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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From the Speech on ‘The Nabob of Arcot’s Debts’
By Edmund Burke (1729–1797)
THAT you may judge what chance any honorable and useful end of government has for a provision that comes in for the leavings of these gluttonous demands, I must take it on myself to bring before you the real condition of that abused, insulted, racked, and ruined country, though in truth my mind revolts from it; though you will hear it with horror: and I confess I tremble when I think on these awful and confounding dispensations of Providence. I shall first trouble you with a few words as to the cause.  1
  The great fortunes made in India in the beginnings of conquest naturally excited an emulation in all the parts, and through the whole succession, of the company’s service. But in the company it gave rise to other sentiments. They did not find the new channels of acquisition flow with equal riches to them. On the contrary, the high flood-tide of private emolument was generally in the lowest ebb of their affairs. They began also to fear that the fortune of war might take away what the fortune of war had given. Wars were accordingly discouraged by repeated injunctions and menaces; and that the servants might not be bribed into them by the native princes, they were strictly forbidden to take any money whatsoever from their hands. But vehement passion is ingenious in resources. The company’s servants were not only stimulated but better instructed by the prohibition. They soon fell upon a contrivance which answered their purposes far better than the methods which were forbidden; though in this also they violated an ancient, but they thought an abrogated, order. They reversed their proceedings. Instead of receiving presents, they made loans. Instead of carrying on wars in their own name, they contrived an authority, at once irresistible and irresponsible, in whose name they might ravage at pleasure; and being thus freed from all restraint, they indulged themselves in the most extravagant speculations of plunder. The cabal of creditors who have been the object of the late bountiful grant from His Majesty’s ministers, in order to possess themselves, under the name of creditors and assignees, of every country in India as fast as it should be conquered, inspired into the mind of the Nabob of Arcot (then a dependent on the company of the humblest order) a scheme of the most wild and desperate ambition that I believe ever was admitted into the thoughts of a man so situated. First, they persuaded him to consider himself as a principal member in the political system of Europe. In the next place they held out to him, and he readily imbibed, the idea of the general empire of Indostan. As a preliminary to this undertaking, they prevailed on him to propose a tripartite division of that vast country—one part to the company; another to the Mahrattas; and the third to himself. To himself he reserved all the southern part of the great peninsula, comprehended under the general name of the Deccan.  2
  On this scheme of their servants, the company was to appear in the Carnatic in no other light than as a contractor for the provision of armies and hire of mercenaries, for his use and under his direction. This disposition was to be secured by the Nabob’s putting himself under the guarantee of France, and by the means of that rival nation preventing the English forever from assuming an equality, much less a superiority, in the Carnatic. In pursuance of this treasonable project (treasonable on the part of the English), they extinguished the company as a sovereign power in that part of India; they withdrew the company’s garrisons out of all the forts and strongholds of the Carnatic; they declined to receive the ambassadors from foreign courts, and remitted them to the Nabob of Arcot; they fell upon, and totally destroyed, the oldest ally of the company, the king of Tanjore, and plundered the country to the amount of near five millions sterling; one after another, in the Nabob’s name but with English force, they brought into a miserable servitude all the princes and great independent nobility of a vast country. In proportion to these treasons and violences, which ruined the people, the fund of the Nabob’s debt grew and flourished.  3
  Among the victims to this magnificent plan of universal plunder, worthy of the heroic avarice of the projectors, you have all heard (and he has made himself to be well remembered) of an Indian chief called Hyder Ali Khan. This man possessed the western, as the company under the name of the Nabob of Arcot does the eastern, division of the Carnatic. It was among the leading measures in the design of this cabal (according to their own emphatic language) to extirpate this Hyder Ali. They declared the Nabob of Arcot to be his sovereign, and himself to be a rebel, and publicly invested their instrument with the sovereignty of the kingdom of Mysore. But their victim was not of the passive kind. They were soon obliged to conclude a treaty of peace and close alliance with this rebel at the gates of Madras. Both before and since that treaty, every principle of policy pointed out this power as a natural alliance; and on his part it was courted by every sort of amicable office. But the cabinet council of English creditors would not suffer their Nabob of Arcot to sign the treaty, nor even to give to a prince at least his equal the ordinary titles of respect and courtesy. From that time forward, a continued plot was carried on within the divan, black and white, of the Nabob of Arcot, for the destruction of Hyder Ali. As to the outward members of the double, or rather treble, government of Madras, which had signed the treaty, they were always prevented by some over-ruling influence (which they do not describe but which cannot be misunderstood) from performing what justice and interest combined so evidently to enforce.  4
  When at length Hyder Ali found that he had to do with men who either would sign no convention, or whom no treaty and no signature could bind, and who were the determined enemies of human intercourse itself, he decreed to make the country possessed by these incorrigible and predestinated criminals a memorable example to mankind. He resolved, in the gloomy recesses of a mind capacious of such things, to leave the whole Carnatic an everlasting monument of vengeance, and to put perpetual desolation as a barrier between him and those against whom the faith which holds the moral elements of the world together was no protection. He became at length so confident of his force, so collected in his might, that he made no secret whatsoever of his dreadful resolution. Having terminated his disputes with every enemy and every rival, who buried their mutual animosities in their common detestation against the creditors of the Nabob of Arcot, he drew from every quarter whatever a savage ferocity could add to his new rudiments in the arts of destruction; and compounding all the materials of fury, havoc, and desolation into one black cloud, he hung for a while on the declivities of the mountains. Whilst the authors of all these evils were idly and stupidly gazing on this menacing meteor, which blackened all their horizon, it suddenly burst and poured down the whole of its contents upon the plains of the Carnatic. Then ensued a scene of woe, the like of which no eye had seen, no heart conceived, and which no tongue can adequately tell. All the horrors of war before known or heard of were mercy to that new havoc. A storm of universal fire blasted every field, consumed every house, destroyed every temple. The miserable inhabitants, flying from their flaming villages, in part were slaughtered; others, without regard to sex, to age, to the respect of rank, or sacredness of function,—fathers torn from children, husbands from wives,—enveloped in a whirlwind of cavalry, and amidst the goading spears of drivers and the trampling of pursuing horses, were swept into captivity in an unknown and hostile land. Those who were able to evade this tempest fled to the walled cities: but escaping from fire, sword, and exile, they fell into the jaws of famine.  5
  The alms of the settlement in this dreadful exigency were certainly liberal, and all was done by charity that private charity could do: but it was a people in beggary; it was a nation which stretched out its hands for food. For months together these creatures of sufferance,—whose very excess of luxury in their most plenteous days had fallen short of the allowance of our austerest fasts,—silent, patient, resigned, without sedition or disturbance, almost without complaint, perished by an hundred a day in the streets of Madras; every day seventy at least laid their bodies in the streets, or on the glacis of Tanjore, and expired of famine in the granary of India. I was going to awake your justice towards this unhappy part of our fellow-citizens by bringing before you some of the circumstances of this plague of hunger. Of all the calamities which beset and waylay the life of man, this comes the nearest to our heart, and is that wherein the proudest of us all feels himself to be nothing more than he is: but I find myself unable to manage it with decorum; these details are of a species of horror so nauseous and disgusting, they are so degrading to the sufferers and to the hearers, they are so humiliating to human nature itself, that on better thoughts I find it more advisable to throw a pall over this hideous object, and to leave it to your general conceptions.  6
  For eighteen months without intermission this destruction raged from the gates of Madras to the gates of Tanjore; and so completely did these masters in their art, Hyder Ali and his more ferocious son, absolve themselves of their impious vow, that when the British armies traversed, as they did, the Carnatic for hundreds of miles in all directions, through the whole line of their march they did not see one man, not one woman, not one child, not one four-footed beast of any description whatever. One dead uniform silence reigned over the whole region. With the inconsiderable exceptions of the narrow vicinage of some few forts, I wish to be understood as speaking literally;—I mean to produce to you more than three witnesses, above all exception, who will support this assertion in its full extent. That hurricane of war passed through every part of the central provinces of the Carnatic. Six or seven districts to the north and to the south (and those not wholly untouched) escaped the general ravage.  7
  The Carnatic is a country not much inferior in extent to England. Figure to yourself, Mr. Speaker, the land in whose representative chair you sit; figure to yourself the form and fashion of your sweet and cheerful country from Thames to Trent north and south, and from the Irish to the German Sea east and west, emptied and emboweled (may God avert the omen of our crimes!) by so accomplished a desolation. Extend your imagination a little farther, and then suppose your ministers taking a survey of this scene of waste and desolation; what would be your thoughts if you should be informed that they were computing how much had been the amount of the excises, how much the customs, how much the land and malt tax, in order that they should charge (take it in the most favorable light) for public service, upon the relics of the satiated vengeance of relentless enemies, the whole of what England had yielded in the most exuberant seasons of peace and abundance? What would you call it? To call it tyranny sublimed into madness would be too faint an image; yet this very madness is the principle upon which the ministers at your right hand have proceeded in their estimate of the revenues of the Carnatic, when they were providing, not supply for the establishments of its protection, but rewards for the authors of its ruin.  8
  Every day you are fatigued and disgusted with this cant:—“The Carnatic is a country that will soon recover, and become instantly as prosperous as ever.” They think they are talking to innocents, who will believe that by sowing of dragons’ teeth, men may come up ready grown and ready armed. They who will give themselves the trouble of considering (for it requires no great reach of thought, no very profound knowledge) the manner in which mankind are increased and countries cultivated, will regard all this raving as it ought to be regarded. In order that the people, after a long period of vexation and plunder, may be in a condition to maintain government, government must begin by maintaining them. Here the road to economy lies not through receipt, but through expense; and in that country nature has given no short cut to your object. Men must propagate, like other animals, by the mouth. Never did oppression light the nuptial torch; never did extortion and usury spread out the genial bed. Does any of you think that England, so wasted, would, under such a nursing attendance, so rapidly and cheaply recover? But he is meanly acquainted with either England or India, who does not know that England would a thousand times sooner resume population, fertility, and what ought to be the ultimate secretion from both,—revenue,—than such a country as the Carnatic.  9
  The Carnatic is not by the bounty of nature a fertile soil. The general size of its cattle is proof enough that it is much otherwise. It is some days since I moved that a curious and interesting map kept in the India House should be laid before you. The India House is not yet in readiness to send it; I have therefore brought down my own copy, and there it lies for the use of any gentleman who may think such a matter worthy of his attention. It is indeed a noble map, and of noble things; but it is decisive against the golden dreams and sanguine speculations of avarice run mad. In addition to what you know must be the case in every part of the world (the necessity of a previous provision, seed, stock, capital) that map will show you that the uses of the influences of heaven itself are in that country a work of art. The Carnatic is refreshed by few or no living brooks or running streams, and it has rain only at a season; but its product of rice exacts the use of water subject to perpetual command. This is the national bank of the Carnatic, on which it must have a perpetual credit or it perishes irretrievably. For that reason, in the happier times of India, a number, almost incredible, of reservoirs have been made in chosen places throughout the whole country; they are formed for the greater part of mounds of earth and stones, with sluices of solid masonry; the whole constructed with admirable skill and labor, and maintained at a mighty charge. In the territory contained in that map alone, I have been at the trouble of reckoning the reservoirs, and they amount to upwards of eleven hundred, from the extent of two or three acres to five miles in circuit. From these reservoirs currents are occasionally drawn over the fields, and these water-courses again call for a considerable expense to keep them properly scoured and duly leveled. Taking the district in that map as a measure, there cannot be in the Carnatic and Tanjore fewer than ten thousand of these reservoirs of the larger and middling dimensions, to say nothing of those for domestic services and the uses of religious purification. These are not the enterprises of your power, nor in a style of magnificence suited to the taste of your minister. These are the monuments of real kings, who were the fathers of their people; testators to a posterity which they embrace as their own. These are the grand sepulchres built by ambition; but the ambition of an insatiable benevolence, which, not contented with reigning in the dispensation of happiness during the contracted term of human life, had strained, with all the reachings and graspings of a vivacious mind, to extend the dominion of their bounty beyond the limits of nature, and to perpetuate themselves through generations of generations, the guardians, the protectors, the nourishers of mankind.  10
  Long before the late invasion, the persons who are objects of the grant of public money now before you had so diverted the supply of the pious funds of culture and population that everywhere the reservoirs were fallen into a miserable decay. But after those domestic enemies had provoked the entry of a cruel foreign foe into the country, he did not leave it until his revenge had completed the destruction begun by their avarice. Few, very few indeed, of these magazines of water that are not either totally destroyed, or cut through with such gaps as to require a serious attention and much cost to re-establish them, as the means of present subsistence to the people and of future revenue to the State.  11
  What, sir, would a virtuous and enlightened ministry do on the view of the ruins of such works before them? on the view of such a chasm of desolation as that which yawned in the midst of those countries to the north and south, which still bore some vestiges of cultivation? They would have reduced all their most necessary establishments; they would have suspended the justest payments; they would have employed every shilling derived from the producing, to re-animate the powers of the unproductive, parts. While they were performing this fundamental duty, whilst they were celebrating these mysteries of justice and humanity, they would have told the corps of fictitious creditors whose crimes were their claims, that they must keep an awful distance; that they must silence their inauspicious tongues; that they must hold off their profane, unhallowed paws from this holy work; they would have proclaimed with a voice that should make itself heard, that on every country the first creditor is the plow,—that this original, indefeasible claim supersedes every other demand.  12
  This is what a wise and virtuous ministry would have done and said. This, therefore, is what our minister could never think of saying or doing. A ministry of another kind would first have improved the country, and have thus laid a solid foundation for future opulence and future force. But on this grand point of the restoration of the country, there is not one syllable to be found in the correspondence of our ministers, from the first to the last; they felt nothing for a land desolated by fire, sword, and famine; their sympathies took another direction: they were touched with pity for bribery, so long tormented with a fruitless itching of its palms; their bowels yearned for usury, that had long missed the harvest of its returning months; they felt for peculation, which had been for so many years raking in the dust of an empty treasury; they were melted into compassion for rapine and oppression, licking their dry, parched, unbloody jaws. These were the objects of their solicitude. These were the necessities for which they were studious to provide.  13
  To state the country and its revenues in their real condition, and to provide for those fictitious claims consistently with the support of an army and a civil establishment, would have been impossible; therefore the ministers are silent on that head, and rest themselves on the authority of Lord Macartney, who in a letter to the court of directors written in the year 1781, speculating on what might be the result of a wise management of the countries assigned by the Nabob of Arcot, rates the revenues, as in time of peace, at twelve hundred thousand pounds a year, as he does those of the King of Tanjore (which had not been assigned) at four hundred and fifty. On this Lord Macartney grounds his calculations, and on this they choose to ground theirs. It was on this calculation that the ministry, in direct opposition to the remonstrances of the court of directors, have compelled that miserable enslaved body to put their hands to an order for appropriating the enormous sum of £480,000 annually, as a fund for paying to their rebellious servants a debt contracted in defiance of their clearest and most positive injunctions.  14
  The authority and information of Lord Macartney is held high on this occasion, though it is totally rejected in every other particular of this business. I believe I have the honor of being almost as old an acquaintance as any Lord Macartney has. A constant and unbroken friendship has subsisted between us from a very early period; and I trust he thinks that as I respect his character, and in general admire his conduct, I am one of those who feel no common interest in his reputation. Yet I do not hesitate wholly to disallow the calculation of 1781, without any apprehension that I shall appear to distrust his veracity or his judgment. This peace estimate of revenue was not grounded on the state of the Carnatic as it then, or as it had recently, stood. It was a statement of former and better times. There is no doubt that a period did exist when the large portion of the Carnatic held by the Nabob of Arcot might be fairly reputed to produce a revenue to that, or to a greater amount. But the whole had so melted away by the slow and silent hostilities of oppression and mismanagement, that the revenues, sinking with the prosperity of the country, had fallen to about £800,000 a year even before an enemy’s horse had imprinted his hoof on the soil of the Carnatic. From that view, and independently of the decisive effects of the war which ensued, Sir Eyre Coote conceived that years must pass before the country could be restored to its former prosperity and production. It was that state of revenue (namely, the actual state before the war) which the directors have opposed to Lord Macartney’s speculation. They refused to take the revenues for more than £800,000. In this they are justified by Lord Macartney himself, who in a subsequent letter informs the court that his sketch is a matter of speculation; it supposes the country restored to its ancient prosperity, and the revenue to be in a course of effective and honest collection. If therefore the ministers have gone wrong, they were not deceived by Lord Macartney: they were deceived by no man. The estimate of the directors is nearly the very estimate furnished by the right honorable gentleman himself, and published to the world in one of the printed reports of his own committee; but as soon as he obtained his power, he chose to abandon his account. No part of his official conduct can be defended on the ground of his Parliamentary information.  15

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