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Captain's Log Entry 4: Crisis

Posted May 23rd, 2017 at 01:29 AM by Junius

As I mentioned in my last post, by 1761, Britain was easily the foremost European power in India. While the Treaty of Paris returned France's Indian possessions to her, she was not allowed to rebuild the fortifications in Pondicherry and Chandranagar destroyed by the British. The French were forced to give up the game for the time being.

On the other side of the English Channel, Britain was also reeling from the effects of the Seven Year's War. Annual expenditure had more than doubled in order to finance the war across its various theatres, and the quandary of every British ministry of the decade, from Lord Grenville's to Pitt's to Lord North's, was how to restore Britain's solvency. It is important to note that Britain did not establish an income tax until the next century, so virtually all this money had to be collected from tariffs and other indirect taxes.

The British felt completely justified in forcing their North American colonies to pay for a war that was partly fought to defend them, while the colonists famously countered this argument by protesting their lack of parliamentary representation. "No taxation without representation" proved to be an effective rallying cry, and the Ministry often suffered humiliating defeats on this issue.

The Company proved to be another thorn in the government's side. Implementing a single policy program in India proved all but impossible to manage from London, and there was a growing consensus that the government should relieve the Company of its Indian territories, although Lord North preferred to compel it to adhere to a broad governmental framework rather than directly manage its affairs. Mired in factional struggles, the Company nevertheless managed to increase the dividend rate from 8% per annum to 12.5%, a ludicrous move for a company which was undergoing a slump in net profits. Moreover, in return for guaranteeing its rights as a chartered body, the Company had to make an annual payment of 400,000 pounds to the government, money which in many years was simply nonexistent. In 1773, the Company thus lobbied Lord North's Ministry for a 1.5 million pound loan, bringing both the Indian and the American crises to a head.

North's stop-gap political and financial measure was the Regulating Act of 1773. It established a Supreme Council of five men in Calcutta, with the foremost among them holding the rank of Governor-General and a tiebreaking vote on the Council. This Council was to administer the entirety of the Company's Indian possessions. It also established a Supreme Court to administer justice to these holdings. The Company was granted both the loan it desired and the opportunity to recoup some of the exorbitant duties on Chinese tea by re-exporting it to America, thus lowering the price of the tea to such levels that it appeared to be untaxed.

It was fortunate that the Regulating Act was but a temporary solution, for it was imaginative but hastily thought out and implemented. For example, the Supreme Court did not have a clearly defined legal code to base their judgments on. While many at home would have argued vigorously for British Law to hold sway over British domains, men like Warren Hastings (who was to be Governor-General) held that the people of India could only be governed by their own laws. Hindu Law was even older than Roman Law (from which the British derive much of their legal system), and the former occasionally prescribed diametrically opposite treatments of the same action. Under Hindu Law, Brahmins (priests) could not be put to death under any circumstances, while British Law punished common theft with death. If such a case seems unnecessary hypothetical to the reader, an extremely controversial one was to appear rapidly with Nandkumar, an Indian courtier critical of Hastings who was found guilty of fraud.

Next came the issue of taxed tea. Understandably, the Americans opposed British taxes on principle- North's sidestepping of the issue did him no favor. By the end of the year, the tea chests had arrived outside Boston Harbor, only to be thrown overboard by colonists in what came to be known as the Boston Tea Party. The two sides were racing rapidly toward violence, even if it remained unlikely at this point.

Finally, we come to perhaps the most important consequence of the Regulating Act- the Supreme Council. Although the idea was sound, North's choice of Councillors could not have lead to more trouble. Two of the five councilors, Warren Hastings and Richard Barwell, were Company appointees, and Hastings was also appointed Governor-General of India. However, the Crown still controlled a majority of seats, and these nominees- George Monson, John Clavering, and Philip Francis- were determined to interfere with Hastings' administration before they had even set off for India (due in no small part to Clive's disparaging the man to Francis and his companions just before committing suicide).

Hastings and Francis in particular were scorpions trapped in a bottle, with Francis bent on replacing Hastings as Governor-General and the latter determined to somehow see off his challenger. Clavering, as commander-in-chief of the Army, also fancied himself as Hastings' successor. This internecine struggle for power took place in the midst of the most determined armed opposition ever faced by the British in their rule over large tracts of the Indian subcontinent.

Hastings, like a true Company man, objected to expansionism on the grounds of expense, although he also felt that Indians should be governed according to their own traditions and customs. To this end, he developed the ring fence policy, which secured Bengal's borders by securing those of its neighbors, with the recipients of British largesse also paying the cost of its upkeep. However, this view did not extend to the factors of Madras and Bombay, both of which looked with envy at the riches enjoyed by their counterparts in Bengal. As disastrous as this threatened to be on its own, the folly of the factors' aggression was heightened by their contradictory foreign policy requirements.

The Maratha Confederacy, a disparate union of kingdoms hailing from the steep slopes of the Western Ghats, lay in the hinterland of the Konkan Coast, where Bombay was situated. Thus, in order to counter the Marathas, Bombay desired alliances with Haider Ali of Mysore (in southwest India) and the Nizam of Hyderabad (in central India). However, both of these kingdoms were adjacent to Company territory in the Carnatic, and were MADRAS' next target for expansion. Thus, the Madras factors desired an alliance with the Marathas to counter the Nizam and Haider Ali, an arrangement diametrically opposite to Bombay's.

However, in a bizarre display of incompetence, the British managed to unite all three of its rivals against them. The Bombay government actually supported Raghunath Rao (known to the British as Raghoba), a pretender to the Maratha throne, and sent troops to the province of Gujarat, which lay a few hundred miles to the north, to support him. The Treaty of Surat solidified this alliance, earning the British the island of Salsette and the Fort of Bassein, both of which lay in the immediate vicinity of Bombay. The entire purpose of the Regulating Act was defeated in one fell swoop.

Understandably, the Supreme Council was livid, showing rare unanimity in condemning the actions of the Bombay Councillors. However, even here, Hastings and Francis were at odds. While Hastings was furious with the Councillors, he was equally furious with Francis for his eagerness to cede the advantage gained by the Bombay Army under a Lieutenant Colonel Keating. To this effect, the Council countermanded the Bombay Army's initiative and ordered a 6,000 strong force marched across the Indian subcontinent from Bengal to Bombay, an unprecedented display of the Company's territorial unity- that the 3 Presidencies were one unit.

Although the Bombay Army was utterly humiliated at Wargaum after a futile march on the Maratha capital, Poona, the reinforcements from Bengal under Colonel Goddard managed to salvage the situation. The war settled into an even struggle until a catastrophe in Madras served to tip the scales.\

The Nawab of the Carnatic and Haider Ali were implacable enemies. The Nawab was contemptuous toward the man he regarded as an upstart, while the latter returned the enmity because of his submission to the British. When war was ultimately declared, Haider marched swiftly toward Madras. He was intercepted at Polilur by two separate British forces (one having marched down the coast from Bengal a la Goddard) and destroyed one while the other watched, such were the issues the British had with transportation, which was heavily dependent on bullocks. The Nizam of Hyderabad, upset by the habitual arrogance the British treated him with, declared for Haider and the Marathas, thus bringing about the very alliance Hastings strived to prevent. He was dismayed by the selfishness displayed by the Madras Council, which wrecked his carefully laid plans. The situation was worsened by the arrival of a French army at Cuddalore, accompanied by a naval squadron under Admiral Suffren. This was surely the darkest hour of the British in India, the later Afghan wars and 1857 mutiny notwithstanding. Suffren managed to defeat the British squadron and briefly had the run of the Carnatic, foraying as far north as the mouth of the Hughli River.

Hastings decided to prioritize the Maratha War while holding Madras at all costs. Through careful diplomacy, he won over the Nizam back to his camp and ensured that Bengal would remain calm, freeing up troops for service in the other theaters. Meanwhile, more Bengal troops were sent overland to reinforce the Bombay Army. A small 2,000 man force, with no guns but with plenty of rope, scaled the massive walls of Gwalior, a fort that was ideally situated to control trading routes between North India and the Peninsula. Additionally, Gwalior was the stronghold of Mahadji Scindia, hitherto one of the most fervently anti-British of the Maratha leaders.

This was the opportunity Hastings had been waiting for. Dangling Gwalior over the head of Scindia, the Governor-General managed to convince the latter to push vigorously for peace. The resulting effort culminated in the Treaty of Salbai. Hastings had loudly claimed to his allies that he wanted nothing more from the Marathas than Salsette and an alliance against Mysore, and this was all that he would get. Although he would later face fierce criticism for surrendering acquisitions like Gwalior or various settlements in Gujarat province, Hastings bought himself crucial time against the Marathas and won over Scindia to his camp. It also showed that British India was one cohesive unit, and that Bengal could negotiate for its subordinate Presidencies and balance their interests.

If Salbai was a climbdown, the Treaty of Mangalore with Tipu Sultan was a veritable climbdown. Concluded by negotiators from the Bombay Presidency just after the dead Haider's son captured Mangalore, the Treaty conceded virtually all of Tipu's demands, and left the exchange of prisoners unresolved. Besides betraying the scores of British prisoners captured by the rampaging Mysoreans, it completely flouted the Governor-General's authority in Bengal. Once again, Hastings and the Supreme Council (although Francis had left earlier to try and settle scores in England) were united in their efforts to rescind the Treaty, and once again the Directors in London overruled Bengal, despite the extremely unfavorable terms.

The Treaty of Paris, which restored the status quo in India, was signed the year before the Treaty of Mangalore, restoring peace to the subcontinent. Hastings had proved himself as much of a hero of the British Empire as Clive, Wolfe, the Wellesley brothers, or Napier, even though his tenure lacked the breakneck territorial expansionism of the others'. He successfully defended the Empire during its darkest hour (at least before 1940) during a time when Britain lost a large part of the other half of its fledgling empire. Had he failed in his duty, the British Empire would have been reduced to Canada, isolated islands in the Caribbean Sea, and a few isolated trading outposts in Asia and Africa, making it quite impossible for the sun to never set on the British Empire.
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