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Gillray - Introduction

The gillray cover
British Library Add. MS 59874
Copyright © The British Library Board

This album of satirical prints focuses on the stormy relationship between the British government and the East India Company in the late eighteenth century. In particular it focuses on the impeachment and trial of the Company’s first Governor-General, Warren Hastings. It contains several prints by the leading caricaturists James Gillray and James Sayers.

The album was assembled in scrapbook form and the prints were not arranged in any particular chronological or subject order. In this digitised presentation, however, the material has been re-arranged in broadly chronological order. Some prints have been resized and rotated for ease of viewing.

The second half of the eighteenth century was a time of upheaval both at home and abroad, with the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the Regency Crises resulting from George III’s mental disorders. This turbulent political period coincided with an expanding print industry, bringing pictorial reproductions of contemporary issues to a wide and increasingly educated audience.

The art of satirical caricature flourished in this atmosphere. It is not surprising that events relating to India, with their associations of immense wealth, political manipulation and corresponding corruption, became such a popular subject for political cartoonists. The high level of interest in the trial of Warren Hastings is reflected in the large number of caricatures that it inspired. For caricaturists such as James Gillray, there was a wealth of satirical material in the struggle between an increasingly powerful East India Company and the politicians who feared and resented its growing wealth and influence. The satirical caricatures collected in this album graphically reflect the intense political and personal feelings these events aroused as well as the differing interpretations they inspired at the time and continue to inspire among historians today.

British Library X.359

Historical Background

The East India Company was originally founded as a private trading company at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In the course of the eighteenth century, it evolved from being a lucrative commercial enterprise to becoming a major territorial power in India, with its own army and administrative system. This expansion was partly funded by a British government loan of £1.4 million, agreed on condition that the Company complied with the Regulating Act of 1773. The Act had two main features, both intended to strengthen government control over the Company's activities: the creation of the post of Governor-General, and the establishment of a Supreme Council in India to assist him. Warren Hastings, a Company employee since 1750, became the first Governor-General under the act.

During Hastings' time in office, British politicians pushed for greater control of the Company and its finances, resulting in an unsuccessful attempt to pass the India Bill of 1783, written by Edmund Burke but credited to Charles James Fox. A year later, the Prime Minister, William Pitt, had his own India Act accepted.

Within a week of Hastings' return to Britain in 1785, Burke announced his intention to seek his impeachment. The following year, 22 charges against Hastings were presented, ranging from general mismanagement to allegations of corruption. After several votes, the decision was made to impeach. The trial started in February 1788, in front of 160 members of the House of Lords. When it finally ended, seven tediously long years later, only 29 peers remained sufficiently interested in the matter to cast their votes. Hastings was acquitted on all charges, but the trial left him embittered and impoverished and he was unable to obtain any official position again.


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