Every evening as the sun set over the walls of Delhi 200 years ago, Major-General Sir David Ochterlony set out on the back of an elephant, at the head of a procession around the walls of the city’s Red Fort.
Ochterlony was the British ‘Resident’, a mixture of ambassador and oligarch at the court of the Moghul emperor. In 1804, he saved the city during a siege and from that day on he was showered with wealth, and free to live as extravagantly as he chose.
But his nightly promenade was not a military display. It was a love parade. Accompanying the Resident, each on her own elephant, were his 13 Indian wives… a harem headed by a former dancing girl half his age named Bebee Mubarak, who was the mother of the youngest of his six children.
This is the world conjured up by Beecham House, ITV’s racy Sunday-night costume drama that has been dubbed ‘Downton in Delhi’. But even though the series, with its sexual intrigues and sizzling love scenes, may be deliciously spicy, it won’t be any match for the reality of history.
Beecham House is the story of colonial entrepreneur John Beecham. He has no wife… but a secret, half-Indian baby
Set at the zenith of the East India Company, around the end of the 18th century when a private British army was conquering the sub-continent to plunder its unimaginable riches, Beecham House is the story of colonial entrepreneur John Beecham. He has no wife… but a secret, half-Indian baby.
Although the series treats this as scandalous, Beecham, played by Tom Bateman (a period drama veteran, who was dashing husband Rawdon Crawley in Vanity Fair), was far from unique. In fact, as revealed in a sweeping historical study, The British In India, by historian David Gilmour, most British men with the Company in that era lived with an Indian or part-Indian mistress… and often more than one.
Ochterlony was perhaps unusual, not because of the size of his harem but because he chose to marry them all. It was far more common for a man to keep a bibi or mistress during his youth, as he built his career, perhaps having half a dozen children with her — then marry a young British woman, to father a legitimate family.
The bibi’s children were not only acknowledged openly but often treated no differently from babies born in wedlock. Bibis, after all, were much more than ‘servants with benefits’. They were truly lovers — and lovers that no young woman from the repressed British upper classes could hope to replace.
One magistrate noted in 1830 that ‘those who have lived with a native woman for any length of time never marry a European… so amusingly playful, so anxious to oblige and please, that a person after being accustomed to their society shrinks from the idea of encountering the whims or yielding to the fancies of an Englishwoman’.
Even so, East India Company policy was to warn every man against the ‘insinuating manners and fascinating beauty’ of the sub-continent’s girls, and especially to avoid marriage lest he make ‘a matrimonial connection which he might all his lifetime regret’.
The warnings were rarely heeded. Partly this was for economic reasons: it was generally reckoned that a British wife cost more, in clothes, servants and other effects, than half a dozen bibis combined. Partly it was practical: an Indian housekeeper could organise the staff far better than any British man could hope to do.
Although the series treats this as scandalous, Beecham, played by Tom Bateman was far from unique
Mostly, though, it was all about sex. The writer and explorer Sir Richard Burton, who translated the Kama Sutra into English, believed Indian women were so vastly superior as lovers that no European male could fully satisfy them.
British soldiers were too rough and too hurried, he said. A bibi needed at least 20 minutes of passionate love-making to feel fulfilled. Burton’s advice to his compatriots was to drink sherbet, chew betel nuts and smoke cigars in an attempt to increase their staying power — what Burton called the Hindu ‘retaining art’.
It was the roasting heat of India that inflamed the passions, Burton thought. Many agreed with him. Cavalry officer Francis Yeats-Brown, who wrote the memoir The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer, held that regular sex was ‘more necessary in a hot than a cold country’.
Richard Wellesley, who acquired more colonial territory for the British Empire than any other man in history, had the same opinion.
Wellesley, brother of the future Duke of Wellington, arrived in Calcutta in 1798, without his wife, Hyacinthe. She refused to join him, though he wrote, pleading: ‘This climate excites one sexually most terribly… One must have it in this climate.’ When Hyacinthe still stayed away, he took a bibi.
The writer and explorer Sir Richard Burton believed Indian women were so vastly superior as lovers that no European male could fully satisfy them
Some men took quite a few. Colonel James Skinner, founder of the cavalry regiment known as Skinner’s Horse, had at least 80 illegitimate children by his bibis. He himself was the son of a Scottish officer and his mistress, a woman from Rajput.
But it was not always sex without love. Far from it — many British men found themselves besotted at first sight, and never broke the spell. Job Charnock, the 17th-century European founder of Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), saw a young woman about to be burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre and was so smitten that he rescued her, carried her off and married her.
Former mercenary William Linnaeus Gardner was a British officer when, negotiating a treaty in Surat, he glanced behind a curtain and found himself looking into ‘the most beautiful black eyes in the world’. They belonged to a girl of just 14, the Muslim nawab’s daughter.
At first, Gardner’s protestations of eternal love were dismissed with irritation by her father. After a year, though, the nawab relented. Gardner married his princess and never took another wife, which baffled his in-laws.
James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the Resident of Hyderabad, was said in 1801 to have abandoned British customs completely. He wore flowing robes around the palace and for everything bar state occasions. His hands were decorated with henna and he grew his moustache in two long, dangling threads.
Far more scandalous, he had fallen in love with an adolescent Indian girl named Khair un-Nissa, who was probably only 14. As a Sayyida — a descendant of the Prophet — she was kept in strict seclusion or purdah. Despite her age, status and isolation, Kirkpatrick had somehow begun an obsessive sexual relationship with the girl, and she had a baby by him.
Khair’s grandfather was outraged beyond words, seized by ‘an indignation approaching to frenzy’. The authorities were more concerned that Kirkpatrick had married the girl and, it appeared, converted to Islam. One of the Resident’s British advisers, James Dalrymple, did everything he could to break up the marriage, even though he also had a Muslim princess for a wife — the daughter of the nawab of Masulipatnam, far to the south.
Religion caused inevitable difficulties. Dalrymple’s sons were brought up as Christians and eventually settled in East Lothian in Scotland. His daughter, however, was always regarded as Muslim and grew up to marry one of the sepoy (native) officers under her father’s command.
Burton’s advice to his compatriots was to drink sherbet, chew betel nuts and smoke cigars in an attempt to increase their staying power
Other parents treated all their offspring equally.
General Sir Robert Sloper, an 18th-century commander-in-chief in India, was proud of the sons he had with his English wife, several of whom served in the Army — but he also had six illegitimate children by his bibi, including two in prestigious Dragoons regiments and a daughter who rose to be postmaster-general in Bengal. Sir David Ochterlony, he of the 13 wives and the elephants, doted on his two daughters by Bebee but worried constantly about whether they should be raised as Christians or Muslims. He feared that if he sent them to England, they would suffer prejudice because of their ‘dark blood’.
Concern about racist attitudes back in Britain may have been based on false fears. Even Lord Liverpool, the Conservative Prime Minister from 1812 to 1827, was said to be of Anglo-Indian descent: his grandmother, Begum Johnson, who lived into her mid-80s in Calcutta, was widely believed to be half Indian (though she claimed she got her dark skin from a Portuguese mother).
Often it was death rather than divorce that ended mixed-race love affairs: disease was rampant in the tropics. Mortality rates were so high that between 1796 and 1820 only one officer in seven in the Bengal Army lived to be pensioned off.
One Englishman in the lower ranks of the Company, Richard Blechynden, whose detailed diary has survived from 230 years ago, was heartbroken when his bibi died in his arms: ‘Thus have I lost one who had slept in them for near seven years and an half, and by whom I have had five children, three of whom survive her, and have lost an affectionate and too indulgent a mother.’
Often it was death rather than divorce that ended mixed-race love affairs: disease was rampant in the tropics
Blechynden spent the rest of his life searching for a love to match her, and never found one. He maintained a succession of mistresses in a house outside Calcutta: the first was an Armenian woman who was a ‘drunken baggage’. The next was Charlotte, a woman from a rural village (probably in England or Ireland), who had an insatiable thirst for anything alcoholic, including arrack from the bazaar — a sort of moonshine that was made with everything from the fermented sap of coconut flowers to sugar cane, rice and grain.
Her preferred tipple, however, was fortified wine. She once drank nine bottles of Madeira in the course of a two-day binge.
When Charlotte was hung over she was vengeful, pouring jugs of water over Blechynden to wake him and ripping his clothes. She had to go. But her replacement, the half-Indian Isabella, was even worse — after a decanter or two of Madeira, she would smash the plates and rip down the curtains. Blechynden was used to that by now, but what he couldn’t stand was the way she invited her friends over to laze around the house, singing and playing tom-toms.
From these diaries it is clear that mistresses could be European, Indian or mixed-race. All they had in common was a disregard for the sexual conventions back in Britain.
Even though the series, with its sexual intrigues and sizzling love scenes, may be deliciously spicy, it won’t be any match for the reality of history
Charlotte, the spiteful alcoholic, was 13 when she was married to a sergeant-major in a Madras regiment. She ran off with a young lieutenant,and was just 20 when she met Blechynden. Naively, he hoped she might supply ‘all the comforts of marriage without its plagues’ but later discovered he had made ‘one of the most unfortunate connections’.
Many women in India left their husbands. A Mrs Rees, according to Blechynden’s diary, found Mr Rees in bed with a Miss Rawlinson and promptly moved out, going to live with a medical officer named Frushard. A Mrs Wade was caught by her husband in flagrante, with ‘a black fellow in bed with her’, which ended her marriage: undeterred, she ‘moved in with the blacksmith Myers’.
The widows of British soldiers had other reasons for finding a new bed. Their late husband’s salary would be stopped after three months. A bereaved woman was instantly on the market — one widow in the 1830s received three proposals of marriage within an hour of her husband’s death, and was wed within the week.
By this time the tradition of the bibi was dying out. Some of the older hands refused to forsake their Indian mistresses — one veteran doctor, ordered home to England for the sake of his health, declared that he would rather die with the woman he loved… and promptly did.
But the rise of more puritanical views on extramarital sex and love across the races in Victorian times, from about 1840 on, meant that mistresses were dropped or hidden away. They were supplanted by numerous young British women who began heading to India in search of husbands, on the so-called ‘fishing fleets’.
In both India and Britain, people started to disguise their Anglo-Indian ancestry, claiming (as Lord Liverpool’s grandmother did) Portuguese or Spanish forebears. The bibis were written out of family histories.
Actress Olivia Colman, for example, discovered last year on the BBC1 family-tree documentary Who Do You Think You Are? that her great-great-great grandmother, Harriet, was the daughter of an East India man and his native bibi. Other celebrities who have unearthed forgotten links to India include comedian Alistair McGowan, wildlife presenter Liz Bonnin, stand-up Billy Connolly and actor Rupert Penry-Jones.
The bibis and their babies may have been hidden away, just as in Beecham House… but their legacy cannot be ignored.