Category Archives: East India Company

East India Company

Sophia Plowden, British Library

This guest post on the Asian and African Studies blog of the British Library by Katherine Butler Schofield introduces her recent talk at the British Library on Sophia Plowden, Khanum Jan, and ‘Hindustani airs’, now available as a podcast “The Courtesan and the Memsahib: Khanum Jan meets Sophia Plowden at the Court of Lucknow”. It is accompanied by a collection of images forming a visual record. The podcast, produced by Chris Elcombe with music by harpsichordist Jane Chapman, is part of a series of presentations at the British Library in 2018 for Katherine’s British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship programme “Histories of the Ephemeral: Writing on Music in Late Mughal India”.  Special thanks are due to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, for permission to reproduce the images below from MS 380, Mrs Plowden’s beautiful collection of North Indian song lyrics and tunes.

Link to the blog:

Duel between Warren Hastings and Philip Francis

In 1773, Parliament passed the Regulating Act: in return for a loan of £1.4 million, the East India Company agreed to accept a Governor General appointed by Parliament and Warren Hastings was appointed to the post. In addition, the Regulating Act called for the appointment of three counsellors whose job was to oversee the Governor General. Unfortunately, these cousellors were hostile to Hastings from the start, in particular Philip Francis (lover of Mrs Grand see previous email, re ladders against windows and Prince Talleyrand). Francis sought to undermine Hastings’s authority at  every opportunity.


By  May 1780, Hastings had had enough. He decided that it had to be death or victory. He insulted Francis in a memorandum  to the Council; Francis took the bait and challenged Hastings to a duel.


At 5.30 am on 16th August the two principle members of the Calcutta Council met in the grey light of morning on the Alipur Road, both middle-aged, neither of them with much interest in exercise or fighting. Francis had never fired a pistol before and Hastings could remember doing so ‘only once or twice’. Their seconds measured fourteen paces. Hastings defered his fire while Francis misfired twice. The third time they both fired simultaneously. Francis narrowly missed but Hastings’s bullet struck Francis on the right side and lodged under his left shoulder blade. Francis called out ‘I’m dead’ and fell to the ground.


‘Good God, I hope not!’ Hastings called back and hurried over. Having checked on the damage, he rushed home in his palanquin and sent for the surgeon general and his own doctor. Philip Francis staged a remarkably swift recovery but he left for England that December.




Catherine Grand

In 1774 Directors of the East India Company who were hostile to the then Governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, sent three new councillors, General Clavering, Colonel George Monson and Philip Francis, to Calcutta, with instructions to undermine Hastings’s authority. Joseph Fowke (1716-1800) sailed down the Hooghly to greet them before they could reach Calcutta. Joseph had  a plan to ensnare Hastings in a prosecution for corruption. Philip Francis, the youngest and brightest of the triumphirate,  became Joseph’s closest associate in this conspiracy – which failed. The following year, Joseph Fowke and Maharajah Nuncomar, a wealthy Hindu banker, were tried for conspiracy and Nuncomar was hanged.


Philip Francis stayed on in Calcutta, as did Joseph Fowke. One evening in 1777 Francis was caught red-handed with a ladder up against the window of the beautiful wife of a young company employee, George François Grand. A duel was narrowly avoided and Catherine Grand ended up as the mistress of Francis, kept in style in a house up the Hooghly River for the next three years. She eventually returned to London, then became a courtesan in pre-revolutionary France, fleeing back to England when the revolution started in 1789. In 1794 she returned yet again to Paris where she married Prince Talleyrand, Napoleon’s famous foreign minister.


‘La Belle Indolente’ was not stupid or she would never have snaredTalleyrand, but she was notorious for her naïve repartee.  Once Tallyrand was a giving a dinner for a M, Denon, recently returned from Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, and Tallyrand had encouraged his wife to read a chapter from Denon’s account  so as to be able to converse about his travels. She picked up Robinson Crusoe by mistake. During the dinner she remarked to Denon what a pleasure it had been to read about his  trip – in particular his encounter with Man Friday.


Catherine’s portrait is by Vigée le Brun, 1755-1842, herself a very remarkable woman, painted at a time when Vigée was much patronised by Mairie Antoinette and while Catherine was a courtisan in Paris .


Lady Clive & Friends

During the eighteenth century some remarkable young women crossed the ocean to India to seek their fortunes. Margaret Maskelyne who married Clive of India and was sister to Nevill Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal, was one of the cleverest – and funniest. YouCaxton Managing Editor Bob Fowke will be exploring her life and the network of her friends, at Bishop’s Castle Town Hall on Wednesday 21st February at 2.00 pm in a talk that relates to his upcoming book.

‘Women were an essential element within the Company from its earliest days. The gravestones and memorials around Saint Mary’s Church in Fort St George, Chennai/Madras, bear ample testimony; around a quarter of them are of women, several dying early in childbirth. But those tragic deaths tell only part of the story. It took courage, ambition and a spirit of adventure to travel to the far side of the world in search of love and fortune and the young women who undertook that journey were exceptional people, setting out of their own accord, sometimes with only the grudging consent of parents or guardians, and confidently accepting the risks. Many of them traded independently and some were of high intellect …’

British Library


British Library in a flutter

MSS EUR D546 1-33 may not be everybody’s idea of a good read but it is meat and drink to some of us. The numbers refer to a collection of private letters between India and England written 1720-1780, held at the British Library where I have just spent two wonderful days.  The women’s letters are of particular interest but the men’s are not half bad. I came across them originally through a family connection. An extract may help to justify my  obsession:

Letter from Robert Clive, London, to Luke Serafton, Bengal, 2 December 1770, introducing Joseph Fowke (Lady Clive and Joseph’s deceased wife, Elizabeth, had been close friends) who had lost £18,000 ‘at play’ and hoped to return to India to recoup his fortunes:

‘’I need not trouble you with the history of Joseph Fowke – you know his passion for play. I could not refuse him letters of introduction to my friends in India, & as I have always understood him to be a man of principle & sense, tho’ not common sense, I cannot help wishing you would give him all the assistance in your power to rescue him from his present state of distress.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

 Robert Clive’