Five Letters From a Free Merchant in Bengal to Warren Hastings

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Introductory notes

"Five Letters from a Free Merchant in Bengal to Warren Hastings" was a pamphlet published in 1783 from London by Captain Joseph Price. Joseph Price as the title of the pamphlet was a free merchant, who operated alongside the East India Company in India. Joseph Price went to India in 1750, to trade on his own behalf from the Asian ports. Initially based in Bombay, Price later shifted to Calcutta in 1767. Price's trade extended when he took over the business of Richard Gregory another free merchant. Once his fortunes declined, Price returned back to India in 1780 trying to settle with his creditors. It was in Britain that Price made his name as a pamphleteer. Between 1782-83 he published as many as fourteen pamphlets, including "Five Letters from a Free Merchant in Bengal to Warren Hastings". Price came back to Indian in 1784 as marine storekeeper. In 1786 he was promoted to marine paymaster. Price continued his trade till 1793, when he sent back. Price died in 1796.

As the sub-title of "Five Letters from a Free Merchant in Bengal to Warren Hastings" suggests, the pamphlet discusses the causes of decline in Company's trade in Bengal and suggest ways of restoring it to its former glory. The pamphlet also offers insights and Price's observations on the state of affairs in Bengal, of the years following Battle of Plassey. Price particularly discusses the ravages caused by the Famine of 1770. Price felt the distresses caused by the event could have been lessened by the administrators.

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As the sub-title of "Five Letters from a Free Merchant in Bengal to Warren Hastings" suggests, the pamphlet discusses the causes of decline in Company's trade in Bengal and suggest ways of restoring it to its former glory. The pamphlet also offers insights and Price's observations on the state of affairs in Bengal, of the years following Battle of Plassey. Price particularly discusses the ravages caused by the Famine of 1770. Price felt the distresses caused by the event could have been lessened by the administrators.

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WHAT you have done since your accession to the chair, in settling the Company's revenues on a proper basis, and regulating their civil and military expences, is well known to every man at home and abroad, the least conversant in the affairs of this country. I shall draw from it the only argument I think necessary to prove, that it is from your integrity and abilities alone, we can hope to see effected what yet remains undone, to make the natives of this country the happiest people under the sun, and the possession of these provinces the brightest gem in the British crown.

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I HAVE frequently heard it affirmed, that the Hindoo, or original native inhabitants of these provinces, were in a better situation with respect to the security of their persons and property, before the English conquered the country, than they have been since. This I constantly denied, from being well convinced, that a genuine native Bengal tiller, or manufacturer, that is capable of judging, if left to his choice, would rather live under the government of the English, than under that of their usurping Nabobs, which the English drove out, or their predecessors the Moguls. A conquest of Bengal! when that phrase is applied to the Hindoo inhabitants, it is improper; to them it has been simply a change of matters. Many millions of them know no difference between the Mahometans who entered their country from the north, and the Christians who came from the south, by the Bay of Bengal. Both have hitherto governed them by the same agents; both left them in quiet possession of their religion, their customs, and [Page 4] their manners. A poor simple inoffensive race of tillers and manufacturers, as pusillanimous, trifling, and insignificant, as the women and children of any other country.

Such an entire change of masters, would have been a fortunate circumstance to the real native inhabitants of this country, as it would be easy to make appear: but at present, my time is taken up in attempting to point out remedies for the evils, which the conquest of the country by the English hath brought about.

WHEN the favourites of the Mogul Princes, who had obtained appointments in these provinces, acquired riches, they sent it to Dellhy, or some remote part of the empire, together with the neat proceeds of the revenue, or carried it with them out of the country, if they were recalled. In process of time, these officers of the Emperors, or their descendants, taking advantage of the confusions in the empire, set up for themselves, and became the reigning Princes of the country. The collected treasure was then locked up in their own coffers, and not sent out of the provinces.

During the government of the Moguls, and that of the usurping Subahs, the trade of the country remained open and free to the adventurers of all nations, who entered it by the Bay of Bengal, in ships richly laden with silver and gold, which they left behind, in exchange for the wrought manufactures and raw materials, the produce of the country. From whatever section of the globe these merchant-adventurers came, they brought with them some bullion, as their import cargo, whatever it was, would not produce sufficient to pay for the goods they exported. I well remember the nature of the trade to this kingdom, before the English took charge of it; and I believe I keep within the bounds of truth, when I say, that the balance of trade in favour of this country, which was brought to them by the Europeans, and the people possessing the territories on the east and western sides of the Bay of Bengal, amounted to a [Page 6] million sterling annually, not one ounce of which was in those days again exported.

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The efforts the Company had made in the late war, to maintain their acquisitions in the East Indies, had, in some measure, distressed their affairs at home: they expected, and they had a right to expect, that their investments from Bengal would be annually increased, from their new funds of wealth, without sending out in their ships, any more bullion from England. After the year 1757, they sent little of none to Bengal: nay, they ordered their servants in Bengal, to send money to Madrass and to China. The war with France prevented the ships of that nation from coming here: and about the same time, the Dutch began to be supplied on easy terms by private people, and of course imported no more money. From this period, to the war with Cossim Ally in 1763, the sums of money sent out of the kingdom, by public and private people, were immense: and the above mentioned Prince is said to have carried with him large sums in his retreat from the provinces.

Notwithstanding the vast exportation of wealth, there was yet left sufficient for a full and unimpeded circulation, for the purposes of commerce. For whether the surplus was secreted by private persons, locked up in the treasury of the Nabobs, carried off by the Mogul officers, or re-exported by the new possessors, it did not affect the welfare of the kingdom, whilst there yet remained sufficient [Page 9] for to answer all the purposes of mercantile circulation.

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I HAVE said, that though in the days of the Subahs, the people were full as much, if not more, oppressed, than they have been at any time since, yet the sources from whence wealth flowed into the kingdom, remained open. But this could not long be the case after a change of masters. The English never can assimilate with the natives of Bengal; it is not to the interest of their country [Page 12] that they should. They come to settle in this country but for a time, and with a view to the bettering of their fortune; when that is effected, they return, and ever will return, if they live to effect the purpose for which they come. A European, and a Hindoo Banyan, the first day they meet, are as much inclined to serve and assist each other, as on the day they separate, though they may have been matter and servant for twenty years. The tie arose at first from a view to their mutual interest, in the most gross and pecuniary sense of the word. It is not possible they can have any other. They wrangle about accompts the first month of their acquaintance; they do the same the last week, perhaps day, that they are together.

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THE great wealth which had for a long course of time flowed into Bengal, came from the west; unluckily the late conquerors of the country came also from the well. Possessed of so immense a treasure, they were impatient to transport it to their own country, where alone they could enjoy it. Here again I am induced to form another wish, which, at first view, like that in which I lamented Lord Clive's not having proceeded to the entire conquest [Page 14] of the kingdom, immediately after the battle of Plassey, instead of making an unsubstantial peace, wears but a very indifferent appearance; yet the evil consequences which have flowed from its not having been put into execution, will justify it. I wish then that Lord Clive and his Council, had shipped off for Europe, or for China, if you like it better, every rupee of the wealth acquired by the conquest or that could have been found in the country, excepting what was barely sufficient for the purposes of commerce and internal circulation; or even to have sunk it in the sea, would have been less pernicious, than the evils which have ensued by the means which have been used to remit it to Europe.

IT has been already observed, that soon after the battle of Plassey, the Europeans of all nations ceased to bring bullion with them to Bengal, letters of credit served their purpose full as well. It was the same with the country ships; the owners and captains of which, had only to give tolerable security, that the money they took up at Bengal, should, in three, four, or even five years, be sent to Europe, to obtain what sums they pleased. This facility of obtaining money on very moderate terms, gave rise to a spirit of adventure, as pernicious to the manufactures of this country, as stock jobbing is to fair trade: innumerable schemers arose, who undertook the sending money to Europe, by every root through which it formerly found its way to [Page 15] India. These unnatural attempts to force back the dream of wealth to its fountain head, had the same effect in mercantile polity, as the attempting to force a great river, with all its supplies and acquisitions of water, after a long course of running, back through the little channel from whence it took its rise: it overwhelmed the schemers with ruin. Had it ended there, it would not have signified much i but its baneful influence extended much further, These new adventurers became rivals to the Company, and to one another. Their eagerness to buy up the manufactures of the country, raised the price, and sunk the real value: for the goods were so much debased, that though they cost more than thirty per cent, above what the same goods had formerly cost, yet at the markets to which they were carried, they would not produce any thing like their prime cost, and many of them, would not fell at all. At this unlucky period, the kingdom was visited by that most dreadful of all calamities, a famine, which swept away, perhaps, one fourth part of the labouring people: this increased the difficulty of obtaining wrought goods, and contributed full more to the debasing of their texture, which, by its effects, aimed entirely annihilated the former great and beneficial trade of white cloth, from Bengal to the Gulfs of Mocha and Persia.

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I COME next to the duties levied at Calcutta, on goods manufactured in the country, and those expressly for the purpose of exportation, exclusive of the inland oppressions where the cloth is made. The government custom master draws two and one half per cent, the Calcutta custom-house two per cent, the fees of both offices, expence in landing, housing for examination, and reshipping, brings the charge up to five per cent. Can this be right? Our export trade is already extremely decayed, and will not the continuation of so severe an impost sink it still lower? The loading your own articles of exportation with heavy duties, is contrary to the policy observed by all the slates in Europe, who pretend to the lead knowledge in commercial polity.

SINCE you, Sir, paid off the Company's bond debt, their revenue is no longer mortgaged. Your land tax and salt duties, after answering every demand of the state for the current year, leave you a large annual balance: you therefore do not want the money arising from these injudicious taxes. But admitting that you do want it, lay it additionally on the imports, all of which, except the article of cotton, had better be burthened than the manufactures of the kingdom, on a great and free exportation of which our whole depends.

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I HAVE been assured by a person well versed in the revenue department, that the collections have, since your accession, been put on so certain a footing, that with the least economy in the civil and military departments, there will remain at the end of each year, a balance in the treasury of one hundred and twenty lacks of rupees.

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TO secure and increase the commercial connection between Great Britain and her Asiatic possessions, is a matter of such importance to the welfare of the kingdom, that it becomes the duty of every individual Englishman, who can throw new light on so interesting a subject, to do it in the best manner be can. In my former Letter, I pointed out some of the causes of the decline of the export trade of Bengal, and gave you a few hints relative to the means which, I think, would conduce most to the recovery of it. In the present Letter, I shall treat of the trade of India more generally, and attempt to point out how it may be better connected than it is at present, with a view to national utility. That the articles of raw silk, muslins, white and printed cotton cloths, and salt petre, may be procured at Bengal, in as great quantities as the Company shall since find for in Europe, is an undoubted sad. It is also indisputably true, that the surplus. of the territorial revenue, the private property of persons who acquire fortunes in the Company's service, and are willing to pay their money into the public cash on easy terms, for Bills on Europe, [Page 56] together with the sales of the British cloth, copper, iron, and marine stores, which the Company do, and always must send out, will produce a fund sufficient to pay for them, without draining the English nation of one ounce of her bullion.

THAT the East India trade must be conducted by a company of merchants, with exclusive rights and priviledges, I take for granted; but that this company should have interests subversive of, or running counter to the general interest of the state, is ridiculous to suppose, and folly to assert. The great principle of their constitution is, that as many of their fellow subjects as possible, shall benefit by the institution of such a society ; and as few as possible, receive damage or hurt therefrom. It must be for the interest of the state, that every discovery, tending to enlarge, connect, and secure the trade to Asia, should be made public. It cannot, therefore, be for the true interest of the Company, that such discovery should be kept private: yet in writing with the freedom which every man must do, who hopes to do good by what he writes, he lays himself open to the resentment of the Company and their officers. This jealousy of the East India Company,which so strongly prevailed at home and abroad, until the passing of the late Act of Parliament for regulating their affairs, contributed extremely to the keeping the nation in the dark, as to the true state of the national traffic to Asia, and [Page 57] was the principal cause of the established aversion, which the people in general have conceived against their fellow subjects who have acted in Asia. If a servant of the Company, wrote his private sentiments on the state of affairs abroad, or blamed in any shape the management at home, and this was discovered by the indiscretion of his friend, or by his letter being intercepted, which was in the power of the Company, and their servants both abroad and at home, the person so writing was dismissed the service. If a person, not in the Company's employ, was found guilty of this horrid crime, against the reigning despot and his divan in Leadenhall-Street, the protection of the Company was withdrawn, and the culprit pursued by their resentment, until he left the country from pure necessity.

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I am now set down to begin my Fourth Letter to you, which is to contain the first sketch of my plan for connecting the Company's trade to and from India, in such a manner, as will make it most conducive to the national interest and honour, as well as to the pecuniary advantages of the East India Company themselves.

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THE present flourishing state of the Company's affairs in Bengal, where, by your prudence and economy, their debts have been entirely liquidated, and their remittance to Europe, by their annual investment, increased in a sufficient degree to pay their debts there, is an answer to all the Abbe's remarks on tyranny, distress, and mismanagement. I agree with him, that a little more foresight in the country officers of government, might have warded off, in some degree, the dreadful effects of the famine; but that that tremenduous providential visitation, was in the smallest degree increased by the avarice or inhumanity of the Europeans, I deny with great certainty. If ever God made a charitable, just, or good man, the then English Governor of Bengal, John Cartier, Esq. was that man. But at the time we are now speaking of, the government was not sufficiently settled, to have regular returns made of the quantities of rice collected in the different provinces; though the causes of the famine, were plain and alarming enough; and we now are surprised that we did not advert to them. Most certain it is, the general scarcity of grain all the kingdom over, did not strike the imagination of one individual, until it was too late to apply a remedy. The Abbe is quite mistaken, in his account of the feed and harvest time in Bengal. The first crop of rice is planted in May and June, and collected in August and September. However strange it may appear to people at a distance, (the [Page 155] fact is too well remembered here,) that until the demand for the feed grain, in the month of April, gave the alarm, not a man in the kingdom had the lead idea of the dreadful calamity which was on the point to fall upon us. In a few days, rice, which was felling at twenty, and twenty two seers for a rupee, at the dearest markets in the kingdom, rose to eight and ten seers. Every body that had money, went to market. The Europeans of all nations, as well as the wealthy country merchants, endeavoured to lay in a stock sufficient to serve their servants and dependents. The Company did the fame for their troops, to prevent mutiny. It could not have been otherwise in any government in the world. The poor immediately felt the severe effects of a rigorous famine. How was it possible to prevent it? There was not grain enough left in the kingdom, to serve the native inhabitants two months, at one third of their usual allowance. All that the dictates of charity and humanity could devise to be done, was done, by all orders of people, to assist and relieve the distressed. It is very possible that dome corn merchants gained fortunes, by having by them a quantity of grain. Was it criminal in them to have had it by them? Is the surplus grain in plentiful years, to be thrown into the rivers, to prevent the merchants, who buy it at risk, and on speculation, from charging a high price for it in years of scarcity? What kind of doctrine is this? The truth of the matter is, that [Page 156] all the grain in the kingdom, was consumed by the month of July; and the rigid attachment of the Hindoos to their cast, or religion, is such, that thousands of them lay down and died in the public streets, rather than preserve life at the expence of their cast, by eating what they deem unclean food. As to their dying quietly, rather than plunder the storehouses or granaries of rice, which, as the Abbe says, they saw round them, depend on it there was no such thing. Whilst rice was to be had, they fought it, and it was served out to them with a benevolence and generosity, which did honour to the owners of all denominations. When there was no more left, they preferred death to every other means of preserving life. The sheep, goats, cows, fowls, ducks, geese, and other animals, pad by them with impunity. The harmless, inoffensive, innocent Hindoos, died with hunger, in a situation in which no other people on the face of the earth, would have submitted to have gone one day without wholesome food. They bore it tamely, because they knew it was not in the power of their rulers, whom they saw weeping over their misery, with admiration at their fortitude, to relieve them.

THE truth once told, where is the use of the pathetic apostrophe, put by the Abbe in the mouths of people, who have had no complaints to make? "Meer pomp of words, and pedant dissertation." [Page 157] That the famine ought to have been foreseen, I in some degree admit : but that it was foreseen, of any unfair use made of the calamity, when it did come, by Europeans or others, I deny.

IN the years 1766 and 1767, rice was so very plenty, that in many places it was not gathered in, as it would not pay the expence of collecting, On this account, less was planted in the year 1768, than had been for many years before. Great quantities of what was planted in 1769, was washed away by the overflowing of the waters , and the extreme and universal drought in 1770, filled our cup of bitters; The scripture account of the Egyptian years of plenty and of scarcity, was literally fulfilled in Bengal. But we are not worthy of having a Prophet, or man of God, sent to warn us of our approaching ruin. It often happens, that the crop suffers from too much, or too little water, in some of the provinces; whilst in other parts, the harvests are as fine and plentiful, as the most sanguine mind can wish , and they supply one another. In no period of time known to record, or to tradition, was there so general a want of rain, as in the year 1770. In vain do men, ignorant of the nature and situation of the kingdom of Bengal, and countries adjacent, talk of relieving it by an import of grain from abroad, in time of scarcity. Had all the tonnage in India, come to Bengal full freight with grain, in the year 1770, it might have relieved [Page 158] the poor who crowded round the capital, but never could have been of the least use to those dying with want in the provinces. Al this the Dutch and French know as well as I do. But the famine was too fair an opportunity to stigmatize their rivals in trade, with being the authors of it, to let such a plausible theme for defamation, slip by unnoticed. Even many of the English, from a diabolical lying spirit of envy, wrote home accounts of the causes of that dreadful calamity, which they must have known to be false.

HAVE we not cause to lament the enthusiastic prejudices of our countrymen against their fellow subjects in Bengal, when we find the British Senate [Page 159] entering so far into the belief of the unsupported charges brought against us, as to make a law, prohibiting our buying rice in the provinces? If the farmers have not a ready vend for their grain, as soon as collected, they can neither pay their rent, or plant another crop. The only exporters of grain are the Europeans, in particular the English free merchants settled in Calcutta. They are by this law debarred from buying their grain at the first hand, and of course the quantity exported becomes every year less. How contrary is this to the conduct of the same Legislature in their own country! where they wisely give bounties on the exportation of grain, and thereby secure a good stock in the nation, when ever they please to lay an embargo. But as I shall, in some one of these Letters, prove, beyond the power of controversy, the absurdity of restricting the English settlers in Bengal, from trading in any article the country produces, under proper regulations, I shall say no more of it in this place, but conclude this Letter with putting you in mind, that since the publication of the Abbe's work, it is become indispensibly your duty, to omit no opportunity to collect materials for leaving to your country, and to posterity, an honest, candid, dispassionate, and fair History of Bengal. You were in the service before the capture of Calcutta by the Moors. You have since been employed in every station, from a Resident at the Durbar, to that of Governor General. There is nothing necessary [Page 160] that you do not know. Your imagination and genius is every way equal to the Abbe's; and you have an advantage which he could not boast, a personal knowledge of every transaction on which it will be necessary for you to treat. I affirm, that you have the knowledge, the abilities, and the honesty, to rescue the actions of your countrymen, from vile allusion, and false aspersion. If you do not do it, may God forgive you. For my part, I shall be very sorry for your indolence, and want of public spirit, if you leave the present, and future generations, in the dark, as to the true history of the transactions of the English in Bengal, from the year 1750, to the 19th day of October, 1774. From that period to the end of your government, terminate when or how it may, the defence of your own honour, calls upon you for another kind of work. And sorry I am to say, that such abilities as yours, must be employed to refute the illiberal and unjust charges, brought against you by a most ignorant, selfish, uncandid, ministerial tool, whose natural and acquired talents, had he been left to shift in the world for himself, could not have listed him above the rank of a corporal in the guards.—Oh, my country! How will thy honours fade, when an Hastings shall be superseded, or succeeded, by a Clavering, a man the most improper in the world, to be entrusted with so important a charge! Those who with to fee his character drawn very fully, and very justly, have only to look into the [Page 161] Abbe's works, for the account he gives of the French partizan General Lally, and add to it a most greedy and selfish love of money, and Clavering stands confessed.

This is a selection from the original text


bullion, calamity, drought, grain, greed, rice, trade, wealth

Source text

Title: Five Letters From a Free Merchant in Bengal to Warren Hastings

Author: Joseph Price

Publication date: 1783

Edition: 1st Edition

Place of publication: London

Provenance/location: This text was transcribed from images available at Internet Archive:

Digital edition

Original author(s): Joseph Price

Language: English

Selection used:

  • 1 ) pages 2 to 6
  • 2 ) pages 8 to 9
  • 3 ) pages 11 to 17
  • 4 ) pages 55 to 57
  • 5 ) page 118
  • 6 ) pages 154 to 161


Texts collected by: Ayesha Mukherjee, Amlan Das Gupta, Azarmi Dukht Safavi

Texts transcribed by: Muhammad Irshad Alam, Bonisha Bhattacharya, Arshdeep Singh Brar, Muhammad Ehteshamuddin, Kahkashan Khalil, Sarbajit Mitra

Texts encoded by: Bonisha Bhattacharya, Shreya Bose, Lucy Corley, Kinshuk Das, Bedbyas Datta, Arshdeep Singh Brar, Sarbajit Mitra, Josh Monk, Reesoom Pal

Encoding checking by: Hannah Petrie, Gary Stringer, Charlotte Tupman

Genre: India > official correspondence > private letters

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