OCHTERLONY THE AMERICAN INDIAN

1816 painting of Ochterlony by Arthur William Devis; By courtesy of Wikipedia
1816 painting of Ochterlony by Arthur William Devis. (by courtesy of Wikipedia)

By Reginald Massey

David Ochterlony was born in Boston in 1758 and at the age of eighteen managed to procure a cadetship to serve in India. He soon took part in battles that broke  the power of the Sindhia of Gwalior. General Lake noted that the young American had potential. Ochterlony was promoted to the rank of major general and in 1803 posted as the East India Company’s Resident in Delhi. He was also made a baronet of Great Britain.

The term ‘Resident’ was an absolute understatement; it meant, in effect, the governorship of the capital of the Mughal empire. The Mughal emperor Akbar II was the pensioner of the Company whose writ ran only within the confines of the Red Fort. Ochterlony, on the other hand, had thoroughly imbibed Mughal culture and lived the life of a Mughal grandee in every way. He spoke Persian, wore Mughal clothes, and patronised Indian musicians, dancers, poets and painters.

He maintained a zenana (an establishment of thirteen wives and concubines) from whom he produced offspring. Every evening he and his wives perambulated around Delhi all seated on decorated elephants. Liveried drummers and musicians accompanied the colourful cavalcade. The people of Delhi clapped and cheered ‘Akhtar Loony’, an unintended pun. Indians could not pronounce the Resident’s odd sounding foreign name and ‘Akhtar Loony’ was the nearest they could get to ‘Ochterlony’. In Urdu ‘Akhtar’ means ‘star’ or ‘good fortune’ and ‘loony’ of course is the English slang for a lunatic. Ochterlony was no lunatic and his star in India did shine brightly. He was for all intents and purposes a Muslim and Akbar II bestowed on him the title of ‘Nas’r-ud-Daulah'(Defender/Protector of the State) which of course meant the Mughal state.

Watercolour by an anonymous Delhi artist of Sir David Ochterlony in Indian dress smoking a hookah ca. 1820s. (by courtesy of Wikipedia)
Watercolour by an anonymous Delhi artist of Sir David Ochterlony in Indian dress smoking a hookah ca. 1820s. (by courtesy of Wikipedia)

Many white people disapproved of Ochterlony, thinking that he though one of them, had let the side down by ‘going native’. Most scathing was Reginald Heber, the Bishop of Calcutta, who could not figure out why a white man should descend to such Indian depravity. But English women new to India were particularly shocked and horrified. Nevertheless that did not prevent them from wanting to meet the man himself. He’d welcome them while sitting cross-legged on a plush Persian carpet spread out on the marble floor. Luxuriant cushions surrounded him while he smoked a hukkah (hubble-bubble). Dressed in the fashion of an Indian aristocrat with an ornate necklace he was always surrounded by obsequious acolytes and servants. He’d then invite his guests to witness an exotic Kathak dance performed by bare-footed nautch girls who bared their midriffs. To make matters worse the dances depicted the love dalliances of the god Krishna with his many gopees, lovelorn maidens.

The historian William Dalrymple fittingly describes men such as Ochterlony as ‘White    Mughals’ who were immensely popular with the Indian people. Unfortunately, however, Ochterlony’s favourite wife Mubarak-ul-Nissa Begum was universally hated. She was called ‘Genralli Begum’ (‘the General’s Lady’) and was accused of having undue influence in the administration of Delhi. She was formerly a Brahmin dancing girl from Poona who had converted to Islam and was, it was rumoured in the bazaars of the capital, wildly ambitious. When meeting Europeans she insisted on being addressed as ‘Lady Ochterlony’ and she expected Mughal princes and princesses to be respectful to her. In short, she had delusions of grandeur.

Ochterlony in the meantime had been busy on Company business. He saved Delhi from an attack by Yashwant Rao Holkar and brilliantly brought the Gurkhas to heel in the Anglo-Nepalese war (1814-1816). It was he who recognized the fighting quality and loyalty of the Gurkhas and it was since his time that Gurkha regiments were recruited by the British. Later without consulting Lord Amherst he rightly intervened in a succession dispute in the state of Bharatpur. The Governor General however refused to back Ochterlony. In sheer disgust Ochterlony resigned. He left Delhi and died in Meerut in 1825 where he lies buried in St. John’s church.

Ochterlony had a Mughal style tomb built for himself in Delhi which was inherited by Mubarak-ul-Nissa Begum. It was called Rundi-ki-Masjid (‘the Whore’s Mosque’). The Ochterlony baronetcy was inherited by Ochterlony’s descendants but became extinct with the death of the fifth baronet Sir Charles Francis Ochterlony in 1964. In 1828 the East India Company erected the imposing Ochterlony Column (157 ft. high) in Calcutta as a monument in momory of the White Mughal. It was admired by his fellow American Mark Twain when he visited the city. However, in 1969 the column was renamed Shaheed Minar (‘Martyr’s Column’) and dedicated to those who had laid down their lives for India’s freedom. I have a feeling that the White Mughal would have approved.

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