Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

07 February 2023

The will of Chaund Bebee or Bebee Shore

Whilst researching in the India Office Records I came across the will of Chaund Bebee, commonly known as Bebee Shore.  Chaund Bebee was described as a single woman and a ‘Mussulmannee’ who died on 17 July 1836 at Entally, a suburb of Calcutta.  The will, dated 9 January 1836, shows that she was the mother of the India-born ‘natural’ children of John Shore, who became Governor General of Bengal and later Baron Teignmouth.  Biographers of Shore mention his Indian mistress and her children but none appear to have discovered her identity.

Beginning of will of Chaund Bebee or Bebee Shore

Will of Chaund Bebee, commonly called Bebee Shore, British Library IOR/L/AG/29/58

Chaund Bebee stated that she had lived in Calcutta for the past 56 years.  She owned a number of houses in Entally and in Hastings Place Calcutta, as well as a piece of land in Chuckerbear in Panchanogram near Calcutta. Half of this land was to be retained as a place for her burial with a monument.

The only one of her four children by John Shore mentioned in the will is George Shore, born in 1785.  Chaund Bebee said that her son George had recently obtained an increase of fortune and was well off in the world.  He therefore did not need any pecuniary gift or legacy from her, but she left him a ring which had belonged to his father, the late Lord Teignmouth. She asked him to wear it as a testimony of her natural love and affection. Her daughter Eliza Cordelia Sheriff would point out the ring to George.

Eliza Cordelia was the daughter of Chaund Bebee and Charles Rothman, a Calcutta businessman.  According to her baptism record, Eliza was born on 20 April 1802.  On 6 November 1815 she married James Urquhart Sherriff, who worked as an assistant in the Mint and then as a house builder.  James died in 1832.

The main beneficiaries of Chaund Bebee’s will were Eliza and her eight children, Eliza, Henrietta Rothman, James Charles, Margaret Euphemia, Robert William, Hannah Sophia, David, and George Hill.  Chaund Bebee stipulated that her property be sold and the proceeds invested for the benefit of her daughter ‘exclusively of any husband she may chance to marry who is not to intermeddle therewith’.  After Eliza’s death, the eight grandchildren were to share the interest or dividends.  Chaund Bebee’s servants were also given legacies.

Probate was granted by the Supreme Court of Judicature at Calcutta to William Upton Eddis and Eliza Cordelia Sherriff on 19 July 1836.  John Chatter swore that the will had been prepared on the instruction of Chaund Bebee, and that he had explained the contents to her in Hindustani.  She had signed each of the eleven pages of the will with her mark.

George Shore’s siblings were: John born c. 1777; Francis born c. 1781; and Martha born c. 1783.  Martha and Francis had predeceased Chaund Bebee, dying in September and November 1834 respectively.  Perhaps George’s inheritance from his brother Francis was the ‘increase of fortune’ to which Chaund Bebee referred?  Both John and George were living in London at the time of their mother’s death, although there is evidence that George was based in Bengal during the 1820s.

Future Untold Lives blog posts will look at the lives of Chaund Bebee’s children in more detail.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Will of Chaund Bebee, commonly called Bebee Shore, British Library IOR/L/AG/29/58, with an inventory of her estate IOR/L/AG/34/27/114.
Baptism of Eliza Cordelia, natural daughter of Charles Rothman, born 20 April 1802, British Library IOR/N/1/6 f.180.
Baptism of George, natural son of John Shore, born 1 July 1785, British Library IOR/N/1/4 f.52.

Digital images of these documents are available via Findmypast.

 

 

01 February 2023

George Edward Dessa: Lord Lytton’s Would-be Assassin

In a previous blog post I wrote of an assassination attempt on Lord Lytton, Viceroy of India.  I was asked if I could find out more about George Edward Dessa (sometimes written De Sa), the would-be assassin.

Contemporary press reports follow Dessa’s arrest in December 1879, his trial in 1880, and his subsequent transfer to Bhowanipore (Bhawanipur) Lunatic Asylum, as he was deemed to be mentally ill.  Press accounts paint a picture of a confused individual who held a grudge against the Government, believing it to owe him money as compensation for wrongful imprisonment.  The language used is somewhat lurid.  George appears to have stayed at Bhowanipore as a long-term patient.  Our records show that George died there of heart failure on 8 February 1913, age 68, and was buried at the Roman Catholic Military Cemetery at Fort William, Calcutta.

Burial entry for George Edward Dessa 9 February 1913Burial entry for George Edward Dessa 9 February 1913 IOR/N/1/387 page 229  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Originally a private institution, Bhowanipore was managed by the Bengal Government as an asylum for Europeans and those of European descent.  A report giving a snapshot of conditions at Bhowanipore in 1887 can be found online and Annual Reports have been digitised by the National Library of Scotland

File cover of IOR/L/PJ/6/7 File 339 ‘Case of G E Dessa: Attempted Murder of Viceroy of India and Col Sir George Colley’File cover of IOR/L/PJ/6/7 File 339 ‘Case of G E Dessa: Attempted Murder of Viceroy of India and Col Sir George Colley’  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Delving deeper, there is a file on George Dessa in the Public and Judicial Department records, which includes accounts given by his father, George Henry Dessa, and his brother William David Dessa.  What emerges is a picture of a family divided and torn by long-term mental health issues.  The father recounts how his son suffered bouts of ‘insanity’ from an early age, including hallucinations and paranoia.  Attempts to secure him work, including on the East Indian Railway, had all ended in dismissal due to ‘mental unsoundness’.  George’s last job at the Preventative Service, Customs Department, ended with him threatening to shoot his supervisor.  A brief spell in the Benares Lunatic Asylum followed.  His fixation with compensation from the Government stemmed from this ‘imprisonment’.  As well as threats to harm others, George had attempted to harm himself on at least two occasions by taking large doses of opium.  George senior describes how his son was no longer able to live with him: ‘I would not let him live with me because I was afraid of him… at times he is dangerous, but has lucid intervals’.  His brother William felt no longer able to speak to him.

Statement by William Dessa 23 December 1879Statement by William Dessa 23 December 1879 IOR/L/PJ/6/7 File 339  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It is clear from the accounts that the family firmly believed Dessa’s mental health struggles were genetic.  In the language of the day, George Henry Dessa described how his youngest (unnamed) son had died aged 12 ‘an idiot’, while his wife, Ann Elizabeth Dessa née Rogers, had also been a patient at Bhowanipore from 1849 to 1874.  Patient returns show that she was admitted on the recommendation from doctors, suffering from ‘imbecillitis’; in 1850 she is described as being in good physical health with a ‘more cheerful’ mental state.  On discharge, she went to live with her son William, who stated ‘She is harmless, but commits mischief. I keep her under lock and key at night. She would tear curtains etc. She does not know me’.  Ann died age 70 on 12 December 1888 of ‘old age’, and was buried in the cemetery attached to the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Calcutta.  Her husband predeceased her, having died at Howrah in 1881.

Burial entry for Ann Elizabeth Dessa 13 December 1888Burial entry for Ann Elizabeth Dessa 13 December 1888  IOR/N/1/206 page 380  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

We’ll share any further discoveries about the Dessa family on this blog. 

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/PJ/6/7 File 339 ‘Case of G E Dessa: Attempted Murder of Viceroy of India and Col Sir George Colley’, Feb-Mar 1880.
IOR/P/2957 Jul 1887 nos 43-49: Proposal of the Government of Bengal for providing increased accommodation in the Bhowanipore Lunatic Asylum, Jan 1887-Jul 1887.
IOR/P/14/5 nos. 44-45 Returns of public patients treated at Bhawanipur and Dullunda Asylums, 1849-50. 7 Aug 1850.
1867-1924 - Annual report of the insane asylums in Bengal - Medicine - Mental health - Medical History of British India - National Library of Scotland.
IOR/N/1/387 page 229 Burial entry for George Edward Dessa 9 February 1913 - Findmypast.
IOR/N/1/206 page 380 Burial entry for Ann Elizabeth Dessa 13 December 1888 -Findmypast.
For Bhawanipur Lunatic Asylum see Waltraud Ernst, ‘Madness and Colonial Spaces: British India, c1800-1947’ in Topp et al (eds.), Madness, Architecture and the Built Environment: Psychiatric Spaces in Historical Context (London: Routledge, 2007).
Accounts of George Dessa’s arrest, arraignment and subsequent trial can be followed in newspapers such as the Madras Weekly Mail (20 Dec 1879, 31 Dec 1879), The Illustrated Police News (10 Jan 1880), The Friend of India (21 Jul 1880) and The Homeward Mail (23 Sep 1880, 1 Oct 1880) available at the British Newspaper Archive, also via Find My Past.

The Attempted Assassination of Lord Lytton: A Letter’s Story

 

30 January 2023

Across the Heart of Arabia (2): H St John Philby, Intelligence Gathering and a Lasting Legacy

In his 1918 mission to Nejd, Philby’s task, as seen by British officialdom, was to gather intelligence on the area and establish a relationship with Ibn Sa’ud on whom the British had little information.  This information could then be used to further British political, economic and strategic interests in the area in the context of the expected demise of the Ottoman Empire.  In 1917-18 the Empire’s writ still held sway precariously in parts of the Arabian peninsula and the Middle East (in 1818 the Ottomans had destroyed Diriyah, the capital of an earlier iteration of the Saudi state).

Memo by Philby about the mission to Najd 1918IOR/R/15/5/66 f 66 ‘22/16 Mr Philby’s Mission to Najd – 1918.’

In 1918 a distilled report of the route taken and information gathered by the Najd Mission 1917-1918 including relations between Ibn Sa’ud and Kuwait and other Arabian potentates was compiled and published.

Philby and the repurposing of ‘colonial knowledge’

However, it seems reasonable to say that Philby did not adhere to the career path of a Colonial Office Intelligence Officer that would be most desired by the officials in London: in 1924 he resigned from the Colonial Office.  Through his deep interest in the Arabian Peninsula Philby was to convert to Islam in 1930 becoming Abdullah Philby and settling on an ongoing basis in Ibn Sa’ud’s domains.

Photograph of Philby used in his book The Heart of ArabiaPhotograph of Philby used in his book The Heart of Arabia (London Constable and Company Ltd, 1922) Public Domain

He advised Ibn Sa’ud as how to best manage relations with the British and other western powers as well as the international oil companies in Ibn Saud’s negotiations over petroleum rights and concessions.  The outcome of this took a decisive turn in London in 1932 on the eve of the proclamation of the consolidated Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (since 1927 Ibn Saud domains had been known as the Kingdom of Hijaz and Nejd and Dependencies).  In a meeting with Ibn Sa’ud’s son, Prince Faisal and adviser, Fuad Hamza, Sir Oliphant Lanceleot sent them away empty-handed after a plea for financial help to develop the oil reserves of the nascent state.

The legacy of Ibn Sa’ud and Philby

In helping Ibn Sa’ud with insider knowledge and advice to resist, negotiate with and deflect the power of the British Empire, Philby - whilst his role should not be overstated - contributed to the establishment and survival of Saudi Arabia which became a key state in the contemporary Middle East state system and global oil economy.  These developments were to come later but the relationship between Ibn Sa’ud and Philby started and was cemented in ‘Mr Philby’s Mission to Najd’ in 1917-18.

Crossing the Heart of Arabia

In a commemoration of this historical significance, 2023 sees another expedition crossing the heart of the Arabian peninsula retracing the original expedition Harry St John Philby made in 1917-18, both expeditions being made, in a coincidence of timing, around the time of global pandemics.  This contemporary team includes Reem Philby, the granddaughter of Harry St John (Abdullah) Philby.  This expedition will end when the team arrive in Jeddah at the end of the month. Like St John Philby’s original expedition, they have sought to undertake research in order to better understand the vast expanse of territory that makes up this still little known and even less-understood part of the world.  The involvement and influence of the Philby family in desert exploration and wilderness education lives on indeed, in the Heart of Arabia.

Francis Owtram
Gulf History Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership