The Road to Macaulay: Warren Hastings and Education in India

Introduction: Hastings in the history of Indian Education

Whether or not one includes Warren Hastings in the history of Education in India is a matter of perspective. If writing the history of education means writing the history of schools, the impact of Hastings' administration would be quite limited. If anything, the rapid implosion of local rulers in Eastern, Southern and Northern India during Hastings' tenure had meant a bleak period for the indigenous education system, as patronage and funds would have dwindled away for many of them. The Company administration really concerned itself with the schooling of the natives only after 1813, as Nurullah and Naik rightly pointed out (see my earlier post) and one can legitimately start the story at this point.

However, if history of Education in India is to encompass the transformation of Indian Scholarship, on which foundation the new, colonial, system of Education would be built, the story must start with Warren Hastings. It was Hastings who converted Robert Clive's Military victories into the groundwork of an Empire, and this included, apart from establishing his authority over the Council as well as the other Presidencies (over the other two Governor Generals of Madras and Bombay), a coherent approach to engagement with India. One key aspect of this engagement was acquisition  and codification of knowledge about India, and Hastings did go great lengths in sponsoring research and translation projects of Muslim and Hindu texts. He did play foundational role in at least one institution of Higher Learning, the first in India to be sponsored by the British, and inspired the creation of at least two other similar institutions set up afterwards. Even more importantly, Hastings set the terms of the debate that Macaulay would participate in fifty years after Hastings left India.

Life and Times

Hastings never went to University himself, but he was Classics trained at Westminster School and was a gifted pupil. He left school after his uncle, who sponsored his education, died and took up employment with East India Company, reaching Calcutta in 1750. Only 18 years old, Hastings took up the studies of Urdu and Persian (which was the language of the courts in India at the time) in his spare time, and this played no small role in his rapid rise in the East India Company hierarchy. In 1758, Hastings was appointed Resident (the company's Ambassador) at the Murshidabad Court of Mir-Jafar, the Nawab installed by Clive after his victories over the house of Murshidkuli Khan.

However, Hastings' strategy of working with the local rulers were at odds with the ideas of an increasingly ambitious Clive. The East India Company pursued, against Hasting's advice, an aggressive policy of first pushing a senile and ailing Mir-Jafar out of power through a palace coup and then installing his son-in-law, the very ambitious Mir-Qasim, in his place. Indeed, this strategy backfired soon thereafter, as Mir-Qasim was even more reluctant than Mir-Jafar to be the handmaiden of the Company, and the conflict led to a full scale war in 1764, in which Mir-Qasim was defeated and forced to abdicate (in favour of hsi father-in-law, in a remarkable reversal of fortune). However, soon thereafter, the company gave up the policy of maintaining a puppet ruler and after the death of Mir-Jafar, the Company itself replaced the Indian rulers and became the vassal of the Mughal Emperor itself. Clive, on behalf of the company, received a Firman in 1765, and this would mean the commencement of the Company State, which would eventually grow into the British Empire. 

That Hastings would play a role in this, however, was uncertain at the triumphant moment in 1764. His differences with Clive about the treatment of Mir-Jafar in 1760 lost him a valuable patron, at least for the time being. Facing an uncertain future, Hastings resigned from the Company in 1764, and returned to England the following year.

Hastings, however, retained his enthusiasm for learning Persian language and Indian culture even after he left India. In his years in England, he would attempt to canvass support for creation of a Chair for studies in Persian Language at Oxford, though it didn't eventually happen, primarily as Hastings was called back to Company's service and left for a second tour of duty to India in 1769. Hastings became the Governor General of Bengal in 1772, a position he held till 1785. During the course of these years, Hastings' personality and preferences influenced the shape of the emerging empire, though his administration was not one of unquestioned supremacy but one of conflict and competition within the company ranks, with the Governing Council, Governor Generals of Madras and Bombay and even with the Board of the East India Company, on matters of policy as well as primacy. His legacy would be contested, most spectacularly by Edmund Burke in the seven year long impeachment proceedings upon his return to England, though Hastings' contributions in laying the foundation of the British Empire in India would be well acknowledged by his contemporaries and later imperial Historians alike. However, among Hastings' most enduring legacies was his efforts in scholarship in Indian languages and culture, which would lay the foundation of imperial knowledge system.
Scholarly Interest and Activities

Hastings' enthusiasm for Indian language and culture was not just a personal preference. This was justified by the nature of the Company State in late Eighteenth Century India. The Empire - if this could be called an Empire at that stage - was not yet a 'civilising mission' as it would become in the Nineteenth Century. In fact, at this point, the empire was almost accidental - Clive's wars were primarily committed in the name of preserving Company's trading rights from aggressive local rulers - and the Company officers, including Clive, were mostly unconcerned with anything else other than making profits, for the Corporation but more for themselves. There was little support in England for the adventures of the Company: Its monopoly was generally resented (in 1776, Adam Smith would write his famous book to argue against the Company monopoly) and the Parliament's ill-fated attempts to protect the Company's trading profits would lead to a full-scale rebellion in Britain's American colonies in 1773. The Conservatives at home were scandalised by the wealth and lifestyle of the returning Company officers who made their fortunes in India: India, for them, stood for social subversion and moral corruption of British life.  The Company State in India was very much a commercial enterprise, in which the responsibilities to rule was incidental; it was carried out very much in collaboration with the Indian scribal community, the Munshis, and the Company State was run - at least its native subjects were governed - within the legal and institutional framework of India.

Hastings' major contribution to Indian Education was to set up Calcutta Madrassah, the first Higher Education institution set up in the Company territory. Hastings was apparent approached by eminent Muslims in Calcutta, who wanted to take advantage of the presence of an eminent scholar in the city, and set up a centre of scholarly studies of Islamic Culture like that of Farangi Mahal in Awadh. They appealed to Hastings to sponsor this institution as the Company was now the ruler of the territory of Bengal, and as the Indian rulers always usually sponsored Higher Learning. The English version of this petition survives, though P J Marshall, in his excellent Warren Hastings as Scholar and Patron, points out that this petition might well have been drafted by Hastings himself. In any case, Hastings agreed to the proposal, and even funded the initial establishment of the Madrassah in October 1780 with his own funds (which he later claimed back from the company). The Calcutta Madrassah followed the famed Dars-i-Nizami curriculum followed in Awadh, rather than inventing a new curriculum for Islamic learning the British way. The company gave its support to the Madrassah and gave it land and funds to support the scholars. This Madrassah continues until this day, now as a full-fledged university under the name of Aliah University.

Hastings also sponsored significant translation and publication projects, particularly of seminal Islamic and Hindu texts. Hastings sponsored, from his own funds, the translation of two key texts of Hanafi law then in use in India: Hidaya, a twelfth century commentary, and fatwa al-Alamgiri, a text compiled by Emperor Aurangzeb. He also supported the efforts to translate Ain-i-Akbari, believing that this was like 'the original constitution of India'. While Hastings did not read Sanskrit, but he was, perhaps because of this, enthusiastic about translation of important Hindu texts in English. His encouragement and sponsorship were crucial for many impressive scholarly achievements, including Chales Wilkin's translation of the Gita (1784), William Jones' later translations of Sakuntala (1789) and Laws of Manu (1794). Hastings also got Hindu Legal codes translated into Persian in 1775 and persuaded Radhakanta Sarman to write a Hindu History based on the Puranas. On a more practical level, he sponsored Wilkins and Nathaniel Halhed to produce the first grammar of Bengali language in 1778. Hastings' contribution to Indian Education was not only linguistic and cultural. He actively promoted exploration and was a key sponsor of explorations in Tibet and Bhutan, and inspired the Calcutta Botanical Garden. And, indeed, the Learned Society he helped William Jones to set up, the Asiatic Society of Bengal, would have a lasting legacy, both in defining the British imagination of India and in shaping the imagination of later Indian nationalists (more about this later).

Conclusion: Hastings' Legacy

This above list is by no means exhaustive and not, as I must highlight, meant to be making a case for Warren Hastings the great man. The intention here is rather to paint a picture of the early efforts of the Company administration to engage in Indian Education and scholarly pursuits. Hastings' own personal interest in Islamic culture was indisputable - he studiously collected various Indian manuscripts (which he later sold to the company when he needed money) and learnt several languages himself - but underlying these efforts was a vision of the empire. His engagement with Indian culture was not an appreciation of a higher culture - he was always convinced about the superiority of the English civilisation - but a realistic commitment to understand the territory he governed and the laws and customs his subjects operated within. He saw Calcutta as the centre of a great empire - he would let it slip out in his Minutes about the Madrassah - and his engagements with the Hindu and Islamic cultures were consistent with that vision.

Finally, in conclusion, it is worthwhile to attempt to judge Hastings' legacy in Indian Education and how he paved the 'Road to Macaulay' through three themes, that recur persistently not just in the fifty years between Hastings and Macaulay:

First, Hastings went great lengths to adapt the key tenets of existing laws and customs of India within the new imperial practises. The Englishmen were not subject to the Indian laws, but the Indian subjects were. Hastings thought it right to govern people according to their own laws, which a later generation of administrators would vehemently disagree with. For James Mill, Utilitarian Philosopher and Company Administrator, who we would come to later, the first task of governing India would be to give it British Laws, as it would be as the Empire became more confident of itself. But Hastings' views would remain an important argument, and would return in educational conversation every once in a while.

Second, Hastings represented the commercial authority of the Company and this meant keeping the missionaries out. The Company viewed Christian proselytising as trouble, one that would inflame the Indian opinion. Hastings would encourage translation and printing of Hindu and Muslim texts, but would not want to permit Missionary schools in Company territory. The Company maintained the stance that an India divided between Hindus and Muslims was better for British interests than Indians becoming one people under the influence of Christianity. This idea of a divided India, not just by its religions but also by its languages, would persist over the years. This is an argument which, eventually, Hastings' side would win, despite the earnest efforts of Lord Macaulay and others.

Third, Hastings wanted to co-opt the Muslim aristocrats into British rule and wanted to create Educational and Career opportunities for them within the emergent empire. This is why Calcutta Madrassah was such an important enterprise for his administration. However, the new rulers would be disappointed in this regard: There wouldn't be many takers of the new Islamic learning that they wanted to promote. Rather, it would be the Hindus, who wanted to pursue English medium education to grab new opportunities that the decline of Muslim rule afforded them. When Macaulay stood up to speak fifty years later, he was presenting something of a fait accompli - the dream of an Indian classical education was already rejected, by the Indian aristocratic classes themselves.

I am conscious that there is more to Hastings' legacy in Indian Education than just these themes. I hope to touch upon some of these in later discussions, such as how the efforts of Asiatic Society and Sanskrit Colleges would lead to a more uniform scripture of Hinduism and lead to a Hindu revival (Christopher Bayley's point) and how the debate about educating an aristocratic minority versus educating the great mass of population would continue, developing into a 'downward filtration' theory in the Nineteenth Century, persisting well down to the formation of the IITs in Independent India. However, there are other worthy subjects of inquiry, such as the interplay between Hastings' own interests and imperialist agenda, would remain outside the scope of this narrative.


For general biographical information on Hastings, I depended on Patrick Turnbull's Warren Hastings (New English Library, London, 1975). For Hastings' scholarly patronage and activity, P J Marshall's essay, Warren Hastings As Scholar and Patron, printed in Statesmen, Scholars And Merchants (Edited by Anne Whiteman, J S Bromley and P G M Dickson, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1973) was invaluable. The Minute by Warren Hastings documenting the appeal for formation of Calcutta Madrassah, dated 17th April 1781, is available in The Great Indian Education Debate, Documents Relating to the Orientalist-Anglicist Controversy, 1781 - 1843 (Edited by Lynn Zastoupil and Martin Moir, Routledge, London, 2016); the introduction of the book presents an insightful commentary locating Hastings in the development of Indian Education.


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