Hastings was born in Churchill, Oxfordshire in 1732 to a poor father, Penystone Hastings, and a mother, Hester Hastings, who died soon after he was born. He attended Westminster Schoolwhere he was a contemporary of the future Prime Ministers Lord Shelburne and the Duke of Portland as well as the poet William Cowper. He joined the British East India Company in 1750 as a clerk and sailed out to India reaching Calcutta in August 1750. Hastings built up a reputation for hard work and diligence, and spent his free time learning about India and mastering Urdu and Persian. He was rewarded for his work in 1752 when he was promoted and sent toKasimbazar, an important British trading post in Bengal where he worked forWilliam Watts. While there he received further lessons about the nature of East Indian politics.
At the time, British traders still operated at the whim of local rulers, so Hastings and his colleagues were unsettled by the political turmoil of Bengal, where the elderly moderate Nawab Alivardi Khan was likely to be succeeded by his grandson Siraj ud-Daulah, although several other rival claimants were also eyeing the throne. This made British trading posts throughout Bengal increasingly insecure as Siraj ud-Daulah was known to harbour anti-European views and was likely to launch an attack once he took power. When Alivardi Khan died in April 1756, the British traders and small garrison at Kasimbazar were left vulnerable. On 3 June, after being surrounded by a much larger force, the British were persuaded to surrender to prevent a massacre taking place. Hastings was imprisoned with others in the Bengali capital Murshidabad, while the Nawab's forces marched on Calcutta andcaptured it. The garrison and civilians were then locked up in the Black Hole of Calcutta.
Warren Hastings with his wife Marian in their garden at Alipore, circa 1784-7.
For a while Hastings remained in Murshidabad and was even used by the Nawab as an intermediary, but fearing for his life, he escaped to the island of Fulta, where a number of refugees from Calcutta had taken shelter. While there, he met and married Mary Buchanan, the widow of one of the victims of the Black Hole. Shortly afterwards a British expedition from Madras underRobert Clive arrived to rescue them. Hastings served as a volunteer in Clive's forces as they retook Calcutta in January 1757. After this swift defeat, the Nawab urgently sought peace and the war came to an end. Clive was impressed with Hastings when he met him, and arranged for his return to Kasimbazar to resume his pre-war activities. Later in 1757 fighting began again, leading to theBattle of Plassey, where Clive won a decisive victory over the Nawab. Following the British victory, Siraj ud-Daulah was overthrown and replaced by his uncle Mir Jafar, who initiated pro-British policies.