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The Barber of Lucknow

Dr. Llewellyn-Jones is an historian with a particular interest in colonial India. She is Editor of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA).

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It is now generally accepted that a significant cause of the 1857 uprising in India (known also as the Mutiny), was the annexation by the East India Company of the Kingdom of Awadh (Oudh). Many of the men who mutinied in the Company's Bengal Army came from Awadh and the assumption of power in their homeland, in 1856, was too outrageous for them to overlook. (The story of the greased cartridges is true, but was simply the fuse that lit the powder keg.) On his way to exile in Calcutta, the last King (or Nawab) of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, spent three weeks in Cawnpore, where his dignified bearing won him sympathy from the townspeople, especially after the Company arrested his personal servants on their arrival in British territory. It is perhaps no coincidence that the worst massacre of Britons during the Mutiny occurred in Cawnpore the following year.

But the annexation was not a sudden Imperial whim. There had long been threats from Calcutta that the Company would move in, if the hedonistic Nawabs did not reform firstly themselves and secondly their kingdom. In 1831 Lord William Bentinck, the Governor General, visited the capital, Lucknow, and issued a warning that unless 'the existing disorder and misrule' was remedied 'it would then become the bounden duty of the British Government to assume direct management of the Oudh Dominions'. Promises of better behaviour were made by the Nawab of the time, Nasir-ud-din Haider, but there was no subsequent improvement. In fact, if anything, things seemed to get worse.

Twenty-five years later James Outram, the newly appointed British Resident to the Court, painted the same picture and added 'the lamentable condition of this kingdom has been caused by the very culpable apathy and gross misrule of the Sovereign and his Durbar'. When Outram's report reached the Governor General, Lord Dalhousie (known for his aggressive forward policy), it seemed likely that Awadh, too, would become part of the Company's possessions.

As rumours of the proposed takeover spread, and arguments for and against were aired, a short book was published entitled The Private Life of an Eastern King, by William Knighton, Professor of History and Logic at the Hindu College, Calcutta.' The author had met an Englishman who had worked at the Lucknow Court, as librarian, for Nasir-ud-din Haider in the mid 1830s. Dismissed by the Nawab, Edward Cropley had become an indigo planter, but a bad season in 1840 had left him almost bankrupt. He was still full of bile about his dismissal, and attributed it to another Englishman at Court, George Harris Derusett, known as the Barber of Lucknow. Derusett, claimed Cropley, was the real power behind the throne, the intimate companion of the King, not only his barber, but his food taster, his wine-supplier, his companion in bawdy palace evenings - in short 'the king's agent in all his evil practices'. His baneful influence was the theme of Knighton's book, based on Cropley's sour reminiscences.

Owner/Source Reproduced with the kind permission of the publishers (Taylor & Francis Ltd) from "Asian Affairs, Vol.27:1 (1966)"
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