On this date in 1775, inconvenient Indian official Nandakumar (or Nand Kumar, or Nuncomar) was hanged on a forgery charge — all too conveniently inflicted at the very time he was accusing British Governor-General Warren Hastings of corruption.
Nandakumar and Hastings decidedly did not get along; the Indian believed he had been unfairly denied a plum career assignment.
He leveled in response an accusation that Hastings was taking payola in exchange for his appointments.
English pols involved in the administration of India, such as Philip Francis, John Clavering and George Monson, had their own rivalries with Hastings and wanted to pursue these charges. Instead, within weeks, Nandakumar was facing years-old forgery charges,* and two months after his trial, he was at the end of a rope.
Hastings’ actual involvement in this circumstance is impossible to prove, but
Warren Hastings: not a man to be trifled with. (Portrait by Tilly Kettle.)
The certain facts are that Nand Kumar was Hastings’s enemy, that [India’s Chief Justice Elijah] Impey was Hastings’s friend; that at a moment of grave crisis in Hastings’s life, when Nand Kumar was the most eminent witness against his name and fame, that witness was arraigned on a charge that was very old, that had been suddenly converted from a civil to a criminal charge; that he was tried, found guilty, and executed. On the basis of that bare narrative of facts it would seem that if Hastings had nothing to do with the matter, he might almost as well have had as far as the judgment of posterity went. The thing was too apt, the conditions too peculiar not to leave their stigma upon the memory of the man who gained most by them.
This sort of questionable administration of the crown’s possessions on the subcontinent would lead in 1781 to the Amending Act, an attempt to place India on an organizational footing more conducive to the confidence of an increasingly dubious public.
Parliamentarian heavyweight Edmund Burke would eventually weigh in on the hanged man’s side, charging that Hastings had “murdered this man, by the hands of Sir Elijah Impey.” In a report to the select committee established by the Amending Act (cited in this tome), Burke noted
that this Trial and Execution was looked upon by many of the Natives as political; nor does the Committee conceive it possible, that, combining all the Circumstances together, they should look upon it in the Light of a common judicial Proceeding; but must regard it as a political Measure, the Tendency of which is, to make the Natives feel the extreme Hazard of accusing, or even giving Evidence of corrupt Practices against any British Subject in Station, even though supported by other British Subjects of equal Rank and Authority. It will be rather a Mockery, than a Relief to the Natives, to see Channels of Justice opened to them, at their great Charge, both in the Institution and in the Use, and then Appeals, still more expensive, carefully provided for them, when, at the same Time, Practices are countenanced, which render the Resort to those Remedies far more dangerous than a patient Endurance of Oppression, under which they may labour.
Hastings was impeached for corruption in 1787 — it took Burke, who served as one of the prosecutors, two full days to read the 20-count indictment against him, though Burke’s own attempt to add judicial murder to the bill of particulars was jettisoned — along with the now ex-Chief Justice Impey.
Both were acquitted, even though investigations had laid bare a sort of endemic, routine bakhsheesh: “the native offers because he thinks he is bound to do so, and the Englishman accepts because he fears to hurt the giver’s feelings.” Hastings acknowledged availing himself of donatives, generally arguing that it was the done thing, benefited the East India Company for which he worked, and everything stayed well this side of egregious.
The (lurid) conduct of this impeachment proceeding, and its effect for consolidating British imperial control away from the irregular hands of the British East India Company while generating a national mythology of missionary civilization, is the subject of a fascinating book, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain.
Another record of the trial is available free from Google books; J. Duncan M. Derrett considers the facts of the forgery case (it “was not a judicial murder”) in the collision of Hindu and English law in “Nandakumar’s Forgery” in The English Historical Review of April 1960.
* He forged part of a will to recover a bad loan. All concerned appear to agree that this charge is factually accurate, which is, of course, a long way from explaining why the matter required immediate adjudication at this juncture.
Incidentally, while forgery could get you hanged in England, it was a much less serious offense under Hindu law.
Part of the Themed Set: The Empire Strikes Back.