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OF MR. BURKE ON THE NABOB OF ARCOT'S DEBTS, DELIVERED IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS,
FEBRUARY 28, 1785.
INTRODUCTION. TAE design of this speech was to convict Mr. Pitt of a scandalous abuse of power. It charges him with allowing the claims of a set of unprincipled speculators in India to the amount of four millions of pounds, in direct defiance of an act of Parliament drawn up by Mr. Pitt himself.
Men of all parties had agreed that these claims were of a highly suspicious character, and ought never to be paid until they were severely scrutinized. Mr. Pitt, in his East India Bill, had therefore provided, that “whereas large sums of money are claimed to be due to British subjects by the Nabob of Arcot, the Court of Directors, as soon as may be, shall take into consideration the origin and justice of these demands." And yet, one of the first acts of the Board of Control created by that bill, was to take the whole matter out of the hands of the Directors just as they had commenced the investigation! This was done by Mr. Henry Dundas, President of the Board of Control, and it is, therefore, against him more immediately that the force of this speech is directed, though Mr. Pitt, as prime minister, was justly held responsible. A mandate was issued for paying all these claims without farther inquiry, and the Directors of the East India Company, notwithstanding their most earnest remonstrances, were compelled to sign an order for disbursing what proved to be nearly five millions of pounds sterling (interest included) on account of these debts.-Mill's British India, v., 26.
A few words only will be necessary to explain their origin. Mohammed Ali, Nabob of the Carnatic, or, as he was more commonly called, Nabob of Arcot, from the town where he held his court, was a man of weak judgment but strong passions, who was established in his dominions, to the prejudice of an elder brother, by the policy and arms of the Presidency of Madras. At an early period, he fell under the influence of Paul Benfield and a few other English residents, who played upon his passions, encouraged his schemes of conquest, and ruled him with absolute authority. They no doubt lent him money to some extent; but, as their means were limited, the amount could not have been very great. Every thing which they did lend, however, was put upon extravagant interest; and when he failed to pay, the amount was sometimes doubled or tripled in taking new securities. There is also reason to believe, that, in order to obtain their favor, he gave them acknowledgments of debts to an immense amount, which were understood by both parties to be purely fictitious. Thus, from time to time, enormous soms were put upou interest, at the rate of twenty or thirty per cent. a year, until the annual proceeds of the debts thus accumulated were equal, as Mr. Burke remarks, to “the revenue of a respectable kingdom." The Directors of the Company, in the mean time, bad no knowledge of these proceedings, which were studiously concealed from all but the immediate agents in this system of usury and peculation. The Nabob at last became wbolly unable to protect the dominions over which he had been placed, and the Company were compelled, in self-defense, and for the accomplishment of their designs, to take the military operations of the country into their own hands. In doing this, they received from the Nabob an assigoment of his revenues, for the purpose of defraying the expense. But it now came out that these very revenues, to a great extent, had been previously assigned to Benfield and his friends, to secure the interest on their claims. Hence it was important for the Company to inquire how far these claims had any real foundation. Under Mr. Pitt's East India Bill, this inquiry became equally important to the whole British nation, because the civil and military concerns of India had now passed into the hands of the government at home. Whatever allowance was made to Benfield and his associates on the score of these debts, was so much money deducted from the resources provided for the government of India. Any deficit that occorred was of course to be supplied out of the general treasury of the empire; and the question was, therefore, truly stated by Mr. Burke to be this, “Whether the Board of Control could transfer the public revenue to the private emolument of certain servants of the East India Company, without the inquiry into the origin and justice of their claims, prescribed by an act of Parliament."
Mr. Fox brought the subject before the House in a call for papers, supported by a powerful speech, on the evening of the 28th of February, 1785. Mr. Dundas replied at great length, and was followed by Sir Thomas Rumbold, formerly President of Madras, who condemned the decision of the Board in brief but energetic terms. It was now late, and the cry of “Question !" "Question!" was heard from every quarter. At this moment Mr. Burke rose and commenced the speech before us, which lasted fire hours! Never did a man speak under such adverse circumstances. The House was completely wearied out by the preceding discussion; and the majority, besides being prejudiced against Mr. Burke on other grounds, were so vexed at the unfortunate timing and length of his speech, that the more he dilated on the subject, the more firmly they were resolved to vote him down. In fact, no one that night seems to have had any conception of the real character of the speech which was delivered in their hearing. Lord Grenville was asked by Mr. Pitt, toward the close, whether it was best to reply, and instantly said, “No! not the slightest impression has been made. The speech may with perfect safety be passed uver in silence." And yet, if Lord Grenville had been called upon, at a subsequent period of his life, to name the most remarkable speech in our language for its triumph over the difficulties of the subject, for the union of brilliancy and force, of comprehensive survey and minute detail, of vivid description and impassioned eloquence, he would at once, probably, have mentioned the speech on the Nabob of Arcot's debts. It does not, however, contain as much fine philosophy, or profound remark, as some of Mr. Burke's earlier speeches. Nor is it faultless in style, though it is generally distinguished by an elastic energy of expression admirably suited to the subject. Still, there are passages which mark a transition into greater profluence of imagery on the one hand, and greater coarseness of language on the other, arising from the excited state of Mr. Burke's mind. Never had his feelings been so completely roused. In none of his speeches do we find so much of cutting sarcasm. In pone, except that against Warren Hastings, has he poured out his whole soul in such fervid declamation. His description of Hyder Ali, sweeping over the Carnatic with fire and sword, is the most eloquent passage which he ever produced. Lord Brougham has pronounced this speech “by far the first of all Mr. Burke's orations."
SPEECH, &c. The times we live in, Mr. Speaker, have been that our concerns in India were matters of deli. distinguished by extraordinary events. Habitu- cacy; that to divulge any thing relative to them ated, however, as we are, to uncommon combina- would be mischievous to the state. He did not tions of men and of affairs, I believe nobody rec- tell us that those who would inquire into his ollects any thing more surprising than the spec- proceedings were disposed to dismember the tacle of this day. The right honorable gentle- empire. He had not the presumption to say man (Mr. Dundas), whose conduct is now in ques- that, for his part, having obtained, in his Indian tion, formerly stood forth in this House the pros- presidency, the ultimate object of his ambition, ecutor of the worthy baronet (Sir Thomas Rum- his honor was concerned in executing with integbold] who spoke after him. He charged him rity the trust which had been legally committed with several grievous acts of malversation in to his charge; that others, not having been so foroffice; with abuses of a public trust of a great tunate, could not be so disinterested, and therefore and heinous nature. In less than two years we their accusations could spring from no other source see the situation of parties reversed, and a singu- than faction, and envy to his fortune. lar revolution puts the worthy baronet in a fair Had he been frontless enough to hold such way of returning the prosecution in a recrimina- vain, vaporing language, in the face of a grave, tory bill of pains and penalties, grounded on a a detailed, a specified matter of accusation, while breach of public trust, relative to the govern- he violently resisted every thing which could bring ment of the very same part of India. If he the merits of his cause to the test; had he been should undertake a bill of that kind, he will find wild enough to anticipate the absurdities of this no difficulty in conducting it with a degree of day; that is, had he inferred, as his late accuser skill and vigor fully equal to all that have been has thought proper to do, that he could not have exerted against him.'
been guilty of malversation in office, for this sole But the change of relation between these two and curious reason, that he had been in office; gentlemen is not so striking as the total differ- had he argued the impossibility of his abusing ence of their deportment under the same unhap- his power on this sole principle, that he had py circumstances. Whatever the merits of the power to abuse, he would have left but one imworthy baronet's defense might have been, he did pression on the mind of every man who beard not shrink from the charge. He met it with man- him, and who believed him in his senses—that, liness of spirit and decency of behavior. What in the utmost extent, he was guilty of the charge. would have been thought of him if he had held the present language of his old accuser ? When
? This is the best of Mr. Burke's exordiums; it articles were exhibited against him by that right would be difficult, indeed, to find a better in any orahonorable gentleman, he did not think proper to tion, ancient or modern, except that of Demosthenes tell the House that we ought to institute no in- debate, and bas therefore all the freshness and inter.
for the Crown. It springs directly out of a turn in the quiry, to inspect no paper, to examine no wit
est belonging to a real transaction which bas just ta. He did not tell us (what at that time he ken place before the audience. It turns upon a strikmight have told us with some show of reason) ing circumstance, the sudden and remarkable change
in the relative position of the two parties ; and puts 1 It requires a minute knowledge of the times to Mr. Dundas in the wrong from the very outset. Be. understand this reference. Mr. Dundas, in 1782, had fore a syllable is said touching the merits of the case, brought in a bill of pains and penalties against Sir it presents him in the worst possible attitude that Thomas Rumbold for bigh crimes and misdemeanors of shuffling and evading, instead of "meeting the as Governor of Madras; but he managed it so badly, charge," like his old antagonist," with manliness of that he was at last compelled to give it up in disgrace. spirit and decency of behavior." There is great idHence Mr. Burke's reference to his "skill and energenuity in selecting the various points of contrast gy" was a cutting sarcasm which Mr. Dandas could between the deportment of Mr. Dundas and of Sir not but feel most keenly.
Thomas Rambold in the two cases. The attack is
But, sir, leaving these two gentlemen to altern- the law? This can not be supposed even of an ate, as criminal and accuser, upon what princi- act of Parliament conceived by the ministers ples they think expedient, it is for us to consider themselves, and brought forth during the deliriwhether the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. um of the last session.3 Pitt) and the Treasurer of the Navy (Mr. Dundas), II. My honorable friend (Mr. Fox] has told acting as a Board of Control, are justified, by law you in the speech which introduced Subject-Debts or policy, in suspending the legal arrangements his motion, that, fortunately, this of the Nabel of made by the court of Directors, in order to trans- question is not a great deal involv- volved in any pe. fer the public revenues to the private emolument ed in the labyrinths of Indian detail. of certain servants of the East India Company, Certainly not; but if it were, I beg leave to aswithout the inquiry into the origin and justice sure you that there is nothing in the Indian deof their claims prescribed by an act of Parlia- tail which is more difficult than the detail of any ment.
other business. I admit, because I have some I. It is not contended that the act of Parlia experience of the fact, that, for the interior regPreliminary
ment did not expressly ordain an in- ulation of India, a minute knowledge of India is discussion quiry. It is not asserted that this in- requisite ; but, on any specific matter of delin
quiry was not, with equal precision of quency in its government, you are as capable of terms, specially committed, under particular reg. judging as if the same thing were done at your ulations, to the court of Directors. I conceive, door. “Fraud, injustice, oppression, peculation, therefore, the Board of Control had no right engendered in India, are crimes of the same blood, whatsoever to intermeddle in that business. (1.) family, and cast with those that are born and bred There is nothing certain in the principles of ju- in England. To go no farther than the case berisprudence, if this be not undeniably true, that fore us: you are just as competent to judge when a special authority is given to any persons whether the sum of four millions sterling ought, by name, to do some particular act, no others, by or ought not, to be passed from the public treasvirtue of general powers, can obtain a legal title ury into a private pocket, without any title exto intrude themselves into that trust, and to except the claim of the parties, when the issue of ercise those special functions in their place. I fact is laid in Madras, as when it is laid in Westtherefore consider the intermeddling of ministers minster. Terms of art, indeed, are different in in this affair as a downright usurpation. But if different places, but they are generally underthe strained construction by which they have stood in none. The technical style of an Indian forced themselves into a suspicious office (which treasury is not one jot more remote than the jarevery man, delicate with regard to character, gon of our own exchequer, from the train of our would rather have sought constructions to avoid) ordinary ideas, or the idiom of our common lanwere perfectly sound and perfectly legal, of this guage. The difference, therefore, in the two I am certain, (2.) That they can not be justified cases is not in the comparative difficulty or facilin declining the inquiry which had been pre- ity of the two subjects, but in our attention to scribed to the court of Directors. If the Board the one and our total neglect of the other. Had of Control did lawfully possess the right of exe- this attention and neglect been regulated by the cuting the special trust given to that court, they value of the several objects, there would be nothmust take it as they found it, subject to the very ing to complain of. But the reverse of that supsame regulations which bound the court of Di- position is true. The scene of the Indian abuse rectors. It will be allowed that the court of Di. is distant, indeed; bat 'we must not infer that rectors had no authority to dispense with either the value of our interest in it is decreased in the substance or the mode of inquiry prescribed proportion as it recedes from our view. In our by the act of Parliament. If they had not, where, politics, as in our common conduct, we shall be in the act, did the Board of Control acquire that worse than infants, if we do not put our senses capacity ? Indeed, it was impossible they should under the tuition of our judgment, and effectuacquire it. What must we think of the fabric and ally cure ourselves of that optical illusion which texture of an act of Parliament which should find it necessary to prescribe a strict inquisition; that
3 That session was one of which we could not ex. should descend into minute regulations for the pect Mr. Burke to speak in any other terms than conduct of that inquisition; that should commit those of bitter disappointment and the keenest asthis trust to a particular description of men, and perity. It was the first meeting of Parliament aft
er the elections of 1784, which had annihilated the in the very same breath should enable another power of Mr. Fox, and put his young rival in combody, at their own pleasure, to supersede all plete possession of the House, as prime minister. the provisions the Legislature had made, and One of its most important acts was the passing to defeat the whole purpose, end, and object of of Mr. Pitt's East India Bill, which dexterously
adopted the most valuable features of Mr. Fox's infinitely more severe from the indirect form wbich bill. We may easily conceive of Mr. Burke's mor. it assumes-showing what Sir Thomas Rambold did tification at seeing the results of his labors thus not do, and turning each of these negatives into a turned to the advantage of one by whom he was catting reflection upon Mr. Dandas, as having "left driven from power. Early in this session the wellbut one impression on the mind of every man who known case of the Westminster election came up, heard him, and who believed him in bis senses, in respect to which Mr. Fox was certainly treated that, in the utmost extent, he was guilty of the with arrogance and injustice by Mr. Pitt. To this, charge.
undoubtedly, Mr. Burke here alludes in part.
makes a brier at our nose, of greater magnitude , leading to despair, at the manner in which we than an oak at five hundred yards' distance. are acting in the great exigencies of
I think I can trace all the calamities of this our country. There is now a bill two bills before Narrowness of country to the single source of our not in this House appointing a rigid inThen the great having had steadily before our eyes a quisition into the minutest detail of our offices familse to the general, comprehensive, well-connect at home. The collection of sixteen millions an
ed, and well-proportioned view of the nually, a collection on which the pub- (1.) That on the whole of our dominions, and a just sense of their lic greatness, safety, and credit have the police stor true bearings and relations. After all its re- their reliance; the whole order of counts. ductions, the British empire is still vast and va- criminal jurisprudence, which holds together sorious. After all the reductions of the House ciety itself, have at no time obliged us to call of Commons (stripped as we are of our bright- forth such powers; no, nor any thing like them. est ornaments and of our most important privi- There is not a principle of the law and constituleges),- enough are yet left to furnish us, if we tion of this country that is not subverted to favor please, with means of showing to the world that the execution of that project. And for what is we deserve the superintendence of as large an all this apparatus of bustle and terror? Is it empire as this kingdom ever held, and the con- because any thing substantial is expected from tinuance of as ample privileges as the House of it? No: the stir and bustle itself is the end Commons, in the plenitude of its power, had proposed! The eye-servants of a short-sighted been habituated to assert. But if we make our master will employ themselves, not on what is selves too little for the sphere of our duty; if, on most essential to his affairs, but on what is nearthe contrary, we do not stretch and expand our est to his ken. Great difficulties have given a minds to the compass of their object, be well just value to economy; and our minister of the assured that every thing about us will dwindle day must be an economist, whatever it may cost by degrees, until at length our concerns are But where is he to exert his talents? At shrunk to the dimensions of our minds. It is not home, to be sure; for where else can he obtain a a predilection to mean, sordid, home-bred cares, profitable credit for their exertion? It is nothing that will avert the consequences of a false esti- to him whether the object on which he works mation of our interest, or prevent the shameful under our eye be promising or not. If he does dilapidation into which a great empire must fall, not obtain any public benefit, he may make reg. by mean reparations upon mighty ruins. ulations without end. Those are sure to pay in
I confess I feel a degree of disgust, almost present expectation, while the effect is at a dis* Mr. Burke, in speaking of the loss of some of and other men.
tance, and may be the concern of other times
On these principles he chooses our brightest ornaments," refers no doubt to a number of very able men of the Whig party, about
to suppose (for he does not pretend more than one hundred and sixty of whom lost their election, to suppose) a naked possibility, that he shall in 1784, through their adherence to Mr. Fox and his draw some resource out of crumbs dropped from East India Bill
. The “privileges" here referred to the trenchers of penury; that something shall be were those denied to Mr. Fox in respect to the laid in store from the short allowance of revenue Westminster election.
officers overloaded with daty and famished for 5 In this paragraph we have one of those fine want of bread; by a reduction from officers who generalizations which give so much richness and force to the eloquence of Mr. Burke. In the pre- ry with what breaks through stone walls for an
are at this very hour ready to batter the treasuceding paragraph he exposes one of the most common errors among men, that of allowing their inter.
increase of their appointments. From the marest in an object to decrease as it recedes from view ; rowless bones of these skeleton establishments, and this error he places in the strongest light, by his by the use of every sort of cutting, and of every image of the brier and the oak when seen at differ sort of fretting tool, he flatters himself that he ent distances. Here most orators would have stop. may chip and rasp an empirical alimentary powped; not so Mr. Burke ; his observation had taught der, to diet into some similitude of health and him that this was peculiarly the error of English substance the languishing chimeras of fraudulent politicians. In his first great speech, that on Amer. reformation. ican taxation, he had, eleven years before, pointed
While he is thus employed according to his out a similar error, as the leading characteristic of Lord North. He dwelt on the "mischief of not hav. policy and to his taste, he has not leisure to ining large and liberal ideas in the management of quire into those abuses in India that are draw. great affairs.” “Never,” says he, " have the serving off money by millions from the treasures of ants of the state looked at the whole of your com- this country, which are exhausting the vital plicated interests in one view. They have taken juices from members of the state, where the things by bits and scraps, some at one time and one public inanition is far more sorely felt than in the pretense, and some at another, just as they are local exchequer of England. Not content with pressed, without any sort of regard to their relations winking at these abuses, while he attempts to and dependencies.” It was thas that America was lost to England through the folly of Lord North; and squeeze the laborious, ill-paid drudges of Enit was by the same narrowness of view, “the same
glish revenue, he lavishes in one act of corrupt predilection to mean, sordid, home-bred cares," that prodigality, upon those who never served the Parliament, under the guidance of Mr. Pitt, were sacrificing the highest interests of the empire by the fabric of government "by mean reparations upon their neglect of Indian affairs, and seeking to sustain mighty ruins."
mercial intercourse between
public in any honest occupation at all, an annual Strange as this scheme of conduct in ministry income equal to two thirds of the whole collec- is, and inconsistent with all just policy, it is still tion of the revenues of this kingdom.
true to itself, and faithful to its own perverted Actuated by the same principle of choice, he order. Those who are bountiful to crimes will (2.) That on com. has now on the anvil another scheme, be rigid to merit and penurious to service. Their
full of difficulty and desperate haz- penury is even held out as a blind and cover to Great Britain and ard, which totally alters the com- their prodigality. The economy of injustice is
mercial relation of two kingdoms; to furnish resources for the fund of corruption. and what end soever it shall have, may bequeath Then they pay off their protection to great crimes a legacy of heart-burning and discontent to one and great criminals, by being inexorable to the of the countries, perhaps to both, to be perpetu. paltry frailties of little men; and these modern ated to the latest posterity. This project is also Flagellants are sure, with a rigid fidelity, to undertaken on the hope of profit. It is provid. whip their own enormities on the vicarious back ed, that out of some (I know not what) remains of every small offender.? of the Irish hereditary revenue, a fund at some It is to draw your attention to economy of time, and of some sort, should be applied to the quite another order—it is to animadprotection of the Irish trade. Here we are com- vert on offenses of a far different de- concerns of manded again to tax our faith, and to persuade scription, that my honorable friend worthy of atourselves, that out of the surplus of deficiency, (Mr. Fox) has brought before you the out of the savings of babitual and systematic motion of this day. It is to perpetuate the abuses prodigality, the minister of wonders will provide which are subverting the fabric of your empire, support for this nation, sinking under the mount- that the motion is opposed. It is therefore with ainous load of two hundred and thirty millions reason (and, if he has power to carry himself of debt. But while we look with pain at his des- through, I commend his prudence) that the right perate and laborious trifling—while we are ap- honorable gentleman (Mr. Dundas) makes his prehensive that he will break his back in stoop- stand at the very outset, and boldly refuses all ing to pick up chaff and straws, he recovers him- parliamentary information. Let him admit but self at an elastic bound, and with a broad-cast one step toward inquiry, and he is undone. You swing of his arms, he squanders over his Indian must be ignorant, or he can not be safe. But, field a sum far greater than the clear produce before his curtain is let down, and the shades of of the whole hereditary revenue of the kingdom eternal night shall vail our Eastern dominions of Ireland.
from our view, permit me, sir, to avail myself of The reader can not but notice the rhetorical the means which were furnished in anxious and skill with which these two instances, taken from inquisitive times, to demonstrate out of this sinmeasures then before the House, and therefore the gle act of the present minister what advantages more striking, are brought forward by Mr. Burke to you are to derive from permitting the greatest illustrate bis general principle, as stated above. concern of this nation to be separated from the They are both put, especially the former one, with cognizance, and exempted even out of the comgreat power of language and thought. They ada petence, of Parliament. The greatest body of all the liveliness and pungency of individual appli- your revenue, your most numerous armies, your cation to the weight and authority of a general most important commerce, the richest sources of truth. But they do more-and here is part of the skill—they reach forward as well as backward. your public credit (contrary to every idea of the They not only illustrate the past, but prepare for known settled policy of England), are on the the fature. They lay the foundation of another at point of being converted into a mystery of state. tack. They furnish the ground of the fine contrast You are going to have one half of the globe hid here drawn between Mr. Pitt's penariousness at even from the common liberal curiosity of an home and prodigality abroad. They open the way English gentleman. Here a grand revolution for the keen philosophy of the next paragraph, commences. Mark the period, and mark the which shows how "the economy of injustice" is made to "furnish resources for the fund of corrup- 7 The Flagellants were a sect of the thirteenth tion." Thus they lead on to the next great portion century, who sought to expiate their crimes by the of the speech, which insists on "an economy of quite discipline of the scourge. They traversed Europe, another order," and demands the strictest inquiry whipping themselves through the principal cities into grants thus lavishly made to a band of Indian and at the doors of churches, and creating great peculators.
commotion wherever they appeared. This fine adjustment of the several parts of an 8 This prediction proved true. The establishment oration, mutually to support or prepare the way for of the Board of Control, under Mr. Pitt's bill, merged each other, is one of the most striking characteris- the civil and political concerns of India in those of tics of the great orators of antiquity, and especially the British government. "The President of the of Demosthenes. Most readers overlook it, and are Board of Control," says Mill, in his British India, wholly unconscious that there is any art in the case. "is essentially a new Secretary of State, a Secre. The orator seems so completely to speak right on," tary for the Indian Department.
*** The other five that they are not in the least aware of the skill with members of the Board are seldom called to deliber. which he has selected and arranged his materials ate, or, even for form's sake, to assemble. * * Of with a view to bring every thing forward in its this pretended Board, and real Secretary, the sphere proper place, and to give every thing the appear of action extends to the whole of the civil and mili. ance of an unpremeditated and spontaneous effusion tary government exercised by the Company, but of thought.
not to their commercial transactions."-iv., 487.