The East India Company and public opinion

The East India Company's activities, particularly the behaviour of the Company’s servants, roused much public indignation in England.

Nabobs

There were many sources of public and parliamentary outrage. The Company servants who had become fantastically wealthy through corrupt trade and other practices, became known as nabobs. 

It was feared that these individuals, their agents and those who took their bribes, would corrupt Parliament by forming an unbeatable East Indian interest there.

Corruption and brutality

There was also despair at the bad administration of the Company's affairs, both in Britain and in India – especially in 1772 when the Company's finances collapsed. Lord North's Regulating Act of 1773 was a response to this concern.

In addition there was anger at the often brutal and corrupt behaviour of some of the  Company’s officials.

Attacks in Parliament

Robert Clive, the victor of Plassey, and MP for Shrewsbury from 1761, had to defend himself vigorously for three successive days in the Commons in May 1773 against the attacks levelled against him by General John Burgoyne, MP for Preston, who was the chairman of a committee examining his administration in India.  

Edmund Burke (MP for Malton) became the most outspoken critic in Parliament against Company abuse and immorality in India and led a campaign to impeach the former Governor-General Warren Hastings (1773-85) on grounds of misrule and corruption.

Impeachment

Hastings was charged with high crimes and misdemeanors and was impeached in 1787. His trial - the longest impeachment proceedings in Parliament's history - began in Westminster Hall in 1788.

Burke was unrestrained in his denunciations, and violently accused Hastings of being the "captain-general of iniquity", a "spider of Hell" and a "ravenous vulture devouring the carcases of the dead".

Yet despite the passion and forcefulness of Burke's moral outrage, Hastings was acquitted of all charges in April 1795 after his seven-year trial.

Public interest and concern

Both the Clive inquiry and the Hastings impeachment stirred up widespread popular interest and excitement and showed that under the influence of the Evangelical movement there was a growing public feeling that there should be a moral foundation to British rule in the growing Indian empire.

Related information

Did you know?

The English term nabob comes from the Indian word nawab The nawabs were Indian rulers in provinces such as Bengal, and it seemed to people in England that some Company servants were becoming as rich and powerful as these local rulers.