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White Mughals is the romantic and ultimately tragic tale of a passionate love affair that crossed and transcended all the cultural, religious and political boundaries of its time.
James Achilles Kirkpatrick was the British Resident at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad when in 1798 he glimpsed Kahir un-Nissa—'Most excellent among Women'—the great-niece of the Nizam's Prime Minister and a descendant of the Prophet. Kirkpatrick had gone out to India as an ambitious soldier in the army of the East India Company, eager to make his name in the conquest and subjection of the subcontinent. Instead, he fell in love with Khair and overcame many obstacles to marry her—not least of which was the fact that she was locked away in purdah and engaged to a local nobleman. Eventually, while remaining Resident, Kirkpatrick converted to Islam, and according to Indian sources even became a double-agent working for the Hyderabadis against the East India Company.
It is a remarkable story, involving secret assignations, court intrigue, harem politics, religious and family disputes. But such things were not unknown; from the early sixteenth century, when the Inquisition banned the Portuguese in Goa from wearing the dhoti, to the eve of the Indian mutiny, the 'white Mughals' who wore local dress and adopted Indian ways were a source of embarrassments to successive colonial administrations. William Dalrymple unearths such colourful figures as 'Hindoo Stuart', who travelled with his own team of Brahmins to maintain his temple of idols, and who spent many years trying to persuade the memsahibs of Calcutta to adopt the sari; and Sir David Ochterlony, Kirkpatrick's counterpart in Delhi, who took all thirteen of his wives out for evening promenades, each on the back of their own elephant.
In White Mughals, William Dalrymple discovers a world almost entirely unexplored by history, and places at its centre a compelling tale of love, seduction and betrayal. It possesses all the sweep and resonance of a great nineteenth-century novel, set against a background of shifting alliances and the manoeuvring of the great powers, the mercantile ambitions of the British and the imperial dreams of Napoleon. White Mughals, the product of five years' writing and research, triumphantly confirms Dalrymple's reputation as one of the finest writers at work today.
On 7 November 1801, under conditions of the greatest secrecy, two figures were discreetly admitted to the gardens of Government House in Madras.
Outside, amid clouds of dust, squadrons of red-coated sepoys tramped along the hot, broad military road which led from the coast towards the cantonments at St Thomas's Mount. Waiting in the shade of the gates, shoals of hawkers circled around the crowds of petitioners and groups of onlookers who always collect in such places in India, besieging them with trays full of rice cakes and bananas, sweetmeats, oranges and paan.
Inside the gates, beyond the sentries, lay another world: seventy-five acres of green tropical parkland shaded by banana palms and tall tamarind trees, flamboya, gulmohar and scented Raat-ki-Rani, the Queen of the Night. Here there was no dust, no crowds and no noise but for birdsong-the inevitable chatter of mynahs and the occasional long, querulous, woody call of the koel-and the distant suck and crash of the breakers on the beach half a mile away.
The two figures were led through the Government Gardens towards the white classical garden house that the new Governor of Madras, Lord Clive, was in the process of rebuilding and enlarging. Here one of the two men was made to wait, while the other was led to a patch of shade in the parkland, where three chairs had been arranged around a table. Before long, Lord Clive himself appeared, attended by his Private Secretary, Mark Wilks. It was a measure of the sensitivity of the gathering that, unusually for a period where nothing could be done without a great retinue of servants, all three men were unaccompanied. As Clive administered an oath, Wilks began tojot down a detailed record of the proceedings which still survives in the India Office Library:
The Rt. Hon. the Lord Clive having required the presence of Lieut. Col Bowser at the Government Garden for the purpose of being examined on a subject of a secret and important nature, and having directed Captain M Wilks to attend his Lordship for the purpose of taking down the minutes of the examination, addressed Lieut. Col Bowser in the following manner:
The object of the inquiry which I am about to institute involves considerations of great importance to the national interest and character. I am therefore instructed by His Excellency the most Noble Governor General to impress this sentiment on your mind and to desire that you prepare yourself to give such information on the subject as you possess with that accuracy which is becoming [to] the solemnity of the occasion ... 1
The oath taken, Clive proceeded to explain to Bowser why he and his colleague, Major Orr, had been summoned four hundred and fifty miles from their regiments in Hyderabad to Madras, and why it was important that no one in Hyderabad should know the real reason for their journey. Clive needed to know the truth about the East India Company's Resident at the court of Hyderabad, James Achilles Kirkpatrick. For two years now rumours had been in circulation, rumours which two previous inquiries-more informal, and far less searching-had failed to quash.
Some of the stories circulating about Kirkpatrick, though perhaps enough to raise an eyebrow or two in Calcutta, were harmless enough. It was said that he had given up wearing English clothes for all but the most formal occasions, and now habitually swanned around the British Residency in what one surprised visitor had described as 'a Musselman's dress of the finest texture'. Another noted that Kirkpatrick had hennaed his hands in the manner of a Mughal nobleman, and wore Indian 'mustachios ... though in most other respects he is like an Englishman'.2
These eccentricities were, in themselves, hardly a matter for alarm. The British in India-particularly those at some distance from the main presidency towns of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay-had long adapted themselves to Mughal dress and customs, and although this had lately become a little unfashionable it was hardly something which on its own could affect a man's career. It was certainly not enough to give rise to a major inquiry. But other charges against Kirkpatrick were of a much more serious nature.
Firstly, there were consistent reports that Kirkpatrick had, as Clive put it, 'connected himself with a female' of one of Hyderabad's leading noble families. The girl in question was never named in the official inquiry report, but was said to be no more than fourteen years old at the time. Moreover she was a Sayyeda, a descendant of the Prophet, and thus, like all her clan, kept in the very strictest purdah. Sayyeds-especially Indian Sayyeds-were particularly sensitive about the purity of their race and the chastity of their women. Not only were they strictly endogamous-in other words they could never marry except with other Sayyeds-in many cases Sayyed girls would refuse even to mix with pregnant women from outside, lest the unborn child in the stranger's womb were to turn out to be male and thus unwittingly contaminate their purity.3
Despite these powerful taboos, and the precautions of her clan, the girl had somehow managed to become pregnant by Kirkpatrick and was recently said to have given birth to his child.
Early reports in scurrilous Hyderabadi newsletters had claimed that Kirkpatrick had raped the girl, who was called Khair un-Nissa, then murdered a brother who had tried to stand in his way. There seemed to be a consensus that these accounts were malicious and inaccurate, but what was certain-and much more alarming for the Company-was that news of the pregnancy had leaked out and had caused widespread unrest in Hyderabad. Worse still, the girl's grandfather was said to have 'expressed an indignation approaching to phrenzy at the indignity offered to the honour of his family by such proceedings, and had declared his intention of proceeding to the Mecca Masjid (the principal mosque of the city)'.4 There he promised to raise the Muslims of the Deccan against the British, thus imperilling the British hold on southern and central India at that most sensitive period when a Napoleonic army was still at large in Egypt and feared to be contemplating an audacious attack on the British possessions of the subcontinent.
Finally, and perhaps most shockingly for the authorities in Bengal, some said that Kirkpatrick had actually, formally, married the girl, which meant embracing Islam, and had become a practising Shi'a Muslim. These rumours about Kirkpatrick's alleged new religious affiliation, combined with his undisguised sympathy for, and delight in, the Hyderabadi culture of his bride, had led some of his colleagues to wonder whether his political loyalties could still be depended on at all. More than a year earlier, the young Colonel Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, had written to his elder brother Richard, the Governor General in Calcutta, expressing exactly this concern. As Commander in the neighbouring state of Mysore, Colonel Wellesley had heard reliable reports that Kirkpatrick now seemed to be so solidly 'under the influence' of the Hyderabadis that 'it was to be expected that he would attend more to the objects of the Nizam's court than those of his own government'-that Kirkpatrick might, in other words, have 'gone over' to the other side, to have become, to some extent, a double-agent.5
The question of how to respond to these allegations was one that the Governor General, Lord Wellesley,* had agonised over for some time. There were several complicating factors. Firstly, despite all the stories in circulation, Kirkpatrick had an exceptional record in the East India Company's Political [diplomatic] Service. Without a drop of blood being shed, he had succeeded in expelling the last serious French force from southern India and had successfully negotiated an important treaty with the Nizam of Hyderabad. This had, for the first time, brought the Nizam's vast dominions firmly into alliance with the British, so tipping the delicate balance of power in India firmly in Britain's favour. For this work Wellesley had, only a few months earlier, recommended Kirkpatrick to London for a baronetcy.
But this was not the only complication. Kirkpatrick's elder brother William was one of the Governor General's closest advisers in Calcutta, indeed was credited by Wellesley himself as being one of the principal architects of his policy. While Wellesley was determined to find out the truth about the younger Kirkpatrick, he wished to do so, if possible, without alienating the elder. Finally, he knew it was going to be difficult openly to investigate any of these sensitive stories without causing a major scandal, and possibly inflicting considerable damage on British interests not only in Hyderabad, but all over India. Yet the rumours were clearly too serious and too widespread to ignore.
For all these reasons, Wellesley decided to fall back on the strategy of holding a secret inquiry in Madras, and there to solicit the sworn testimony of the two most senior British soldiers in Hyderabad, Lieutenant Colonel Bowser and Major Orr, both of whom had come into close contact with Kirkpatrick, without either of them being close enough friends for their veracity to be compromised. It was not a perfect solution, especially as Wellesley did not much admire the new Governor of Madras, Edward, Lord Clive. He was son of the more famous Robert Clive, whose victory at Plassey forty-four years earlier had begun the East India Company's astonishing transformation from a trading company of often dubious solvency to a major imperial power with a standing army and territorial possessions far larger than those of the country which gave it birth.
After their first meeting, Wellesley wrote that Clive was 'a worthy, zealous, obedient & gentlemanlike man of excellent temper; but neither of talents, knowledge, habits of business, or firmness equal to his present situation. How the devil did he get here?'6 Yet Wellesley realised it would be impossible to conduct an inquiry in Calcutta without involving Kirkpatrick's brother, and that there was little option but to delegate the job to Clive.
Moreover, as the future of Britain's relationship with the largest independent Muslim state in India now hinged at least partly on the exact details of Kirkpatrick's relationship with the girl in question, it would clearly be necessary during the course of the inquest to ask a series of the most intimate and searching questions.
The whole business, Wellesley concluded, would no doubt prove horribly embarrassing for all concerned, and be much better sorted out by Clive in Madras. So, on 30 September 1801, Wellesley formally wrote to Lord Clive telling him to prepare a secret inquiry into Kirkpatrick's conduct, while simultaneously sending orders to Hyderabad for Bowser and Orr to be discreetly, and promptly, despatched to the coast.
Over the course of the following few days Orr and Bowser answered, under oath, a series of questions of such intimate and explicit nature that the finished report must certainly be one of the most sexually revealing public documents to have survived from the East India Company's India: to read it is to feel a slightly uneasy sensation akin to opening Kirkpatrick's bedroom windows and peering in. The two witnesses, whose bright soldierly blushes are clearly visible through the formal lines of Captain Wilks's perfect copperplate handwriting, were asked how Kirkpatrick had come to meet and have an affair with a teenage Muslim noblewoman who was kept in strict purdah, especially when she was engaged to be married to another man. Was it Kirkpatrick or the girl who had taken the initiative: who seduced whom? When did they first sleep together? How often? When did it become a matter of public record? How did the story get out? What was the reaction in Hyderabad? The way the document is written-exactly like a modern trial report or Parliamentary Inquiry-heightens this sense of immediacy and familiarity:
Question: Do you understand that the young lady was seduced by the Resident, or do you rather believe that he became the dupe of the interested machinations of the females of her family?
Answer: I cannot state to which of these suppositions the public opinion most inclines. It is said that the lady fell in love with the Resident, and that the free access very unusual in Mohammedan families which had been allowed to him by the females of that family may appear to confirm the opinion of design on their part.
Question: What is the date of the first supposed intercourse between the Resident and the young lady?
Answer: I first heard it whispered about the beginning of the year. Every day afterwards it became more publicly spoken of and universally believed until the period of the complaint.
Parts of the story that unfolds through the pages of the examination are so strikingly modern that it is sometimes hard to believe it was written two hundred years ago. There is much talk of the embarrassing pregnancy, the family's desperate attempts to procure an abortion, Kirkpatrick's last-minute intervention to stop the termination, and the girl's mother's heartfelt cry that if only the sectarian religious divisions which had plagued the whole affair did not exist, this man could have had her daughter 'in the same manner that he might have had her before the distinctions introduced by Musa [Moses], Isa [Jesus] and Mohamed were known to the world'. There is also Kirkpatrick's unembarrassedly romantic declaration (relayed by Bowser) that 'whatever might be the ultimate result of these investigations, he was determined never to desert the lady or her offspring'. The remoteness of history evaporates: these are immediately recognisable and familiar human situations.
But, equally, reading through the report there are other moments when the sensation of familiarity dissolves and it is as if we are back in some semi-mythical world of Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights: we read of discreet interviews taking place through bamboo harem screens, of hunting expeditions where cheetahs are let slip at grazing gazelles, of spies following palanquins through the bazaars, and of a threat by the girl's grandfather 'to turn fakeer'-become a wandering ascetic-as the only recourse to save the family honour.
Above all, one is also confronted with the unexpected sight of a senior British official who was believed, not least by his Hyderabadi in-laws, to be a practising Muslim, who routinely wore Indian clothes and who-even before this liaison-clearly kept his own harem at the back of his house, complete with Mughal maidservants, aseels (wetnurses), midwives and harem guards. It is all a very surprising world to find in such close and intimate association with official British India. It is certainly unfamiliar to anyone who accepts at face value the usual rigid caricature of the Englishman in India, presented over and over again in films and cheap TV dramas, of the Imperialist Incarnate: the narrow-minded, ramrod-backed sahib in a sola topee and bristling moustache, dressing for dinner despite the heat, while raising a disdainful nose at both the people and the culture of India.
Yet the more one probes in the records of the period, the more one realises that there were in fact a great many Europeans at this period who responded to India in a way that perhaps surprises and appeals to us today, by crossing over from one culture to the other, and wholeheartedly embracing the great diversity of late Mughal India. Beneath the familiar story of European conquest and rule in India, and the imposition of European ways in the heart of Asia, there always lay a far more intriguing and still largely unwritten story: the Indian conquest of the European imagination. At all times up to the nineteenth century, but perhaps especially during the period 1770 to 1830, there was wholesale interracial sexual exploration and surprisingly widespread cultural assimilation and hybridity: what Salman Rushdie-talking of modern multiculturalism-has called 'chutnification'. Virtually all Englishmen in India at this period Indianised themselves to some extent. Those who went further and converted to Islam or Hinduism, or made really dramatic journeys across cultures, were certainly always a minority; but they were probably nothing like as small a minority as we have been accustomed to expect.
Throughout, one has a feeling that people are being confronted by an entirely new type of problem as two very different worlds collide and come into intimate contact for the first time. There are no precedents and no scripts: reading the letters, diaries and reports of the period, it is as if the participants are improvising their way through problems, prejudices, tensions and emotions that people have simply never experienced in this way before.
—from White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India by William Dalrymple, Copyright © 2003 by William Dalrymple, published by Viking Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
White MughalsList of Illustrations
Map: India in 1795
Posted August 27, 2014
Posted January 29, 2011
No text was provided for this review.