Indo-saracenic palace and a ghat in Brighton

Opposite the cottage where I lived in my teenage village, there was the Captain’s place, full of items from India. It was only ten years after the empire scuttled away from its starvation and bloody shambles and India was present in England in a different way than now. It is exotic but not unknown for me.

On Sunday mornings, my father and I used to take the ancient electric train to Brighton, past the red and white trolley buses downhill to the beach, ride on Volks even more ancient electric railway along the coast to Rottingdean, go to the aquarium and at the right time of year, watch the De Dion Boutons roll down the esplanade in triumph at the end of the Old Crocks veteran car run from London.

India was (and is) very present in Brighton in the shape of the Royal Pavilion, George IV’s summer palace at then fashionable Brighton built in the Indo-Saracenic style (and later sold by Victoria who preferred to keep her loyal subjects at somewhat greater distance at discreet Osborne in the Isle of Wight).

During the First World War, the Pavilion was used as a military hospital for wounded Indian soldiers among others. Some, of course, died and up on the Southdowns near the village of Patcham, there was a ghat where they were cremated (still a somewhat exotic practice in the Britain of this time). There is a chattri (memorial) up there. I have never been there but I will visit it. For a while after the First World War, the British were respectful of the Indians who had died for a cause very foreign to their own needs (sending Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII, who abdicated) to inaugurate the chattri). Grateful memory was rather short-lived, however. Very little was done for the destitute widows of the dead in India and the chattri apparently became quite dilapidated in the inter-war years but has at least now been restored.

Even more curious is the story of Sake Dean Mahomed, born in Patna in 1759 to a Bengali Muslim family (and died in 1851). After the early death of his father, who served in the East India Company’s Bengal army and died in battle, he was looked after by a Captain Godfrey Baker, an Anglo-Irish protestant officer. He came back to Ireland with the Captain, then later opened England’s first Indian restaurant in 1810, the Hindostanee Coffee House near Portland Square in London. He later moved to Brighton and opened “The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath” and introduced the English to the delights of shampooing (hence the somewhat alien word Shampoo). When I was in Brighton, I found his grave at St Nicholas church, unfortunately barricaded in by restoration in process. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to clamber over the wall of the graveyard and get to the grave but teetering around perilously on tombs is not really compatible with my silver elegant demeanour…(Background info on Dean Mahomed mined from Wiki).

I also found a small model in Brighton museum of Tipu’s tiger, showing a tiger savaging a soldier of the East India Company; there is a large one in the Victoria and Albert museum in London. I must try and find out how it came to be in the Brighton museum. I believe it was called Tipu’s tiger as the large piece was looted from Tipu, the ruler of Mysore’s palace when the British led by Warren Hastings defeated Tipu (after Tipu had defeated the British in an earlier Anglo-Mysore war). I had always thought that the image of the solder being mauled by a tiger was symbolic for the British being defeated by the Indians, especially as Tipu was known as the Tiger of Mysore. But on the net, there is the story of the sixteen-year-old East India cadet Hector Munro who died after being savaged by a tiger, which sprang on him and dragged him off to the bushes, which was supposed to have inspired the gruesome ceramic piece. I’m not convinced by this unpretty prettyifying…

I haven’t been to Bengal since before the Covid trudge but am beginning to hope for the not so distant future.

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