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Kolkata’s Duel Avenue: Pistols Drawn, They Met At Dawn

Kolkata’s Duel Avenue: Pistols Drawn, They Met At Dawn

To the north-west of Kolkata’s National Library is a tree-lined lane with an interesting name. Called ‘Duel Avenue’, it marks the venue of what was probably the most famous duel in India in colonial times. It is difficult to imagine two towering personalities in British India quick on the draw, shooting at each other to settle a dispute on a deserted side street. And, yet, that’s exactly how it went down, at 5.30 on the morning of 17th August, 1780 CE.

Duelling has a long and colourful history and, in the 16th century, became popular in Europe as a means to settle scores, resolve disputes and preserve one’s honour. The term ‘duel’ instantly brings to mind two pistol or sword-wielding opponents facing off. But well before this classic image was cemented in our minds, duelling had been a common practice in India across the ages. In a manner of speaking, the mace battle or gada-yuddha between Bhim and Duryodhana in the Mahabharata may be considered a duel, and like all duels, it was governed by certain rules. One of these was that neither opponent could strike below the waist, although it was a rule that Bhim broke!

Duelling was common in the Vijayanagara Empire (1336 – 1646 CE) and instances of it were recorded independently by Portuguese chroniclers like Duarte Barbosa and Fernão Lopes de Castanheda. Castanheda writes, “There are many duels on account of love of women, wherein many men lose their lives. Those who fight ask the king for a field, which he gives them and also seconds, and if they are men of position, he goes to see the duel. They fight on foot in a place surrounded with steps, whereinto they enter naked and wearing turbans. They are armed with swords and shields and are girt with daggers.”

The practice was also prevalent among the Kshatriyas, the ‘warrior caste’ in the Hindu caste system. Many Kshatriyas thought it shameful to die in bed in old age, so when they were at death’s door, they would challenge a fellow Kshatriya to a duel to the death, preferring to die in combat rather than of old age.

However, duels to the death were punishable in India at various times, according to historian Jeannine Auboyer. In her book Daily Life In Ancient India: From 200 BCE to 700 CE, Auboyer writes, “Capital punishment was decreed for all murders (except in the case of Brahmans), even when the death was caused through a duel.”

A matched pair of engraved and gilded French percussion lock duelling pistols  | Wikimedia Commons

In the West, duelling with pistols became popular during the mid-18th century and ‘duelling pistols’ were always sold as an identical, indistinguishable pair. They had a number of innovations to make them more reliable and accurate than even the standard firearms of the time! Their long and heavy barrels helped steady aim and reduce recoil. The barrels were browned to avoid glare, which in bright sunlight would be blinding for an opponent.

These pistols also fired extremely large and heavy bullets that were capable of inflicting very serious damage, especially given the primitive state of medical care at the time. While there aren’t too many records of colonial-era duels in India, the most famous duel remains that of Warren Hastings versus Philip Francis, fought in Calcutta in 1780 CE, with a pair of duelling pistols.

Warren Hastings painted by Tilly Kettle in 1772 | Wikimedia Commons

Dueller No 1: Warren Hastings

Warren Hastings began his career as a writer or clerk for the East India Company in Calcutta in 1750 CE. Due to his diligence and intelligence, he was promoted and sent to the English factory, or overseas trading outpost, at Cossimbazar, in present-day Murshidabad district, in 1752 CE. Here, he narrowly escaped the siege of the Cossimbazar factory by the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, in 1756 CE, because he happened to be away on Company business during the siege.

The following year, Siraj-ud-Daula was defeated in the Battle of Plassey and Hastings was promoted as Resident of Murshidabad, an ambassador of sorts, representing the East India Company to the new Nawab, Mir Jafar. He returned to Calcutta in 1761 CE, and began investigating trading malpractices, but when his suggestions for reform caused a furore, he resigned and returned to England in 1764 CE.

Five years later, Hastings was back in India and was appointed Governor of the most important British settlement in India – Calcutta. When the three Company presidencies of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were united under a single government in 1773 CE, Warren Hastings became the first Governor-General of British India.

Philip Francis | Wikimedia Commons

Dueller No 2: Philip Francis

Philip Francis, 8 years younger than Hastings, began his career as a junior clerk in the British Secretary of State’s office. By 1772 CE, he was working in the War Office, and the following year he was appointed by British Prime Minister Lord North to the Bengal Supreme Council. In October 1773 CE, Francis reached Calcutta with his colleagues, George Monson and John Clavering. These three gentlemen together would form a majority in the Bengal Supreme Council and, over the next few years, they began to thwart every one of Hastings’s policies, defeating them whenever they were put to vote.

While the reasons for this rivalry are unclear, it is possible that Francis believed that Hastings’s policies were self-serving, while Hastings believed he was trying to put an end to corrupt practices in the East India Company and wouldn’t give in. The trio even accused Hastings of corruption, based primarily on the evidence of the Dewan of Bengal, Maharaja Nandakumar.

Hastings colluded with his friend, the first Chief Justice of India, Elijah Impey, to have Nandakumar hanged for forgery in 1775 CE. Over the next two years, first Monson and then Clavering died, giving Hastings a free hand in the Bengal Supreme Council once more, but his bitter enmity with Francis continued. Brigade Surgeon and Calcutta chronicler Henry Elmsley Busteed writes in his book Echoes From Old Calcutta that Francis had promised Hastings that he would not interfere with his conduct of the first Anglo-Maratha War (1775-82 CE), but he went back on his word. A deeply frustrated Hastings wrote a hostile minute, which was read out in the meeting of the Bengal Supreme Council on 15th August 1780 CE. The minute had been forwarded to Francis the previous night, and he had come prepared with an answer.

Hastings wrote, “I did hope that the intimation conveyed in my last minute would have awakened in Mr Francis’s breast, if it were susceptible of such sensations, a consciousness of the faithless part which he was acting towards me. I have been disappointed, and must now assume a plainer style and louder tone. My authority for the opinions I have declared concerning Mr Francis depends on facts which have passed within my own knowledge. I judge of his public conduct by my experience of his private, which I have found to be void of truth and honour.”

An enraged Francis pulled Hastings aside into a private room and read out to him his written response: “No answer I can give to the matter of that paper can be adequate to the dishonour done me by the terms you have made use of. You have left me no alternatives but to demand personal satisfaction of you for the affronts you have offered me.” Francis wrote in his journal that Hastings responded by saying that he had been prepared for such an eventuality. The time and place for the duel were fixed before the two parted that evening.

According to the norms of the time, each man was permitted a ‘second’, whose job it was to see that the duel was fought honourably. Francis’s second was Colonel Watson, the Chief Engineer of Fort William, who procured the duelling pistols. Hastings’s second was Colonel Pearse, the Commandant of the Artillery.

Belvedere House painted by William Prinsep in 1838  | Wikimedia Commons

On the morning of 17th August 1780 CE, Francis and Watson arrived at the venue of the duel an hour before Hastings and Pearse. The location they had chosen was at a crossing of present-day Alipore Road, on the western side of the National Library then known as ‘Belvedere House’. But the spot was found unsuitable for a duel because it had dense foliage on both sides, which made it quite dark. The road itself was unsuitable because it was almost ‘riding time’, and there was fear that the duellers might be seen. How unseemly that would be! Moreover, while specific legislation against duelling did not exist then, laws against murder certainly did.

The gentlemen, therefore, proceeded in a north-westerly direction, towards the house and grounds of Hastings’s friend Richard Barwell (now St Thomas School). Before they had gone far, on an old road separating Barwell’s estate from Belvedere, they came upon a spot that was suitable for a duel. The seconds loaded the pistols and handed them to Hastings and Francis, who walked 14 paces away from each other. Then they fired.

Duel Between Warren Hastings and Philip Francis, illustrations by A.D. Macromick | Wikimedia Commons

Hastings found his mark and Francis staggered and fell, crying, “I am a dead man!” On hearing his cry, Hastings gasped, “Good God, I hope not,” and both he and Watson rushed to the wounded man’s side. Pearse ran to call their servants, who were waiting with their carriages, to get them a sheet with which the wound could be bandaged. Watson managed to secure a cot from Belvedere House, on which Francis was placed and carried, since he couldn’t walk. Hastings told the wounded Francis that he believed that his wound was not fatal but if Francis did die, he would immediately surrender to the town Sheriff.

Francis was not fatally wounded and Justice Impey wrote to a friend that evening, that Hastings’s shot had “pierced the right side of Mr Francis but was prevented by a rib, which turned the ball from entering the thorax. It went obliquely upwards, passed the backbone without injuring it, and was extracted about an inch on the left side of it. The wound is of no consequence, and he is in no danger”.

Belvedere Estate today | Wikimedia Commons

Francis made a complete and rapid recovery and returned to England the following year. There, he attempted tirelessly, over the next two years, to have Hastings recalled and impeached. The impeachment proceedings would last seven long years, from 1788 to 1795 CE, during which time Hastings claimed to have spent nearly £70,000 in his defence. However, he was eventually exonerated and lived the rest of his days in style, on a £4,000 annual stipend from the East India Company.

Francis, who had enthusiastically helped Hastings’s prosecutor, Edmund Burke, was deeply and bitterly disappointed. He was further crushed when, in 1807 CE, he was passed over for the post of Governor-General of India in favour of Lord Minto. He lived his final days mostly in privacy.

Memorial to Colonel Pearse in a St. Stephens School, Dumdum | Author

Duel Avenue marks the spot where the Hastings-Francis duel took place. Here, at some point, stood two trees. The Calcutta-based priest Anglo-Irish Reverend James Long wrote in 1852 CE that they were “called The Trees of Destruction, notorious for duels fought under their shade”.

The area now has a heavy police presence since Duel Avenue is the location of the Kolkata Armed Police Headquarters, the Kolkata Police Law Institute and the Alipore Bodyguard Lines. Stand in the lane today and it is almost impossible to imagine the scene as it was 240 years ago, on an August morning, when the area was marshy and unpopulated, and the near pin-drop silence of the early morning was shattered only by the sound of gunfire.

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