Notable Historical Trials III – Warren Hastings

Warren Hastings was appointed Governor-General of India in 1773.  This was in the stage where the East India Company was phasing from a company to a government, and from an independent fiefdom to an arm of the British government.

He returned to England in 1785 and presented his report to Parliament.  In 1787 a group of politicians decided to impeach him before the House of Lords and he was arrested and brought to trial.

Well, not exactly. The first session was not until February 1788, and consisted of lengthy speeches by Edmund Burke and Richard Sheridan trashing his character and accusing him of crimes — many of which were not actually on the list of what he was to be tried for.  These speeches were well received by the press and public.  Hastings was universally thought to be guilty.

The trial dragged on for an astonishing seven years, and with time opinion shifted. By the time the defense began, Hastings complained that many of his witnesses had since died.  Also, a third of the Lords sitting in judgement at the start of the trial had also died.

Finally Hastings was acquitted, having spent his savings on legal fees.

By most accounts Hastings was a good governor if not a saint – this was a period where the English were extending their official and unofficial rule across the Indian subcontinent.  There were excesses that he did his part in curbing.  But regardless, you can’t help but feel that the use of the full governmental apparatus to hound him for a decade was an abuse of power, and in fact impeachment has fallen out of favor in England since that time.

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