Before the War of Independence in 1857, after which India became part of the British Empire, many British men working for the East India Company, who had come to India to make their fortune, got married to local women and settled down to raise families. William Dalrymple documents this lesser known fact in his entertaining history book The White Mughals; he tells the tale of the romance between James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad and his Muslim wife Khair-u-Nissa Begum for whom he converted to Islam and with whom he had two children. Because he had “gone native,” the British mistrusted him and thought he was a double agent

By Mahlia Lone

James Achilles Kirkpatrick was a bit of a hybrid Brit, born at Fort St. George, Madras in 1764 but sent back to Britain where he attended Eton College. To make his name and his fortune, the ambitious young man returned as a “cocky young imperialist intending to conquer India” by working for the British East India Company and became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Company’s Army. His colourful and unusual story is told by William Dalrymple in his entertaining history book The White Mughals, which many of you may have read.

To understand the context of the story, it’s important to look at the geopolitical situation of the time.

Panoramic view of the Chaumohalla Palace at Hyderabad, photographed by Deen Dayal in the 1880s

Nizam-ul-Mulk Nawab Mir Nizam Ali Khan Siddiqi Bayafandi Bahadur Asaf Jah II reigned Hyderabad from 1762 to 1803; he belonged to the Asaf Jah dynasty founded by Mir Qamar-ud-Din Siddiq, a Mughal appointed Viceroy of the Deccan. When Mughal control collapsed after Shehnshah Aurungzeb’s death in 1707, Asaf Jah declared himself independent and in control of Hyderabad in 1724.

Following the decline of the great Mughal Empire, the Hindu Maratha Empire rose in the Deccan. Maratha warrior Baji Rao I expanded his empire by defeating the Mughals in Delhi and Asaf Jah’s forces in Hyderabad. The Nizam lost all the major battles that he fought against the fierce Marathas. After the conquest of Deccan by Bajirao I and the imposition of chauth (tribute tax) by him on Hyderabad, the Nizam essentially became a tributary of the Marathas.

Chowmahalla Palace

The East India Company meanwhile was fighting against Hyder Ali and later his son Tipu Sultan in Mysore who were supported by the French. Four Anglo-Mysore Wars were fought to establish the Company’s control over this region.

The grand interior

During the First Anglo-Mysore War (1767–69) the British convinced the Nizam to attack Hyder Ali, but the Nizam changed sides at the last moment and supported the Sultan. When Hyder Ali attacked Madras, the British convinced the Nizam to sign a new treaty with them in 1768 to maintain the balance of power: the British, Marathas and Hyderabadis on one side and Mysore on the other.

Nawab Mir Nizam Ali Khan Asaf Jah II, the Nizam of Hyderabad

James was initially appointed as the translator at the Nizam’s court during his elder brother William Kirkpatrick’s tenure as the Company’s Resident (ambassador) in Hyderabad. In 1795, savvy and skilled at diplomacy, at only 33 years of age, he replaced his brother as the Resident. Said to be a good looking and charming young diplomat, he was responsible as the East India Company’s Resident in Hyderabad for nurturing relations with the State’s rulers and keep them on the side of the British.

Taking his diplomatic tasks very seriously, he fluently conversed in Persian, Hindustani, Tamil and Telegu and immersed himself in Hyderabadi Indo-Persian culture.

India, Osmania University College for Women
©WMF/Mark Weber
original – slide

One his first tasks was to build a stately Residency at Hyderabad. The Palladian style house was designed by Lt Samuel Russell of the Madras Engineers, the son of the Royal Academician John Russell.

The plan was submitted for approval to the Nizam since he would be granting the 60 acres land plus paying for the construction. Not used to western scale plans, the Nizam at first refused to sanction such a huge building. It seemed to him that the Resident was trying to appropriate a vast area of the Nizamate under the pretext of building a house. Wily Kirkpatrick cleverly had the identical plan redrawn on a much smaller scale as a tiny as a postage stamp, and the Nizam fell for the deception. The finished house bore a resemblance to Gov General Wellesley’s then newly finished Government House in Calcutta. The architecture and scale of the house impressed the viewer with the power and control of the East India Company in India.

The British Residency at Hyderabad engraving by William Miller

In 1799, James was depicted in “Hindostanny dress,” draped with long ropes of pearls, and with khussas on his feet. James smoked hukkahs, chewed paan, attended mujras and even had a zenana, living the life of a veritable White Mughal. He fathered many children with various local women that he kept there, just like the Hyderabadi elite. “Thanks partly to these women,” wrote a contemporary Hyderabadi historian, “he was always very cheerful.”

Living like a Hyderabadi out of choice, Kirkpatrick related to them and understood their point of view, which he would present to his superiors. The Nizam awarded him with titles like Mutamin ul Mulk (Safeguard of the kingdom), Hushmat Jung (Valiant in battle) and Nawab Fakhr-ud-Dowlah Bahadur (Governor, pride of the state, and hero).

James Kirkpatrick in a Mughal angarkha

In 1798, Lord Richard Wellesley, Earl of Mornington, later Marquess Wellesley, had been appointed as Governor-General of India. After Great Britain lost her American colonies, the British government under Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, Earl of Chatham, turned its attention fully towards India with the ostensible aim of limiting the East India Company’s corruption but actually with the conscious design of extending British power by acquiring a great empire in India.

Britain’s main rival was France.  Mornington came to India with the express design of annihilating French influence in the Subcontinent. Soon after his landing, he learned of the alliance between Tipu Sultan and the French Republic that was seen as a direct threat to British interests in India. Mornington immediately ordered preparations for war and disbanded the Nizam’s French troops. This time the Nizam would have no choice but to stick to his alliance with the British. “Wellesley was an imperialist determined to reduce the Nizam to subservience,” wrote one historian.

During the Fourth and final Anglo-Mysore War, Mysore was attacked on all sides. Tipu Sultan’s forces were outnumbered by 4:1 and the Army chose as his adversary, Mornington’s younger brother, Colonel Arthur Wellesley who later became Field Marshal, 1st Duke of Wellington, responsible for defeating Napoleon. The war concluded with the death of Tipu Sultan and his kingdom being carved up by the three allies. This was the geopolitical situation at the time, precarious with alliances betrayed, espionage, and backdoor diplomacy.

After his experience in the Deccan, Colonel Arthur Wellesley warned authorities in Calcutta that Kirkpatrick seemed to be so solidly “under the influence” of the Hyderabadis that “it was to be expected that he would attend more to the objects of the Nizam’s court than those of his own government.” The Company officers took heed of the victor of the hour who had succeeded in finally taming “The Tiger of Mysore,” and started to keep a closer eye on Kirkpatrick.

Hyder Ali, a steel engraving from the 1790’s

While all this mayhem was going on and the fate of nations being decided, James had other matters on his mind when in 1800 he met the fourteen year old granddaughter of the Vizier of Hyderabad, Nawab Mahmood Ali Khan. Though Khair-un-Nissa (the incomparably beautiful) was kept in strict purdah (veil) during the betrothal ceremonies for her elder sister, she saw Kirkpatrick in the court and fell in love. She somehow managed to leave the confines of the zenana (ladies’ quarter) one evening, presented herself before Kirkpatrick and pleaded her love. In a letter to his elder brother William, Military Secretary to the Governor General at Calcutta, James Kirkpatrick justified h

A rendition of the Anglo-Mysore War

imself: “I, who was but ill-qualified for this task, attempted to argue this romantic creature out of a passion which I could not, I confess, help feeling myself something more than pity for. She declared to me again and again that her affections had been irretrievably fixed on me for a series of time, hat her fate was linked to mine.”

Tipu Sultan

Not only did Khair-u-Nissa belong to the ruling family, but she was also a Sayyida, a descendant of the Prophet, and of Persian descent. If he wanted to be with her, he would have to marry her and for that he would have to first convert and become a Shia Muslim.

India, Osmania University College for Women
©WMF/Mark Weber
original – slide

Kirkpatrick met all the conditions plus the Nizam made him his adopted son. The couple was duly married in a nikkah ceremony. Kirkpatrick was elevated to the ranks of Hyderabadi nobility. The couple became known in Hyderabadi circles as Sahib Begum and Sahib Allum (The Little Lord of the World, and the Lady of High Lineage).

Governor General of India,
Lord Richard Wellesley, Earl of Mornington

James built a separate zenana in the Residency compound for Khair-u-Nissa who still observed purdah.  The couple lived “in an enchanted world of scented gardens (scent was believed to be the ‘food of the soul’), luscious fruits, cooing pigeons (the sound of which was thought to stimulate the mind), sparkling jewels, veils fluttering in the balmy evening breeze,” wrote Kate Chisholm poetically in The Telegraph.

Field Marshall Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

Living in his own world, immune to the changing world around him, James nearly completely eschewed wearing English clothes for all but the most formal of occasions, and now “habitually swanned around the British Residency in what one surprised visitor had described as ‘a Musselman’s dress of the finest texture.’” Another noted that he had hennaed his hands and even had Indian “mustachios.”

Khair became renowned for her fair complexioned, delicate featured beauty. Her portrait was said at the time to do no justice to her good looks.

William Dalrymple

The good looking couple had two children:  a son, Mir Ghulam Ali Sahib Allum, and a daughter, Noor-un-Nissa Sahib Begum. The leading artist of the British community in India, George Chinnery, painted a portrait of the siblings in Madras in 1805 that is regarded as one of the masterpieces of British paintings in India.

Shortly after the marriage in as early 1801, a major scandal broke out in Calcutta over the nature of Kirkpatrick’s role at the Hyderabad court. His reputation had become iffy of late but it was not unheard of British officers to dress and even live like the natives. However, in James’ case his loyalty was questioned.

Rumours started to float about Kirkpatrick’s interracial liaison. There was a steady stream of reports that he had “connected himself with a female” of one of Hyderabad’s leading noble families. The girl had become pregnant and given birth to his child. The girl’s grandfather was understandably livid and had ‘expressed an indignation approaching to frenzy at the indignity offered to the honour of his family by such proceedings, and had declared his intention of proceeding to the Mecca Masjid (the principal mosque of the city)” where he threatened to raise the Muslims of the Deccan against the British. Worse, Kirkpatrick had formally married the girl, by converting not just in name but in deed and had become a practising Shi’a Muslim.

Governor General Wellesley was not kindly disposed to Kirkpatrick’s relationship with the Nizam. Wellesley was responsible for welding British India into an integral entity and the process necessarily involved gaining ascendancy and control over the Indian Kingdoms, or Princely States as the British had begun to dismissively referring to them. Wellesley, having decided to dismiss Kirkpatrick, summoned him to Calcutta.

The authorities in Bengal started questioning Kirkpatrick to determine whether his political loyalties could still be depended on or had he in fact become a double-agent.

Upon questioning, James at first denied his marriage with Khair un-Nissa, but upon the Company’s further investigation into the matter he confessed that he had married her in an Islamic ceremony. He was summarily dismissed and as a punishment for his religious conversion it was decided that his two Anglo-Indian children would be taken away from the parents and sent to Britain to be raised as Christians.

The same year, following the British victory in the Second Anglo-Maratha War, the Nizam of Hyderabad had come under the protection of the British East India Company. Though he was the premier Prince of India, Hyderabad being the largest and most prosperous state of all princely states, the Nizam’s kingdom was now a protectorate. Moreover, Hyderabadi citizens were 85 per cent Hindu so their ruler could easily be replaced. The Nizam was shrewd enough to keep quiet about Kirkpatrick’s fate.

A tearful Khair-un-Nissa had secured a settlement of £10,000 each on five year old William and three year old Kitty, a substantial sum at the time. When they were taken from their parents, the children spoke little or no English only Urdu, the language of their mother.

James, perhaps already perhaps terminally ill, died of a fever in 1805 in Calcutta shortly after his kids were shipped off. “He had lasted longer than the proverbial two monsoons allowed to the British in the India of those days but still died young, aged 41,” wrote Sudarshan in a blog.

Khair-u-Nissa heard of his death 18 days later. In his will, Kirkpatrick stated: “the excellent and respectable Mother of my two children for whom I feel unbounded love and affection and esteem.”

Dalrymple describes George Chinnery’s painting of the Anglo-Indian Kirpatrick siblings: “Two of them in their Hyderabadi court dress, standing at the top of a flight of steps…. Sahib Allum – an exceptionally beautiful, poised, dark-eyed child – wears a scarlet jama trimmed with gilt brocade, and a matching gilt cummerbund; he has a glittering topi on his head and crescent-toed slippers. Round his neck hangs a string of enormous pearls. His little sister, who is standing one step from Sahib Alum, and has her arm around her big brother’s shoulders, is discernibly fairer-skinned, and below her topi is a hint of the red hair that would be much admired in the years to come. Yet while Sahib Alum looks directly at the viewer with an almost precocious confidence and assurance, Sahib Begum looks down with an expression of infinite sadness and vulnerability on her face, her little eyes dark and swollen with crying.”

The two children were transported under the care of a Mrs Ure and a retinue of “black” servants. Their baggage included shawls, jewellery and valuables worth £2000 and Captain George Elers, a fellow passenger, bribed the customs officials at Portsmouth twenty guineas to clear their baggage unopened.

Without her children and her husband, Khair-un-Nissa turned for protection to Kirkpatrick’s assistant Henry Russell who replaced him as the Resident in Hyderabad. After spending a few years with the widow, Russell tired of her and married a younger half-Portuguese heiress he had met in Madras. Hyderabad aristocracy hadn’t approved of  Khair-un-Nissa’s suspected liaison and banished to the coastal town of Masulipatam for a while. She died heartbroken at the young age of 27 in 1813.

Our story doesn’t end there. We follow the children to England where they had been sent to live with their grandfather Colonel James Kirkpatrick at his London residence and country estate in Keston, Kent. Upon arriving in London, they were baptised at St. Mary’s Church, Marylebone Road, and christened as William George Kirkpatrick and Katherine Aurora “Kitty” Kirkpatrick. Henceforth, they became Evangelical Christians and never again saw India or any members of their maternal family.

Calcutta harbour

Tragically, William fell into a copper of boiling water seven years later. His burns were so bad that doctors had to amputate his arm and he became a recluse. He graduated from Oxford in 1820, married and had three daughters, before dying in 1828 aged only 27.

Kitty’s story is more interesting. She was educated privately with the aid of a governess, like most girls of her social class, and brought up to be a typical Christian Victorian lady. After the death of her brother, grandfather and other close relations, Kitty became an heiress with £50,000, a huge sum in those days. Like most mixed race children and with such good looking parents, Kitty was extremely fetching.

After the death of her grandfather, Kirkpatrick lived with several of her aunts and married cousins all of whom were well connected. She lived in the homes of Clementina, Lady Louis, the wife of a naval hero and baronet; Julia, the wife of Edward Strachey (grandfather of the writer Sir Lytton Strachey) and Barbara Isabella, the wife of an M.P.

St. Mary’s Church, Marylebone Road in London where the Anglo-Indian Kirkpatrick children were baptised

In 1822, while staying with her Strachey cousins at Shooters’ Hill, near London, she fell in with the children’s Scottish tutor, Thomas Carlyle who went on to become a famous philosopher, satirical writer, social commentator, author and historian. After Kitty travelled with the family to Paris in 1824, Carlyle seems to have fallen head over heels in love on the trip.

Watercolour sketch of Thomas Carlyle

The romance was encouraged by Kitty’s cousin Julia Carlyle but the rest of the family didn’t think the impoverished writer was a suitable match for the wealthy, beautiful and well-connected girl despite her mixed blood. At that time, if an Anglo-Indian was fair and looked English, they didn’t have a problem being accepted. Those that were born darker, however, were left behind in India.

Bitter after being rejected, Carlyle later immortalized Kitty in his 1836 novel Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored), posthumously published in 1887, as the Calypso-like Rose Goddess Blumine. In Greek mythology, Calypso is a nymph who lived on the island of Ogygia where she kept Odysseus captive for several years to make him her immortal husband.

Carlyle immortalised Kitty as “fairest of Orient Light bringers,” “many-tinted, radiant aurora,” and “a strangley complexioned young lady with soft brown eyes and floods of bronze-red hair, really a pretty looking and amiable, though most foreign bit of magnificence …. that answers to the name of ‘Dear Kitty’.” He described her as lovely but suspicious due to her mixed-race ancestry:

It was a blessing in disguise for Kitty that she didn’t marry Carlyle because he developed ulcers and became a cranky, argumentative, and angry man . His cantankerous personality was reflected in his prose. In 1826, he married fellow irascible intellectual Jane Baillie Welsh.

In 1829, the famous beauty and considerable heiress, Kitty married James Winslowe Phillipps, a dashing army officer in the 7th Hussars Regiment. They were well matched. Phillipps, a member of the Kennaway family of the west country, too had Indian connections.

The Kennaway Baronetcy of Hyderabad was created in 1791 for John Kennaway, British Resident at the Court of Nizam Ali Khan, Asaf Jah II, Nizam of Hyderabad, in recognition of his services in the negotiation of the 1790 alliance between the Nizam and the East India Company against Tipu Sultan.

Kitty’s father in law had thus been the British Resident at the Nizam of Hyderabad’s court before her uncle and father, although his stint was vastly more successful than theirs.

With so much in common, their union was a happy one and blessed with seven children. The four who survived to adulthood were Mary Augusta, John James, Emily Georgina, and Bertha Elizabeth.

Kitty wrote in a letter to her grandmother Sharaf-u-Nissa in Hyderabad:
“My dear Grandmother, I received many years ago, your kind letter of condolence with me on the death of my beloved brother. I was very grateful to you for it, tho’ by my not answering it, I am afraid that you may have thought that I little regarded it. But indeed I did, & the more so, because I felt that you too mourned for him I loved so well & that you too were connected with him by the binding of blood ties.
Two years after his death I was married to a nephew of Sir John Kennaway’s. My husband is of my age & is Captain in the English army.
I have 4 children living, my eldest daughter is 11 years old. She is exactly like my husband. I have a boy of 8 years & a half, then another girl of 7 and a half who is exactly like my mother’s picture & one darling infant of 19 months. I have had 7 living children – 1 sweet boy and two sweet girls are gone, but I am blest in those that survive. My boy is so striking an image of my father that a picture that was drawn of my father as a little boy is always taken for my boy. They have a good intellect & are blest with fair skin. I live in a nice pretty house in the midst of a garden on the seacoast. My dear husband is very kind to me & I love him greatly.
I always think of you and remember you and my dear mother. I often dream that I am with you in India and that I see you both in the room you used to sit in. No day of my life has ever passed without my thinking of my dear mother. I can remember the verandah and the place where the tailors worked and a place on the housetop where my mother used to let me sit down and slide.
When I dream of my mother I am in such joy to have found her again that I awake, or else am pained in finding that she cannot understand the English I speak. I can well recollect her cries when we left her and I can now see the place where we sat when we parted, and her tearing her long hair – what worlds would I give to possess one lock of that beautiful and much loved hair! How dreadful to think that so many, many years have passed when it would have done my heart such good to think that you loved me & when I longed to write to you& tell you these feelings that I was never able to express, a letter which I am sure would have been detained& now how wonderful it is that after 35 years that I am able for the first time to hear that you think of me. And love me, and have perhaps wondered why I did not write to you, and that you have thought of me cold and insensible to such near dear ties; I thank God that he has opened for me a way of making the feelings of my heart known to you.
Will this reach you & will you care for the letter of your grand child? My own heart tells me you will. May God bless you my own dear Grandmother.”
And in other she wrote:
“I often think of you and remember you and my dear mother. I often dream that I am with you in India and that I see you both in the room you used to sit in. No day of my life has ever passed without my thinking of my dear mother. I can remember the verandah and the place where the tailors worked and a place on the house top where my mother used to let me sit down and slide. When I dream of my mother I am in such joy to have found her again that I awake, or else am pained in finding that she cannot understand the English I speak. I can well recollect her cries when we left her and I can now see the place where she sat when we parted, and her tearing her long hair. What worlds would I give to possess one lock of that beautiful and much loved hair! How dreadful to think that so many, many years have passed when it would have done my heart such good to think that you loved me & when I longed to write to you & tell you these feelings that I was never able to express, a letter which I was sure would have been detained & now how wonderful it is that after 35 years I am able for the first time to hear that you think of me, and love me, and have perhaps wondered why I did not write to you, and that you have thought me cold and insensible to such near dear ties.”

A portrait of the beautiful heiress Katherine Kirkpatrick, ca. 1830

Back in India, the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817–1818) and the final and decisive conflict between the British East India Company (EIC) and the Maratha Empire had left the Company in control of most of India. The British government’s aim of fully colonizing India was coming to fruition. They were now nearly fully in charge. Only Maharaja Ranjit Singh still held out in the Punjab.

With the rise of the Victorian Evangelical movement in the 1830s and 40s not only mixed race unions but also intermingling of Indian and British ideas, religions and ways of life became increasingly frowned upon.

Mixed race unions were on the decline. Wills left by East India Company officers show that while one-in-three wills between 1780 and 1785 were made in favour of an Indian wife and Anglo-Indian children, these shrunk to one-in-four between 1805 and 1810, one-in-six by 1830, and all but disappeared by the middle of the century.

After the War of Independence, the British executed the entire top rank of the Mughal elite and fully imposed the British way of life on India as a means of stamping out Indian national identity.

For these reasons, Kitty too had been forbidden by her grandfather from maintaining any contact with her family in India. Decades after leaving India, in 1830 with the help of her father’s former assistant and mother’s reputed lover, Henry Russell, Kitty began a correspondence with her maternal grandmother Sharaf-u-Nissa in Hyderabad. Although they never met in person, they wrote each other emotional letters for six years till the old lady’s death. Although Kitty was only a toddler when she left India, she has still retained vivid memories of her childhood.

In 1846, Kitty, now Mrs Phillips, made a chance visit to Swallowfield, the home of Sir Henry Russell and and spotted the Chinnery portrait of her and her brother. The painting had come into his possession and, at his retirement, he had brought it back with him and hung in his country home, Swallowfield, in Berkshire.  Moved at the memory of her brother (who had died in 1828) and of her grand, but barely remembered, mansion in Hyderabad, Kitty started bawling inconsolably. This moved Sir Henry to bequeath the painting to her after his death.

Till the end, Kitty had a special place in Carlyle’s heart who wrote of her in his Reminisces published in 1881, “ Amiable, affectionate, graceful, might be called attractive (not slim enough for ‘pretty’, not tall enough for ‘beautiful’); had something low-voiced, languidly harmonious, placid, sensuous, loved perfumes & c; a half-Begum in short; interesting specimen of the Semi-Oriental Englishwoman. Still lives, near Exeter (the prize of some idle ex-Captain of Sepoys), with many children, whom she looks after with a passionate interest”.

Kitty went on to live a happy, full life and died at her home, the Villa Sorrento, in the charming seaside town of Torquay, Devon, in 1889, having outlived her husband by 20 years.

Four years after her death in 1893, Sir Edward Strachey, the son of Kitty’s cousin Julia, wrote an article in Blackwood’s Magazine under the exotic title, The Romantic Marriage of James Achilles Kirkpatrick Sometime British Resident at the Court of Hyderabad. He recounted the romantic, but ultimately tragic story of James Kirkpatrick and Khair-u-Nissa.

Strachey described her, “She (Kitty) was ten years my elder, but I remember her from girlhood to old age as the most fascinating of women.”

Telling her story, Strachey added poignantly, “in after years the daughter told her own children how long she and her brother had pined for the father and mother they remembered, and longed to get away from the cold of England to Hyderabad, and were sad at hearing that they were not to go there again, which was all they could understand of their father’s death”.

The sensational story created a stir in the late-Victorian era, a time when the British Empire with its clear demarcation between the white master and brown colonist was at its height and Indian born and bred Englishman Rudyard Kipling wrote, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

According to Dalrymple, “James was among the last of the English officials in India who found it possible to truly cross cultures.”

Good Times


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