The dawn of the nineteenth century, in the second year of his reign over more of humanity than any Englishman had ever ruled before him, Richard Wellesley decided to found a school for imperialists. It was the forerunner of the institution that prepared Nigel for his career in India.
None of Wellesley’s predecessors as governors general of India would have thought of such a thing. They contented themselves with shoring up “John Company’s” trade monopolies in tea and silk and opium ?— ?attaining sovereignty over Bengal and the Carnatic region, surrounding Madras, through smooth talk, bribery, and, when all else failed, force of arms. For forty years, since the Company’s army defeated the troops of the last nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey, its territorial holdings had fluctuated. But the trend, when Wellesley took up residence at Government House in Calcutta in 1798, was toward contraction. It seemed likely that the British footprint in India would be reduced to the environs of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta.
This prospect delighted the Company’s Court of Directors. They had always seen their business as business, not empire building. Looming over them when they met round a horseshoe table at their headquarters in the City of London was an ornate marble chimneypiece adorned with a bas-relief panel, Britannia Receiving the Riches of the East. Yet territorial conquest had brought the Company to the verge of bankruptcy. A loan of £1.5 million from the Treasury kept it afloat, but by no means would it suffice to finance further military adventure. Before Wellesley set sail for India, he was told in no uncertain terms that he must hew most strictly to a policy of non-intervention.
Wellesley, a great-great-great-grandfather of Elizabeth II whose portrait hangs today in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace, had other ideas. With the tacit support of Henry Dundas, war secretary under Prime Minister William Pitt, his goal was nothing less than subjection of the entire subcontinent. It was a daunting task, to be sure, one that had proved the undoing of no less a personage than Alexander the Great. But Wellesley seems never to have doubted that he was up to it. He was a haughty Old Etonian whose excessive vanity caused him to wear his medals and decorations even in bed.
History, moreover, proved that unification of India into one state was possible. Chandragupta Maurya, a native of Patna, on the river Ganges, had managed it in 322 b.c., founding an empire that lasted for five hundred years and extended beyond the Indus to encompass much of what is now Afghanistan and southeast Iran. A millennium and change later, a Turko-Mongol named Babur ?— ?who claimed descent from Genghis Khan on his father’s side and Tamerlane on his mother’s ?— ?swept down from Central Asia to pick up the pieces; though his Mughal Empire had largely disintegrated by 1750, it lived on in the vicinity of Delhi under an emperor looking for British protection to preserve his dynasty.
Less than two years after Wellesley’s arrival, he was well on his way to emulating his imperial predecessors. He had already waged three wars on his own initiative, destroying the last pockets of French influence in Mysore and Hyderabad. Most of the subcontinent south of the fifteenth parallel was in British hands, along with Bengal, the lower Ganges, and Bombay.
Much of the rest was ripe for the taking. It was largely a matter of securing the loyalty of native princes, who were promised protection from their enemies. Once British troops were stationed near their seats of power, Wellesley bullied the nobles into adopting policies of provincial administration dictated by Calcutta. The East India Company became ruler in all but name.
As word of his conquests filtered back to London, the outraged directors issued orders forbidding further expansion. Since these directives were transmitted by sailing ship around the Cape of Good Hope and took as long as four months to reach Government House, they tended to arrive in the afterglow of highly successful campaigns, and Wellesley felt safe in dismissing them as moot. With his brother Arthur ?— ?later created Duke of Wellington after commanding the armies that defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 ?— ?he plotted the subjugation of the Maratha Confederacy, a network of Hindu chiefs who had taken advantage of Mughal weakness to gain control of a wide swath of central India, from near Goa, on the Arabian Sea, to Delhi, on the Gangetic Plain. At the same time, in an end run around the Court of Directors, he dispatched another brother, Henry, to London to explain his policies and lobby Parliament for a free hand in pursuing them.
For the first time at Westminster, the British presence in India was referred to as “the empire.” Among those who liked the sound of it was Prime Minister Pitt, who had come to power in the aftermath of the American War of Independence and saw an opportunity to offset the loss of the thirteen colonies. Lord Grenville, the foreign secretary, also voiced support for Wellesley. But the Court of Directors had friends in high places, too. One was the Prince of Wales, certain to be empowered sooner or later as prince regent, owing to the mental incapacity of his father, George III. He endorsed the Company’s position that Wellesley’s ambitions could not be realized without the astronomical expense of maintaining what would necessarily constitute the world’s largest standing army. Given Bonaparte’s seizure of power in France in November 1799, the future king located the more pressing need for military expenditure closer to home.
On paper, Henry Wellesley’s mission failed. As a matter of form, it was bound to ?— ?under the terms of the Company’s charter, the governor general answered to the Court of Directors, not Parliament. The directors dispatched to Calcutta what Richard Wellesley bitterly termed “a peremptory order to reduce the military strength of the empire.” Complaining that he had authorized the buildup of the Company’s army only “after consulting all the most experienced officers in India,” he threatened to resign.
Pure bluster. He had made an empire; he had no intention of letting it go. His Indian campaigns ultimately would annex more territory than all of Napoleon’s conquests in Europe. Wellesley was no merchant. He was an aristocrat, and money barely interested him at all. What he wanted was power ?— ?for himself and for Britain.
Acquiring and maintaining power over so many by so few required impressive shows of force. But Wellesley understood the need for effective civil administration as the everyday instrument of power’s exercise. As long as the British saw themselves primarily as traders, they had little vested interest in the functioning of law courts or the assessment and collection of taxes or the suppression of religious practices that created unrest in a multi-ethnic society. Once they made the transition to rulers, those things mattered. After deeming “mercantile knowledge” an unnecessary qualification for Company service, Wellesley outlined the enormity of the task ahead:
“To dispense justice to millions of people of various languages, manners, usages, and religions; to administer a vast and complicated system of revenue throughout districts equal in extent to some of the most considerable kingdoms in Europe; to maintain civil order in one of the most populous and litigious regions of the world; to discharge the functions of magistrates, judges, ambassadors, and governors of provin...