White Mughals by William Dalrymple

Review by Chris Wallen


White Mughals deals with the way in which many western adventurers, merchants, soldiers, diplomats and administrators in India adopted native customs and beliefs between the early sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries to an extent that seems surprising in the present time and may have shocked the morality of their Victorian successors.


One of the more flamboyant was Sir David Ochterlony, born in Massachusetts to a Scottish father, who joined the East India Company’s Army as a teenager and became the British Resident in Delhi. Dalrymple writes:


‘When in the Indian capital Ochterlony liked to be addressed by his full Mughal title, Nasir-ud-Daula (Defender of the State), and to live the life of a Mughal gentleman: every evening all thirteen of his consorts used to process around Delhi behind their husband, each on the back of her own elephant.’


The main focus of the book however is an Englishman, James Achilles Kirkpatrick. Having arrived in India in his mid-teens James had spent fourteen years as an undistinguished soldier, in the service of the East India Company. When William Kirkpatrick was appointed British Resident to the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, his half-brother James was invited to join him and became his deputy in 1795. Aided by his linguistic ability and sympathy for Mughal culture, James showed an aptitude for diplomacy. Some eighteen months later, when William was despatched to the Cape of Good Hope to recover his failing health, James became Acting Resident.


While at the Cape, in January 1798, the still recovering William was introduced to Richard, Lord Wellesley, then on his way to India to take up the post of Governor General. Wellesley was anxious to learn about India, especially from those with first-hand knowledge. He found William a good source who shared both his Francophobia and his attitude to the future of British rule in India, and made him his Military Secretary.


Three years earlier, encouraged by his first minister, Aristu Jah, the Nizam of Hyderabad had embarked upon a campaign against the Marathas to the west. He had hoped to enlist the help of the East India Company’s British troops in this enterprise but his request had been turned down by the then Governor General, Sir John Shore. The campaign was a disastrous failure and in its aftermath General Raymond, in command of the French troops in Hyderabad, saw an opportunity to extend his country’s influence. William Kirkpatrick persuaded Wellesley that best way to thwart French ambition in Hyderabad would be for the British to sign an unambiguous treaty of friendship and support with the Nizam. Instructions on how to proceed were sent to James who now had the opportunity to demonstrate his diplomatic skills and lay claim to the position of British Resident; he did not fail and was congratulated and was even recommended by Wellesley for a baronetcy.


At about the same time another event of great significance occurred, one that would in due course change James’s life; he had become the object of the affections of the fourteen year old Khair un-Nissa, great niece of Aristu Jah and a descendant of the Prophet. James came to reciprocate her feelings and having overcome many problems including his conversion to Islam, they were married.


The book continues to unfold the details of the lives of James, Khair un-Nissa, their children and the effect that the marriage had on his career. William Dalrymple has been able to draw on both British and Indian sources including the correspondence that passed between James and his half-brother William. I read the book in hardback but it is now available in paperback in which form it extends to a considerable 640 pages. Probably because of the personal detail about James and Khair un-Nissa and the quality of William Dalrymple’s writing I found this an easy book to read and was always keen to find out what happened next in their lives and those of the other protagonists. I am happy to recommend the book not only to those who have an interest in Anglo-Indian history but also to all who enjoy a good story.