A young Warren Hastings had no reason to hope for wealth when he joined the East India Company (EIC) and sailed to India in 1750 at the age of seventeen. He was nothing more than a clerk. but he worked hard and two years later he earned a promotion and was sent to a major trading post where he gained further experience.
As Hastings was busy working trying to get ahead, unrest reigned in the area among local rulers. Things became worse when the elderly and moderate Nawab died. His grandson Siraj ud-Daulah then assumed the role as Nawab, but because he held anti-European views, he attacked the British and to prevent a massacre they surrendered.
Ud-Daulah’s forces then gathered up their British prisoners and incarcerated them in the Black Hole of Calcutta, supposedly among those imprisoned was Hastings. The Black Hole allegedly become a death trap for some of the prisoners and some suffocated before they were moved to a more appropriate prison. Some time after, Hastings escaped to the island of Fulta where other refugees from Calcutta had gathered.
On Fulta Warren Hastings met and married Mary Buchanan whose first husband, John Buchanan, had died in the Black Hole. Shortly after Hastings and Mary wed, Robert Clive, who had returned a second time to India and was acting as deputy governor of Fort St. David at Cuddalore, rescued those on Fulta. Hastings then joined with Clive’s forces to retake Calcutta from ud-Daulah in January of 1757.
Clive was impressed by Hastings. He was a hard worker and smart and so at Clive’s instigation Hastings was promoted to the British Resident in the Bengal capital of Murshidabad in 1758. The position was a major career advancement for Hastings and things were looking brighter for him as he was now issuing orders to the new Nawab on Clive’s behalf.
Despite his position, Hastings often sided with the Nawab. He regularly found the demands of the EIC were excessive partly because he embraced a philosophy of understanding India’s people and their rulers. Hastings was also aware of trading abuses in Bengal and alleged some European and British-allied Indian merchants were taking advantage of the situation and enriching themselves unfairly. He also realized that unauthorized people were engaging in widespread fraud and illegal trading.
Although Warren Hastings reported these abuses to authorities in Calcutta, nothing was done. In fact, he was fiercely criticized by some on the council. Part of the reason for the criticism was because some of them were profiting from Indian trade too. In the meantime, a new ruler by the name of Mir Qasim came to the throne and rebuilt his Bengal army by hiring mercenaries and training his forces in war.
After a dispute broke out, Mir Qasim attacked and took Patna. He then made the mistake of executing his British prisoners and that resulted in the British attacking and defeating him. He then fled into exile and the Treaty of Allahabad that came afterward gave the EIC the right to collect taxes in Bengal on behalf of the Emperor.
While living in India, Hastings and his wife had two children: George* in December of 1757 and Elizabeth in October of 1758. Unfortunately, baby Elizabeth died about three weeks after her birth. Mary then got sick and as Hastings had befriend Tysoe Saul Hancock and his wife, Philadelphia, who was who was Jane Austen’s aunt. Philadelphia took care of Mary because at the time Hastings was away on assignment. Unfortunately, Mary also died on 11 July 1759.
A few years later, on 22 December 1761, Philadelphia gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, but later called Eliza, who named for Warren Hastings’ dead daughter. In addition, Hastings was named Eliza’s godfather. However, at the time of her birth there were scandalous rumors that she was Hastings’ child and not Hancock’s, and although Philadelphia and Hastings never admitted or declared that Eliza was his, the rumor continued throughout her lifetime.
Hastings had made a fortune while residing India, and so he resigned in December 1764 and sailed for Britain. On the same ship, also returning with a fortune was Hancock and his family. The ship docked in London in the summer of 1765 and both Hastings and Hancock quickly found fashionable accommodations. Both men also began spending freely. In fact, both men spent their fortunes in a few short years and found they needed to return to India.
Hancock arrived in India first around September 1769. Hastings left England around March and while heading back to India, he met a German Baron named Adam Carl von Imhoff and his common-law wife, Anna Marie Apollonia Chapuset. Von Imhoff was a miniaturist and portrait painter who had moved to England because he could earn more for his artwork in London than in Germany. Unfortunately, despite earning more money in London the cost of living was also higher and von Imhoff found he was unable to afford to live there. He then sought new opportunities and was lucky enough to obtain a position as a cadet in the army of the EIC.
When Warren Hastings met the Baron and Chapuset, he was immediately intrigued. Hancock also met her and described her as “twenty-six years old, with a good figure and the remains of beauty … sensible, lively, and needing only to be a great mistress of the English language to prove that she has a great share of wit.” Before the ship docked in Madras Hastings and Chapuset had begun an affair, supposedly with von Imhoff’s consent and later Hastings would marry her.
While at Madras, Hastings initiated trading practice reforms that benefited both the EIC and Indian workers. He also held great respect for Indian culture, loved all things Indian, and at one point famously declared, “in truth I love India a little more than my own country.” Indicative of this is that he embraced the ancient Hindu scriptures and took a keen interest in the Bhagavad Gita, which he translated with it first appearing in English in 1785.
Hastings also shared Clive’s views that the three major British Presidencies – Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta – should be governed by single rather than separate rule, which was also the feeling back in Britain. As Hastings had been appointed governor of Calcutta and because it was the most important of the Presidencies, it was decided that he should fill the position of Governor General. Hastings quickly took the role. He launched a crackdown on bandits operating in Bengal, which proved largely successful, and he also dealt with the Bengal Famine that resulted in about ten million deaths.
The EIC also established the Supreme Council of Bengal. It consisted of five members, including the Governor General and was the highest executive authority under the EIC and subordinate only to EIC’s court of directors and the British Crown. After being appointed Governor General Hastings found that three of the council members – Sir Philip Francis (an Irish-born British politician), John Clavering (an English army officer and diplomat), and a Baron Monson, who came from a family of politicians – were constantly at odds with him, probably due to personal petty motives.
One contentious issue that brought the three men together against Hastings was a maharaja named Nandakumar. He had been appointed by the EIC to be a tax collector in what is now West Bengal. In 1773, he accused Hastings of bribing him with more than one-third of a million rupees and claimed that he had proof against Hastings in the form of a letter. His allegations against Hastings were then entertained by Francis, Clavering and Monson and they began to accuse Hastings of corruption.
Hastings had the ultimate decision and could overrule any decision made by the Council. Therefore, in 1775 he brought charges of fraud against Nandakumar. Elijah Impey, who had arrived with his wife in India and commissioned Mughal-trained artists to paint birds and animals housed in his menagerie, tried Nandakumar. As Impey was also a friend to Hastings, some people suspicious when Impey found Nandakumar guilty and ordered him executed on 5 August 1775.
Monson died in 1776 and Clavering passed away in 1777, which allowed Warren Hastings to reign supreme in the council as Francis no longer had a majority. However, Francis remained embittered towards Hasting. Everything came to head when Hastings stated in council meeting minutes what is considered by some people to be the worst indictment brought by any man against another:
“I judge of his [Sir Francis] public conducted by my experience of his private, which I have found void of truth and honour. This is a severe charge, but temperately and deliberately made, from the firm persuasion that I owe this justice to the public and to myself.”
When Francis read the minutes, the message was clear. Warren Hastings was referring to a scandalous affair Francis had with a married woman named Catherine Noël Grand.** Francis had no choice but to issue a challenge with the date of the confrontation fixed for 17 August 1780. The two men and their seconds, Colonel Pearse for Hastings and Colonel Watson for Francis, met at 5.30am and chose a proper place to duel.
The dueling spot selected was a deserted street that later became known as Duel Avenue or Duel Street. Neither Hastings nor Francis had hardly ever used a gun, neither men were marksmen, and in fact, they were unaware of the dueling rules. Fortunately, the seconds where there and Pearse was later able to provide the following details of what happened:
“I proceeded to load Mr. Hastings’s pistols; those of Mr. Francis were already loaded … I took the liberty to tell them, that if they would fix their distance, it was the business of the seconds to measure it. Lieut.-Col. Watson immediately said that Fox and Adams had taken 14 paces, and he recommended that distance. Mr. Hastings observed it was a great distance for pistols … When the gentlemen had got to their ground Mr. Hastings asked Mr. Francis, if he stood before the line or behind it; and being told behind the mark, he said he would do the same, and immediately took his stand. I then told them that it was a rule that neither of them were to quit their ground until they had discharged their pistols; and Col. Watson proposed that both should fire together, without taking any advantage. … These preliminaries were all agreed to, and both parties presented; but Mr. Francis raised his hand, and again came down … he did so a second time; … [a] third time … but his powder being damp, the pistol did not fire. Mr. Hasting came down … to give Mr. Francis time to rectify his priming … Again the gentlemen took their stands; both presented together, and Mr. Francis fired; Mr. Hastings did the same … his shot took place; Mr. Francis staggered; and, in attempting to sit down, he fell, and said, he was a dead man. Mr. Hastings hearing this cried out, ‘Good God, I hope not.’ and immediately went up to him … but I ran to call the servants, and to order a sheet to be brought to bind up the wound.”
Although Francis was severely wounded, it was not fatal. The “ball had struck just behind the bend of the right ribs, and passed between the flesh and the bone to the opposite side, from whence it had been extracted.” He recovered completely and soon after left India and arrived in England in October of 1781, where he was received with “little favor.”
Warren Hastings resigned about four years later and returned to England where he soon impeached for the death of Nandakumar. Hastings was surprised at the charges because he thought everything had been settled with Nandakumar’s death. However, because Nandakumar was the first victim hanged in India under British rule, it brought notice and because Francis still had an axe to grind with Hastings, he encouraged the Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, to do something, and, thus Hastings and Impey were claimed to have committed judicial murder of Nandakumar.
The House of Commons then impeached Hastings and Impey for crimes and misdemeanors alleged to have been committed during their tenure in India. The charges took Burke two full days to read. In fact, the house sat for a total of 148 days and the case against the two men dragged on for seven long years.
The charges against Hastings made for a high-profile case and what happened was regularly reported by the press and read by a curious public. Some people sided with Hastings and this included the Austen family, Hancock’s widow Philadelphia, and Hastings’ goddaughter, now known as Eliza de Feuillide. In fact, Eliza and Philadelphia attended the trial and took Eliza’s cousin, Phylly, with them. She wrote to her brother and stated of the trial:
“I have once been to the Trial, which, because an uncommon sight, we fancied worth going to, and sat from 10 till 4 o’clock, compleatly tired, but I had the satisfaction of hearing all the celebrated orators, viz. Sheridan, Burke & Fox. The first was so low we cd. not hear him, the 2nd so hot and hasty, we cd. not understand, & the 3rd was highly superior to either as we cd. distinguish every word, but not to our satisfaction as he is so much against Mr. Hastings whom we all here wish so well.”
Ultimately, Warren Hastings was acquitted in April 1795 and Impey was also cleared and it was stated that he had conducted the trial with fairness and impartiality. Francis was disappointed in the result as he had hoped to best his opponent. However, Francis may have had some satisfaction because during the trial Hastings complained bitterly about the financial costs associated with fighting the accusations even if he did live in considerable luxury at his town house, Somerset House, in Park Lane.
Hastings had made a lot of money in India. One historian, Nicholas Ennos, declares that he made his money by “acting ruthless.” Ennos declares that it is amazing that Hastings has been depicted and portrayed as good and “kindly man” when he rose to the top of the EIC, a company that he declares operated like the mafia and embraced business practices that were corrupt. Ennos also points out that Hastings made his money by selling things like opium and that the source of his wealth came from him restoring a deposed Nawab to the throne while he was a member of the Supreme Council. In return the Nawab gave Hastings the majority of his property in Alipore, something that was considered to be a corrupt practice at the time.
In 1788, Hastings was also able to purchase Daylesford estate, a holding that Hastings’ ancestors had first acquired in the twelfth century, lost it in the fourteenth century, and regained in the fifteenth century only to have his grandfather sell it in 1714 to a merchant. Hastings had long wanted it back and offered the merchant twice its value but was turned down. Success came when he tried again and acquired it from the merchant’s son for a reported £54,000. In addition, after becoming the Daylesford lord, Hastings was reported to have done right by those residing there:
“He became an earthly providence to every man, woman, and child on the estate. In the severe weather at the beginning of 1795, he gave orders for the daily distribution of bread, to the value of 6d. a-week per head of the poor inhabitants, but his later endeavours were directed rather to the inculcation of self-support. Mrs. Hastings taught the village girls sewing and straw-plaiting, and he chose out some of the boys to be sent to Joseph Lancaster’s school for industrial education.”
Warren Hastings also remodeled the Daylesford House according to the designs of Samuel Pepys Cockerell, who had been an architect for the EIC. Nonetheless, the ashlar limestone building only has an India dome and a fireplace showing a Hindu sacrifice. The gardens were landscaped by John Davenport, who also created a lake with an orangery completed in 1790. Hastings also had the Norman church rebuilt in 1816 and it was there two years later that he was laid to rest after dying at Daylesford House on 22 August 1818 at the age of eight-five.
*In 1761, George Hastings was committed to the charge of Jane Austen’s parents, George and Cassandra. The boy died of putrid sore throat in 1764 and Hastings did not learn of his death till landing in England in 1765.
**Catherine was mistress and later wife to the French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who served under Louis XVI, Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis XVIII, and Louis-Philippe.
-  Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine v. 175 (London: William Blackwood, 1904), p. 504.
-  W. Dalrymple, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-century India (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 32.
-  W. Hastings and S. C. Grier, The Letters of Warren Hastings to His Wife (London: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1905), p. 46.
-  The Naval and Military Magazine v. 2 (London: T. Clerc Smith, 1827), p. 390–91.
-  Ibid., p. 391.
-  D. Le Faye, Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide (London: The British Library, 2002), p. 84.
-  W. Hastings, and S. C. Grier. 1905, p. 12.