There are pieces missing in the historical puzzle, such as what really happened on the first Supreme Court in India in the 18th century. The Judicial Notebooks of John Hyde and Sir Robert Chambers can provide answers, but they have been inaccessible until now. Thomas M. Curley worked closely with the notebooks and was probably the last scholar to see the originals. He requested the microfilm made in 1977 and he owns one set, from which these images were taken. The following exercpt from Sir Robert Chambers: Law, Literature, and Empire in the Age of Johnson, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1998 (pp. 445-447) explains their value to the historical record and to scholarship.
Together these men [Chambers and Hyde] left the sole account of the Court’s history during the first quarter-century of its existence, from 22 October 1774 to 25 July 1798, in seventy-two weighty folio volumes. Containing a mine of social and political information about Calcutta, this mass of manuscript materials constitutes the primary source about the judiciary in its formative years. As such, the notebooks are indispensable for a proper understanding of the rise of Anglo-Indian law. Incredible as it may seem, not a single history of British India has ever even acknowledged their existence, and few law texts in the English-speaking world appear to have made the slightest use of their rich contents since the mid-nineteenth century.
Such neglect is, to say the least, unfortunate. The notebooks are the only reasonably complete record of the Court’s daily operations, including essentially all the very controversial cases, except for one really glaring omission. Suspiciously missing is any report of the most notorious trial of all, the fatal prosecution of Nanda Kumar. Hyde’s notes of this case either decayed or, more probably, disappeared after Impey presumably used them in compiling his misleading account for publication in Britain. With the same purpose of publication in mind, Impey might also have consulted Hyde’s notes of the complementary conspiracy trials of Fowke and Nanda Kumar. These notes have survived but, perhaps for purposes of concealment, are to be found stuck to a brown-paper covering that requires strong illumination to render the contents visible enough to read. The mysterious omission of the infamous forgery trial and the unique instance of a tampered text of the only other case involving Nanda Kumar may have had less to do with botched efforts to preserve brittle entries later on and more to do with Impey’s contemporary cover-up of politically compromising evidence. Otherwise, the documentation left by Hyde and Chambers is sufficiently encyclopedic, if cryptically abbreviated and sometimes incompletely reported in the chronologically arranged entries.
The notebooks were principally Hyde’s undertaking from the start, even though Chambers’s will suggests the contrary: “. . . about twelve [notebooks] in number were bequeathed to me by . . . Mr. Justice Hyde, . . . and the greatest part of the remainder, amounting to near sixty were written by myself or transcribed by my Servant.” The truth is that Hyde composed the lion’s share of the entries and inspired the entire project to supplement other Court records. It was his hope that the notebooks would form the basis of a published book of authoritative precedents for future Supreme Court judges, governors general and councilors, and all major English law officers living in London and at Westminster. Hyde also wanted copies to be deposited at Oxford and Cambridge and even in George III’s library “that His Majesty may, when he has nothing more important to do, see if he will, the gratitude I have shewn for the honour he has conferred on me, by faithfully discharging that part of his Duty.” Upon Hyde’s death, Chambers took possession of the notebooks but did not get around to preparing them for publication. His widow eventually turned them over to her nephew, Sir Charles Harcourt Chambers, upon his short-lived appointment as a Bombay judge in 1824. After his death in India, they again returned to England, only to be sent back to Calcutta by Lady Chambers for the use of Sir William Oldnall Russell, chief justice from 1832 to 1833. His successor, Sir Edward Ryan, placed them in the Bar Library of the Supreme Court, where they gathered dust until their removal in the 1960s for safer storage in the resplendent Victoria Memorial Hall at Calcutta.
Had it not been for the work of law reporters under Russell and Ryan, the precedents recorded in the notebooks would never have become part of the enduring legal heritage of British India. Fortunately, vital notebook entries at last appeared in print as the earliest official precedents in W. H. Smoult’s Collection of Orders, Made and Passed by the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, on the Plea Side of the Court, from It’s Establishment in 1774 to the Year 1813 Inclusive (1834), T. C. Morton’s Decisions of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal (1841), and W. H. Morley’s Analytical Digest of All the Reported Cases, Decided in the Supreme Court of Judicature in India (1847). What the long-neglected judicial notebooks of Hyde and Chambers make abundantly clear is that previous preoccupation with constitutional conflicts between the Bengal executive and judiciary misses nine-tenths of the Court’s complex early history. Its untold story revolves around the establishment of a well-ordered judicial routine that allowed for a culturally flexible dispensing of civil and criminal justice in a racially diverse city at the heart of an emergent British empire.
The story of how the first Supreme Court came to Bengal is long and complex and separated into the sections below.
Prior to the arrival of the Supreme Court, the East India Company acted as Diwan, or ruler (1764 to 1773).
Although individuals in the East India Company made personal fortunes, the Company's stock fell more than 60 percent in 1769. Parliament responded with the Regulating Act of 1773. The act established a Supreme Council to govern and the Supreme Court of Judicature, independent of the Company and answerable only to Parliament and the King.
The vague wording of the Regulating Act set the Supreme Council on a collision course with the Supreme Court. A series of hard-fought cases angered the Council, the British and the Indian inhabitants of Bengal.
Justice Hyde responded to the gradual corruption of the Supreme Court by documenting it within his notebooks, hidden in a shorthand system that his fellow judges could not understand.
Parliament curtailed the power of the Supreme Court with an Act in 1781. However, the departure of Impey and Hastings calmed matters considerably and the court found a work-around regarding jurisdiction.
Prior Legal Structures in Bengal | The Regulating Act of 1773 | Contentious Cases on the Supreme Court | Hyde's Secret Shorthand | Resolutions
Note: these historical summaries were written by Carol Siri Johnson and Andrew Otis. The sources we used are freely available from Google’s Digitization Project and are easily found by a web search.