« PreviousContinue »
davits or unwrappings of finance accounts. In a letter to Lord North, dated 27th March 1775, while the charges were still fresh, Hastings elaborately inveighs against the mischief of the course taken by Clavering, Monson, and Francis, and reasons most ingeniously on the irrelevancy of the questions raised by them to the ultimate interests of the State. He assigns, moreover, many plausible grounds for assuming the improbability of much that they alleged against him; but there is not from beginning to end the simple assertion on the word of a gentleman that the allegations with regard to taking bribes were false, or any statement that can be stretched into a denial. Lord North was the Minister who had made him Vice-King of Hindustan. There was not living the man with whom it was so important for him to stand well. He was little likely to hesitate about any amount of varnish or colouring of facts, if that would have done ; yet, writing confidentially on the spur of the moment, he does not venture on one manly or straightforward expression of denial, such as honest men wrongfully impugned are wont to utter. But this is not all. We have the damning fact that when impeachment at home was subsequently impending, Hastings thought it prudent to lodge in the treasury of Calcutta £200,000, which he could only account for as having been from time to time received by him in his public capacity, and having been inadvertently omitted until then to be placed to the credit of the State.
At the head of his accusers stood Nuncomar. His pride as the ablest man of his race had been wounded by Hastings, his ambition as a skilful financier and diplomatist had been baffled by him, his self-love as the wiliest of intriguers had been stung; for he had been outwitted partly by the craft of Hastings, when Resident at Moorshedabad, in the affair of Mahomed Reza Khan. He had waited for revenge, and the opportunity at last had come. Between these two men there existed that antagonism, intense, profound, and inextinguishable, of which perfect sympathy alone is capable. They had looked into each other's soul, and recognised in each the image of himself reflected there. Of all his race none probably but Nuncomar knew all Hastings had done ; for none but he had the same purpose to gain in watching the windings of his dark and devious course, or possessed the means of obtaining so much information with respect to all his secret doings. On the other hand, there was no Englishman in India who had motives so strong as the Viceroy for observing closely and scrutinising thoroughly the acts and aims of the subtle and specious Hindu. Their resemblance morally and intellectually was complete. Fairspoken, impassive, fearless, and unfathomable, they were alike insensible to the sufferings of others, and devoted to self-worship. Insatiable of money, yet munificent in its outlay ; admired by those who came not too close to them, and distrusted most by those who knew them best; gentle in prosperity and superbly self-possessed in danger ; unwearied in business, inexhaustible in resources, imperturbable alike in the gloom of adversity and the glare of triumph, at the bar of judgment and in the face of death.
Nuncomar placed in the hands of Francis a petition to be heard in person by the Council, before whom he undertook to prove that Hastings had sold appointments to office for large sums of money, and that Mahomed Reza Khan had been exonerated from vast peculations for a bribe of unusual magnitude. The Governor-General refused with contempt to be confronted with his accuser, and denied the right of his colleagues to constitute themselves his judges. They might, if they would, refer the question home, but he
would not lower the dignity of his office by sitting there to have his word weighed in the balance against that of a corrupt and mendacious Brahmin. The majority resolved notwithstanding to proceed with the investigation of the charge. Hastings with Barwell thereupon withdrew, and Nuncomar was called in. He had long sat patiently by the well of vengeance, and at length had found wherewith to draw. Hastings was informed by his colleagues of all that was sworn against him. More than one of the English servants of the Company came forward to sustain the charges. The accused inflexibly refused to answer; and the Council, in his absence, recorded their conviction of his guilt. Nuncomar's revelations were declared by them to have shed “a clear light upon the Governor-General's conduct, and the means he had taken of making the large fortune he was said to possess—upwards of forty lacs of rupees—which he must have amassed in the course of three years.
Driven to bay, Hastings clutched at a weapon which lay at his feet, but which no one else had thought of using. The newly-created Supreme Court set up by Parliament to administer English law in English fashion among the people of Bengal, had been given unlimited jurisdiction, and the power of life and death. The Judges had sided with him throughout the schism which had brought society in Calcutta to the verge of anarchy, and the Chief-Justice was his confidant and friend. Suddenly an indictment for the forgery of a bond six years before was preferred in the name of an obscure native, as was generally understood, at the instance of Hastings, and under a warrant of the court Nuncomar was thrown into prison. Indignant reclamations were made by the triumvirate, and they ordered the prisoner's release ; but
e the troops obeyed the commands of Hastings, and no sense
Minute of Council, 11th April 1775.
of decorum or of generosity restrained him. The arraignment was indeed a hideous mockery. Technically and substantially the indictment could not have been sustained had an appeal lain to Westminster. The statute of 1773, which was said to give jurisdiction in the case, could not have had a retrospective effect; and it was not promulgated or even passed until after the alleged crime had been committed ; for the crime itself had been made capital even in England only by a modern Act, and in no part of Asia had such a law been ever known. Time out of mind, the falsification
. of a private contract had been regarded, as it was in this country before Walpole's time, as a grave misdemeanour and no more. Nuncomar may or may not have been guilty of the offence; but if anything is certain, it is that he was innocent of breaking the law under which he was accused of a capital crime. The claim to take away life for the breach of an English criminal statute had indeed been made before. In February 1765, one Radachurn Mittre was indicted for forgery at the General Quarter-Sessions of the town of Calcutta, convicted and sentenced to be hanged. The Bench of Justices having subsequently made a proclamation that English laws were to be extended to the natives, the latter issued a protest against this in a petition to the President and Council.' The petitioners set forth the general “ consternation, astonishment, and even panic with which the natives in all parts under the dominion of the English were seized by the example of Radachurn Mittre. They found themselves subject to the pains and penalties of laws to which they were utter strangers, and were liable through ignorance unwittingly to incur them. As they were in no way instructed in those laws, they could not tell when they transgressed them, many things it seemed being capital by English laws which were
Long's Records, vol. i. p. 67.
only fineable by the laws of the petitioners' forefathers, subject to which they had hitherto been bred, lived, and been governed, and that (till very lately) even under the English flag.” The petition concluded with a prayer for a “ rehearsal, or respite of execution till an appeal had been made to the King of Great Britain, and further, that the English law might be translated into the Bengalee tongue.” Mr Verelst in council approved the petition, and characterised the proceedings of the Justices as an unjustifiable in itself, and in its nature and consequences cruel and oppressive." Hastings and Impey could not have been ignorant of these circumstances, though, strange to say, they have been overlooked by one who, in our own time, filled the office of legal member of the Supreme Council, and to whom was specially confided the task of framing a criminal code. A jury, on which there was not a single native, found that the fact of the false signature was proved ; and the Chief-Justice condemned Nuncomar to die. Clavering, Monson, and Francis remonstrated against the execution of the sentence, and earnestly demanded a respite until the pleasure of the Crown could be known. But they expostulated in vain, and in presence of a multitude such as never before had been gathered together within range of the
guns of Fort William, the aged chief of the Brahmins was put to death. A wail of horror rose as the drop fell, and the echoes of that cry did not cease until, long years after, in Westminster Hall, Burke denounced Hastings for having “murdered Nuncomar by the hands of Sir Elijah Impey."
* Long's Records, vol. i.
? Lord Macaulay, in his Essay on Warren Hastings, has fallen into error in asserting that no attempt had been made to enforce the law of forgery among the natives of the East. In Long's “Unpublished Records,” there is a succinct account of the case above cited.
3 5th August 1776. 4 Speech of Mr Burke on sixth count of the impeachment, 25th April 1789.