Untold lives blog

« May 2015 | Main | July 2015»

13 posts from June 2015

15 June 2015

A tragic tale from Mysore

In 1838 Lumbany Gungah Naik stood trial before Mysore District Commissioner Sir Mark Cubbon accused of two murders.

The first charge concerned the death of Dhakeyah on the road between Nittur and Bagoor on 13 April 1838. Both Lumbany Gungah Naik and Dhakeyah had been drinking and they started to quarrel.   In a state of intoxication, Lumbany Gungah Naik beat his companion with a bludgeon.  Dhakeyah died of his injuries.

The second charge concerned the death of Lumbany Gungah Naik’s wife the next day.  He was proceeding under custody for murder when he ‘seized his Wife and plunged her into a well whereby she was drowned’.

  Kankanhalli River, Mysore
Kankanhalli River, Mysore by Elisha Trapaud (1799)  Online Gallery   Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Evidence was heard and the prisoner found guilty of causing the death of his friend and drowning his wife but, perhaps surprisingly, he was not sentenced to death. Cubbon decided on life imprisonment because of circumstances which suggested that the prisoner was not a wilful murderer.  Dhakeyah had provoked his companion and both were drunk. Lumbany Gungah Naik and his wife knew that they were in disgrace and danger because of his committal for murder.  They either decided to commit suicide together at the well, or the prisoner had formed and executed the plan alone, excited by the bhang to which he was addicted.  It was certain that he had embraced his wife for the last time before throwing himself into the water with her. It was just unlucky that the guards managed to save the man, but could not reach his wife.

At the end of the case report it was noted: ‘The Commissioner has accordingly remitted the capital sentence, but considering the dangerous and dissolute habits of the Prisoner, has passed the lesser one of Imprisonment, lest more mischief happen, thro’ either his wickedness or intemperance’.

Dorota Walker
Assistant Web Archivist 

Further reading:
IOR/F/4/1842/77250 Papers regarding the administration of Mysore


11 June 2015

Death of armed robbers in India

In British India, it was the responsibility of the Political Agents to report on matters of law and order concerning the Princely States. The collections of the Board of Control in the India Office Records are full of such reports, and they often give fascinating accounts of the efforts of the authorities, whether it was British officials or the servants of Indian Maharajahs, to bring criminals to justice.

One such report was forwarded to the Bombay Government by Captain W Lang, Political Agent in the Mahi Kantha, in August 1843. The report, and attached depositions, describes the efforts to bring some armed robbers to justice by horsemen of the Raja of Ahmednagar and a group of local people.

Purriar Meenas tribe in Rajasthan

A group of four men of the Purriar Meenas tribe in Rajasthan, photographed by Eugene Clutterbuck Impey in the early 1860s Online Gallery Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The three robbers, mounted on camels, set upon a group of Udaipur Banyans a couple of miles from Ahmednagar, plundering them of two camel loads of property. A party of the Raja’s sowars were quickly sent off in pursuit with explicit orders to bring back the stolen property even at the risk of their own lives. With the help of a local guide, who amazingly was only 13 years old, they quickly discovered the robbers who had halted for the day in a deep ravine near the village of Polajpur. Devy Singh, the Jemadar leading the sowars, approached the robbers and asked them to lay aside their weapons and surrender. They replied that “their weapons would be given only with their lives and that if he were strong enough to take them to come on”. The Jemadar promptly opened fire, and in the ensuing firefight Devy Singh was shot in the head and killed. The remaining sowars then recruited some of the villagers to help them take the robbers into custody. However the bandits put up a determined resistance, and in the fierce fighting which took place all three robbers were killed, along with three of the villagers. The report also notes that one of the Raja’s horses was killed.

Mahratta horseman

'A Mahratta Horseman, Sketched in the Camp' from James Forbes' Oriental Memoirs (1813) Online Gallery Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

By chance Captain Lang was camped near Ahmednagar, and was able to carry out an immediate investigation of the incident. He could discover little about the robbers except that they were Hindu and probably Rajputs from Marwar or the desert tracts beyond that Province. Captain Lang recommended that the Raja be presented with an Arab stallion from the Government Stud as a reward for the efficient measures he took for pursuing the robbers and that 500 rupees be made available in order that some provision could be made for the families of the slain villagers. Unfortunately the Bombay Government saw no reason why they should incur such an expense, and instead ordered that the “high satisfaction of Government may be expressed to the Raja of Ahmednagar with the energy displayed by those employed under his orders”. The villagers were advised to claim salvage from the owners of the stolen property.

John O’Brien

India Office Records

Further Reading:
Affairs of the Mahee Caunta [Mahi Kantha], Vol 6: Case of three robbers who were put to death by a party of Ahmednagar sowars and from whom certain stolen property was recovered by these horsemen [IOR/F/4/2070/95181]


09 June 2015

Selling archives by the pound

On International Archives Day, here is a tale guaranteed to send a shudder down the spine of all archivists.  It involves the East India Company, some records from Bombay, and a ham shop.

James Wood worked in the Secretary’s Office at East India House in London.  In February 1798 Wood’s fellow clerk Joseph Hillman went to a nearby shop in Fenchurch Street to buy some ham. As he waited, Hillman’s eye was caught by some paper laid on a ham. He recognised it as being Bombay correspondence belonging to the Company records. Hillman asked shopkeeper William Hales to give him a sheet of the paper which he took back to the office. A search revealed that a number of records were missing.  More Company papers were found at the shopkeeper’s house and Hales identified Wood as the man who had sold him the papers.  Wood was arrested and charged with stealing a written paper book ‘bolted in leather’ valued at two shillings and 5lb weight of paper also valued at two shillings.

Joint of ham on a plate

Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The trial was held at the Old Bailey on 18 April 1798. Hales gave evidence that Wood had been selling paper to him for three or four years, receiving 9d for 3lb of paper.

East India Company registrar Matthew Wall told the court that the papers found at the ham shop had not been locked away but kept in the office where Wood worked. About 50 books were missing, some very important.

        Example of ltter received from Bombay 1789
 IOR/E/4/471 Letters received from Bombay 1788-1792 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Wood pleaded not guilty and threw himself on the mercy of the court, drawing attention to his six small children.  He claimed that papers and books were given away at East India House – this was denied by Wall.  Wood said that his desk was ‘in as public a place as the Royal Exchange, where there are all comers and goers passing and repassing from six in the morning to nine at night, where hundreds of papers and books are lying, and have been lying about the floor for several years; books of the same kind, that every body can look at as they pass by, and take away as they please; and, because I am a poor unfortunate man, it is laid to my charge’.

The jury found Wood guilty and he was sentenced to seven years’ transportation.  However in May 1798 a petition in support of Wood was sent to the Home Office by 17 people from Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Bank, St George’s Field, and Southwark.  The grounds given for clemency were: Wood’s service of 18 years with the East India Company; his previous good character; this being his first offence;  his wife and six children needing to be supported; his age (45 years) and infirmity.  The Company directors made known their 'wish to decline interfering on the occasion'.  The petition was successful and a free pardon was granted to Wood on 3 August 1798.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Old Bailey trial of James Wood 18 April 1798 The whole proceedings of the Sessions of the Peace, and Oyer and Terminer for the City of London and County of Middlesex (London, 1730-1824) or via Old Bailey Online
The National Archives: HO 47/22/39 Petition on behalf of James Wood, May 1798


04 June 2015

The Journals of Thomas Machell

Thomas Machell’s remarkable five volume journals, spanning 1840-56, provide a unique view on mid-19th century life in India and elsewhere, with quirky illustrations enhancing their charm and importance.

Machell Journal cover

India Office Private Papers: MSS Eur B369 


Born in the Yorkshire town of Beverley in 1824 with a physical disability, Machell was destined to spend his life there, ‘pushing a quill in an office’. He had other ideas, however, and at twelve ran away from home, demonstrating his desire for adventure. Four years later he left the comfortable family rectory for good to follow his childhood dream of travelling to the East, and until his death at thirty-eight was eyewitness to many important historical events overseas.

Machell dubs his journals his ‘talking papers’. Written as extended letters addressed to ‘you’ (his beloved father) they speak directly to the reader, revealing exceptional empathy and unconventional, percipient observations. With his deep fascination with local life and customs, wildlife, education and religions, Machell provides a lively outsider’s alternative account of life in the era of the British Raj. 

In 1840 he sailed as midshipman on an East Indiaman around the Cape of Good Hope to Calcutta (Kolkata) where, unexpectedly, his ship was hired by the British Army to carry troops to the infamous ‘First Opium War’. He saw Hong Kong transformed from a fishing village into an international trading centre, and was present at the 1842 signing of the treaty of Nanking. Though marked for life by war’s brutality, he also relished exotic scenes, vividly recording his experiences in words and watercolour sketches.

  Dancers from Machell Journal

India Office Private Papers: MSS Eur B369


In 1844 he sailed ‘before the mast’ on a barque transporting coal from Newcastle, around Cape Horn to the South Seas islands of the Marquesas, to fuel French steamships patrolling their newest Polynesian colony.  He fell in love with a cannibal chief’s daughter but had to return to Britain. En route to Bristol his ship collected a cargo of South American guano, passed through the Magellan Straits, and rescued two missionaries stranded in Tierra del Fuego.

In 1846 Machell returned to India - ‘the land of my destiny’ - where he worked on Bengal’s colonial indigo plantations, with frequent visits to Calcutta, before moving southwest to manage pioneering coffee estates in the Malabar Hills. He also undertook two intrepid voyages, one up the Indus River to Kashmir and the North West Frontier and the other by dhow from Calcutta to Suez, assuming an Arab alias to spend six months travelling with Muslim merchants. After the 1857 ‘Indian Mutiny’/’Sepoy Uprising’, he managed bullock trains transporting goods across Central India and died near Narsimhapur in 1862.


  Page from Machell's Journal illustrated with ships and boats

India Office Private Papers: MSS Eur B369

Machell wanted to be heard. He aspired to be a ‘travel writer’ and planned a book on indigo and ‘a novel in the form of an autobiography’. In 1851 he wrote: ‘…mayhap the words carelessly written at Rooderpore factory will be lighted upon in some musty library in the twentieth century’.

I lighted upon them in the British Library in 1999, thanks to the word ‘indigo’, and have spent many years researching Machell’s life and retracing his footsteps.  I found my life to have had striking parallels with Machell’s, not least travels to and within India, a career in indigo, and a passion for journal writing.

Jenny Balfour Paul
Hon. Research Fellow, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University
Fellow, Royal Geographical Society, Royal Asiatic Society and Explorers Club

Further reading:
India Office Private Papers: MSS Eur B369 Journals of Thomas Machell
Thomas Machell


02 June 2015

The unauthorised mission of Samuel Manesty

The history of the East India Company’s (EIC) Residency in Bushire has its controversial figures, and Samuel Manesty (1758-1812) was certainly not the least of these. Readers of John Gordon Lorimer’s Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia will notice that Manesty is listed as the only self-appointed Resident at Bushire.

List of Residents at Bushire
IOR/L/PS/20/C91/2, f 1469 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

On 20 July 1802, Fatḥ ʻAlī Shāh’s ambassador, Ḥājjī Khalīl Khān, was accidentally shot and killed in an affray in Bombay, while on his way to Calcutta to present his credentials to the Governor-General of Fort William and Bengal, Richard Colley Wellesley. Fearing the Shah’s revocation of the Treaty of Alliance, which had been negotiated by John Malcolm in 1801, Wellesley drafted a letter of apology, which was to be delivered in person by the Bushire Resident.

The letter would not reach the Shah until July 1804, when it was delivered, not by the EIC’s appointed Resident, Jonathan Henry Lovett, but by Manesty, who had been the Resident at Basra since 1784. Lovett, ill of health and fearing for his life (he had heard rumours that whoever delivered the letter would be beheaded), suggested to the older and more experienced Manesty that they change places. Both men informed their superiors in London and India before doing so, but they acted without awaiting a response.

Manesty reached Bushire on 18 January 1804, and left there with the letter (and a considerable entourage) on 25 February. He reached Shiraz in mid-March and stayed there for six weeks. Considering himself to be Malcolm’s successor, Manesty wrote letters to a range of powerful recipients – including the Prime Minister in London, the President of the Board of Control, the Chairman of the EIC and the Governor-General – in which he boasted of his diplomatic achievements.

  City of Shiraz
From James Silk Buckingham, Travels in Assyria, Media, and Persia (London, 1830)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Soon afterwards Manesty set off for the Shah’s summer camp at Solţānīyeh, and arrived there on 2 July 1804. He reported that the Shah had received him within fifteen hours of his arrival and had been convinced of the accidental nature of the death of his ambassador.

While returning to Basra via Baghdad, Manesty learned that the Governor-General was refusing to honour his bills and that his mission was being perceived as unauthorised. Manesty travelled to Bombay and to Calcutta to justify his actions and claim expenses amounting to over seven lakhs of rupees.

Whilst Lovett (who died soon afterwards at sea) was found guilty of exceeding his instructions, Manesty avoided dismissal. He resumed his position as Resident at Basra and did eventually receive reimbursement for all but a small number of his bills.

Manesty managed to hold on to his post until August 1809, when the Court of Directors, following complaints of Manesty’s repeated insubordination from both Bombay and Calcutta, ordered his dismissal. 

List of Residents at Basra
IOR/L/PS/20/C91/2, f 1475 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

News of his dismissal reached him in April 1810, but Manesty managed to delay his departure until the end of that year. He returned to England with his Armenian wife and their children, travelling overland to Constantinople and sailing on from there. They reached London on 17 May 1812, and stayed at the house of Manesty’s friend, the former Bombay merchant and banker Sir Charles Forbes, at Fitzroy Square, London. It was there where, just over a month later, on 23 June 1812, Manesty, disgraced and destitute, died, apparently by his own hand.

David Fitzpatrick
Cataloguer, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership


Further reading:
Denis Wright, ‘Samuel Manesty and his Unauthorised Embassy to the Court of Fath Ali Shah’, Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies, 24 (1986)
John Gordon Lorimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf: Volume I: Historical, Part II (1915)
Robin P Walsh, ‘Manesty, Samuel (1758–1812)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2010)



Untold lives blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs