The Indian Bill (1858)
|Written||24 July 1858|
The latest India bill has passed through its third reading in the House of Commons, and since the Lords swayed by Derby’s influence, are not likely to show fight, the doom of the East India Company appears to be sealed. They do not die like heroes, it must be confessed; but they have bartered away their power, as they crept into it, bit by bit, in a business-like way. In fact, their whole history is one of buying and selling. They commenced by buying sovereignty, and they have ended by selling it. They have fallen, not in a pitched battle, but under the hammer of the auctioneer, into the hands of the highest bidder. In 1693 they procured from the Crown a charter for twenty-one years by paying large sums to the Duke of Leeds and other public officers. In 1767 they prolonged their tenure of power for two years by the promise of annually paying £400,000 into the Imperial exchequer. In 1769 they struck a similar bargain for five years; but soon after, in return for the Exchequer’s foregoing the stipulated annual payment and lending them £1,400,000 at 4 per cent, they alienated some parcels of sovereignty, leaving to Parliament in the first instance the nomination of the Governor-General and four Councilors, altogether surrendering to the Crown the appointment of the Lord Chief justice and his three judges, and agreeing to the conversion of the Court of Proprietors from a democratic into an oligarchic body. In 1858, after having solemnly pledged themselves to the Court of Proprietors to resist by all constitutional “means” the transfer to the Crown of the governing powers of the a East India Company, they have accepted that principle, and agreed to a bill penal as regards the Company, but securing emolument and place to its principal Directors. If the death of a hero, as Schiller says, resembles the setting of the sun, the exit of the East India Company bears more likeness to the compromise effected by a bankrupt with his creditors.
By this bill the principal functions of administration are intrusted to a Secretary of State in Council, just as at Calcutta the Governor-General in Council manages affairs. But both these functionaries — the Secretary of State in England and the Governor-General in India — are alike authorized to disregard the advice of their assessors and to act upon their own judgment. The new bill also invests the Secretary of State with all the powers at present exercised by the President of the Board of Control, through the agency of the Secret Committee — the power, that is, in urgent cases, of dispatching orders to India without stopping to ask the advice of his Council. In constituting that Council it has been found necessary, after all, to resort to the East India Company as the only practicable source of appointments to it other than nominations by the Crown. The elective members of the Council are to be elected by the Directors of the East India Company from among their own number.
Thus, after all, the name of the East India Company is to outlive its substance. At the last hour it was confessed by the Derby Cabinet that their bill contains no clause abolishing the East India Company, as represented by a Court of Directors, but that it becomes reduced to its ancient character of a company of stockholders, distributing the dividends guaranteed by different acts of legislation. Pitt’s bill of 1784 virtually subjected their government to the sway of the Cabinet under the name of the Board of Control. The act of 1813 stripped them of their monopoly of commerce, save the trade with China. The act of 1834 destroyed their commercial character altogether, and the act of 1854 annihilated their last remnant of power, still leaving them in possession of the Indian administration. By the rotation of history the East India Company, converted in 1612 into a joint-stock company, is again clothed in its primitive garb, only, that it represents now a trading partnership without trade, and a joint-stock company which has no funds to administer, but only fixed dividends to draw.
The history of the Indian bill is marked by greater dramatic changes than any other act of modern Parliamentary legislation. When the Sepoy insurrection broke out, the cry of Indian reform rang through all classes of British society. Popular imagination was heated by the torture reports; the Government interference with the native religion was loudly denounced by Indian general officers and civilians of high standing; the rapacious annexation policy of Lord Dalhousie, the mere tool of Downing street; the fermentation recklessly created in the Asiatic mind by the piratical wars in Persia and China — wars commenced and pursued on Palmerston’s private dictation — the weak measures with which he met the outbreak, sailing ships being chosen for transport in preference to steam vessels, and the circuitous navigation around the cape of Good Hope instead of transportation over the Isthmus of Suez — all these accumulated grievances burst into the cry for Indian Reform — reform of the Company’s Indian administration, reform of the Government’s Indian policy. Palmerston caught at the popular cry, but resolved upon turning it to his exclusive profit. Because both the Government and the Company had miserably broken down, the Company was to be killed in sacrifice, and the Government to be rendered omnipotent. The power of the Company was to be simply transferred to the dictator of the day, pretending to represent the Crown as against the Parliament, and to represent Parliament as against the Crown, thus absorbing the privileges of the one and the other in his single person. With the Indian army at his back, the Indian treasury at his command, and the Indian patronage in his pocket, Palmerston’s position would have become impregnable.
His bill passed triumphantly through the first reading, but his career was cut short by the famous Conspiracy bill, followed by the advent of the Tories to power.
On the very first day of their official reappearance on the Treasury benches, they declared that, out of deference for the decisive will of the Commons, they would forsake their opposition to the transfer from the Company to the Crown of the Indian Government. Lord Ellenborough’s legislative abortion seemed to hasten Palmerston’s restoration, when Lord John Russell, in order to force the dictator into a compromise, stepped in, and saved the Government by proposing to proceed with the Indian bill by way of Parliamentary resolution, instead of by a governmental bill. Then Lord Ellenborough’s Oude dispatch, his sudden resignation, and the consequent disorganization in the Ministerial camp, were eagerly seized upon by Palmerston. The Tories were again to be planted in the cold shade of opposition, after they had employed their short lease of power in breaking down the opposition of their own party against the confiscation of the East India Company. Yet it is sufficiently known how these fine calculations were baffled. Instead of rising on the ruins of the East India Company, Palmerston has been buried beneath them. During the whole of the Indian debates, the House seemed to indulge the peculiar satisfaction of humiliating the Civis Romanus. All his amendments, great and small, were ignominiously lost; allusions of the most unsavory kind, relating to the Afghan war, the Persian war, and the Chinese war, were continually flung at his head; and Mr. Gladstone’s clause, withdrawing from the Indian Minister the power of originating wars beyond the boundaries of India, intended as a general vote of censure on Palmerston’s past foreign policy, was passed by a crushing majority, despite his furious resistance. But although the man has been thrown overboard, his principle, upon the whole, has been accepted. Although somewhat checked by the obstructive attributes of the Board of Council, which, in fact, is but the well-paid specter of the old Court of Directors, the power of the executive has, by the formal annexation of India, been raised to such a degree that, to counterpoise it, democratic weight must be thrown into the Parliamentary scale.