The Inordinately Strange Life of Dyce Sombre by Michael H Fisher
William Dalrymple marvels at the tragic and extraordinary life of Britain’s first Anglo-Indian MP
From: The Observer, Sunday 1 August 2010
David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, painted by Charles Brocky.
At around 4am on 21 September 1843, a man recently certified as a lunatic escaped from his Liverpool confinement, gave his keepers the slip and disappeared into the night. Undetected, he managed to catch an early-morning express train from Lime Street to London. There he jumped on to another express to Southampton, where he made his way on an overnight steam packet to Le Havre. Within 48 hours of his escape from Liverpool he reached Paris, and checked into one of the best hotels in town. Shortly afterwards, he began collecting doctors’ certificates to show he was of completely sound mind. With these secured, he began legal proceedings to recover the vast fortune that had been sequestered from him when he was declared non compos mentis, or, in the popular parlance of the time, a “nincompoop”.
The supposed lunatic was Colonel David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, a multilingual and culture-crossing young Indian prince – or “half-caste Croesus”, according to the London Daily News – who had already suffered the indignity of having his rich kingdom north of Delhi confiscated on the most dubious grounds by the East India Company. His life was a compendium of contradictions: he was raised by a former Muslim courtesan but became a pious Roman Catholic; he ended his days as both a Knight Templar and a Knight of the Pontifical Order of Christ. Exiled to London, he was blackballed from gentlemen’s clubs and reviled in the streets as “a black bugger”, but succeeded in marrying a prominent viscount’s daughter, and became the first Asian, and only the second non-white, to be elected to the mother of parliaments.
Yet just as it seemed he had succeeded in breaking through the ceiling of high Victorian racial prejudice, Dyce Sombre’s election was annulled for corruption, his marriage fell apart and his wife’s family had him declared insane and took control of his fortune. He never succeeded in regaining most of it, despite alleging, from his exile in Paris, that his unfaithful wife had bribed the doctors to have him locked up so that she could seize his money; he also published a 591-page book, Mr Dyce Sombre’s Refutation of the Charge of Lunacy, which he circulated to anyone he thought could help.
He continued to litigate unsuccessfully for a further eight years in an attempt to get his fortune back, though his case was not helped by his increasingly eccentric and immoral behaviour, with a succession of prostitutes and a charge of exposing himself in public. He eventually died, dejected and alone, in a cheap hotel in London, having returned to the scene of his humiliations to try one last time to salvage his lost reputation. It was only after his death that Dyce Sombre’s lawyers won a series of cases proving that he had indeed been unjustly treated, and restored to his executors much of his fortune.
Now, with The Inordinately Strange Life of Dyce Sombre, Michael Fisher has managed to bring back from oblivion a tragic but extraordinary life that once inspired fiction by Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as bearing an intriguing resemblance to the main plotline of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.
Dyce Sombre was the great-grandson-in-law and adopted heir of the enigmatic Begum Sumru of Sardhana, who presided over one of the most fascinatingly hybrid courts in Asia. The begum was originally said to have been a Delhi or Kashmiri dancing girl named Farzana Zeb un-Nissa, born in 1751, whose rapid rise to fortune began when she became the bibi (mistress) of German mercenary Walter Reinhardt, known as “Sombre” (Indianised to “Sumru”) after his severe expression. When the Mughal emperor gave Reinhardt a large estate in the Doab north of Delhi, his begum went with him and turned the village of Sardhana into their capital, with a ruling class drawn from both Mughal noblemen and a ragged bunch of more than 200 ne’er-do-well French and central European mercenaries of mixed Jewish and Catholic extraction, many of whom apparently converted to Islam.
After Sombre’s death, his begum ruled in his stead, partly from Sardhana and partly from her large Delhi palace on the Chandni Chowk. Contrary to the professions of faith made by her officers, she chose to convert from Islam to Catholicism and appealed directly to the Pope to send a chaplain for her court. By the time the intriguingly named Father Julius Caesar turned up in Sardhana from Rome, the begum had already begun to build the largest cathedral in northern India, in a style that promiscuously mixed baroque and Mughal motifs, with a great classical dome rising from Mughal squinches decorated with honeycombed Persian murqanas.
On the death of the begum in 1836, the British seized the kingdom of Sardhana when the East India Company refused to recognise Dyce Sombre as the legitimate heir. Like many other disinherited Indian princes before him, he had no option but to sail to England to seek justice from the courts or, failing that, parliament.
Dyce Sombre’s tragedy was that the fabulous fluidity of culture and practices, and the plurality of beliefs that was possible in late Mughal India, was completely impossible in the hierarchy-obsessed world of early-Victorian London, with its firm social certainties and increasingly rigid racial and religious boundaries. Stateless, multicultural, multilingual and ethnically mixed, he found it hard to fit in anywhere outside the strange kingdom where he was raised. Many of the ideas for which Dyce Sombre was locked up would have appeared relatively unremarkable in India: his insistence on trying to keep his aristocratic English wife in virtual purdah; his strong conviction that good and evil djinns and spirits were battling over his soul; and his tendency to demand the right to duel the huge the number of people who he suspected of sleeping with his wife (these included the Duke of Wellington, Lord Cardigan – of the Charge of the Light Brigade fame – and his father-in-law, as well as various “waiters, servants, doctors and tradesmen”). At least some of what people took to be his madness came from cultural misunderstanding rather than insanity.
Michael H Fisher has long been fascinated by the flow of people and cultures between Britain and India; his masterly Counterflows to Colonialism was a groundbreaking history of the reverse journeys of thousands of 18th- and 19th-century Indians to the colonial west. This book, however, rediscovers and brings back to life one of the strangest, saddest and most unlikely stories of the entire British-India encounter, and throws a fascinating light on the degree of hybridity and cross-cultural contact possible during the period, as well as the limits that Victorian England eventually imposed on such cultural crossings.
William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (Bloomsbury) has just been awarded the first Asia House prize for literature
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I saw the film: probably around twelve.
I know it was a Sunday afternoon. After lunch, watching the television film matinée, my mother would do the weekly ironing, as my sister and I sat mesmerised by old black and white movies. (The mystery of how our term for afternoon performances is derived from the French word for morning has still not been explained to me.)
“Lost Horizon” had a powerful impact. I was inspired to search out the book from our local public library. But the film is only based on the novel. There are major differences; notably in the endings.
And now comes my confession.
For the first and only time, I defaced a library book. I took a pencil and, in my best hand-writing, added a short coda. This vandalism was prompted by the shock of reading a book that did not end happily. I needed the hero to find what he had lost.
I was reminded of this by listening to BBC Radio 7 on the internet. They are currently transmitting a dramatised version of the book.
More than four decades have passed since that Sunday afternoon. I tell myself I am a little wiser. Failure and unresolved tensions – in life and literature – are somewhat easier to cope with. “And lived happily ever after” no longer raises my hopes, just an eyebrow.
However, this is not quite the end of the story. Many years later I was destined to reach my own Shangri-La, a haven found by accident, stumbled upon during a reluctantly taken holiday.
There are no snow-clad, hidden valleys. The secret of eternal youth is not currently on offer. Arrivals and departures are arranged by scheduled flights and taxis, not through plane crash and hazardous frozen treks. My home is in the tropics of Travancore, not Tibet.
But I have finally realised much of the peace and happiness that was so tantalisingly first glimpsed all those years ago, watching “Lost Horizon”.
(When writing this post, I came across an interview with Frank Capra, where he gives an account of the film’s almost disastrous opening.)