In the late 18th century, the implications of colonial expansion were being hotly debated. East India Company merchants in particular, were socially derided and criticized. These merchants, labeled “nabobs”, had amassed enormous fortunes through their business ventures in India, and effectively ruled huge territories in the name of Britain, thus increasing the trade, property and power of Great Britain. While they did serve a purpose, many looked on Britons of the East India Company as corrupt criminals at the worst, or vulgar nouveaux riches at best.
British society saw them as despotic and given to decadence and “oriental vices”. This is partly due to the fact that European women were scarce in India until around 1837, so many of the traders took Indian wives or mistresses. Polite society at home looked on this as succumbing to the temptations of the exotic and largely unknown India.
After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the East India Company transformed from a private trading enterprise into more of a ruling bureaucracy in India – with merchants acting as rulers or “princes” over the Indian territories. Seeing as the merchants of the EIC rarely stood higher than middle class, the elite in Britain were made increasingly uneasy about these nabobs ruling such a rich and populous resource. The Britons back home assumed that the nabobs would simply ransack the treasures of India for their own enrichment – to the detriment of the nation at large.
Toward the end of the 18th century, the nabobs were typically looked on as common criminals. For example, the anonymous satirical poem The Nabob or the Asiatic Plunderer depicts the Anglo-Indians as cruel and indifferent to the suffering of the native Indians. Some like Edmund Burke even passionately fought to defend Britain from the “vices” brought back by the nabobs from the east. He argued that the nabobs’ sole intent was to plunder, oppress and destroy India, and pressed for reform of the EIC.
Eventually, governor Lord Cornwallis and his successors did reform the way business was conducted and put much focus on overcoming nepotism and bribery among the nabobs in India. Britain also began to see the treasures of India as a way to relieve mounting British debts.
Slowly, Britain began to look on India less and less as the victim and more as a seducer and corrupter of British subjects. During the last part of the 18th century, this became ever more the sentiment toward India. Britain became convinced that India needed a “civilizing mission”, giving rise to the overwhelming notion of European superiority.
While the nabobs were no longer looked on as purely criminal, they were still considered “corrupted” by India. This caused ongoing negative sentiments toward them. The nabobs were left walking a very fine line of trying to fit into British society by masking their Indian connections while still holding on to that part of their lives. After all, many had Indian wives or mistresses and children – in fact, quite a significant Anglo-Indian community had formed.
After living life as princes in India, some traders returned to England, hoping to expand (or at least maintain) the miniature empires they had built. While they had gained great wealth, the traders had little to no social standing in England, and they hoped to improve that as well. To their surprise, their welcome home was far from warm – in fact, the public reaction was near hostile. They were branded with extremely negative stereotypes and smeared in popular media.
The nabobs were also looked down upon for their “decadence” and “oriental tastes”. Diamonds, precious stones, gold and certain fabrics were heavily connected to the picture of the “wickedness” of the orient. Possessing these items was considered a serious lack of decorum. The nabobinas (women of the merchants) were typically condemned for their similar tastes for these luxuries.
Unfortunately, most nabobs often fared poorly financially in the end. Though some tried to live lives as country gentlemen, they were looked on as presumptuous by the ruling class. Some quickly lost their fortunes to gambling and other vices, while others like Warren Hastings even faced confiscation, disgrace and impeachment.