The river of time flows darkly, washing away the remnants of lives and loves. It is difficult to peer into its inky bosom to uncover the secrets it holds. Yet, every so often, it randomly deposits tattered traces of those it has washed away upon its shores. It was on a ramble along this shore that a few years ago I had chanced upon a yellowing letter written in a sprawling official hand. Though I could not decipher the name of the author, he identified himself as a Deputy Secretary to the Government of India and was most likely Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan. Written on the 19th of July 1834, the letter was addressed to a Major E.J. Honeywood, Superintendent of the Mysore Princes.
The Mysore Princes were the exiled sons of Tipu Sultan of Mysore. After Tipu’s death in the Siege of Seringapatnam (Srirangapatna) on the 4th May 1799, Lord Wellesley had planned to move the dead monarch’s family to Vellore. The intention was to remove Tipu’s heirs from becoming a focal point of any resistance to British rule and to place them amidst a British military presence. By July 1799, the four eldest sons of the late Sultan – Fateh Hyder, Abdul Khaliq, Moinuddeen and Mohiuddeen – along with their families had moved to Vellore. Almost exactly seven years later, in July 1806, a mutiny broke out amongst the native troops in the British army at Vellore. The British immediately suspected the hand of the Mysore princes in fostering the rebellion.
Whether the princes had been genuinely involved or not remains unclear, but the British government decided that it was too risky to leave the family so close to their once-loyal subjects. It was decided instead to move them all the way across the subcontinent to the suburbs of Calcutta. A total of 52 people, including the Sultan’s widows, sons, and their families, were brought from Vellore to a malarious suburb of Calcutta called Russapuglah. Initially, they were housed briefly in a house belonging to one John Andrews that had previously housed the Persian Ambassador, before eventually being moved to three smaller houses belonging to Richard Johnson in Tollygunge. By 1809 the title to the properties was transferred to the princes and they gradually proceeded to build and develop the property further. The sons of Tipu were also allotted small pensions for their upkeep.
The letter that occasioned this backward historical glance concerned the pension for the youngest of Tipu’s sons, Ghulam Ahmed. Born in 1796 or 1797, he was barely a year old when his father fell in battle. Like so many of his brothers, Ghulam Ahmed too did not live long. He passed away on the 12th of April 1824, aged barely thirty years. Indeed, by 1842 only three of the Sultan’s twelve sons were still alive and by 1851 only one, Ghulam Muhammad, was still alive.
When Ghulam Ahmed died in 1824, he left behind him a wife, Ulfatunnisa Begum, a son, Ahmed Akbar, and three daughters, Shahinshah Begum, Ameerunnisa, and Shah Begum. It is not clear whether any or all of the children were Ulfutunnisa’s children as well. Several of the Mysore princes had children with women who were not their officially married wives and several of these children were recognized as legal heirs. In any case, the pension once assigned to Prince Ghulam Ahmed now came to be apportioned amongst his four legal heirs. Yet, ten years later, in the letter Trevelyan sent Honeywood in 1834, he would announce the government’s decision to summarily stop the pension that was being paid to the widowed Ulfutunnisa Begum.
The reason behind this decision was rather scandalous. In Trevelyan’s words, Ulfutunnisa Begum had “eloped”. It is a curious word to use for someone who was already widowed, especially as both the British government and Islamic law recognized the rights of widows to remarry. No further details are stated in the brief official letter about the circumstances of her departure. What is mentioned, and what is more remarkable perhaps, is the fact that Ulfutunnisa Begum had neither been born into a royal family nor called Ulfutunnisa at birth. She had in fact been baptized as Eliza Limond.
Born on the 15th of April 1806 and baptized on 15th November 1810 in Calcutta, she was nearly ten years younger than her departed husband, Prince Ghulam Ahmed. Her father, Robert Limond, was an indigo planter in Jessore. No records exist regarding Eliza’s mother, suggesting that she was most likely a local lady. Eliza Limond was almost certainly a young woman of mixed race and raised as a Christian. How and when she met Ghulam Ahmed, converted to Islam, and married him is a mystery.
The history we are weaned on will place Sultan Tipu and Robert Limond as far away as possible. Long celebrated as an early champion of anti-colonial resistance, the Tiger of Mysore is depicted as the most implacable opponent of the British. The indigo planter, on the other hand, often stands as an unalloyed villain: the very image of the most rapacious and extractive aspects of British imperialism. Neither depiction is necessarily inaccurate. History however, revels in ironies. That a son of Tipu’s would end up in love with an indigo planter’s daughter is one of those ironies that mock the neatness of histories taught in classrooms.
A more depressing irony has to do with the government’s decision to deprive Ulfutunnisa of her pension. When Ghulam Ahmed passed away, Ulfutunnisa would have been barely eighteen years old. Had she been a woman of our times, rather than her’s, she would be about to finish school. She remained at widow and at her’s husband’s home for a decade after that. In 1834, when she allegedly “eloped” she was still only twenty eight years old. Yet, the mighty government disapproved of her conduct and deprived her of her pension. This was the same government that while banning the horrific custom on Sati, only six years ago in 1828, had crowed about its humane view of widows and represented itself as the saviors of Indian widows from the clutches of oppressive native customs.
These little ironies and their consequences all disappear out of our vision after the summer of 1834. I have not been able to find any hint as to what became of Ulfutunnisa after her departure from the home of her in-laws. Many of the figures that flit in and out of the shadowy world of gaslights and chandeliers disappear without a trace. But most of those figures, no matter how charismatic, are petty commoners. Not royalty. Usually women of consequence leave more of a trace of their lives. Perhaps there is still such trace somewhere. But for now, all that the river of time has serendipitously silted onto my hands is one enigmatic letter that gives us no clues of where Ulfutunnisa disappeared. Did she continue to be called Princess Ulfutunnisa Begum? Or did she revert back to being Eliza Limond, the planter’s daughter? Or perhaps she changed her name again and assumed a yet unknown identity? Did she continue to live in Calcutta? Or did she move somewhere else? Perhaps she went back to her father’s family in Britain?
Answers to these questions lie buried somewhere in the opaque depths of the river of time. But perhaps one day, on some other shore, will float up another yellowing, scrap of paper, that will tell us more. For now, all that we can do is carry on scavenging along the shores of that mighty torrent.