This paper examines contested efforts to define financial and political corruption in late eighteenth-century South India. The East India Company emerged from the Seven Years’ War as the diplomatic partner of Muhammad ‘Ali Khan Wallajah, the newly inaugurated Nawab of the Carnatic. During his reign, the Nawab borrowed money from the Company to acquire more territory and protect his dynasty from external threats. The Company’s servants in Madras gained significant profits from servicing this debt.
My paper concerns the debate that unfolded in Madras and London over the possibility that the Nawab’s government had become irrevocably corrupted by individuals’ desire for private gain. This debate struck at the core of the Company’s ethical responsibilities in India. I argue that the Company’s detractors and supporters failed to clearly identify who Company servants were defrauding. Servants were able to deflect accusations of corruption onto their Indian allies, effectively camouflaging the unbalanced power between the Nawab and the Company. Public displays of concern over corruption from the British allowed an intricate network of political and financial interests to thrive. I interrogate the multifaceted nature of corruption through the career of Paul Benfield, the most successful financier to the Nawab. For Benfield, the intermixing of private wealth and public policy in Madras was instrumental in forging profitable partnerships.
My paper uses this case to highlight the distance between the idea of corruption as it was deliberated in India and Britain and the realities of managing business and politics in the late eighteenth century.