The British in 18th century India

The British were obliged to design a state structure in India virtually from scratch, because the one Warren Hastings lashed together between 1772 and 1784 was considered to have failed.  He had tried to adapt traditional Indian practice while adding a British top layer to it, but this compromise never worked well.  Absence of supervision, abundant temptation, scarcity of reliable information and poor communication between Calcutta and the mofussil (rural areas) created multiple problems.  When placed in Indian shoes, Europeans often behaved worse than their native predecessors.  Hastings’s system lacked discipline, so British politicians resolved in the early 1780s to supply standards and enforce them.  Pitt’s India Act of 1784 and the Cornwallis Code of 1793 were the results.

Traditional ruling practices in India were replaced by specific rules, designed to reduce personal discretion.  What the British most feared in their own rulers — arbitrary power — they were determined, at least initially, to deny to those placed in authority in India.

Just as the US Constitution was designed to thwart the central executive, so the objective of the Cornwallis system of 1793, its near contemporary, was to restrain the EIC’s [East India Company’s] servants in India.  The collective self-regulation that it set up, by means of boards and committees, worked fairly well in enforcing honesty within government in India after 1784, but not in achieving efficiency.  Day-to-day government was not facilitated, and judicial decisions slowed to a crawl.  Meanwhile tax revenues, instead of sticking to British fingers, stayed somewhere out in the rural areas, hid behind an opaque wall of legal and customary technicalities.

That is from Roderick Matthews’s excellent Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India.  Here is my previous post on the book.



Add Comment