Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The scandal of Georgian Calcutta

A cup of tea
Grab a cuppa, this is a long post.
Who’s Eliza Lane? She's a woman who scandalised Georgian Calcutta. (I'm calling it Calcutta in her story 'cos that's what it was called when she lived there; obviously I will be visiting Kolkata!) Eliza’s my ancestress. Normally family history can be a bit dull for non-related people, but I think she is pretty interesting. Over the years I’ve dug up more information on her, and I’m really hopeful that we’ll be able to visit either her memorial or her grave when we’re in Kolkata.


Eliza was born in the second half of the 1760s. Why no firm date? I’ve had to plot her birth date from various death records and notices; there’s no record of her birth. I have found allusions in Bengal: Past And Present, the journals of the Calcutta Heritage Society – these volumes are over 100 years old now themselves – to her being the daughter of Thomas Lane, a man very high up in the East India Company, and a Hindustani lady, and her father’s name is listed as Thomas in her marriage record, so that all tallies. I won’t go into Thomas much, but his father was also extremely well-connected back in England, and I believe that’s relevant to the course Eliza’s life took.

Needless to say, I’ve been able to find nothing at all about Eliza’s mother. It was pretty common for European men in India in the 1700s to have Indian wives or mistresses, and many of them left their ladies and families well-provided for in their wills. I have no idea if Thomas and his lady were married; it’s possible that they had a non-Christian wedding as this would not be recorded by the British. If Eliza wasn’t baptised, that too would account for her missing from the record. I have been unable to find a will for Thomas so far, which is a bit odd as he must’ve been absolutely loaded, so I shall keep looking. That might tell me more about his family. As it is, I know Eliza had a brother, because I’ve found a marriage record for him where it specifies his father having been chief at Cosimbuzar.

Ah, I hear you ask, but where is the scandal? You want scandal? Let’s have scandal. Eliza was sent to Britain for her education. I have no idea exactly what form this would have taken; I’ve been able to find no information at all. My guess is that she was sent back to become more European-ladylike. I know she was sent to Europe because the first part of her great scandal occurs on the boat back. The diarist William Hickey – who was a pretty reprehensible man and doesn’t seem to have liked Eliza – noted that she got pregnant on the boat back to India. I’ve tracked down records and the baby was given to his father. Joseph Garnault, of the ship the Ganges, baptised his son James on 10 May 1787. Eliza’s name is not on the baptism. Joseph Garnault rose to be a captain, but this was hardly gentlemanly behaviour on his part. Eliza would have been 20, give or take a couple of years either side, and he would’ve been in his early 30s.

So, Eliza is ruined!

No, Eliza is not.

Eliza is a woman with a European education and very wealthy and well-connected relatives. (I’m not sure if her father was still alive at this point; I’ve seen secondary sources stating he died in 1777, but for various reasons too long to go into here, I’m not so sure about that. But either way her grandfather is still around, and still wealthy and influential.) According to Bengal: Past and Present, Eliza’s next conquest was one Mr Jacob Rider, head of the Bengal Bank. The married head of the Bengal Bank.

So, Eliza is ruined!

No, Eliza is not.

In 1789, roughly two years after her son was born, Eliza gets married. To Bartholomew Hartley, an Irish surgeon of good family, no less, the man who fronted the lottery to build Calcutta’s first cathedral. (And who was also a freemason, and acted as ship’s surgeon on the Death Or Glory privateer ship, because why settle for a second mate or a being mistress to a banker when you can marry a semi-pirate, eh?)

The tipping point appears to have taken place at the Assembly dances. We’ve all seen Jane Austen adaptations or Poldark where people get together for cards, dancing and gossiping. Well, Georgian Calcutta was no different. In November 1792 Bartholomew took his wife to the theatre in Lyons Range, where he insisted on her being given her place of precedence as his wife, and the other ladies kicked up a fuss. Hickey’s diaries were published, but whatever he said about Eliza was so rude it got cut out and merely alluded to in a footnote! I have also found a letter via SCRAN (Scottish Cultural Research Access Network). A young man, William Hunter, wrote home about the incident, saying Eliza had been impeccably behaved in the years since her marriage, and it was after Eliza danced a minuet that the trouble started. It actually ended the dances for that year.

Not long after, Eliza and Bartholomew went to live on Sumatra, where he was surgeon at Fort Marlborough. When they returned to India in the early 1800s, the appear to have lived at the French colony of Chandernagore. I can’t help imagining Eliza had had enough of the British. Bartholomew died not long after their return, but Eliza lived till 1836, saw many of her children married well (I’m descended from one of her daughters, Caroline, who married a minor member of a French noble family, Thomas de Solminihac), and from the pile of cash she left in her will, lived a comfortable life.

I joke about Eliza, but I can’t help thinking that a white woman wouldn’t have been treated the way she was, from that fateful sea voyage onwards. However, her father and grandfather’s positions made it impossible for her to be completely outcast. I believe her major transgression was that she refused to ‘know her place’. She was half-European and half-Indian and didn’t live as one or the other within Calcutta’s European society. She was both, and lived as both. Having been a mistress, she then became a wife and demanded respect. She must have been incredibly strong to endure it all. She grabbed life with both hands and did it openly. I hope she had fun.

16 comments :

  1. What a fascinating story, thanks for sharing!

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    1. She's the only interesting one!

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  2. Blimey what a tale! That's amazing to know so much about pre-1800s, it gets tricky that far back. Eliza sounds like quite a woman.

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    1. She, her father and grandfather are the only ones I have so much information on. It's very rare to have that much on a woman of colour, though.

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  3. Eliza sounds absolutely fantastic. She must have been a terrifically strong woman and I can just imagine how hard it would have been for her to live her life against the social mores of the day. I say, brava! Your family history sounds really interesting. Xx

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    1. Ha, most of the rest aren't as interesting... that I know of yet. Something about her just captured my imagination.

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  4. How utterly fascinating, Mim! I'm amazed that you were able to find out so much about Eliza. Hope you'll be able to visit here grave in Kolkata! xxx

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    1. It's very rare to have so much on a woman of colour. If she hadn't been so 'notoriously immoral' perhaps she'd have slipped through the net like many others.

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  5. I like the sound of Eliza!

    You have been doing your research; I hope you are able to find out more when you get to India.

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    1. I'm not holding out hopes of learning more about her - I think a few days in the British Library, where the India Co. papers are held, would show me more - but it'll be great to see her homeland and grave.

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  6. I need to read Bengal: Past and Present! What an interesting character Eliza was.
    Two things I have learned in the books on 18th century UK & India:

    From Wm Dalyrymple's White Mughals & other books on intermarriage it seems that if the children looked "British" (IE fair skin) they were sent to England to be educated because it was believed the Indians would not accept them. If the children looked Indian (ie dark skinned) they were educated in India because it was believed the British would not accept them. Eventually all this intermarriage & the resulting mixed children thereof & what to do with them became problematic. Starting in the early 19th century the British discouraged marriage of British men to Indian women by hindering their careers. (ie British men married to Indian women could not become officers.)

    Second point: 18th century Britain was not as concerned with matters of chastity & infidelity as in the 19th century. Church & cemetery records show that between 60%-80% of babies were born out of wedlock in the UK in the 18th century. The 18th century was also a time of great social mobility & upheaval- fortunes were being amassed by persons without illustrious pedigrees. So basically if you had money all sorts of things could overlooked as far as your marriageability status went.

    Apparently this was true in America also as I can trace my ancestry to the union of a black slave woman and British plantation owner in 18th century Virginia. (A DNA test confirmed this relative)

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    1. I don't know if B: P&P is still published. I accessed the archive copies at the British Library in London, but presumably copies are still kicking round in India too.

      Eliza's family is an odd one. Her grandfather went to Eton - where, showing a long history of strumpetry in the family, his *widowed mother* managed to lure one of his classmates, the second son of the Earl of Berkshire, into marriage - so there were clearly reasonable connections there. But yeah, there's a big difference in the way mixed-race people got treated in the 19th century. Always the worker, never the boss. I see it in my own family tree, though more in the second half of the 19th century than the first.

      I am hoping to have a drink in Kolkata in places my great-grandmother would never have been welcome. Just because.

      Interesting about your ancestress. Do you know anything about her?

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    2. Kolkata is actually one of India's mot beautiful cities.
      The only thing I could find was the British plantation owner never married yet had 2 sons that were baptized. Raising & educating your children out of wedlock was not uncommon in the 18th century.
      My DNA test also came up 4% Native American.

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  7. I was going to say that your story sounds like a tale straight from William Dalrymple's White Moghuls but Bibi beat me to it.
    Originally The East India Company actively encouraged their men to form relationships with Indian women and it appeared everyone got along happily until the stuffy old 19th Century when it was considered a disgrace. Bloody Victorians! xxxx

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    1. Yes, the Victorians spoiled a lot! I suspect Eliza's grandmother on her father's side may also have been Indian. He was born at Anjengo (now Anchuthengu) in Kerala, and the only info I have is that she was Portuguese, but I've no birth/baptism record for him, and I have a record for his father's later marriage but no first marriage or the death of his mother, and no mention of her death seems to appear in any material I've seen from that time... I would have expected one of those to appear in the case of a Christian woman, so until I've got firm confirmation I'm keeping an open mind about a Keralan connection. 'Portuguese' was often how people explained a darker complexion.

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  8. Fascinating. I've never looked into my family history, though I have considered getting the DNA test. It will be interesting to hear what you find on your trip to India.

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