We never initially set out to research Mughal India and the East India Company (EIC) but, time and time again, the people we were looking at took us east. It all started with the eighteenth-century courtesan, Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s family. Grace had a brother and three male cousins who all ventured to India in different capacities with the EIC. Perhaps best known of these is Colonel John (Jack) Mordaunt, who has been captured for posterity in the middle of a cock match against Asaf-ud-daula, Nawab Wazir of Oudh. Mordaunt, a keen cock-fighter, had imported birds from Europe which he thought were superior to those of the Nawab’s.
And as well as her male cousins out in India, Grace also had two female cousins – sisters – who travelled to the country on an ultimately successful husband-hunting trip. The EIC was concerned about its officers taking Indian women as wives and adopting Mughal dress and habits. In an effort to stem this, they encouraged British girls and young women to embark on ships for an Indian adventure and to provide suitable marriage material.
You can find more on Grace and her relations, who travelled the globe, in An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott.
Our second book, A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History, looks at the ancestors of the British royal family, specifically Anne Wellesley, her second husband Lord Charles Bentinck and their son, the Reverend Charles Cavendish Bentinck but, first, we examined Anne’s background. She was the daughter of Richard Colley Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington’s older brother) and Hyacinthe Gabrielle Rolland, a Parisian opera dancer whom the marquess fell in love with as a young man. Richard was posted to India as Governor-General but Hyacinthe Gabrielle, chronically afraid of the sea voyage, refused to accompany him, a decision which would ultimately lead to the break-up of their marriage.
And so we come to our latest book, A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs. Charlotte, as our heroine preferred to be known, fell in love when she was only sixteen years of age with a young lad who left her behind when he sailed to India in search of adventure, subsequently joining the EIC as a junior officer and rising to become a general and a baronet. This man, Sir David Ochterlony, remained Charlotte’s one true love throughout all her many adventures and exploits. Towards the end of their lives, David and Charlotte once again reached out to each other, albeit by letter and from one side of the globe to the other. Ochterlony, like so many before him, had ‘gone native’, dressing in flowing Mughal robes and smoking a hookah pipe while sitting cross-legged on his diwan, watching dancing girls. He could be spotted each evening with his multiple Indian wives, each atop an elephant as they perambulated around Delhi. Did Charlotte dare to dream that the only man she had ever loved would return to England to claim her, in her dotage?
If you’d like to discover more about Charlotte, all is revealed in our book. A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs is out now in the UK (and coming soon worldwide) and can be found at Pen & Sword, Amazon and all good bookshops.
Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs lived an incredible life, one which proved that fact is often much stranger than fiction. As a young woman she endured a tortured existence at the hands of a male tormentor, but emerged from that to reinvent herself as a playwright and author; a political pamphleteer and a spy, working for the British Government and later singlehandedly organising George III’s jubilee celebrations. Trapped in France during the revolutionary years of 1792-95, she published an anonymous account of her adventures. However, was everything as it seemed? The extraordinary Mrs Biggs lived life upon her own terms in an age when it was a man’s world, using politicians as her mouthpiece in the Houses of Parliament and corresponding with the greatest men of the day. Throughout it all though, she held on to the ideal of her one youthful true love, a man who abandoned her to her fate and spent his entire adult life in India. Who was this amazing lady?
In A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs, we delve into her life to reveal her accomplishments and lay bare Mrs Biggs’ continued re-invention of herself. This is the bizarre but true story of an astounding woman persevering in a man’s world.
Colonel Mordaunt and Nawab Asaf al-Daula of Oudh at a Cock Fight, Company School, Patna, circa 1840, after Richard Earlom’s mezzotint of Zoffany’s ‘Col. Mordaunt’s Cock Match’, via Sotheby’s website.