimes’. In the second, 1890-1915, a group of imperialists campaigned relentlessly to recuperate Hastings’s image, and transformed him into a spotless imperial hero. And finally, between 1915 and 1947, Hastings’s reputation reached its apotheosis in the context of growing uncertainties over the future of the Raj. His afterlife is thus a key indicator of the rise and fall of imperial sentiment in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain. It reveals the flexibility of memory, and the ways in which our understanding of imperial figures have been distorted by contemporary politics.

A Flawed Hero, 1818-1890

In the wake of Hastings’s death in 1818, his friends and former colleagues erected two statues to commemorate him: one in East India House, the Company’s headquarters in London, and the other in Calcutta.

Warren Hastings; John Flaxman; Sir John Soane’s Museum via Art UK

However, the dominant image of Hastings during this period was set in writing, not in stone. The most influential texts were James Mill’s History of British India (1817) and Thomas Babington Macaulay’s famous 1841 essay on Hastings. Both found much they could praise in Hastings’s character and achievements, but nevertheless declared him guilty of the charges laid to his name.

Both also had objectives of their own. A liberal reformer, Macaulay used Hastings’s memory in order to demonstrate that the Indian Empire had evolved from one of conquest to one that worked as a civilising force. His essay was immensely popular, and the image of Hastings as a heroic, but nonetheless guilty empire-builder was etched into popular memory as a result. 

His reputation during this period was thus one of considerable fragility, which disintegrated when imperial sentiment waned in Britain. For example, when news reached Britain of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, evangelicals widely denounced Hastings for having prevented the introduction of missionaries to India, which they believed would have prevented the uprising. However, this sentiment was short-lived, and Hastings’s reputation grew considerably with the rise in imperial confidence following the Mutiny. 

The first attempts to exculpate Hastings came during the intensification of imperial sentiment in the 1880s. He was still treated by many with suspicion, but a group of former Indian officials were becoming increasingly alarmed by the charges that tainted the foundation of British India. The climate for Hastings’s vindication was set, and the following period saw a remarkable change in his reputation.

Vindication, 1890-1915

Plaque commemorating the trial of Warren Hastings in Westminster Hall; image via London Remembers

The publication of George Forrest’s selection of Hastings’s papers in 1890 ignited a prolonged and intense campaign to recuperate Hastings’s image. Fearing that the memory of Hastings’s ‘crimes’ was causing unrest in India, a group of former Indian officials rapidly produced a large number of books and articles which aimed to prove Hastings’s innocence. The campaign was part of a wider effort to stimulate interest in Indian affairs in Britain, and to reshape popular opinion on the foundation of British India.

One of Hastings’s most important commemorators was Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, 1899-1905. Curzon spent considerable effort commemorating his predecessors, and in 1913 had a bronze tablet installed on the floor of Westminster Hall, marking the spot where Hastings had stood on trial. The tablet reflects the remarkable transformation in Hastings’s status – he was now widely revered as one of Britain’s greatest imperial heroes.

Apotheosis, 1915-1947

In the final years of British rule, Hastings’s afterlife reached its apotheosis. Amidst growing uncertainty over the future of the Raj, Hastings was celebrated more fervently than ever, and was used to provide a justification for British rule.

As Hastings’s popularity grew during this period, he was celebrated in a wider variety of ways. Appearing in plays, children’s literature, exhibitions and spectacular shows, Hastings had reached the first rank of Britain’s imperial heroes. His reputation reached its pinnacle on the bicentenary of his birth, 6 December 1932, when a series of commemorative events and exhibitions was organised by the Royal Empire Society. Against the backdrop of an intense political debate over the Government’s promise of Indian self-rule, the bicentenary received an extraordinary level of interest from Britain’s imperial and political elite. Remarkably, both sides of the debate used the commemoration of Hastings as an opportunity to justify their position.

Hastings’s reputation has ebbed and flowed with contemporary political and imperial sentiment in Britain. Generations of historians appropriated him to serve their contemporary political causes, and our understanding of him has been severely distorted as a result. Presently, as Britain reflects on its imperial past, further exploration of the political power of reputation has never been so important.

Alfie Banks

Further reading

MacKenzie, John M., ‘Heroic myths of empire’, in John M. MacKenzie, ed., Popular Imperialism and the Military, 1850-1950 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), pp.109-38

Marshall, P. J., The Impeachment of Warren Hastings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965)

Marshall, P. J., ‘The Making of an Imperial Icon: The Case of Warren Hastings’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 27 (1999), pp.1–16

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