Untold lives blog

141 posts categorized "Women's histories"

10 June 2021

Sobriety and decorum - Passengers on East India Company ships

The movement of people on board East India Company ships to and from Asia was subject to strict rules in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The ships carried civilian employees, maritime and military personnel, non-official inhabitants, women, children, and Indian servants.  Large contingents of troops took their passage, both for the Company and Royal armies, and in 1708 the Company ordered that ship surgeons would be allowed 10 shillings for each soldier delivered alive in India.

 East Indiaman Essex at anchor in in Bombay HarbourEast Indiaman Essex at anchor in in Bombay Harbour by Francis Jukes (1785) British Library P493 Images Online

East India Company commanders were required to keep ‘true and exact diaries and journals of the ship’s daily proceedings’, including the names of passengers with the places where they entered and left the ship.  All passengers were issued with printed regulations established to preserve good order in Company ships, outward and homeward bound.  Commanders were to pay attention to comfortable accommodation and ‘liberal treatment’ of their passengers, setting an example of sobriety and decorum.  Diversity of characters and dispositions on board ship made some restraint necessary for all.  Good manners and known customs should prevail.  Commanders were to mediate in disputes between officers and passengers.

In 1819, the Company stated that the ‘wholesome practices’ formerly observed had been laid aside.  Late hours and the ‘consequent mischiefs’ had been introduced, endangering the ships and destroying propriety.  No fire was to be kept beyond 8pm unless in a stove for the use of the sick.  Candles were to be extinguished by 9pm between decks and by 10pm at the latest in cabins.  Lights must not be visible to any vessel passing in the night.  Passengers and officers were to leave the meal table at the same time as the commander.  One puncheon (84 gallons) of rum marked ‘Captain’s Table’ was sent on board for the commander and his servants, officers, and cabin passengers.  No other spirits were to be drawn from the ship’s stores by these groups.

Any commander carrying out or bringing home a passenger without the permission of the Company’s Court of Directors was fined: £500 for a European or for a native of India who was the child of a European; £20 for a male or female ‘black servant’, native of India or elsewhere.  The Company said it had incurred great expense returning to India servants who had been discharged by their masters and mistresses after being in England for some time.  Commanders must have a certificate of a deposit of £50 made for each ‘black servant’ or refuse to accept them.  Care was to be taken not to take on board European deserters from the Company armies.

Commanders charged those proceeding to India at their own expense for passage and a place at their table.  Rates were on a sliding scale according to rank, from £200 for an Army general to £80 for writers, lieutenants, ensigns, and single women, and £60 for cadets.

Baggage allowances were also given according to rank.  The return baggage from India, exclusive of bedding and a few pieces of cabin furniture, ranged from five tons for gentlemen of the Company Councils and generals, to one ton for writers, lieutenants, ensigns, single women, and other cabin passengers.  Additional tonnage was allocated for wives and families.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


Further reading:
Charles Cartwright, An Abstract of the Orders and Regulations of the Honourable Court of Directors of the East-India Company, and of Other Documents (London, 1788).
Instructions from the commanders of the East India Company's own ships to their officers, &c. (London, 1819)
IOR/L/MAR/B East India Company marine records 

 

03 June 2021

Most flattering prospects to perfect destitution – Samuel Benstead’s emigration to New York

In the 1830s, thousands of London warehouse labourers lost their jobs when the East India Company stopped all its commercial operations.  The men were given pensions, but some decided to apply for a lump sum in lieu of regular payments to enable them to emigrate with their families.  Sometimes this bold step was not as successful as the labourers believed it would be.

The Emigrant's Address - Illustrated cover of printed music showing a sailing shipThe Emigrant's Address by W Sanford - Illustrated cover of printed music (1853) Shelfmark H.1742.(3.)  © The British Library Board

Samuel Benstead retired from the Company’s Fenchurch Street tea warehouse in September 1834 aged 41 on a weekly pension of 7s 6d.  He couldn’t find work so he put in a request to commute his pension so he could emigrate to New York with his wife Frances Mary (Fanny) and their seven children.  Samuel had been a hosier before joining the Company and he planned to work in America as a slop seller  (a dealer in cheap ready-made clothing).  After rejecting his first application, the Company granted him a lump sum of £203 in February 1835.

Samuel had had to undergo a medical examination by a Company surgeon to prove that he was in good health and of temperate habits.  He had also submitted a certificate, signed by a doctor in Whitechapel, that he was sober and industrious and that there was a reasonable prospect that the large sum of money would be more useful to the family than a regular allowance.

In May 1838 Samuel wrote to the Company from America, petitioning for help. The family had arrived in New York in May 1835. Within a few weeks Samuel had set up business as grocer in New Jersey.  Then he was persuaded to invest in a ‘large concern’ and lost money.  He was reduced from ‘most flattering prospects to perfect destitution’.  Another child was born in 1836.

A second letter was sent by Samuel in July 1838, but this time from Limehouse Fields in London.  Help from a friend had enabled him to return on a Quebec packet ship.  When he landed after 3½ years’ absence, Samuel only had 6d in his pocket.  His two eldest sons had been left in America where he believed they would do well.  The Company turned down Samuel’s request for help.

In April 1840 Samuel petitioned the Company again, giving more details of what had happened in New York.  His business as grocer and general provision dealer was successful until May 1837 when it was hit by the ‘Panic’, a financial crisis in New York.  Almost all business was done on credit, and many hundreds of dollars were owed to Samuel.

Penniless and sick on his return to London, Samuel said that he now had a good opportunity in Jersey and asked the Company for a small sum to help him move his family there.  He claimed he had no other prospect on earth if he couldn’t get to Jersey.  The Company decided that Samuel’s request could not be considered, so in May 1840 his wife Frances sent another petition asking for help with transport costs.  This was also turned down.

The 1841 census shows Samuel, once more a hosier, living in Mile End Old Town with Frances and four of their children aged between four and twelve,  By 1851, Samuel was dead, and Frances was working as a nurse, still living in Mile End with a daughter and two sons.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Records about the Benstead family can be found in the India Office Family History Search and in IOR/L/F/1/2; IOR/L/F/2/30, 48 & 49; IOR/L/AG/30/4 & 5; IOR/L/MIL/5/485.

 

28 May 2021

Sadi, servant to the Sulivan family

On 11 July 1787 a young Indian servant named Sadi was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey after being convicted of stealing bank notes to the value of £400 from his employer Stephen Sulivan.  William Morris was tried for receiving the stolen notes and was defended by barrister William Garrow.  Morris was also found guilty by the jury, but sentencing was delayed in his case because of a legal uncertainty.

View of the scaffold and gallows outside the north quad of Newgate Prison; a screen on the right leading up to entrance to scaffold  with gallows over platform.‘A Perspective View of the temporary Gallows in the Old Bailey’ 1794 © The Trustees of the British Museum Asset number 765670001 - View of the scaffold and gallows outside the north quad of Newgate Prison; a screen on the right leading up to entrance to scaffold, with gallows over platform.

Sadi, also known as George Horne, was a footboy in the Sulivan household in Harley Street, London.  Stephen Sulivan’s father Laurence had been a prominent East India Company director and politician.  Having served the East India Company in Madras and Calcutta, Stephen returned to England in the summer of 1785 with his wife Elizabeth and son Laurence.  The Sulivans brought Sadi with them as he had attended Laurence since his birth in January 1783 and was a favourite of the family.  They wished to preserve Sadi’s ‘simple manners’ and ‘innocent mind’ from corruption by their other servants so he stayed in the nursery, eating and sleeping with his charge.  He had unrestrained access to the private apartments of the house.

However in 1787, Sadi began behaving with ‘repeated irregularities’.  The Sulivans dismissed the young man, intending to send him back to India.  Whilst awaiting a passage in an East Indiaman, Sadi was sent to lodge with Thomas Saunders, the assistant keeper of the East India Company’s tea and drug warehouse.

It came to light that Sadi had been stealing from the Sulivans for two years – muslins, silks, calicos, linen, pearls, clothing, and a special shawl belonging to Elizabeth.  The stolen goods were passed on to other servants in the house who encouraged Sadi to continue with his thefts.  He stole four guineas without being detected and then one bank note for £1,000 and two for £200.  When Sadi showed the £1,000 note to two of his fellow servants, they told him it was too great a sum to pass on without detection.  After keeping it for some days, he threw it under the kitchen grate where it was found by the housekeeper who gave it to Elizabeth.  The notes for £200 were sold by Sadi for a guinea to William Morris, formerly butler to Stephen’s father.

Elizabeth called on Sadi at his lodgings.  He burst into tears and made a full confession, directing her to Morris’s home in Petticoat Lane.  She went there with a constable and Morris’s wife handed over the two bank notes.

Other servants of the Sulivans were also arrested and charged with receiving stolen goods: Thomas Absalom, his wife Martha, and Catherine Smith.  Martha Absalom was apprehended at Maidenhead in Berkshire and found to have property belonging to Elizabeth Sulivan.

On 24 August 1787, the King granted Sadi a reprieve from the death sentence passed on him.  The young Indian remained in Newgate prison but he died shortly afterwards on 9 December.  The death rate in Newgate was extremely high in the late 1780s because of severe overcrowding and an outbreak of ‘gaol fever’ (epidemic typhus).

A few days after Sadi’s death, the case of William Morris was finally settled. He was discharged because the judges agreed with his defence counsel that the bank notes he had received could not be classified as goods and chattels, the term used in the charge against him.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
The case is reported in Old Bailey Online and in the British Newspaper Archive (also available via Findmypast), for example Hampshire Chronicle 4 June 1787, Bury and Norwich Post 6 June 1787, Derby Mercury 7 June 1787 and 13 December 1787, Kentish Gazette 24 July 1787, Sheffield Register 1 September 1787.

 

26 May 2021

A Scandalous Annotation: the story of Madame Grand

On 10 July 1777 a marriage was recorded in the Bengal Parish Registers between ‘Mr Francis Grand, writer in the Hon'ble Company’s Service and Miss Varle of Chandernagore’.  Sometime afterwards, the register was annotated in a different hand ‘This is the famous Madame Grand, afterwards wife of Talleyrand’. 

Entry in church register for marriage of Francis Grand to Catherine Varle 1777Register entry for marriage of Francis Grand and Catherine Varle  IOR/N/1/2 Bengal Baptisms, Marriages, Burials (1755-1783), f.275 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Annotations of this sort in official registers are highly unusual, and someone thought Madame Grand famous (or infamous) enough to add the note.  So, what was the story of Madame Grand?

Nöel Catherine Werlée (sometimes Worlée, Verlée or Varle) was born in Tranquebar – sources put her date of birth as 21 November 1761 or 1762.  She was the daughter of Peter John Werlée, Capitaine du Port, and had both Danish and French heritage.  She met George Francis Grand in Bengal at Ghireti House, home of Monsieur Chevalier, Governor of the French Settlement at Chandernagore, and the couple formed an attachment.  At the time of her marriage to Grand in 1777, Catherine would have been in her mid-teens.  In Narrative of a life of a gentleman… Grand writes ‘…never did a union commence with more brightening prospects.  On our parts, it was pure and disinterested, and blessed with the sincerest attachment’. 

The garden front of Ghireti House, near Chandernagore,Bengal - a large white house standing in open space. A lady is arriving being carried in a chair by Indian menThe garden front of Ghireti House, near Chandernagore, Bengal by Samuel Davis WD968  © British Library Images Online

Despite settling down to married life in Calcutta, the couple’s happiness was not to last.  The young Catherine Grand came to the attention of the notorious politician Philip Francis, and on 8 December 1778, Grand returned home to the news that Francis had been apprehended in his house after attempting to seduce his wife.  Grand acted swiftly to banish Catherine to her family in Chandernagore, and to successfully sue Francis for ‘criminal conversation’ or adultery in court, receiving a judgement of 50,000 sicca rupees.

Catherine Grand appears to have lived at Hooghly under the protection of Philip Francis during 1779.   Perhaps having been rejected by her husband she felt she had little choice.  The affair was not to last, and Madame Grand did not stay in India, leaving for Europe in December 1780.  By 1783 she was in Paris, where she was painted by Élisabeth Vigeé Le Brun. 

Painting of Madame Grand wearing a white dress decorated with blue ribbons, with a matching ribbon in her blonde hairMadame Grand (Noël Catherine Vorlée, 1761–1835) 1783 by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Sometimes described as a courtesan, Catherine Grand moved between London and Paris during the French Revolution, rumoured to be supported by a number of wealthy men.  By 1797 she was living with the Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.  Catherine Grand was divorced from her husband in absentia in 1798, and in 1802 she married Talleyrand, supposedly at the behest of Napoleon in order that the wives of foreign dignitaries could be received by her.  As a result of her marriage she became Princess de Benevento and later Princess de Talleyrand.

After their marriage the Talleyrands settled at Neuilly.  Marriage did not seem to suit them, and they began to lead separate lives.  By 1815 the couple was estranged, with Catherine living in London, although she continued to receive financial support from Talleyrand.  She returned to Paris later in life and lived at Auteil, where she died on 10 December 1835.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/N/1/2 Bengal Baptisms, Marriages, Burials (1755-1783), f. 275
George Francis Grand, Narrative of the life of a gentleman long resident in India (Cape of Good Hope, 1814). Available via Google Books 
H.E. Busteed, Echoes from Old Calcutta (Calcutta: Thomas Spink & Co., 1888). Chapter VIII: Madame Grand. Available online via Google Books 
C. E. Buckland, Dictionary of Indian Biography (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1906)

 

18 May 2021

Introducing Elizabeth Blackwell to Hans Sloane

One day in early August 1735, a woman arrived at the London home of Sir Hans Sloane, letter of introduction in hand.  Social networking etiquette required such a document when approaching a new acquaintance.  And, Elizabeth Blackwell hoped to connect with Sloane, who was linked with numerous networks of knowledge, and acquire his support.  Some 280 years later, that letter is held by the British Library and identified as Sloane MS 4054, f. 90.

Letter written by physician Alexander Stuart introducing Elizabeth Blackwell to Sir Hans SloaneThis letter, written by physician Alexander Stuart, introduced Elizabeth Blackwell to Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane MS 4054, f. 90

One of Sloane’s close colleagues, a Scots-born physician named Alexander Stuart, had written it on Blackwell’s behalf.  But even before stating the reason for her visit, Stuart assured Sloane that 'Mrs. Blackwell' merited his consideration. She was, he wrote, the 'Niece of Sir Wm. Simson, one of the Barons of the Exchequer, whom you know; & first Cousine to My Lady Cook Windford, whom you also know'.  She was, then, a gentlewoman who could be linked to persons familiar to Sloane.

With those salient points covered, Stuart explained why Blackwell wished to see him.  She was working on a project, and Sloane’s endorsement would be of great help.  A 'very ingenious person', Blackwell wanted to draw a set of about 500 plants from the most up-to-date (1721) edition of the Dispensatory of the Royal College of Physicians.  Blackwell also had with her a proposal for the project. In all likelihood, it was similar to those drawn up by persons who were writing books that they wanted to sell by subscription.  Its wording probably resembled the text of an advertisement that ran in the London Evening Post on 9-11 October 1735: 'This Day are publish’d PROPOSALS For PRINTING by SUBSCRIPTION, A Curious Herbal'.

Botanical drawing of a dandelionElizabeth Blackwell’s illustrations include this Dandelion. Plate 1 of Joseph Banks’ copy of A Curious Herbal (London: Samuel Harding, 1737). 452.f.1.

Stuart’s letter also noted that the document had space at the bottom for signatures of endorsers – akin, perhaps, to the page that is found in volume one of effectively every copy of A Curious Herbal.  The apothecary Isaac Rand had composed the proposal for Blackwell and, along with the illustrious Dr Richard Mead, had promised to sign it.   Would Sloane also 'be so good as to sign the recommendation'?

Page of Publick Endorsements from A Curious HerbalThis page of Publick Endorsements likely resembled the one that accompanied the proposal that apothecary Isaac Rand wrote for Blackwell. A Curious Herbal (London: Charles Nourse, 1782), vol. 1. 445.h.6.

As it happened, no.  But Sloane would help Blackwell in other ways, which were cited in the dedication that she composed to him – one that was engraved and printed on pages found in various copies of A Curious Herbal.  Likewise, Blackwell would compose dedications to Stuart, Mead, Rand, and six other men who contributed to her undertaking.

Elizabeth Blackwell's dedication to Sloane in A Curious HerbalSloane didn’t sign Blackwell’s recommendation but he helped her in other ways, as noted in this dedication. Joseph Banks’ copy of A Curious Herbal (London: Samuel Harding, 1737), vol. 1, after plate 96. 452.f.1.

What other insights might Stuart’s letter provide into A Curious Herbal and Elizabeth Blackwell?  If nothing else, its references to Blackwell’s uncle and cousin (whom, research indicates, lived in or near London) cast some doubt on claims that she was from Aberdeen.  Without wishing to wound Aberdonian pride, the possibility cannot be discounted.

Janet Stiles Tyson
PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London

 

07 May 2021

The Women’s FA Cup Final at 50: putting the women’s game on the record

To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the first Women’s FA Cup Final on 9 May 2021, Chris Slegg, journalist and stakeholder of the Women’s Football Association Archive, held at the British Library, explores his research into the women’s game.

Selection of Women’s Football Association programmes from the 1990sSelection of Women’s Football Association programmes from the 1990s. Copyright – Eleanor Dickens.

‘I’ve loved football my entire life.  My book shelves are crammed full of record books and history books about the game, and they are almost exclusively about the history of the men’s game.

It struck me that most football fans are familiar with the classic men’s FA Cup finals.  We all know about the great goals too.  The history of the Women’s FA Cup though has remained largely unknown.  Even finding a comprehensive list of every scorer in a Women’s FA Cup final was not possible.

So Patricia Gregory and I decided to combine our research and bring this history together.  Gregory is a former colleague of mine at the BBC and was a founding member of the Women’s Football Association.

The official magazine of the Women’s Football Association, July 1981.The official magazine of the Women’s Football Association, July 1981. Copyright – Patricia Gregory.

At the end of the 1960s she and her peers at the WFA fought the FA to overturn the ban on women playing that had stood since 1921.  They were successful in their efforts and set up the first ever national cup competition for women in the 1970-71 season which became the Women’s FA Cup we know today.

Those players who took to a bumpy pitch inside an athletics stadium at Crystal Palace as Southampton beat Scottish side Stewarton Thistle 4-1 in the 1971 final paved the way for what we have half a century on - a final attended by more than 40,000 fans (pre-Covid) at Wembley and watched by two million viewers live on the BBC as well as a fully professional Women’s Super League.

Patricia and I set about reading through every WFA newsletter and match programme we could find, as well as searching the British Newspaper Archive, interviewing dozens of former players and managers and viewing any surviving TV footage.

Together with the help of far too many people to mention we have undertaken the most comprehensive review of the Women’s FA Cup Final ever carried out.

Finally some of the statistical mysteries have now been solved.  While football fans are well-versed in the men’s Cup final trivia, through our research we have been able to establish the equivalent record holders in the women’s game for the first time.  We are hoping to surprise them soon with confirmation of their achievements.

“We wanted to celebrate the great games, great goals and great players throughout the decades and to fully recognise the achievements.  Even when the ban was overturned women players weren’t welcome and there was barely any coverage,” says Gregory.

Sexist newspaper coverage in the 70s and 80s was commonplace with reports written almost exclusively through male eyes.  Few journalists seemed to be able to resist referring to any errors as “boobs” and players even had their marital status disclosed during reports.

We’ve come a long way from there but it’s notable that the winners of the FA Vase (a competition for non-League men’s teams who play in the ninth and tenth tiers of English football) collect £30,000 in FA prize money – that’s £5,000 more than Manchester City Women were awarded for winning the 2020 Women’s FA Cup.  There’s still a long way to go in the fight for equality in football.’


Further reading:
The result of this research will be published in the book A History of the Women’s FA Cup Final, released on 6 May 2021 by the History Press. The book celebrates the 50th anniversary of the very first final which was held on 9 May 1971.
The Women’s Football Association Archive British Library Add MS 89306. For further information on the Archive, please contact Eleanor Dickens - eleanor.dickens@bl.uk.
British Newspaper Archive

Programme for the first ever international football match for the England team who played Scotland at Ravenscraig Stadium on 18 November 1972Programme for the first ever international football match for the England team who played Scotland at Ravenscraig Stadium on 18 November 1972.  Copyright – Patricia Gregory.

 

29 April 2021

Bhicoo Batlivala, Campaigner for Indian Independence

The names of the leading proponents of Indian independence from British rule are well known, but the fight was carried on by many thousands of campaigners and activists who devoted their lives to this important cause.  One such campaigner was Bhicoo Batlivala.

Bhicoo Batlivala - head and shoulders photographic portraitPortrait photograph by Douglas of Bhicoo Batlivala from The Bystander 16 February 1938 British Newspaper Archive also available from Findmypast

Bhicoo Batlivala was born in Bombay on 1 January 1911.  Her father, Sorabji Batlivala, was a successful mill owner.  When she was only ten years old she was sent to Britain for her education, where she attended the Cheltenham Ladies College, before studying law and becoming a Barrister of the Inner Temple in 1932.  In July that year, the Dundee Courier listed her in its piece on ‘Men and Women of Today’, describing her as ‘dark, slender, and with dark auburn hair and regular features’.  Intelligent with an adventurous spirit, Batlivala was also a pilot, and a keen player of polo and tennis.

Bhicoo Batlivala - article in Dundee Courier 14 July 1932Dundee Courier 14 July 1932 British Newspaper Archive also available from Findmypast

After practising as a barrister in the UK for a few years, she returned to India.  It was reported in British newspapers that she was the first woman to be admitted to the State Service of Baroda, where she held a variety of Government positions, including Inspector of Schools.  On returning to England, she married Guy Mansell in London in 1939.  They set up home in Cobham, Surrey.

Batlivala was an active member of the India League, an organisation founded in 1916 to promote the cause of Indian independence.  She regularly attended meetings throughout the 1940s, often as a speaker, a fact noted in Government intelligence reports.  She also became associated with Jawaharlal Nehru, at one point acting as his secretary, and campaigning for his release from prison.  In 1940, she embarked on a six month lecture tour in America causing the British Government considerable anxiety.

On 24 February 1943, Batlivala led a delegation of Indian women to the Central lobby of the House of Commons.  Once there they met several women M.P.s, and put their case for the release of Gandhi who had been imprisoned in India at the start of the Quit India Campaign.  The Derby Daily Telegraph reported that the Indian women wore ‘beautiful native robes’, and quoted Batlivala as saying ‘We are urging that the release of Gandhi should be put before the Government as a very urgent matter.  It is not a question only of Hindus or of one particular community.  Indians of all communities here are very deeply concerned about the present drift of the situation as it is being handled by the Government’.

In an article for International Woman Suffrage News, Batlivala highlighted the hypocrisy of Britain using India’s resources to fight the threat of Nazism, while denying India her own freedom.  She concluded; ‘The Indian people have repeatedly declared that they have no quarrel with the British people, but they will no longer tolerate a system of Imperialism.  If the British Government declares that its fight is for the liberation of all nations then it must liberate India.  The world is watching’.


John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Information Department file on Miss Bhicoo Batlivala, 1938-1940, shelfmark IOR/L/I/1/1295.

Indian Political Intelligence files:
India League: reports on members and activities, 1940-1941, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/12/453.
India League: reports on members and activities, 1943-1946, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/12/456.
Bhicoo Batlivala alias Mansell, India League: activities in USA, 1939-1943, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/12/631.

The British Newspaper Archive  - also available via Findmypast
Dundee Courier, 14 July 1932.
Gloucestershire Echo, 06 November 1936.
Dundee Evening Telegraph, 28 January 1938.
International Woman Suffrage News, 03 January 1941.
Derby Daily Telegraph, 24 February 1943.

The Open University, ‘Making Britain, Discover how South Asians shaped the nation, 1870-1950’  - Bhicoo Batlivala

Asians in Britain: 400 years of history, Rozina Visram (London: Pluto Press, 2002).

 

27 April 2021

Roshani Begum, dancer turned rebel from Tipu Sultan’s court

In 1799 the East India Company’s army killed Tipu Sultan of Mysore.  To ensure the end of his dynasty, the women of his court were exiled from Mysore Kingdom to the fort at Vellore, in the Company controlled presidency of Madras.  Roshani Begum was a dancer in Tipu’s court, and one of the hundreds of women that the Company placed under house arrest.  Originally named Pum Kusur, she was a dancer from Adoni who, along with her sister, joined Tipu’s entourage when he was still a prince.  Roshani Begum was the mother of Tipu’s eldest son, Fateh Haidar, making her a high-status woman at court.  Her son’s portrait, painted in 1801, shows a young man in his 20s, suggesting that Roshani Begum joined Tipu’s entourage in the 1770s.

Portrait of Fateh Haidar, the son of Tipu Sultan and Roshani Begum, by Thomas HickeyPortrait of Fateh Haidar, the son of Tipu Sultan and Roshani Begum, by Thomas Hickey, 1801. Courtesy of Victoria Memorial Hall Kolkata, R2986

In 1802, along with about 550 other women, Roshani Begum was transported from Mysore Kingdom to Vellore Fort, and remained under East India Company custody for the rest of her life.  In spite of suddenly becoming the charge of a foreign trading company, she continued in her vocation.  In 1804 she adopted a girl named Goozeib, whom she trained in her dance traditions.  There were other newcomers inside Vellore Fort, with the population of Tipu’s exiled harem rising from 550 women in 1802 to 790 individuals by 1806.  These increases were reported to William Bentinck, the Governor of Madras, who issued instructions in February 1806 to cut their maintenance budgets.  To him, it was a pragmatic move to reduce their numbers, but to women like Roshani Begum, it spelled the end of the courtly traditions they were trying to uphold.

Company painting of 'Kanchani' dancing girls. In an album depicting trades and occupations at Vellore.Company painting of 'Kanchani' dancing girls. In an album depicting trades and occupations at Vellore, c.1828. British Library, Add.Or.62 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Between February and June 1806, immediately after Bentinck issued the cutbacks, four of Tipu Sultan’s daughters were married at Vellore.  Each wedding featured several days’ worth of music and dance performances inside the fort.   The content of these performances was planned by the musicians and dancers of Tipu’s court such as Roshani Begum.  These festivities coincided with the rapid spread of “destructive tales” about the East India Company’s Indian soldiers at Vellore Fort.  Their uniforms, particularly their headgear, was pinpointed as an affront to their families, and they were told that by wearing them, they’d be denied food, water, and the right to get married.

These threats of domestic expulsion had such a profound effect on the soldiers that, on the evening of 9 July 1806, after a dance performance in the fort, the sepoys of the Madras Native Infantry mutinied.  They killed 129 men, raised the flag of Mysore Kingdom, and declared Fateh Haidar, the son of Roshani Begum, as their king.  The East India Company’s response was to send a relief force to Vellore that killed almost 350 mutineers.  Accounts of the Vellore Mutiny typically view this moment of violence as a purely military event, but closer examination reveals that women like Roshani Begum, motivated by the East India Company’s spurning of their traditions, used their influence as court performers and story tellers to foment a dangerous uprising.

Jennifer Howes
Independent researcher and a former Curator of Visual Arts at the British Library 

Further reading:
Howes, Jennifer. 'Tipu Sultan’s Female Entourage under East India Company Rule.' Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series 3, 2021.
Report on the Character of Tipu Sultan’s four oldest sons by Thomas Marriott, April 1804. British Library, IOR/H/508. p.347.
William Bentinck’s decree to cut allowances to Vellore Fort’s inhabitants, 28 February 1806. British Library, IOR/E/4/897, pp.125-126.
Testimonials of the Court of Enquiry at Vellore, July-August 1806. British Library, IOR/H/507 and 508.

 

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