Join the circle of reason
VOL. VI  NOS. 7 & 8 MARCH - APRIL 2000 RS 50 UK £ 2.50 US $5


n the 15th of April 1649 Francis Breton, the East India Company's most senior official in Asia, took up his quill and began to write a letter to the Directors back home. He had some bad news to break:
"And here we wish to our penn might bee sylent, but to our griefe it must imparte unto you a sad story, 
itt tending not only to the losse of a man, but the dishonour of our nation, and (which is incomparably worse) of our Christian profession; occasioned in Agra by ye damned apostacy of one of your servants,
Josua Blackwelle." Breton went onto describe how after prayers one Sunday, Blackwell had "privately conveighed himseife to the Governor of ye citty, who, being prepaired, with the Qazi and others attended his comeing; before whome hee most wickedly and desperately renounced his Christian ffaith and professed himself a Moore, was imediately circumcised, and is irrecoverably lost."
Blackwell was only twenty-three, the son of the King's Grocer at the Court of St. James. He had left home at the age of seventeen and early on had been sent to oversee the East India Company's trading post at the Mughul court of Agra. It was an important appointment, for this was the apex of the Mughal Golden Age, and from Agra the Emperor Shah Jehan ruled an Empire that covered most of India, all of what is today Pakistan and great chunks of Afghanistan; across the river from the small English community, the great white dome of the Taj Mahal was already rising from its plinth above the Jamuna. Blackwell was ambitious and he knew that the wealth of the Mughul Emperor surpassed that of any prince in Europe. The pain of circumcision, he must have reckoned, was a small price to pay for gaining access to such a bountiful fount of patronage.
Moreover, he had before him the example of several other Englishmen who had already converted and prospered in Mughal service. A trumpeter and a virginal-player brought out from England to entertain the Emperor in one of the very first diplomatic missions to the Mughul Court both converted and were made Mughal nobleman, as also-very probably-did one of the very first English envoys, Williams Hawkins; certainly, according to one shocked traveller, Hawkins had accepted a wife offered to him by the Emperor and "used altogether the customes of the Moores or Mahometans, both in his meate and drinke and other customes, and would seeme to bee discontente if all men did not the like...he was very fickle in his resolution, as alsoe of his religion." There was, moreover, an entire suburb of Delhi-Firingi Pura, The Town of the Foreigners, set aside for the battalion of renegade European mercenaries in Mughul service commanded by a French convert, Farrashish Khan.
Although this tendency to 'go native' in India has by and large been either ignored or suppressed by historians of the Raj, there was in fact nothing very new in all this. English merchants trading to the Middle East had been converting to Islam for centuries. Already, during the reign of Elizabeth there were considerably more Englishmen living in North Africa than in all the nascent North American colonies: five thousand English converts were resident in Algiers alone. When Charles II sent one Captain Hamilton to ransom a group who had been enslaved on the Barbary Coast, his mission was unsuccessful as they all refused to return: the men had all converted to Islam, risen in the ranks, and were now "partaking of the prosperous Successe of the Turks", living in a style to which they could not possibly have aspired back home. The frustrated Captain Hamilton was forced to return empty-handed: "They are tempted to forsake their God for the love of Turkish women," he wrote in his official report. "Such ladies are," he added, "generally very beautiful."
In such circumstances, British travellers of the period regularly brought back tales of their compatriots who had "donned the turban", and were now prospering in the Islamic world: one of the most powerful Ottoman eunuchs during the late sixteenth century, Hasan Aga, was the former Samson Rowlie from Great Yarmouth, while in Algeria the "Moorish Kings Executioner" turned out to be a former butcher from Exeter called 'Absalom' (Abd-es-Salaam). There was also the Ottoman general known as 'Ingliz Mustapha': in fact a Scottish Campbell who had embraced Islam and joined the Janissaries. As the ambassador Sir Thomas Shirely pointed out, the more time Englishmen spent in the East, the closer they moved to adopting the manners of the Muslims, "in everye 3 yeere that they staye in the East, they loose one article of theyre faythe."
During the eighteenth century, as the British power increased in India, and that of the Mughals declined, open conversions to Islam became less common, but the habit of 'going native' remained constant: in 1711 when Charles Lockyer visited Madras he was surprised to see that the governor behaved like one of the local princes: "He seldom goes abroad with less than fourscore persons arm'd, besides his English guards to attend him and Country Mustek [ie Indian music] enough to frighten a Stranger into Belief that the Men were mad; two Dubashes attend to cool him with Fans, and drive away the Flies, that otherwise would molest him; he is respected as a Prince by the Rajas of the country, and is in every respect as great."
Further inland, and further away from other Europeans, stranger transformations could take place. George Thomas was an Irish mercenary who carved out his own state in Haryana at the end of the eighteenth century, and was a possible model for Peachey in Kipling's Man Who Would be King. 'The Rajah from Tipperary' built himself a palace, minted his own coins and collected about him a very considerable harem, but in the process totally forgot how to speak English; when asked at the end of his career to dictate his autobiography, he said he would be happy to do so as long as he could speak in Persian or Hindustani "as from frequent use they had become more familiar than his native tongue".
Hinduism, and Hindu culture in general, proved less accessible to the British than Islam, at least partly because many Hindus regarded the British as untouchable, refusing to eat with them, so restricting somewhat the possibilities for social intercourse. Yet even this did not put off some of Hinduism's more ardent admirers, such as the Bengal army general known to his contemporaries as 'Hindoo Stuart'. Not much is known about this strange Irishman who came out to India in his teens, but he seems to have been almost immediately attracted to Hinduism and within a year of his arrival in Calcutta had adopted the practice-which he continued to his death-of walking every morning from his house to bathe in and worship the Ganges according to Hindu custom. The inventory of goods that Stuart left behind him when he died indicates the degree to which he wore Indian clothes and had taken on Indian customs such as chewing paan; it also details the huge number of statues of Hindu deities which Stuart appears to have worshiped. Certainly he built a Hindu temple at Saugor, and when he visited Europe in 1804 he took a collection of his Hindu household gods with him.
In 1808, he published a book called the Vindications of the Hindoos in which he tried to discourage any attempt by European missionaries to convert the Hindus, arguing that, as he put it, "on the enlarged principles of moral reasoning, Hinduism little needs the meliorating hand of Christianity to render its votaries a sufficiently correct and moral people for all the useful purposes of a civilized society." On the subject of Hindu mythology which the missionaries ridiculed at every turn, Stuart wrote "Whenever I look around me in the vast region of Hindoo Mythology, I discover piety in the garb of allegory: and I see Morality, at every turn, blended with every tale; and, as far as I can rely on my own judgement, it appears the most complete and ample system of Moral allegory that the world has ever produced."
Stuart was not just an admirer of the Indian religions, he was also an enthusiastic devotee of Indian fashions, and in the early years of the 19th century he wrote a series of improbable articles in the Calcutta Telegraph in which he tried to persuade the European women of Calcutta to adopt the sari on the grounds that it was so much more attractive than contemporary European fashions. Perhaps inevitably, the articles did not impress the Calcutta memsahibs, who wrote a series of angry letters to the editor denouncing Stuart as "an immoral libertine" with "enervated Oriental ideas". Later Stuart got into more serious trouble when he encouraged his seypoys to appear on parade with their brightly painted caste marks and full moustaches. The issue was taken up as high as the Commander in Chief who criticized Stuart for allowing his men to effect a "preposterous overgrowth of facial hair of Cheek Moustaches and immoderately large whiskers" which, he maintained, undermined discipline and multiplied the religious prejudices of the seypoys, "already numerous enough and sufficiently embarrassing to the Publick service."
When he died, Hindoo Stuart's collection of Hindu sculpture-the largest and most important ever amassed by a European-ended up in the British Museum where it still forms the core of the Oriental collection. Stuart himself was buried in the Christian cemetery in South Park Street-but with his idols in his coffin and under a tomb which takes the form of a Hindu temple, with a carved stone gateway, the recesses on each side of which were occupied by figures of the Goddess Ganga, Prithvi Devi.
By the early 19th century, senior British officials had to be more circumspect about their sympathies, but the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident at the court of Hyderabad shows what was possible if you were discrete. While at Hyderabad Kirkpatrick fell in love with Khair-un-Nissa ('Excellent among Women'), the great niece of the Nizam's principal general. They were married in 1800 according to Muslim law. Apparently Khair-un- Nissa fell for Kirkpatrick when she saw him out riding through the streets of Hyderabad. Kirkpatrick initially turned away an old woman sent to press the girl's suit, after which Khair- un-Nissa herself entered his zenana, along with her mother and grandmother, ostensibly to visit Kirkpatrick's concubines. There followed, so Kirkpatrick wrote to his brother, a "long nocturnal interview", when he had "a full and close survey of her lovely person" while being strong enough, as he put it, to "safely pass the fiery ordeal…I, who was but ill qualified for the task, attempted to argue the romantic young creature out of her passion which I could not, I confess, help feeling something more than pity for. She declared to me again and again that her affections had been irrevocably fixed on me, and that her fate was linked to mine." Shortly afterwards, he wrote to his brother, "the ultimate connection took...I must have been something more or less than man to have held out any longer."
When word of Kirkpatrick's marriage reached London it caused great alarm as it was assumed- correctly-that Kirkpatrick had become a Muslim in order to marry her. The Governor General ordered an inquiry, but the matter was allowed to die down due to Kirkpatrick's exceptional success in persuading the Nizam to expel the French from Hyderabad: in a bloodless coup, 14,000 French trained seypoys surrendered to Kirkpatrick's small bodyguard. What Calcutta never discovered is that in order to gain permission to marry Khair-un-Nissa, Kirkpatrick seems to have sworn to "give an unequivocal support to his Highness's Government so long as he remained Resident, and also to remain grateful for ever"-in other words, if the Indian chronicles are to be believed, to have more or less become a double agent.
Khair-un-Nissa's two children- who in Hyderabad had been brought up as Muslims with the names Saheb Allum and Saheb Begum-were sent to school in England and baptised at Dover; but long after the deaths of both their parents, they continued to correspond from Brighton with their Hyderabad grandmother, Sharif-un-Nissa ('Most Noble of Women'), who wrote in Persian on paper sprinkled with gold dust and enclosed in. a Kharita, a sealed gold brocade bag.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, with the increase of intermarriage and concubinage across racial and religious boundaries, the question of what to do with such children of mixed marriages reached a peak. The Bengal Wills in the India Office Library show that well over a third of Englishmen in India at this period were leaving their goods to one or more Indian companions.
Perhaps the most unabashedly enthusiastic keeper of harems at this period was Sir David Ochterlony. Although the people of Delhi knew Ochterlony as 'Loony Akhtar' (or Crazy Star), when in the Indian capital he liked to be addressed by his full Mughal title, Nasir-ud-Daula (the Defender of the State) and to live the life of a Mughal gentleman. Every evening all thirteen of his Indian wives used to process around Delhi behind their husband, each on the back of her own elephant. A miniature survives depicting an evening's entertainment at the Delhi Residency. Ochterlony is dressed in Mughal Jama, reclined against a spread of pillows and bolsters. To one side stands a servant with a flywhisk; on the other stands Ochterlony's elaborate glass hookah. Above, from the picture rail, portraits of the resident's Scottish ancestors- kilted and plumed colonels from Highland Regiments, grimacing ladies in white taffeta dresses-peer down disapprovingly over the group of dancing ladies below them. Ochterlony, however, looks delighted.
Beneath this very jolly exterior seems to have lain the sort of tensions that affect anyone who straddles two very different and diverging worlds. One of the most moving of Ochterlony's letters concerns his two daughters, and the question of whether he should bring them up Muslim or Christian. If Christian, he worries that they would be constantly derided for their 'dark blood', but Ochterlony hesitates to bring them up as Muslim, with a view to marrying them into the Mughal aristocracy as "I own I could not bear that my child should be one of a numerous haram even were I certain that other Disadvantages attended this mode of disposal & were I proof against the observations of the World who tho' unjust to the children, would not fail to comment on the Conduct of a father who educated his offspring in Tenets of the Prophet." This letter, which was written to another Scot in a similar position who had opted to bring up his children as Muslims, ends rather movingly "In short my dear Major I spent all the time since we were parted in revolving this matter in my mind but I have not yet been able to come to a positive Decision."
Such letters reveal an extraordinary split between the public and the private face that you find so often in the Raj. Just as a million diverse Indians working for the British had to somehow split their official loyalty to their employers with their private fears and hopes for their own culture and religion, so we have in Ochterlony, the most successful British soldier of his day, a similar division of loyalties: by day he is a General working to expand the dominions of the East India Company, by night, at home amongst his family, he worries whether to bring up his children Muslims or Christians, laments the racism of his colleagues and sits awake wondering whether his beloved daughter would be better off in the harem of a Mughal prince or married to some British subaltern.
Towards the end of his life Ochterlony began to construct Mubarak Bagh, an extraordinary garden tomb in the Mughal garden he had built for his senior most wife, Mubarak Begum, herself a convert to Islam from Hinduism (she was born a Brahmin in Pune). Although the tomb has now disappeared, pictures of it show that the building in some ways represents a sort of resolution of Ochterlony's worries. The central dome was clearly modelled on that of James Skinner's Delhi church, St. James, and was surmounted by a cross; but the sidewings were enclosed in a forest of small late Mughal minarets: the perfect architectural expression of the religious fusion which Ochterlony seems to have achieved in his marriage. In the event, Ochterlony died away from Delhi and was buried in Meerut, while the empty tomb appears to have been destroyed during the upheavals of 1857. But it is an extraordinary and completely forgotten moment in architectural history: the last of the great Mughal garden tombs-a tradition that reached its finest moments in Humayan's Tomb and the Taj-being built not by the last Mughal but by a Brit.
The passing of Ochterlony marked the end of an era. The rise of the Victorian Evangelicals and the coming of the Memsahibs between them killed off the intermingling of Indian and British ideas, religion and way of life but led to the surprisingly vibrant-if now utterly forgotten-multi-culturalism of the East India Company.
What happened to Ochterlony's Begum after his death shows how quickly the world of the White Mughals disappeared. Rejected by the Brits, she married a Mughal officer named Vilayat Ali Khan and fought on the Indian side during the Uprising of 1857. Afterwards, her estates-and even the garden named after her-were confiscated by the British and she died in poverty.

The Uprising led to massive bloodshed, with great numbers of lives lost on either side. Afterwards, nothing could ever be as it was. With the British victory, and the genocidal spate of hangings and executions that followed, the entire top rank of the Mughal aristocracy was swept away and British culture was unapologetically imposed on India; at the same time the wholesale arrival of the Memsahibs ended all open sexual contact between the nations. The White Mughals died out and their very existence was later delicately erased from embarrassed Victorian history books; they have since been studiously ignored by postcolonial historians.
By the end of the 19th century it was possible for Kipling to write that "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet." It is fashionable to laugh at Kipling today; but at a time when respectable academics talk of a Clash of Civilisations, and East and West, Islam and Christianity appear to be heading for another major confrontation, the resuscitation of this fascinating and unlikely group who successfully reconciled both worlds is now more timely than ever.

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