Thousands Of Curses

This is a paper I wrote no later than March thirteenth, Twenty Ten. It focuses upon Robert Southey's depiction of Kehama in The Curse Of Kehama in light of Edmund Burke's speech decrying the Governor-General of India, William Hastings. I swear my writing has improved since 2010 and I can't remember what grade I got on the paper but I think I got a C+ in the class which means "slightly better than okay."

Peter Schranz
Romanticism & Empire Class

Southey’s portrait of the power-mad Kehama directly reflects that of Warren Hastings as provided by Edmund Burke in his speech on Fox’s India Bill, and likewise there are characteristics, which are both on the surface and veiled beneath it, that in retrospect paint Warren Hastings as the catastrophically factual Kehama. The behaviors of these two characters, both the real and unreal, intertwine deeply enough that it is difficult not to consider that Southey summoned Kehama from his imagination with the conduct of Warren Hastings specifically in mind.

Beginning with Burke’s speech, at the point when he discusses the powers that had actually legally been bestowed upon Warren Hastings, writes the author, “The despotic acts exercised by Mr. Hastings were done merely in his private character, and if they had been moderate and just, would still be the acts of an usurped authority.” Hastings had in numerous ways reached quite beyond his legal and moral powers as governor-general. He made his decisions “without any one of the legal modes of proceeding,” which included a “major vote of the board.” These limitations had been set forth in the act of 1773 which assigned him to the seat of British India’s first governor-general.

Certainly Kehama himself would have recognized the temptation of this sort of behavior, specifically Hastings’ reaching far past his allotment of authority. Even as early as in the preface Southey raises the theme of drastic usurpation of power that characterizes both his own poem as well as Burke’s speech. He asserts that in the Hindu religion “prayers, penances, and sacrifices… are drafts upon Heaven, for which the Gods cannot refuse payment,” adding that therefore, “[t]he worst men, bent upon the worst designs, have in this manner obtained power which has made them formidable to the Supreme Deities themselves...”

The Rajah Kehama, in The Sacrifice, quite nearly overthrows the King of Heaven during the stormy scene in which he attempts to sacrifice one hundred horses. The poet, addressing Indra himself, asks, “Dost thou tremble on high,… / Wilt thou tamely the Swerga resign,… / Art thou smitten, O Indra, with dread?” There is no indication that a mortal’s power has become too immense if the doubt of a god’s rule is not it.

Here is the point at which Kehama’s ruthless pursuit of power nearly grants him omnipotence. Warren Hastings’ own near-omnipotence resulted from his contempt for the checks put in place upon his specific powers as governor-general. Edmund Burke writes of the “establishment of English government for civil justice” being “planned and executed by the president and Council of Bengal.” Burke illustrates these structures as compartments of power not interrelated with that of the governor-general’s sphere of influence. He notes that “[t]here was… in each provincial council, authority, communication, mutual check and controul,” and that the councils had not to answer to the governor-general. However, Burke goes on to reveal that “[w]ithout any previous step, at one stroke, the whole constitution of Bengal, civil and criminal, was swept away… Upwards of fifty of the principal officers of government were... rendered dependent on Mr. Hastings for their immediate subsistence.”

Most provoking is Burke’s reflection upon the fact that Warren Hastings annihilated all of these checks upon his power “at one stroke.” This swiftly brings to mind Kehama’s need for one last ‘stroke’ of a blade upon that one-hundredth sacrificial steed; that being all that stood between him and tyranny over Heaven and earth. It is reasonable to propose that Kehama only just barely failed to achieve the literary terms of omnipotence with the stroke of a sword where Warren Hastings succeeded quite historically with the stroke of a pen.

It is not difficult to depict equivalent qualities of this ‘fictional-non fictional’ construct between the ‘curse’ of Kehama itself against Ladurlad and the reproachable treatment by Warren Hastings of those residents of Bengal under his de facto jurisdiction. Indeed, the governor-general was even quoted by Burke to have made such a declaration against the nabob of Oude as might have similar ramifications of what fictionally would be nothing short of a curse.

Writes Burke, “In the year 1779, the nabob of Oude represented… that the number of the company’s troops stationed in his dominions was a main cause of his distress; and that all those whom he was not bound by treaty to maintain should be withdrawn, as they had greatly diminished his revenue, and impoverished his country,” which had recently been struck by famine exacerbated in part by the numerous soldiers and their likely demand for great quantities of food and other precious resources.

Burke exposes the fact that, as if the nabob’s circumstances were not a curse enough, “[on] this representation from a great prince, of the distress of his subjects, Mr. Hastings falls into a violent passion… he declares, that in a division between him and the nabob ‘the strongest must decide.’” And concerning “the failure of the crops, he says, ‘that perhaps expedients may be found for affording a gradual relief from the burthen of which he so heavily complains, and it shall be my endeavor to seek them out.’”

The language Warren Hastings uses in referring to “the nabob’s abject supplication” is as final and callous as it is severe. With uncanny similarity, as Kehama pronounces his titular curse to the unfortunate Ladurlad, he declares that “…the Earth which is mine / Its fruits shall deny thee; / And Water shall hear me, / And know thee and fly thee.”

Were the nabob of Oude to have read this excerpt from Southey’s poem, it would be unsurprising were he to consider himself–– and certainly the entirety of his suffering domain–– the living embodiment of Ladurlad and his lot. For indeed, Burke quotes the nabob as stating “that the country and cultivation are abandoned… from the excessive drought of the season, deductions of many lacs having been allowed to the farmers, who are still left unsatisfied.”

In his response to the nabob’s plea for aid, perhaps Warren Hastings would like to have said, “the Earth… is mine” as indeed by his unsympathetic treatment of the nabob’s “burthen of which he so heavily complains” pretty well says as much about to whom of the two the ‘Earth’ belonged at that point. And while of course Hastings did not cause the drought in Oude, nor directly by this disaster did he cause the abandonment of “the country and cultivation,” the fact that the restoration of these miseries by the removal of the legally disproportionate number of soldiers fell into his sphere of responsibility, coupled with the fact of his announcement that ‘expedients for affording a gradual relief’ could ‘perhaps… be found’ sent to the nabob the same message as “Its fruits shall deny thee; / And Water shall hear me, / And know thee and fly thee.”

In returning to the theme of Warren Hastings’ and the Rajah Kehama’s unsanctified appropriation of power, there is hardly a closer route traveled by the two men than the sentiment of the ‘incompetent’ finding power and authority of greater amount than is safe or deserved. Burke remarks that “[h]e that goes out an insignificant boy, in a few years returns a great nabob,” a phenomenon which was becoming risingly widespread. The implications as to the influence of these people who, the author implied, are still at their core nothing more than “insignificant boy[s]” were very worrisome to him.

Burke goes on, asking his audience to “compare the influence acquired by appointing, for instance, even a governor-general; and that obtained by protecting him,” with the influence acquired by the ‘insignificant boy.’ Burke used these examples in his argument against Fox’s bill as implicating the growth of the crown, by suggesting the influence of the king would only be diminished by so great an influx of wealthy and powerful men demanding of previously unwarranted attention.

Burke asks us to wonder, if English people entering India as insignificant boys return as nabobs, as what would it be accurate to regard Warren Hastings upon his return? Certainly he had proven himself through his various crimes as quite kingly, but his oppressive and total power over so vast a swath of territory that lay so vague and dreamlike in the minds of the English people suggests that he had attained a status in his country previously limited to God.

And of course, as written above, this status is quite exactly what the Rajah Kehama had in mind, and it is clear in Casyapa that he had become close enough to produce anxiety in the hearts of the gods themselves. As Casyapa divulges, “Yea, he is terrible! such power hath he / That Hope hath entered Hell.” And while the souls in Hell suspend their despair, in Heaven “The souls that are in bliss suspend their joy.”

This ‘turning upside-down’ of the universe in Southey’s poem is reminiscent of Edmund Burke’s personal conservative reservations concerning the ‘class shift’ that he feared would result from the gains in wealth by ‘insignificant boys’ who return as ‘great nabobs,’ or such standings previously reserved for those with ‘baron’ or ‘earl’ somewhere in their title. The Curse of Kehama in epic and far-reaching poetry captures that very same apprehension which Warren Hastings provided for Burke and all others injured by his self-serving policies in unfortunate historical fact.

From Sickness I Charm Thee