Calcutta acquires its distinctive flavour presumably from the fusion of characters grown in diverse cultural environs in distant lands. Being the first capital of modern India, the city attracted overseas traders, bread-earners, fortune hunters and travellers who spent the varying length of their lives here amid the locals giving exposure of spectacular living styles and standards to them. Many of those were great names who had left for us textual and visual details, others left too little to trace back their lives in those maiden days of Town Calcutta still wrapped in a haze. Much of the important constructs gone amiss in want of contexts culled from firsthand records, or from the secondary sources left by contemporaries. Reconstruction of the period can possibly be done only by collaging syntactically the fragments likewise promising many a surprise.
It is, indeed, surprising to know how many shades of skin the early visitors of Calcutta had and in how many different tongues they spoke. But more amazing was the loaded experience of the colourful past they had lived before landed in India. They looked different, thought different and did things differently for living. Those were the people who opened up new sources of learning to live in different ways beautifully in a plural society of the modern time. The 18th century Calcutta with its formative society had welcomed the harbingers of change. Among them were two cavaliers of rare charms, both banished from their homelands apparently for the guilt of chivalrous romancing. Julius Soubise the Caribbean boy groomed as an English dandy, and the French nobleman Antoine de l’Etang the personal bodyguard of Luis the XIV was contemporaries. l’Etang arrived later in 1796, while Soubise, nearly a decade before, in 1778.
JULIUS SOUBISE IN LONDON
Soubise may be said to have been born twice, the first time in London, next time in Calcutta. His two lives were opposite to each other but inseparable like day and night. This is why you must allow me to dwell upon his London life before narrating his life in Calcutta.
Little we know of the Caribbean child, later grown to a notorious young dandy, a self-stylized ‘Black Prince’ in London high society, except that he was born around c.1756 in St. Kitts to a white planter father and a mother of African descent. The boy was sent under the guardianship of Captain Stair Douglas of Royal Navy to England. Reaching London on April 2nd 1764 he was given to the care of the captain’s cousin sister Kitty or Catherine Hyde Douglas, the Duchess of Queensberry (1701-1777) – an eccentric beauty and a socialite, known for her fondness for aprons. [Here is a portrait of her painted by Charles Jervas in the 1720s]
The Duchess apparently freed the boy from slavery and named him Julius Soubise, after Charles de Rohan, Prince of Soubise. [Miller] An all-round education appropriate for the British genteel society was set out for him. The celebrated Italian master Angelo Dominic taught Soubise in gentle arts in his School of Arms. Soubise began to make his mark by 1772 – a decade before the rising popularity of amateur and competitive fencing matches cemented the sport’s position in the leisure economy of the fashionable world. He also became proficient at the violin and composed a few merry pieces in the Italian style, and even sang in a comic operatic manner. Soubise was a great favourite of David Garrick’s, the elder Sheridan gave him lessons on elocution, and was loved by some of the brightest luminaries of his time.
His rising success in such a young age inspired Soubise in modelling himself as the ‘Black Prince’ – an epitome of aristocratic masculinity – opened for him a reckless life of a ruthless womanizer and squanderer. He became a source of worries for the upper-class Britons because of not having any real contenders to stop Soubise demeaning the values and the image of the British nobility. As we find from the stray records fetched by recent scholars, the Duchess, alone had the key role in upbringing Soubise in baronial fashion. She maintained a house in town for Soubise, as well a liveried carriage to take him around, and all amenities for leading his foppish life. She herself suffered often from his heedless drives, but made no attempt to check him firmly, probably due to her kindly feelings toward the black boy less than half of her age. The vanguards of the high society in London thought that circulation of a scandalous cartoon involving Soubise and the Duchess should be a sure measure to stall Soubise by embarrassing him as well as his patron the Duchess, and his mentor Dominico Angelo all at once.
On May 1, 1773, they brought about a satirical picture depicting Soubise and the Duchess of Queensbury engaged in a fencing match, an engraving of Austin based on illustrations of fencing compiled by the Angelo fencing dynasty. Duchess Catherine and Angelo are thus implicated in the most disgraceful public attack on Soubise. As researchers think, it would be a mistake to read the cartoon’s use of fencing as merely allegorical or to assume that the duchess is the cartoon’s only target. In fact, the cartoon also implicates Dominico Angelo. Besides William Austin’s engraving, there have been most notably, A Mungo Macaroni (published September 10, 1772), part of a famous 1771-73 satirical series of engravings depicting fashionable young men, published by Matthew and Mary Darly.
In some sense, Cohen pointed out, “the ultimate target of the cartoon is neither Soubise nor the Duchess of Queensberry, nor even Angelo, but the market economy in which the trappings of rank could be indiscriminately bought and sold.” [Cohen. 2018] The satire was of poor taste and offensive in nature. It must have dampened the spirit of Soubise at least temporarily, and the Duchess felt obliged to bring him back to his good senses to the possible extent. As it appears, Soubise used to stay at Angelo’s, yet remained a favourite of the Duchess who continued to take care of his fads and follies and pay off his large debts quietly. Things suddenly went out of her hand when the Duchess got informed that ‘one of her maids had been raped by Soubise’. She tried to dissuade the woman in vain from going to court. [Sandhu] It was probably from the Duchess, Angelo came to know of the kind of fast life Soubise had been leading in his private apartments where he assumed the habits of an extravagant man of fashion in company of succession of visitors in rooms decorated with roses, geranium, and expensive green-house plants. It was Angelo on whose recommendation, Soubise was sent to India at the expense of the Duchess. [Miller] The Duchess had hardly any option but to arrange passage for Soubise to flee the country he was so madly in love. It was the tragic end of her cherished relationship with the little black boy she brought up as a social rebel decrying against racialist, xenophobic and moralist sentiments in her own fashion. She died of eating too much cherries on June 17th 1777 [Fryer]. Next month Soubise sailed for Calcutta on July 15th 1777 [Sandhu] to start another life very different from the one vanished with the passing of his noble patroness.
SOUBISE IN CALCUTTA
On July 15, Julius Soubise left the English shore boarding the Bessborough East Indiaman under the captaincy of Alexander Montgomerie. The ship reached Madras via Media and Cape on 9 February 1778 [Three Decks]. In those days river trips from a South India port to Calcutta would take about three weeks. It could not be any earlier than March 1778 Soubise arrived at Calcutta’s Chandpal Ghat where large vessels used to embark. Almost a nameless black boy of twenty-three, Soubise landed in the small township of Calcutta leaving back his gorgeous past of princely life assuredly protected by the Duchess of Queensberry till her last. Soubise wanted her most to be at his side while starting a new life of a labouring common man instead.
Calcutta was then ‘the grave of thousands, but a mine of inexhaustible wealth’. [Long] Already the capital of British India, Calcutta was still then a small township resurrected from the ashes of Lalbagh Battle centring around the Customs House amid the ruins of the old Fort William. Clive Street was then ‘the grand theatre of business’, and there stood the Council House and every public mart in it. The day Soubise landed, there was no Mint, no Calcutta Gazette, no Asiatic Society of Bengal, but a Court House to render legal services as well as facilities of balls and theatrical acts besides running of the charity school for which the building was funded by the Lottery Committee and Omichand a Rothschild of India. Calcutta had ‘a noble play-house—but no church’, service was held in a room next to the Black Hole. The St John Church – the first Anglican Cathedral of Calcutta was founded by Lord Hastings on the land donated by the Hindu Nabokissen in c1784. [Long] All these institutions nevertheless came up one after another in the presence of Soubise. There were, however, no dearth of amusement and recreation with theatrical houses, hotels, and coffee shops for the white population, largely Englishmen, Eurasians, few Americans. The presence of native society in Tank Square vicinity was imperceptible, excepting a few men of affairs like Omichand and Nabokissen. Those days the influence of the fabled socialite, Begum Johnstone, the grandmother of the Earl of Liverpool, prevailed over the lifestyle of Calcutta’s citizenry. Till ten at night, their houses were lit up in their best style and thrown open for the reception of visitors. There were music and dancing for the young, and cards for the old. Common people live both splendidly and pleasantly, the forenoons being dedicated to business, and after dinner [= midday meal] to rest, and in the evening to recreate themselves in chaises or palanquins in the fields, or to gardens, or by water in their budgeroes. [Blockmann] The condition of Calcutta was not too kind to the young men fresh from school, lavishing large sums on horse-racing, dinner parties, contracting large loans with Banians, who clung to them for life like leeches, and quartered their relations on them throughout their Indian career.
It was perhaps the most critical phase in Calcutta history that Soubise witnessed during the last two decades of the 18th century. This was the time when Calcutta extended itself far beyond its boundary limits to the jungle, covering one-third of the Company’s territories, inhabited only by wild beasts, and in Chowringhee, between Dhurrumtollah and Brijitalao, where the new colony of the Europeans was being stretched out. The changing scenario of the Town Calcutta growing into the City of Palace can be envisioned by looking into the earliest Calcutta maps charted by Aaron Upjohn and Mark Wood, and going over the innumerous paintings of world-class artists, like Thomas and William Daniells, Thomas Hickey, Tilly Kettle, William Hodges, Johan Zoffany, and others. Within a year after the momentous duel fought between Lord Hastings and Sir Francis on 17 August 1777, Soubise entered the Calcutta scene prospecting as an accomplished lancer, a musician, and a horseman.
Settlers of those days were hospitable. As we learn from an anonymous account of travels (1760—1768), “there was no part Hospitality of the world where people part with their money to assist each other so freely as the English in India.” [Anon. Edin. Mag.] We might have then some reasons to believe that Soubise had not been left all by himself totally incapacitated in his ventures, if not black-skinned.
Soubise took a couple of years to initiate the business plans he designed after his mentor Dominico Angelo’s model. It was from Angelo, Soubise equipped himself with the arts of aristocratic sportsmanship – horse-riding and fencing, and also some marketing skills as well. Before he formally inaugurated his Riding Academy on Thursday, November 7, 1780, Soubise had started teaching fencing. We understand from an insertion, most likely by Soubise himself published in Bengal Gazette of November 4, 1780, that next Thursday Mr Soubise will open his Manège for the reception of the horses. His Fencing days will be shifted to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The next thing he did was staging Othello in the Theatre commemorating his first business venture in Calcutta. The Bengal Gazette declared sometime between 9th and 12th December that the Managers of the Theatre generously offered to give a benefit play to Mr Soubise, toward the completion of his Manège. Mr Soubise will appear on that night in the character of Othello. And afterwards, perform the part of Mungo in the entertainment ….. The part of Iago will be attempted by the Author of the Monitor, and Desdemona by Mr H. a gentleman of doubtful Gender. [Bengal Gazette, Dec. 9th-12th 1780] Here, the reference to Mr H. seems to be to Hickey himself, the editor of Bengal Gazette, who was known as an eccentric Irishman. Hickey’s acting or posing as a person of neutral sex may have been one of his eccentricities as Cohen maintains but it was perfectly in tune with the contemporary practices followed in the British stage in London as well as in Calcutta she pointed out. [Cohen. 2018].
Four years after, in 1784, Soubise set up his Fencing School advantageously housed behind Harmonic, the famous tavern of 18th century Calcutta, stood opposite the Lall Bazaar Police Court. As announced in the Calcutta Gazette on Thursday, June 24, 1784, Soubise proposes to teach the art of fencing against a nominal fee of two Gold Mohurs for the entry and two Gold Mohurs for tuition per month. His days are Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Such Gentlemen as choose to take private lessons at their own house’s will be attended on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; in which case his terms are three Gold Mohurs entrance, and three Gold Mohurs per mouth. [Seton-Karr]
Soubise was preparing for his new riding school since early 1788. Fort William reportedly granted him permission to run the school vide Calcutta Gazette April 24, 1788. The most enthralling publicity feat Soubise brought about for his new venture was an event report he made to appear in the Calcutta Chronicle of December 11, 1788. The report clearly reflects the way his businesses were packaged for a defined clientele belonging to Calcutta society as Domino used to do it in London. The report went as follows:
“Yesterday morning, early, the manly exercise of horsemanship was practised at the Manège, by the scholars of Mr Soubise, before a very numerous assembly. After the practice was over, near two hundred of the principal people of the settlement sat down to an elegant breakfast provided on the occasion. Breakfast being over, a ball was given, and the ladies and gentlemen were so highly delighted, that it was not without evident signs of regret, they
relinquished such a pleasing and health-giving source of amusement …” [Calcutta Chronicle of December 11, 1788] Soubise in his manège taught “more than just horsemanship: it offered education in – as well as the opportunity to take part in a simulative performance of – English gentility”.[Cohen. 2020] Notwithstanding his best motive and organizational capability time and again he failed to take off.
“The newspapers that document these years are a chronicle of his financial instability. Soubise placed advertisements to publicize his new ventures – fencing lessons, horse riding lessons, sales of the mare. Those were followed at regular intervals by notices of insolvency. Yet, whether imprisoned for debt, hounded by creditors, or suffered the sale of his stables at auction, Soubise inevitably bounced back with new ventures”. [Cohen, 2020]
So far we have seen him in Calcutta, Soubise was a master performer and zealous teacher – a man of extraordinary talent in public entertainment with full of ideas for publicity and promotion, yet success eluded him in Calcutta. Soubise lost every business opportunity he created but never let go his indomitable spirit to start anew over and over again. His social and personal life too was rarely without unwelcome events. We come to know from Calcutta Gazette of 26 March 1789 that Soubise survived a brush with death when a French neighbour took a razor to his throat. He bore a ‘large Scar on the left side of the Throat’ from this encounter until his death.
After recovery, Soubise disappeared from Calcutta scene for three years while he stayed in Lucknow. One of his attractions was the famed stable of Nawab of Awadh. Soubise got acquainted with many distinguished people. It was told that a gentleman who held a high station in the east, known by the appellation of Memory Middleton, became a friend and patron of Soubise at Lucknow. [Angelo ] The gentleman could have been none other than Nathaniel Middleton a closed associate of Warren Hastings who sent him at the court of Nawab as the Resident. Middleton got involved in the lengthy dispute between Hastings and his Bengal Council, which eventually led to Hastings’ impeachment. However, since Middleton had resigned from the East India Company in 1784 and went back to England much before Soubise arrived at Lucknow, no meeting ever taken place between the two contrary to the general belief. [Stonopedia] Before Soubise left Lucknow at the end of 1791, he had developed some good connections with high officials of the Stables of the Awadhi court, some of the largest and best on the Indian subcontinent, which he exploited later. Calcutta meanwhile prepared to move south with completion of the Esplanade ground after getting the Dhurrumtollah Tank constructed. He took quite some time to resettle.
PRIVATE LIFE VS SOCIAL ISSUES
This was the time when Soubise met Miss Catherine Pawson, a pretty and progressive young lady, popularly known as Kate. She was the only daughter of William Pawson, a good friend of Richard Blechynden (1759-1822), who became a soar critic and a reluctant business patron of Soubise.
Blechynden arrived in Calcutta in 1786 at the age of 22 years, and since then worked in various capacity – as a civil engineer, architect, or building contractor on his own, and sometimes worked under the Superintendent of Streets and Buildings – an Italian architect called Eduardo Tiretta of the Tiretta Bazaar fame. Blechynden also had a share in the Chronicle newspaper. Although he lived in rented houses in town, Blechynden spent his leisure time hunting in the manner of an English squire in “Belle Couchée” – a grand garden house with stables he owned at North-East Calcutta, off Dum Dum (later ‘Belgatchya’) road, about an hour’s walk from Tank Square. By 1806, after renovations, it turned into a very large, lower-roomed house with plenty of grounds and a tank of excellent water. It looks like, this had been the original premises of the legendary Belgachia Garden House and Blechynden its first owner before the property was sold to Lord Auckland and then passed on to Dwarkanath Tagore.
In spite of his multiple income sources, Blechynden was not always financially steady, particularly in those days of the French War, neither was his friend William Pawson. On coming to India, Pawson, son of a London wine merchant, joined the East India Company in 1765 and held the position of Paymaster General [Busteed]. He was dismissed in 1781 on the abolition of Provincial Councils. Depending on a small allowance he was permitted to draw, Pawson led a humble life with his daughter. Although Blechynden, Pawson, and many like them, struggled with debts in the 1790s, they nonetheless considered themselves genteel. Catharine Pawson, a member of the ‘polite society’ like her father, never cared much for social sanctions and taboos. “Upon making her acquaintance in 1793, Blechynden ‘thought she was very forward for a young lady’. A newspaper poem published by one of her admirers gives a similar impression, as does her penchant for acting, an activity considered out of bounds for gentlewomen.” Blechynden believed “her attitude undermined her class identity and social standing.” He might have felt something more than that – that it was not she alone but her family and friends too were at risk. The fear and anxiety of social rejection disturbed Blechynden’s peace of mind. His debts, his inability to pay salary to his staff, his gradual loss of hearing – were some of his moral and physical failings that made him apprehensive of social repercussion. The latest, however, was the shock he received from his friend’s freakish daughter and her scandalous affair with Soubise the ‘Coffree’ boy of a questionable character. Later, when Blechynden heard about their engagement, he could hardly conceal his indignation from the bride’s father, ‘I had heard, but scarcely knew how to believe it’. Pawson had no answer for him but openly speculated as much, that ‘he supposed the Coffree screwed her uptight — and that was the reason she preferred him’. [Cohen. 2020]
It was not interracial marriage as such that vexed Blenchynden’s mind. As Cohen pointed out, ”especially among men of Blechynden’s milieu, who tended to establish long-term relationships with Indian ‘bibis, albeit often outside the legal institution of marriage.’ In fact, between 1792 and 1809, Blechynden fathered two sons and six illegitimate children by four mothers – two Indian Muslims, one Indian or Eurasian, and one India-born Eurasian bibi.
Blechynden acted like a responsible father by providing the children with English education and did nothing exceptional against the norms of the then Calcutta society. Two noblemen of his time, Major General Claude Martin and the business tycoon William Palmer had their children by native mothers socially recognized as their wives, unlike all others. [Puronokolkata] Of course, in the case of Soubise’s marriage the racialization of gender was contrary to the conventional model. White men marrying black women were not unheard of in Job Charnock’s settlement, as he himself took a deshi wife, and many followed him thereafter. But the interracial marriage in opposite direction, that is, white-women marrying black-men most probably did not take place in colonial India ever before, although hundreds of Indian Lascars of British ships espoused English wives in England for more than two centuries.
It was hardly possible for Blechynden to judge Soubise by common social parameters as they belonged to different layers of the English society at two different cultural setups, one in London, the other in Calcutta. In London, Soubise ‘was taken up by fashionable society, became a fop among fops, used expensive scent, went around in a liveried carriage, a favourite of Garrick, brushed shoulders with some of the brightest luminaries of his time. He was Britain’s first Black Dandy, and a virtual socialite.[Fryer] Whereas, “the Calcutta social milieu Soubise entered after his marriage was a world away from such exalted circles.” [Cohen. 2020] What bothered Blechynden was the class identity and social standing rather than ethnicity issues. Catherine’s wedding, he feared, should undermine the very ground on which Catherine stood with her people socially connected. It was more so because the black man here was none but Julius Soubise, an African by birth, overly proud of his own black-figure reminding an Othello. Blechynden, with his racist mindset, could not stand the air of self-importance and arrogance of Soubise. Blechynden hoped, Soubise being a chronic debtor and all-around rogue, could hardly promise to make an ideal husband. But he was all wrong and he came to realize that in later days and admitted it with a shade of repentance when Soubise was no more. It was Blechynden who investigated if Soubise did actually married Catharine and found that they did marry but in Portuguese Church by Padre Geovan showing their limited positioning in polite society.
Belying her father’s friend Blechynden’s forebodings, Catherine wedded Soubise and remained devotedly in love with him. She never ever left side of Soubise while passing through a series of challenges up to the end of his tormented life, physically decrepit and financially bankrupt. Soubise, even in his worst time never stopped admiring his wife’s beauty. We see him saying to his guests at dinner “I declare my wife grows handsomer every day”, and sportively to his wife, ‘I wish I had a couple of you!”.
It looks like Soubise with his family had been staying around Lall Bazar-Cossitollah area for more than a decade until he moved into Dhurrumtollah neighbourhood. His new establishment, Calcutta Repository was ready by early 1795. The Calcutta Gazette published on February 19th, 1795 an elaborate description with a complete business profile of the Calcutta Repository, including its services, facilities, locale and t&c. Very likely, the news report was penned and sponsored by Soubise himself.
“Mr Soubise having observed that the disagreeable and ill-contrived stables in which many gentlemen’s horses stand in Calcutta, and even in-home that are more convenient, the smell, noise, and mosquitoes they occasion, has long had a wish to erect a set(?) of spacious, airy, and convenient stables, upon a plan of his own, for the accommodation of the Settlement; and having at length, by the patronage of some of his friends, been enabled to carry it into execution, he tenders his Calcutta Repository to his friends, his subscribers, and the public in general. As every convenience that could possibly be devised has been adopted to render them complete, he flatters himself they are, without exception, the best stables of any in India; and as Mr Soubise’s professional knowledge and long residence in the country enable him to pay every requisite attention to that noble animal, the horse, he hopes to obtain a share of that liberal patronage which has so often distinguished this Settlement. The Repository, which is now open for the reception of horses, is situated to the north of, and nearly behind Sherburne’s Bazar [where Chandni Market now located], leading from the Cossitollah down Emambarry Lane, and from the Dhurumtollah by the lane to the west of Sherburnc’s Bazar.
With a view to the further convenience of the Settlement, Mr. Soubise has erected one [range?] of stables, nine feet wide, for the accommodation of breeding mares, or horse who have colts at their side. There are likewise carriage houses, with gates, locks and keys to each, which render them very complete.
The terms of the Repository are made as reasonable as possible and are twenty-three Sicca Rupees per month, in which is included every expense (medicines excepted) for standing, syce, grass-cutter, feeding, and shoeing, and for standing at Livery only at five Rupees per stall. Further particulars may be known on application to Mr Soubise at his dwelling house, near the Repository, or at the menage.”
The Repository was the last major effort Soubise made with Mr Pawson as his partner. Pawson invested a good amount of money he borrowed from Blechynden but had no luck to pay him back. This project failed as every other one did. Returned from Lucknow, the idea of trading horses came naturally to a clever horseman like Soubise, who knew all about horses. The first horse race of India was held at Akra on January 16, 1794, where Soubise must have been present to enjoy the inspiring mounted sports and became alive to a potentially big market of horses in Calcutta. Besides, the growing demands of war horses after Plassey, and carriage horses with the road expansions there always a niche market for the horse as a luxury commodity. Being in India for nearly a decade Soubise had enough exposure to realize that the horse trade was a risky game, but for an over-confident man like Soubise the first concern was the money to fuel his business, and that too not so much a problem for him being a shrewd negotiator in credit manipulation – so long the project was profitable enough. But as we know, luck seldom favoured Soubise. Out of the amount of Rs. 5000/- Pawson borrowed from Blechynden, Soubise lost Rs 3500 on the horses of Awadh stables that Saadat Ali Khan sent him in August 1796. In the same month, Soubise was imprisoned ‘for shortchanging a customer on the sale of a horse in another complicated credit transaction.’ Pawson’s stables were later sold by lottery and the lotto winner made an offer to Blechynden but he was not ready with the money. Ultimately the stables went to De l’Etang who completed the deal by December 1797.
Blechynden noted in his diary that the final three years of Soubise’s life were a downward spiral. The stabling proved unprofitable and by 1795. Soubise was already looking out for new revenue streams. Blechynden noticed with dismay, Pawson was in a mood to seriously consider Soubise’ latest fad for setting up an Auction House at the ‘old Harmonic’ – the grand tavern equipped with spacious accommodation once used for holding large parties, and ball. Blechynden was perturbed: ‘how then could Soubise prosper without money—without interest—without friends — and without a particle of public confidence’? He sounded genuinely worried. But didn’t Soubise dare to take such a challenge many a time since he landed in Calcutta? A failure could not deter him ever to take another stake in another sphere of business. Besides running horse-riding and fencing schools, and livery stables, Soubise worked for the East India Company conducting breaking-in of military horses. As suggested in an unverified source, Soubise might have also tried out an unfamiliar field like keeping a bookshop in Calcutta – the only shop of its kind owned by a man of African origin.
Before launching his Auction House Soubise planned for establishing a ‘temporary’ Riding House. Why did he call it ‘temporary’ we are not sure. Perhaps that he wanted to generate quick money to meet some pressing expenses or meant this experimental in scope. What we know for certain is that his plan was inspired by his recent rapport with Nilmoni Halder, a resourceful Bengali businessman of Bowbazar. He came forward from outside Soubise’s circle, to support him with money and encouragement. The Calcutta Gazette advertised Riding House on July 5, 1798, inviting public attention to its sessions. We had no idea, however, how it all went off, but his other plan, a promotional theatrical evening at Calcutta Theatre was performed successfully on March 7, 1798, where ‘Kate’ (nickname of Mrs Catherine Soubise) was reportedly ‘played with great applause’ [Busteed ?] Next Monday, on the 12th, the Calcutta Theatre presented the Comedy of the Chapter of Accidents by Miss Lee was staged for the benefit of Mrs Soubise.
There was no indication that Soubise himself took any part in that evening; perhaps he did not. Soubise, a stage-artist groomed by Garrick, an elocutionist tutored by the elder Sheridan, a gifted violinist and singer, was surely expected on stage playing a stunning show befitting to the occasion. The sole reason for his remaining behind the screen might have been his suffering from intense rheumatism he was suffering from the last few years.
The Riding House, that started on July 5, made way to the sudden accidental fall of Soubise from a devilish Arabian stallion on August 24. Blechynden found him in the Gallery laying on a mat, perspiring profusely — his head was slightly cut behind — but his Skull did not feel fractured. Blechynden saw blood oozing out of his right ear and immediately sensed the blow was not only very dangerous but most probably mortal. Pawson and Mrs Soubise went to the hospital and remained with him till he died the next day from haemorrhaging in his brain. The death of Julius Soubise was reported in the Calcutta Gazette on 25th August 1798 and entered in the Asiatic Annual Register, vol.1 1798-99.
Within a week, Calcutta Gazette on August 30, 1798, reported the ‘Sale of Horses by Public Auction’ to be held every Wednesday at 10 o’clock in the forenoon. It was the beautiful Arabian saddle ‘Noisy’ – a property of Joseph Thomas Brown – to be on an auction sale for the benefit of Mrs Soubise. The auctioneer Mr A. L’Etang was the nobleman who alongside Mr Blechynden rushed to see Soubise at the site of the accident. We will find him again in a closer perspective in the forthcoming episode of magnificent horsemen.
Soubise’s death turned Blechynden, his worst critic in Calcutta, into a compassionate ally, appreciative of his talents and aggrieved at his tragic end. Blechynden did not press his friend Pawson or Mrs Soubise to repay his loan but could not save them from financial distress. Mrs Soubise with her father and children moved in a barrack, possibly one of the Bow Barrack quarters. Mr Pawson passed away in 1802 leaving his daughter Catherine alone with her children William and Mary. We know nothing for sure about Catherine and her daughter Mary (baptized on 20 June 1785). William Soubise, an assistant in the Sudder Dewanhy Adawlat, married Flora Ward in 1819, and Maria was born to them on April 25, 1821, and Henry in 1824 (died in his teens). In 1839, Maria was married to James Bernadotte Vallente. William Soubise died on July 9, 1841, at the age of 43 at Calcutta.
If high fashion and luxurious life of love with a fair lady is an offence for a black gentleman then Michael Madhusudan Dutta, the Bengal’s celebrity poet of the next century Calcutta, was no lesser offender. The British-African Soubise was driven out of the country by the racists and got blackballed by their counterpart British-India society in Calcutta, otherwise laudable for their camaraderie and supportive spirit. Madhusudan flared, as he had a friend like Vidyasagar to help the pauper to live princely regardless of social decry and hostility that had strangled Soubise to death.
It is interesting to note that both of his contemporary authors believed that the accidental death of Soubise was particularly tragic because of two separate reasons. Angelo writes “departed from his former thoughtless habits, his talents and address had placed him in the way to fortune.”[Angelo] Blechynden seemingly believed that having had Nilmoni Halder as a dependable impartial partner “a career was at length opened to him of getting out of his difficulties, in short, we can better spare a better man.” [Blechynden] This was the first time Soubise had a chance to overcome the racist resistance since he was ousted from the British society and exiled to colonial India inflicted with politically influenced racial hatred. In an environment of mistrust, Soubise had little opportunity to secure business credit on fair terms. Often he had to take deceptive means and ended up in jail; or prayed and rejected, for an instance, Soubise requested Blechynden to be one of his securities to the Asiatic Society for Rs 5000. Blechynden lied and declined politely.
Soubise did not leave anything in writing for us, except a specimen of his stylish love letters. There have been luckily two important documents of his contemporary writers: Henry Angelo the memoirist, and Richard Blechynden the diarist, providing significant events of Soubise’s life, and some scholarly works of recent writers that critically reviewed and analyzed those facts to portray Soubise meaningfully in modern contexts. In my modest attempt to restate Soubise’s life in the ethnocentric settings of the last score of the 18th century Calcutta, I remain indebted to Ashley Cohen and Peter Robb in particular for using their in-depth studies extensively.
This portrait of Julius Soubise(c1756-1798) an Afro-British self-styled ‘African Prince’, is believed to be the long-forgotten work of Johan Zoffany referred to in the Reminiscences of Henry Angelo (1830). Until now, the pastel painting has been identified and re-identified with some nameless black servant or an ‘African prince’ attributed to John Russell, or toOzius Humphry.
Zoffany painted Soubise’s portrait either in London before 1777 when Soubise left for Calcutta or in Calcutta between 1773-1789 when Zoffany visited India to paint quite a few masterpieces like Mordaunt’s Cock Fight (1784–86) Last Supper (1787) and significant portraits of dignitaries like Warran Hastings, Asaf-ud-Daula. Courtesy: Tate gallery.
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Angelo, Henry. 1830. Reminiscences of Henry Angelo; with Memoirs of His Late Father and Friends .. Oxford University. Vol. 1. London: Colburn and Bentley. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=xsK6QCfrXPQC&hl=en.
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Blochmann, Henry. 1868. Calcutta during the Last Century: A Lecture. Calcutta: Thomas Smith. https://books.google.com.au/books/about/Calcutta_During_Last_Century.html?id=1iIUvwEACAAJ&redir_esc=y.
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