Humanities and Arts

The Imperial Afterlife of Warren Hastings, 1818–1947

  • 0

© attribution CC-BY

copyright icon


Doi: 10.1080/03086534.2022.2057737



This article examines the ‘afterlife’ or posthumous reputation of Warren Hastings, one of the most important and controversial figures in the foundation of British India. Exploring a wide range of sources, it argues that Hastings was a symbolic figure through which generations of imperial commentators vented the political and moral concerns of their own day. Accordingly, it uses his afterlife as a key indicator of the rise and fall of imperial sentiment and confidence in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain. Hastings’s afterlife can be divided into three distinct phases. In the first, between 1818 and 1890, the image of Hastings as a flawed hero – an empire-builder who committed crimes – was propelled into popular memory. In the second, between 1890 and 1915, Hastings was transformed into an untouchable imperial icon. Driven by contemporary concerns, a group of ex-Indian officials attempted to vindicate Hastings’s actions and exculpate his ‘crimes’. The third section explores the apotheosis of Hastings’s reputation amidst the growing uncertainty over the future of British India between 1915 and 1947. Following the elevation of a deeply controversial figure into an imperial hero, this article explores the methods and motivations behind the propagation of heroic reputations, demonstrating that our understanding of imperial figures has been mediated through the vagaries of contemporary politics.