The scandal of Georgian Calcutta
|Grab a cuppa, this is a long post.|
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.