Eastern Promise: Mughal India and the East India Company

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.

Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match c.1784-6 by Johan Zoffany. The Tate.
Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match c.1784-6 by Johan Zoffany. The Tate.

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.

A Sale of English Beauties in the East Indies. © The Trustees of the British Museum
A Sale of English Beauties in the East Indies. © The Trustees of the British Museum

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.

A Cheetah Hunt in Lord Wellesley's Park at Barrackpore by Charles D'Oyley, 1802, British Library, India Collection.
A Cheetah Hunt in Lord Wellesley’s Park at Barrackpore by Charles D’Oyley, 1802, British Library, India Collection.

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?

Major-General Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825), Soldier by Arthur William Devis; National Galleries of Scotland.
Major-General Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825), Soldier by Arthur William Devis; National Galleries of Scotland.

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.

Featured image

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.

Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match c.1784-6 by Johan Zoffany. The Tate.

A closer look at Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match

Today we are going to have a look at a painting (and its copies) which features Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s cousin, Colonel John Mordaunt.

John Mordaunt was one of the illegitimate sons born to Grace’s aunt Robinaiana Brown when she was the mistress of Charles Mordaunt, 4th Earl of Peterborough. The couple later married, as soon as his first wife had conveniently breathed her last, and managed a legitimate son and heir, Charles Henry who became, in time, the 5th and last Earl of Peterborough.

The elder sons were packed off to India to make their fortunes.

John Mordaunt (Jack to his friends) became a favourite at the court of the Asaf-ud-Daula, Nawab of Oudh in Lucknow, where the two men shared a love for the sport of cock-fighting, a brutal and barbaric activity; John had several gamecocks imported from England for this purpose. And so Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match shows a scene from the Nawab’s court with the two men engaged in this activity. Painted by Johan Zoffany c.1784-86 during his time in India, it was commissioned by Warren Hastings shortly before he resigned as the Governor-General of India. Hastings is not present in the picture but he was in attendance at John Mordaunt’s cockfight on the 5th April 1784, on which this painting is probably based. It is now held in the Tate in London.

Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match c.1784-6 by Johan Zoffany 1733-1810
Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match c.1784-6 by Johan Zoffany 1733-1810.
© The Tate

Jack Mordaunt was an easy-going and charming fellow, quite the male counterpart to his cousin Grace. He was in charge of the Nawab’s bodyguards and at the head of all the amusements of the court.

So, let’s have a closer look at some of the people in the people in the painting.

In the centre, we have Jack Mordaunt, dressed in white and holding out his hands in front of him. Asaf-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Oudh, is gesturing towards Mordaunt. In front of them are their two Cockfighters, Mordaunt’s wearing the red turban and the Nawab’s the white turban. Johan Zoffany placed himself in the painting at the far right-hand side (seated, dressed in white and holding a pencil or paintbrush, presumably to sketch the scene unfolding around him) and behind him with a hand on his shoulder is his friend Mr Ozias Humphry R.A.  Next to them, wearing a blue jacket and sitting, holding a hookah, is John Wombwell, an accountant. The man wearing a red coat and standing under the red canopy is Colonel Antoine Louis Polier (a Swiss soldier) and the gentleman seated on the white divan wearing a red military jacket is the Frenchman Colonel Claude Martin. He is talking to Trevor Wheeler who is holding his own gamecock.

In the bottom right-hand corner we find Mr Robert Gregory with a white gamecock in his hands (his father disinherited him for cock-fighting, reputedly after seeing an engraving of this painting after he had warned his son of the consequences if he continued to gamble on such fights). The rather plump Lieutenant W. Golding is sitting with his own gamecock and on the floor next to him, holding an empty box is Mr Gregory’s Cockfighter.

Nawab of Oudh, Asaf-Ud-Daula, Lucknow, India, c.1785-90 by a local artist after Zoffany (via Wikimedia)
Nawab of Oudh, Asaf-ud-Daula, Lucknow, India, c.1785-90 by a local artist after Zoffany (via Wikimedia)

Further details were later revealed. From the Tate’s information on the painting:

After its acquisition by the Tate the painting was cleaned, revealing new subtleties of colour, detail and meaning. The Nawab’s state of sexual arousal, his agitated pose and inclination towards his chief minister and favourite bodyguard Hassan Resa Khan (in the ornate red turban), add an erotic dimension to the nature of the cock fight. The vignette just behind the Nawab shows a bearded Hindu (in turban) fondling a Moslem boy catamite (in the white cap worn by Moslem men), to the outrage of the man in the red turban who must be restrained by a courtier. Lewis Ferdinand Smith recounted that the Nawab ‘has many adopted children, but none of his own’ – despite a harem of 500 beauties – and that towards his wife of sixteen years ‘he has never fulfilled the duties of a husband’ (quoted in Archer, p.144). This painting was perhaps Hastings’s select joke, a memento of his time in India.

Detail from the Tate copy.
Detail from the Tate copy.

One version of this painting was presented to the Nawab (presumably omitting the extra details above) and one to Hastings. Unfortunately, the ship in which it was later travelling on its homeward journey to England was lost at sea (Hastings was luckily on another ship) and so Zoffany painted a second version for him, the one pictured above. The Nawab’s copy was lost in the rebellion of 1857 (and is presumed destroyed) but a slightly different version, with fewer people in it, was given by the Nawab’s successor Ghazi-ud-din Haider to Richard Strachey who was the British Resident at Lucknow from 1815 to 1817. This copy, known as the Ashwick version and also painted by Zoffany, is still in a private collection.

The Ashwick version, from John Zoffany R.A., his Life and Works, 1735-1810.
The Ashwick version, from John Zoffany R.A., his Life and Works, 1735-1810.

Three further versions are in existence, all however painted much later than the original. One is an Indian version of the painting, c.1840 and possibly commissioned by John Elliot, the son of the 1st Earl of Minto who was Governor-General in India in the early nineteenth century. This painting was sold at Sotheby’s auction house in 2014. Interestingly, the 1st Earl of Minto, Sir Gilbert Elliot, was a contemporary of Colonel John Mordaunt’s and would more than likely have been aware of his Scottish ancestry. Sir Gilbert’s wife descended from the same Dalrymple family as Grace, and his sons were educated by the Scottish historian David Hume who was certainly aware of the Brown’s of Blackburn in Berwickshire from which both Jack Mordaunt and Grace were descended on their respective mothers’ side.

Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match, copy made c.1840
Colonel Mordaunt and Nawab Asaf al-Daula of Avadh 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.

An Indian artist in Lucknow, c.1800, made a reasonably faithful copy of Zoffany’s original. This is now in the Harvard Art Museum.

© President and Fellows of Harvard College Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, The Stuart Cary Welch Collection, Gift of Edith I. Welch in memory of Stuart Cary Welch
© President and Fellows of Harvard College
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, The Stuart Cary Welch Collection, Gift of Edith I. Welch in memory of Stuart Cary Welch

Lastly, a version which was again painted by a Lucknow artist, c.1830-35 and held by the British Library.

Painting of Asaf al-Daula (the Nawab of Awadh 1775-97) at a cock-fight, by a Lucknow artist, c. 1830-35. © The British Library
Painting of Asaf al-Daula (the Nawab of Awadh 1775-97) at a cock-fight, by a Lucknow artist, c. 1830-35.
© The British Library

We can’t conclude this without pointing out the similarity in appearance between Colonel John Mordaunt and his cousin Grace Dalrymple Elliott. Both were tall and slender, and we think we can see a distinct likeness in the profiles of their two faces. Do our readers agree?

Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match c.1784-6 by Johan Zoffany 1733-1810

You can find out more about Grace’s life and adventures and Colonel John Mordaunt and his time in India in our book.