This is such a fascinating article! Has anyone read any of his books? Was thinking of reading one now but always thought he'd be really orientalist and pedantic before. The exhibition he's talking about at the British Library sounds very interesting as well. If anyone wants to go, let me know!!
Before British India, there were Indian Britons
In early 19th-century Delhi, one of the sights of the town was the afternoon parade of the British Resident – or ambassador – and his 13 Indian wives, each travelling on the back of her own elephant. According to legend, each evening Sir David Ochterlony would leave the British residency and take his household around the Mughal Red Fort for their airing, before heading back for dinner.
The magnificent Mughal exhibition, now at the British Library, is full of unexpected surprises: there are letters from Jesuit missionaries talking of night-time discussions with Muslim emperors about the Gospels; Persian translations of Hindu scriptures; a Mughal etiquette book; even “the Book of the Affairs of Love”. If the Mughals that emerge refuse to conform to the stereotype of the bigoted Muslim tyrant, then the British, who appear with increasing centrality in the second half of the show, also appear in a fresh light. Instead of the usual solar-topeed colonial bigots, the British in Delhi took a serious interest in Mughal culture, commissioning miniatures and patronising the great Mughal artists.
Perhaps the most surprising exhibit is the picture of Sir David at home of an evening. He is dressed in full Indian costume and reclines on a carpet, leaning back against a spread of pillows. To one side stands a servant with a fly whisk; on the other stands Ochterlony’s elaborate hubble-bubble. Above, portraits of the Resident’s ancestors – kilted colonels from Highland regiments, grimacing Boston ladies in taffeta dresses – peer down disapprovingly at the dancing girls swirling below them. Ochterlony looks delighted.
Sir David’s life shows the possibilities inherent in the British-Indian relationship. Now, that association is again changing gear, from something based not on imperialism or aid, but, as in the days of the East India Company, to one based on trade.
Certainly Ochterlony was a man used to walking the cultural fault-lines between different worlds. His father was a Scot who had settled in Massachusetts. When the American Revolution broke out, the family fled to Canada, and thence to London, where David entered the Company’s army in 1777. Having made India his home, he vowed never to leave. He amazed Bishop Reginald Heber of Calcutta by receiving him sitting on a divan while being fanned by servants holding peacock feather punkas. To one side of Ochterlony’s tent was the red silk harem tent where his women slept. “There was a considerable number of horses, elephants, and palanquins,” wrote Heber. “Ochterlony maintains an almost kingly state. He has been absent from his home country about 54 years; he has there neither friends nor relations, and he has been for many years habituated to Eastern habits and parade. And if he shows no sign of retiring to Britain, who can wonder that he clings to the only country in the world where he can feel himself at home?”
Although the people of Delhi knew Ochterlony as “Loony Akhtar” (Crazy Star), when in the Indian capital he liked to be addressed by his Moghul title, Nasir-ud-Daula, Defender of the State, and to hold court with his chief wife, Mubarak Begum. “Generallee Begum”, as she was known, appears in contemporary letters, where she is accused of giving herself airs. She offended the British by calling herself “Lady Ochterlony”, and upset the Mughals by awarding herself the title of the emperor’s mother.
Beneath this jolly-sounding exterior, however, seems to have lain the tensions that affect anyone who straddles two different worlds. One of the most moving of Ochterlony’s letters concerns his two daughters, and the question of whether he should bring them up Muslim or Christian. If they are brought up as Christians, he fears they will suffer from the racism of the British. “My children,” writes Ochterlony, “are uncommonly fair, but if educated in the European manner they will in spite of complexion labour under all the disadvantages of being known as the natural daughters of Ochterlony by a native woman. In that one sentence is compressed all that ill nature inaction and illiberality can convey.” Yet for all this, Ochterlony says he still hesitates to bring them up Muslims, with a view to them marrying the Mughals as “I own I could not bear that my child should be one of a numerous haram”.
This letter dates from a period when Ochterlony’s world, and that of the other White Mughals, was dying. In the 1780s, one in three British men in India was cohabiting with an Indian woman. By 1810 it was only one in five. By 1857, when the British crushed the last of the Mughals, suppressing the Great Mutiny, it was all over. The two peoples had moved irreparably apart, and we enter the segregated world familiar from Kipling.
Towards the end of his life Ochterlony began to construct an extraordinary garden tomb in the Moghul garden he had had built for Mubarak Begum. It is a wonderfully hybrid monument, whose central dome was modelled on that of Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence, and was surmounted by a cross, but the side wings are enclosed in a forest of minarets: the perfect architectural expression of the religious fusion Ochterlony seems to have achieved in his marriage.
In the event, he died away from Delhi and was buried in Meerut, while the empty tomb was destroyed during the Mutiny, in which Mubarak Begum, remarried to a Mughal amir, fought on the Mughal side. But it is a delicious and forgotten moment in British and Indian history: the last of the great Mughal garden tombs – a tradition that reached its finest moment in the Taj Mahal – built not by the last of the Mughals, but by a British ambassador.
William Dalrymple’s new book, 'Return of a King: The Battle of Afghanistan 1839-42’, is published by Bloomsbury in February