27 Feb 2020

The Fortunes of The Nabobs by Fiona Spear

Angharad Phillips

by Fiona Spear, member of the History Research Group 

William Paxton is often described as a nabob. Not the most flattering of descriptions, the term nabob was used to describe ex-East India Company (EIC) servants, from modest backgrounds, who returned home to Britain very rich. The word had a pejorative connotation to it. Nabob was an Anglicisation of ‘Nawab’, an aristocratic leader of the Mughal Empire in India. Until the 18th Century there was little opportunity for social mobility. Nabobs were seen as outsiders, a threat to the establishment.

As Jane Austen wrote in 1797, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’. To add respectability to their fortune, many nabobs married into minor aristocratic families. Many land rich but cash poor members of the gentry were happy to marry their daughters off to these wealthy men. Robert Clive’s eldest son, Edward, who also worked for the EIC, married Henrietta Herbert, daughter of Henry Herbert, 1st Earl Powis. With the Clive fortune, they were able to rebuild and refurbish Powis Castle, in North Wales, the traditional home of the Herbert family. It had been uninhabitable, but after the work they started, it is now one of the most beautiful castles in Wales.

The real way to achieve power was to invest money in land. Nabobs would buy large country estates often rebuilding and re-landscaping the estate in the latest style, as William Paxton did. Being a landowner gave a man the right to vote and with lots of money and influential friends, an opportunity to stand for Parliament. In the 18th Century only male landowners over 21 had the vote in the counties, although qualification varied within boroughs. Prior to The Great Reform Act of 1832, only 5% of the total adult population could vote. There was no secret ballot. A voter had to publicly declare his choice. Although bribing voters with money was forbidden, candidates could try and influence the electorate by entertaining them with food and drink. As William Paxton found out when he stood in the 1802 election for Carmarthen, these were costly affairs. He spent a total of £15,690 (worth approximately £1,539,573 today) on such hospitality. This was all from his own purse, not party funds. Unfortunately, this time, he lost the election to James Hamlyn Williams. However, the following year he was made, unopposed, the MP for the borough of Carmarthen.

The negative attitude towards nabobs was not helped by The EIC facing a series of financial crises. It had to be bailed out by the British government. However, in the eyes of the public, the personal wealth of nabobs seemed not to suffer. This was similar to the public attitude towards bankers after the financial crisis of 2008. Questions were asked of high ranking EIC officials about how their wealth was acquired. Robert Clive became a scapegoat for the ills of EIC and was vilified in the press. Despite legal scrutiny, nothing was proved. The MP Edmund Burke doggedly pursued the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of EIC. The trial started in February 1788, attracting much publicity. Much of fashionable society turned up to watch from the public gallery. Although the trail was very much an on off affair, it was April 1795 before a verdict was reached. Hastings was found not guilty of all charges, but was left financially ruined by the trial.

Nabobs may have found their return to Britain a mixed bag of fortunes. However for good or bad, they made a huge impact on British society.