John Lang: The Maverick Lawyer of Rani Lakshmibai

John Lang: The Maverick Lawyer of Rani Lakshmibai

Literature and history come together as we are transported back in time to the 1850s through the writings of John Lang, a swashbuckling, scotch-loving Australian who travelled through India as a lawyer, a writer and a critic of ‘John Company’, or the British East India Company.

Lang wrote over 23 novels, hung out with Charles Dickens and went to jail a couple of times. But, for a history lover, all this pales when compared to one encounter that ensured that he would always be remembered – his meeting with the famous Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, who signed on Lang as her lawyer to fight against the British.

Lang left what is the only account of what the Rani looked like. It was also to him that she famously said “Mera Jhansi nahin dengee!” Here is an excerpt from his Wanderings In India, which has been brought to life by Dr Amit Ranjan in his book John Lang: Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer in Hindoostanee, Lawyer for the Ranee.

. . .

Lang was summoned by the Rani of Jhansi to save her kingdom that was going to be annexed by the Doctrine of Lapse. The order had already been passed in 1854, and Lang was called to do something so that the annexation could be annulled.

Apart from detailing his journey to Jhansi and the circumstances of the case, Lang also describes the Rani’s person, which is the only description by anyone in English documentation, and thus has been oft-quoted.

This is the paragraph of Lang which has appeared severally over the last century, and by which he is known to Indian, and even British, historians:

I had heard from the vakeel that the Ranee was a very handsome woman, of about six or seven and twenty years of age, and I was very curious indeed to get a glimpse of her; and whether it was by accident, or by design on the Ranee’s part, I know not, my curiosity was gratified. The curtain was drawn aside by the little boy, and I had a good view of the lady. It was only for a moment, it is true; still I saw her sufficiently to be able to describe her. She was a woman of about the middle size—rather stout, but not too stout. Her face must have been very handsome when she was younger, and even now it had many charms—though, according to my idea of beauty, it was too round. The expression also was very good, and very intelligent. The eyes were particularly fine, and the nose very delicately shaped. She was not very fair, though she was far from black. She had no ornaments, strange to say, upon her person, except a pair of gold ear-rings. Her dress was a plain white muslin, so fine in texture, and drawn about her in such a way, and so tightly, that the outline of her figure was plainly discernible—and a remarkably fine figure she had. What spoilt her was her voice, which was something between a whine and a croak. When the purdah was drawn aside, she was, or affected to be, very much annoyed; but presently she laughed, and good-humouredly expressed a hope that a sight of her had not lessened my sympathy with her sufferings nor prejudiced her cause.

Portrait of Lakshmibai, the Ranee of Jhansi | Wikimedia Commons

Lang is probably making up a tale—which he usually does while retelling it—in hinting that he flirted with the Rani:

‘On the contrary,’ I replied, ‘if the Governor-General could only be as fortunate as I have been, and for even so brief a while, I feel quite sure that he would at once give Jhansi back again to be ruled over by its beautiful Queen.’ She repaid this compliment, and the next ten minutes were devoted to an interchange of such matters. I told her that the whole world resounded with the praises of her beauty and the greatness of her intellect; and she told me that there was not a corner of the earth in which prayers for my welfare remained unsaid.

A portrait of John Lang

This little passage has led to remarkable conflations and conjectures in popular culture—in fact, a television serial about the Rani of Jhansi, the lawyer and the Rani playing cricket, and he falling in love with her. Lang was clearly boasting to his British readership. He tells about the various presents that the Rani gave him: 

The Ranee presented me with an elephant, a camel, an Arab, a pair of greyhounds of great swiftness, a quantity of silks and stuffs (the production of Jhansi), and a pair of Indian shawls. I accepted these things with great reluctance, but the financial minister entreated me to take them, insomuch as it would wound the Ranee’s feelings if I refused. The Ranee also presented me with a portrait of herself, taken by a native, a Hindoo.

This portrait of Rani ‘by a Hindoo’ has been the subject of discussion for historians for a long time, but it has never been discovered. As conjectured earlier, perhaps it hangs on some wall in Burma, for the descendants of Lang’s son, Livingston Lang, fled Burma during the Second World War and left behind most of their property.

Excerpted with permission from John Lang: Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer in Hindoostanee, Lawyer for the Ranee (2020) by Dr Amit Ranjan and published by Niyogi Books. You can buy the book here.

Cover Image: An illustration by John Lang of himself with Nana Sahib

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