Monday, 29 July 2019

Well-known English lady and socialite Begum Frances Johnson - oldest resident of colonial Calcutta

Begum Frances Johnson oldest British resident of Calcutta. alamy.com
 For years. it is a known fact, the British had ruled  by fiat from Calcutta, the commercial hub of India which the East India Company, in the eighteenth century, had developed from a small fishing village.  Later under the Raj after 1857, Calcutta continued to be active and became the capital of the British Raj until the capital shifted to Delhi in 1931. Because, the city had served as the capital for more than 150 years, obviouly, it was home to countless Europeans who came looking for a job, missionaries who were on a binge to convert the natives to a new religion - the Gospel of Christ  and building of churches and English schools, and  British traders who wanted to take up contract work. During  the early colonial period, some English ladies became famous for their social activities. and  Mrs. Frances Johnson was one among them. Unlike them, this lady settled in India for good, unususal thing for a lady in her 40s.
Earl Jenkinson, her grandson en.wikipedia.org
 Incidentally who is this oldest British lady who has a funny name Begum Frances Johnson? Does her name not sound weired in a strange land? A combination of Urdu word ( Begum is an honorific for married women in India by which they  are addressed) and  an English name is quite amusing. The lady belonged to the  early British Era, settled in Calcutta which became the center of East India company's business  activities. If you walk through the  time capsule and go back to the early colonial era of Calcutta  you will realize this lady was the wife of one William Watts, English Resident at Nawab Siraj-ud daulah's court. It meant she was high profile lady, a socialite who would mingle with the rich and famous from the higher strata of the society. She had a close association with the mother of Nawab
William Watts, East India comaoany showalter.blogspot
Amina begum and 
 this had changed her name to Begum Frances Johnson (Johnson is her 4th  husband's name).

Her former husband William Watts, a powerful man in the EIC, secretly conspired with the enemies of the Nawab  to topple him and was responsible for the British victory in the Battle of Plassey. Not only that, as instructed by Robert Clive, Who recaptured Ft. William from the Nawab, Watts  had Mir Jaffer, a relative of the Nawab killed the ruler and put him as the new Nawab of Bengal, Robert Clive and William watts played no less role in the foundation of the British empire. In the later years when Bengal came under the company's control  Britain annually received one billion dollar revenue from the united Bengal alone, a mind-boggling amount in those years. This vast revenue gave a fillip to British economy and spurred the industrial revolution and new scientific discoveries.  Britain emerged as the most powerful nation.  India, once a rich country, inherited  poor emaciated population, low literacy rate  and almost empty treasury, when the British left India in 1947.  Britain became a rich nation with a  good GDP. India's GDP plummeted from 23% to 2% in 1947. Because of this total plundering by the British,  India was devastated, further complicated by the emergence of a  new nation from India - Pakistan, a theocratic country - always a source of trouble to India since partition in August 1947.     

Any way, coming back to Mrs. Frances, What  is  special about this lady? She enjoyed staying in India till her death and the tropical heat, dust and urban din never bothered her.  She led the life of a European royal family.  Even in the later years in her 50s, she never made a compromise on her style of living.  In the early years, her residence was always busy; after evening dinner, fun and frolics all the way till the wee hours of the morning. Her nightly entertainment never disappointed the popular visitors. Dressed immaculately, her invitees included powerful people in the English company.   Lord Cornwallis, Lord Morrington and Arthur Wellesley Duke of Wellington were her regular invitees.  She had  nine  servants - both Bengalis and Africans in her home at her beck and call. No doubt, she was a popular hostess and had no problem with party poopers  who could see a change in their perception of social clubs and parties. The Nawab had a great admiration for her and treated her with respect. 

Francis was born at Fort St. David, near Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu on the Coromandel Coast, on April 10th 1728. Her father Edward Croke was the governor of the fort, under the East India Company. Her mother Isabella Beizor was of Portuguese descent. Ft. David was close to the French settlement Podicherry. 

Her first marriage  was with one Perry Purpler Templar in Calcutta when she was just 13 and she bore him two children who, unfortunately, died in infancy. Five years after marriage, her husband died too.  Her second marriage to a merchant James Altham did not last long and was jinxed again.  In a period of roughly two weeksdays, he died from small pox, a dreaded disease in India in those days. Undeterred by these tragedies,  two years later she married William Watts, a company agent at Cossimbazaar, Bengal. She bore him three children and was pregnant with the fourth, when the Nawab of Bengal Siraj-ud-daulah raided the fort in 1756 because the English company did not stick to the trade treaty.  It is said Watts simply surrendered to army on account of  his wife's  close association with Nawab's  mother, Frances and children were allowed to stay on at the fort. They were then moved to Murshidabad and later to Chandernagore, when Calcutta was seized by the Nawab. 

Calcutta was soon recaptured  by Clive who came all the from Madras with his troops.  Nawab and his family had deep respect for her so  Frances was  allowed to join her husband and was sent as emissary to negotiate with Clive after his defeat at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. After the war, the Nawab was  caught and  killed by his relatives at the instigation of Clive and Watts. For this clandestine work, watts received £114,000 from the new Nawab and perks from the English company.In June 1758 Watts became the Governor of Ft. William and  Clive got a big bundle. 

With lot of money, Watts along with family went back to England and settled down there comfortably.  But after his death in 1764, Frances who was not comfortable with the  English weather returned to Calcutta in 1769 and  resided  at 12, Clive Street where she stayed till her death.  Upon her arrival in India she also settled her husband's tangled and messed up business  deals. This young wealthy lady at 36 outlived three husbands and remained a widow for the next ten years,

The edit of God again played a cruel role in her married life. This time in 1774, she, by mistake, married  Rev William Johnson, Chaplain of St. John’s Church who was 16 years her junior and was not compatible and was unkind to her. They were at variance on many issues including  attitude toward life and this uncompromising differences of opinion and consequent dejection caused her insecurity and nightmares. Johnson was particular about getting back to England and engage in evangelical work. Though he stayed in India for a long time and played a major role in the construction of St. John's church, Calcutta,  his attitude toward India was quite irksome bordering on rejection. As for Frances, she wanted to stay in India for good.  The marriage finally ended in divorce in 1787.  So, her fourth marriage was also a fiasco and she never expected this, Amazing thing about her was she was neither  perturbed nor mentally depressed.  She made a settlement with Rev. Johnson  and provided a comfortable  annuity. Quite satisfied, Rev. Johnson went back to England. Though she was wealthy and had the money to enjoy life, at heart she was lonely  and insecure. Her ''take life as it comes'' attitude had kept her in good stead and high spirits in the evening of her life in Calcutta.  

In her late 50s, of her five grandchildren, four  came back to India to serve. One of them was the Earl of Liverpool. Frances lived till the ripe old age of 83. She breathed her last  on 3rd February 1812, after a series of strokes  due to old age.  

Mrs. Frances as wished by her, was buried on the site she had already chosen, just across  the  mausoleum of Job Charnock, supposedly the  founder of Calcutta, in St. John’s Churchyard.  There is a detailed inscription summing up  eventful, tumultuous and chequered life  of this oldest British woman of Calcutta.  
http//ipfs.io/ipfs/QmXoypizj...........wiki/William Watts html
http://ciaofamiglia.com/ehfburton/burtonlinks.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begum_Johnson
https://navrangindia.wordpress.com/2014/11/20/william-watts-a-conspirator-and-robert-clive-fall-of-bengal/