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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 8, august 1-15, 2009
The White Peacock
Visiting a Madras-Britain link or two with JASPAR UTLEY

When Warren Hastings set sail for Madras in 1769, he could not possibly have anticipated what lay in wait for him. He might have thought that a period of diligence in the service of the Honourable East India Company might eventually lead to another posting to Calcutta, already pre-eminent among the three Presidencies. In his time there, he had buried a wife and two children and been accused, through vicious and unsubstantiated gossip, of an affair with the married aunt of Jane Austen, Philadelphia. Now he might look forward to a period of peace and quiet. However, the opposite was, in fact, about to happen. The voyage would bring him ­romance, make him a bitter and life-long enemy and, eventually, impeachment and trial before the Houses of Parliament.

The calm before the storm took place even before the ship dropped anchor before Fort St. George.

On the voyage out, Hastings fell ill and was nursed by another passenger, the beautiful Mrs. Imhoff, wife of Baron Imhoff, who was sailing to take up a cadetship with the Company. It was quite clear that the relationship of nurse and patient rapidly turned into something else and that, by the time they reached Madras, Mrs. Imhoff and Hastings were in love. Interestingly enough, this did not seem to have bothered the Baron. When Hastings invited the couple to stay in his house in the Fort, they happily moved in.

Hastings’ time in Madras must have seemed idyllic, particularly in view of what happened later in Calcutta and England. He was with the woman he loved and was ably doing the work his employers asked of him. Soon after his arrival he was promoted from Third in Council to Second in Council. According to H. Davison Love, his remit covered: “Export Warehousekeeper, Commissary General and Agent for supplying the Army … he took an active part in the proceedings of the Board of Police … and did much to develop the resources of Madras. To him is due the earliest suggestion of providing the port with
a pier.”

Hastings also introduced reforms in the procurement of textiles for export, resulting in improved benefits for weavers.

*     *     *

Then came further promotion. Imhoff had already left for Calcutta to seek more work for his miniature painting and, for a short while, Hastings was alone with Marian Imhoff in Madras. As far as we know, they behaved themselves; at least, no one ever said anything to the contrary, even his enemies. And then, after Marian had joined her husband, Hastings was rapidly promoted twice more. First of all, to the exalted post of Governor of Calcutta, already in practice if not in name the chief among the three Presidencies, and then, as proof of his abilities and the trust and regard the HEIC had for him, he was created the first Governor General of all their properties and land in India. Happiness indeed – with the bonus of once more being close to Marian.

But with added power comes added responsibilities and, with both, the inevitable crop of enemies.

For, along with the new post, came a Council of Four which was supposed to support Hastings. In reality, the opposite was the case.

*     *     *

The Council consisted of Philip Francis, soon to become Hastings’ implacable enemy, General Clavering, also opposed to Hastings, as was Colonel the Hon. George Monson. Hastings’ sole supporter was Richard Barwell. Nor were relations between the members all sweetness and light. Francis fought and lost a duel with Hastings; Clavering fought and lost a duel with Barwell (Barwell had sought his daughter’s hand in marriage) and only Monson had the good sense to die quietly.

It is Richard Barwell whom I look at in this article.

On leaving India, he bought a large house and estate which is no more than two or three miles from my home.

Barwell (1741-1804) was what was known in those days as an Anglo-Indian, meaning that he was born in India and spent most of his life there. He was born in Calcutta, the second of four sons of William Barwell who was Governor of Fort William and later a Director of the East India Company. It was not surprising, therefore, that he himself joined John Company as a Writer in Bengal in 1756 when he was just fifteen years old. He retired in 1780 at the age of 39.

Nothing too outstanding there perhaps. However. When he retired, he took with him to England an immense fortune and a reputation for loose living. He is said to have lost huge sums gambling in cards with Philip Francis and was known as one of those who threw bread rolls at dinner parties and showed a constant interest in the ladies. In short, he was someone who in later days might have been known as a cad and a bounder.

He courted and won the heart of the leading lady of Calcutta, the beautiful Elizabeth Sanderson, and married her in 1776. She bore him two sons and died in 1778, aged just 23. She is buried in Calcutta.

Barwell did not confine his attention to his own wife for, in 1780, he was pilloried by a wronged husband, Henry Thom­son, in a pamphlet called The Intrigues of a Nabob; or Bengal the Fittest Soil for Lust.

The source of his immense fortune is not clear but he certainly did not just save his salary. My guess is that he engaged in trade in opium, sanctioned by the Company, with China and Japan but also, possibly, illegally in trade between India and ­Britain and in internal Indian trade.

Whatever the source of his money, he used it to buy Stansted Park on the Sussex/Hampshire border and then enlarged it and rebuilt the house. The house burnt down at the beginning of the 20th Century, but its replacement is still a noble sight.

He also used his fortune to buy himself the Parliamentary seat of St. Ives in 1784 and the next year he remarried. Catherine Coffin, his second wife, was originally from Massachusetts, and not yet sixteen.

Previously to this, Barwell had a beautiful mistress who was rumoured to have lived not far from Stansted and who bore him four children. There may have been more mistresses and more children.

Barwell, already with at least four children, then fathered ten more with Catherine. Whether he was a loving father is not recorded, but he was certainly not a beloved of local people. Hickey says he “made it his study to render himself obnoxious to persons of all ranks, shutting up gates and paths through the park that had, as an indulgence, been always open to the public; His very name from such conduct was soon held in such detestation that men, women and children hissed and hooted him as he passed in all his oriental state through the villages.”

He also displayed a contemptuous attitude to the House of Commons when called to appear before a Committee and finally did so only under threat of force.

*     *     *

One of the endless ironies of history is that Hastings, an honest man and an outstanding administrator who, for good or bad, laid the foundations of British rule in India, was ­impeached and tried before the Houses of Parliament and acquitted only after nearly seven years, whereas the rapacious and lecherous Barwell was never charged with anything. Indeed, the monument to him in Westbourne Church, part of the living of Stansted, says:

“This monument is dedicated to the memory of Richard Barwell Esq. of Stansted Park in the County of Sussex, who in the service of the Honourable East India Company during a period of 23 years, attained to such situations of high trust and emolument as his talents and unblemished reputation most justly entitled him. With an understanding strong and cultivated and a mind open and honourable, were united other qualities rare and estimable and by all who could appreciate affection towards his family, attachment to his friends and benevolence widely spread around. He was respected when living and died lamented on the second day of September 1804 in the 62nd year of his age.”

Never were words more untrue.

On my last visit to Stansted House, as I approached the great sweep of lawn leading up to the house, suddenly out of the trees appeared a white peacock, trailing its long tail behind it as it slowly and majestically paced across the grass.

It instantly reminded me of Richard Barwell: an exotic import from India with an innate arrogance and pacing the grounds of a stately home but without the beauty of the original and redolent of all that was wrong with Company rule in India.

In this issue

A host of events...
MRTS stations...
The Ashe murder...
The white peacock...
Historic residences...
Other stories in this issue...

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Short 'N' Snappy
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