Jeremy Bernstein. Dawning of the Raj: The Life and Trials of Warren Hastings. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 2000. xi + 319 pp. $28.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-56663-281-2.
Reviewed by A. Martin Wainwright (Department of History, The University of Akron)
Published on H-Albion (August, 2000)
This book is written by a layperson (as opposed to a professional historian) for a general audience. While Jeremy Bernstein shows a scholarly care in writing about his subject, and while his writing style is well suited to a general audience, it is apparent that he has not considered the impact of current scholarship in British and Indian history that pertains to the career of Warren Hastings.
Jeremy Bernstein has devoted much of his career to making scholarly material accessible to the general public. He is professor emeritus of physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology. He has worked at, among other places, the Brookhaven National Laboratory, CERN, Oxford University, and the University of Islamabad. In addition to numerous scholarly scientific publications, Bernstein has written several books on physics for non-scientists, on the history of science, and a biography of Albert Einstein (which was nominated for a National Book Award). For twenty-two years he also wrote for the New Yorker. Bernstein, therefore, has impressive credentials as a scholar who makes his field accessible to the layperson.
Bernstein highlights this accessibility as one of his reasons for writing the latest in a considerable list of biographies of Warren Hastings. For instance, while praising the scholarship of Keith Feiling's 1954 biography of Hastings, he criticizes the historian's ponderous sentences at which "the mind begins to reel" (p. 29). By contrast, Bernstein constantly seeks to make the material of his subject relevant to a modern audience by using an intelligent but conversational idiom and making comparisons between events in Hastings' life and those in the recent news. At the outset he compares Hastings' impeachment to President Bill Clinton's, noting similar problems arising over an election during the trial and the distinction between parliamentary ethics and criminal law (pp. x-xi). Later on he compares the indictment of Hastings to the 1954 hearing regarding the security clearance of the atomic physicist, Robert Oppenheimer (pp. 207-8). These digressions are often in the first person singular and give the impression that the author is chatting with the reader about Hastings' life rather than writing an academically-oriented biography.
Nevertheless, the most important reason that this physicist chose to write a biography of this eighteenth-century ruler is his passionate interest in the story of Hastings life, of which he became increasingly aware during his work and travel in South Asia. Bernstein's fascination with his subject is understandable. Hastings rose from humble beginnings to become British India's first governor general in 1774, in spite of having resigned from the Council of Bengal nine years earlier in protest over East India Company abuses. During the 1770s and early 1780s he reformed East India Company rule in India amid suspicion and hostility of company agents and Indian notables alike. At the same time, his forces triumphed repeatedly on the battlefield, significantly expanding Britain's empire in Asia just as it was losing thirteen of its American colonies. However, Hastings' reforms and his autocratic behavior earned him enemies. The resulting animosity led him in 1780 to a duel with Philip Francis, a colleague on India's Supreme Council. It also contributed to his recall to England in 1785 and his impeachment trial from 1788 to 1795. It is this trial which Bernstein, perhaps overlooking events across the English Channel, describes as "the trial of the century" (p. ix).
Bernstein brings a scholar's care to many aspects of this biography. His primary source research is thorough, and he has uncovered some interesting material regarding Hastings private life and romantic liaisons, particularly about his relationship to the family of Jane Austen (pp. 49-52). He also covers Hastings' political maneuvers and military campaigns in considerable detail. This is particularly the case with any matter relating to charges later brought against him in the impeachment trial. Bernstein's bibliography indicates his acquaintance with other scholars' works relating to Hastings.
Nevertheless, in spite of his obvious admiration and respect for his subject, and the extensive effort that he has put into writing this biography, the author pays scant attention to Hastings' domestic policy. Yet Hastings' achievements in this sphere were just as important as those in the military and, in the light of recent scholarship, demand considerably more attention than the author gives them. After all, the title of this biography is The Dawning of the Raj. Hastings' name appears in the subtitle and is, by implication, closely connected with the creation of the British empire in India. Bernstein seems to cite with approval Thomas Babington Macaulay's assessment that Hastings was "one of the greatest men England ever produced" (p. 28), presumably because of his achievements in transforming the East India Company from a corporation into a government and its Indian possessions from mere economic assets into an empire.
In order to appreciate this transformation the reader needs to understand not only Hastings' military and diplomatic achievements, which extended the geographic area of the British Raj, but also his internal reforms, which stabilized and solidified Company rule in India. There is certainly plenty to understand, because Hastings, who was much better acquainted with Indian society than any of his British successors, attempted to restore order and prosperity to Bengal and the Company by rebuilding India's indigenous governing institutions. Thus he set up a court system based on that of the Mughal empire, recognized the primacy of Hindu and Muslim law in most disputes, and collected revenue through a land system in which outright ownership of fixed property was virtually unknown. Furthermore, in the fashion of many an Asian ruler, Hastings encouraged scholarship, particularly pertaining to Indian culture. In short, Hastings tried far more than his British successors to employ Indian solutions to Indian problems.
Unfortunately Bernstein does not adequately explain these issues to the reader. He describes the East India Company's role as diwan (regional revenue collector) far too briefly (pp. 65-66) and covers Hastings' domestic policy in barely five pages (pp. 53-54, 89-92). Bernstein only mentions zamindars, local notables with customary revenue collection privileges, as an explanatory note in the text of a press report regarding Hastings' indictment, and even then he states misleadingly that the term "can be translated roughly as a landlord" (p. 211). This neglect is surprising, considering that the East India Company's inability to collect revenues from the land was one of the most important reasons for Hastings' appointment to the new position of governor general in the first place. Hastings domestic reforms, based largely on indigenous models, are some of the most important reasons that he is regarded so highly. In the land settlement of 1793 Lord Cornwallis, Hastings' successor, would reach a much different and more British solution to the company's tax collection problems, with results that were often disastrous for Indian peasants.
Hastings' respect for Indian institutions and culture presents an opportunity for the modern biographer that Bernstein does not exploit. With so many biographies of Hastings in print any author embarking on a new one must explain the need to revisit the topic. An obvious reason would be the importance of Hastings' governorship in the light of the last generation of post-colonial scholarship. Bernstein discusses briefly Hastings' patronage of Hindu scholarship and his support of William Jones, the great orientalist and "father" of modern linguistics who carried on much of his research while serving as a judge, initially during Hastings' administration (pp. 144-48). Historians of the British Raj have tended to contrast Hastings' orientalist approach to the culture and government of India with the cultural imperialism of later administrations' such as Lord Cornwallis' and Lord Bentinck's. However, in Orientalism (1978) Edward Said criticized Jones for relying on Brahmin pundits to construct a false image of Indian civilization that assisted the creation and maintenance of British rule. Given Hastings' support of orientalist scholarship, this charge could also be leveled at him. Any modern biography of Hastings should address these issues, whether to incorporate Said's ideas or to refute them. Bernstein ignores them.
Dawning of the Raj has some significant weaknesses. It does not develop well enough the context of Hastings' rule, particularly regarding domestic administration, nor does it address recent scholarship that has transformed the discussion of British imperialism. These weaknesses probably result from a non-historian writing history in a field with which he is unfamiliar. On the other hand, Bernstein writes very readable prose that will appeal to a general audience. His book is well researched in terms of supporting evidence and citations for the many aspects of Hastings' life that he covers. Although historians should not regard this book as definitive, it may introduce the general public to this fascinating life more effectively than many a more scholarly work.
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