Burke’s Speech on India: December 1, 1783

Edmund Burke had four great causes for which he fought in his life:  the Emancipation of Irish Catholics, opposition to English policy in regard to the American Colonies, reform of the British government in India and opposition to the French Revolution.  The unifying theme to these causes is that Burke viewed societies as products of their history, and not to be reshaped by outsiders or artificial theories.  His view of society is well set forth in this quotation from Reflections on the Revolution in France:

A man full of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it, but a good patriot and a true politician always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.

Here is the text of Burke’s speech:

The several irruptions of Arabs, Tartars, and Persians into India were, for the greater part, ferocious, bloody, and wasteful in the extreme: our entrance into the dominion of that country was, as generally, with small comparative effusion —being introduced by various frauds and delusions, and by taking advantage of the incurable, blind, and senseless animosity which the several country powers bear towards each other, rather than by open force. But the difference in favour of the first conquerors is this. The Asiatic conquerors very soon abated of their ferocity, because they made the conquered country their own. They rose or fell with the rise or fall of the territory they lived in. Fathers there deposited the hopes of their posterity; and children there beheld the monuments of their fathers. Here their lot was finally cast; and it is the natural wish of all that their lot should not be cast in a bad land. Poverty, sterility, and desolation are not a recreating prospect to the eye of man; and there are very few who can bear to grow old among the curses of a whole people. If their passion or their avarice drove the Tartar lords to acts of rapacity or tyranny, there was time enough, even in the short life of man, to bring round the ill effects of an abuse of power upon the power itself. If hoards were made by violence and tyranny, they were still domestic hoards; and domestic profusion, or the rapine of a more powerful and prodigal hand, restored them to the people. With many disorders and with few political checks upon power, Nature had still fair play; the sources of acquisition were not dried up; and therefore the trade, the manufactures, and the commerce of the country flourished. Even avarice and usury itself operated both for the preservation and the employment of national wealth. The husbandman and manufacturer paid heavy interest, but then they augmented the fund from whence they were again to borrow. Their resources were dearly bought, but they were sure; and the general stock of the community grew by the general effort.

But under the English government all this order is reversed. The Tartar invasion was mischievous; but it is our protection that destroys India. It was their enmity; but it our friendship. Our conquest there, after twenty years, is as crude as it was the first day. The natives scarcely know what it is to see the grey head of an Englishman. Young men (boys almost) govern there, without society and without sympathy with the natives. They have no more social habits with the people than if they still resided in England—nor, indeed, any species of intercourse, but that which is necessary to making a sudden fortune, with a view to a remote settlement. Animated with all the avarice of age and all the impetuosity of youth, they roll in one after another, wave after wave; and there is nothing before the eyes of the natives but an endless, hopeless prospect of new flights of birds of prey and passage, with appetites continually renewing for a food that is continually wasting. Every rupee of profit made by an Englishman is lost forever to India. With us are no retributory superstitions, by which a foundation of charity compensates, through ages, to the poor, for the rapine and injustice of a day. With us no pride erects stately monuments which repair the mischiefs which pride had produced, and which adorn a country out of its own spoils. England has erected no churches, no hospitals, no palaces, no schools; England has built no bridges, made no high-roads, cut no navigations, dug out no reservoirs. Every other conqueror of every other description has left some monument, either of state or beneficence, behind him. Were we to be driven out of India this day, nothing would remain to tell that it had been possessed, during the inglorious period of our dominion, by anything’ better than the orang-outang or the tiger.

There is nothing in the boys we send to India worse than in the boys whom we are whipping at school, or that we see trailing a pike or bending over a desk at home. But as English youth in India drink the intoxicating draught of authority and dominion before their heads are able to bear it, and as they are full grown in fortune long before they are ripe in principle, neither Nature nor reason have any opportunity to exert themselves for remedy of the excesses of their premature power. The consequences of their conduct, which in good minds (and many of theirs are probably such) might produce penitence or amendment, are unable to pursue the rapidity of their flight. Their prey is lodged in England; and the cries of India are given to seas and winds, to be blown about, in every breaking up of the monsoon, over a remote and unhearing ocean. In India all the vices operate by which sudden fortune is acquired: in England are often displayed, by the same persons, the virtues which dispense hereditary wealth. Arrived in England, the destroyers of the nobility and gentry of a whole kingdom will find the best company in this nation at a board of elegance and hospitality. Here the manufacturer and husbandman will bless the just and punctual hand that in India has torn the cloth from the loom, or wrested the scanty portion of rice and salt from the peasant of Bengal, or wrung from him the very opium in which he forgot his oppressions and his oppressor. They marry into your families; they enter into your senate; they ease your estates by loans; they raise their value by demand; they cherish and protect your relations which lie heavy on your patronage; and there is scarcely an house in the kingdom that does not feel some concern and interest that makes all reform of our Eastern government appear officious and disgusting, and, on the whole, a most discouraging attempt. In such an attempt you hurt those who are able to return kindness or to resent injury. If you succeed, you save those who cannot so much as give you thanks. All these things show the difficulty of the work we have on hand: but they show its necessity, too. Our Indian government is in its best state a grievance. It is necessary that the correctives should be uncommonly vigorous, and the work of men sanguine, warm, and even impassioned in the cause. But it is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers.

Published in: on April 10, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (6)  


  1. This is a very bad Wikipedia article, but even so, it should be enough to show what a spectacular job of ignorant slander Burke had perpetrated: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Jones_(philologist)

    • I think Burke was on the money in regard to his criticisms of the rule of John Company in India Fabio.

      • I don’t – and India is one of my subjects. Sir William Jones, who united to philological genius the character of a saint and was a judge in the way Saint Thomas More was a judge, is an instance of what English rule did for India. I am particularly annoyed with this because there is a spreading orthodoxy, fostered by sinister Indian interests (duh, can you spell BJP?), that the English plundered India and gave nothing in return, and that is a kind of revisionism we can do without.

      • The Raj lasted for a long time Fabio. In the Nineteenth Century, especially the latter half, the Brits did develop India and did much for the native populations that was of lasting value. I do not think similar claims can be made for the Brits in the Eighteenth Century in India, who, Mr. Jones notwithstanding, were largely out for plunder and a quick buck. I think the militarily brilliant, but morally suspect, Robert Clive was more symbolic of British rule in India in the Eighteenth Century than Mr. Jones.

  2. Sure. That’s the ticket. John Company comes along and plunders India for no reason and with no excuse; then the Government takes over after 1858, and suddenly all is sweetness and light. I thought Americans of your breed could at least be trusted not to take Government accounts of things at face value?

    • The Brits had the same reasons as the many empires before them Fabio in India, to make a pile of cash and to enjoy the prerogatives of ruling others. However, the Brits eventually benefited the peoples of India far more than the empires before them and that is to their credit. Reformers like Burke helped this process along.

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