It is fascinating to consider that ever since the early 19th century, at latest, with young servants of the East India Company “sowing their wild oats,” in that ancient euphemism, some may, even in today’s prolific gene pool in Dhaka, have genes of common descent with the “immortal bard,” William Shakespear.
A successor of that one, great, literary dynasty, arguably, the greatest, and the progenitor of another, consummated their personal friendship, one that was to endure through generations in Dhaka around 1771.
John Shakespear, it is said, first met William Makepeace Thackeray, later known as “Sylhet Thackeray,” to distinguish him from his more famous grandson, sharing an office in Calcutta.
Both arrived around 1768 to take up positions as writers, in the office of Robert Clive’s successor as governor of the Bengal Presidency, Harry Verelst, and became friends. Their friendship, it is recorded, was renewed and consummated in the Dhaka offices of the East India Company.
It was, also, a friendship that was to endure through at least three generations of intermarriage; generations, indeed, of both litterateurs and East India Company, and later, Raj, servants.
William Makepeace Thackeray, grandfather of the great Victorian novelist, was born in 1749, the son of the headmaster of one of England’s most famous schools, Harrow. He was born therefore, certainly, into a world of very useful contacts.
John Shakespear was, it is believed, a descendant of a forebear of the famous William Shakespear. He, too, was born, the son of a City of London Alderman, and grandson of a Member of Parliament into another similar world of privilege and useful connections. And, at the time, the most useful contacts for establishing a successful career in building wealth were, for sure, contacts in the, “Honourable Company” -- the East India Company.
The history of the two families illustrates, in so many ways, the hazards and the opportunities, for East India Company employees in Bengal, already considered as the most profitable of the Company Presidencies. Through over half-a-century they and their descendants, might be regarded as exemplars, or poster people, for the British, who effectively ruled the great tristate complex of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa at the time.
Thackeray, no doubt through his father’s influential contacts, began working with the Company at the age of 15 in India House on Leadenhall Street in the City of London.
A year or so later, at the age of 16, he sailed in February 1766 on the Company vessel, The Lord Camden, appointed as assistant to the president of the Board of Trade in Calcutta.
John Shakespear also sailed to India, immediately following his marriage to Mary Talbot Davenport of Lacock Abbey, in about 1767. In 1771, Thackeray was appointed to the Company Council in Dhaka, then the chief seat of the Company in East Bengal, and it appears that Shakespear was also appointed to the Dhaka office at about the same time. We may reasonably assume it was at this time that he and Shakespear became closer friends.
Thackeray, still a bachelor, had been accompanied to Dhaka by his sister, Jane, where she met and married another distinguished Company employee, the cartographer, James Rennel, whose map of the Company territories of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa was published in 1776.
Thackeray was appointed as the Collector of Sylhet in 1772; a considerable, “office of profit,” although he remained there for only two years -- sufficient to enrich himself, although, he had to sue the Company for payment for elephants collected for them from Assam.
Amongst the many Shakespears on record, it is not clear how John’s career developed, but he may well have become, later, the Professor of Oriental languages at Addiscombe College of the East India Company and author of definitive works on Indian languages.
John Talbot Shakespear, a son, married Amelia Thackeray, and went on to become Superintendent of Police, at a young age, for the entire tristate of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, before eventually becoming a judge.
The Calcutta Gazette of 1807, records him at the age of 26, together with another young man destined to become a great figure of the Company administration, Mountstuart Elphinstone. When, shortly afterwards, he sold his possessions in Calcutta to take up office in “Lower Bengal,” the catalogue of the sale included high class horse, a sumptuous European built carriage, valuable paintings, mirrors, and statues, together with a fine saloon organ.
He, however, died in 1824, surviving his wife by only six months, paying the price of both climate and lifestyle -- a price regularly paid by Company servants.
Richmond Thackeray, his name borrowed from his mother’s family, in fact married outside the clan, marrying a great beauty of the infamous “Fishing Fleet,” Anne Becher.
Whilst at a young age, he became a holder of another of the great opportunities for profit under the Company, as a Collector, and also became famous for his glamorous social life.
As it turned out, the drama of his marriage, a drama that saw him die in his early 30s, after a short, but brilliant and successful career, at the age of 33, could well have come from the pen of their only child, the boy, William Makepeace, who was to become, with his greatest novel, Vanity Fair, such a great litterateur.
His wife, Anne, before being, presumably, despatched by her family to seek a wealthy and successful husband in Calcutta, had been courted in England, by a Lieutenant of the Royal Engineers. Her grandmother, disapproving of what was, undoubtedly, a love match, disapproved of the young suitor because he was only the younger son of a London physician.
Impounding the young man’s letters, she eventually informed the “heart broken” Anne that he had died of fever, and sent her and her sister to Calcutta.
The novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, was to be the only child of the marriage. Two years after the marriage, at a grand reception given by her husband, Anne encountered her earlier suitor, who she had been informed was dead. It appears that this encounter wrecked a promising career -- Richmond dying, evidently broken-hearted, only three years later. Anne rapidly married her earlier suitor!
Richmond Thackeray is being rowed back to the ghat; his son, William Makepeace Thackeray, the future author of the famous, Vanity Fair, aged 5 will not see his father again. It is not hard to imagine the scene of parting.
With him, aboard the ship, are Augusta Shakespear, aged 9, George Shakespear, aged 5, and Richmond Shakespear, aged 4. Already, the intertwining of the families is very evident, and traceable through succeeding generations.
A family entanglement that would last throughout much of the 19th century.
A literary saga so rich in the history of both England and Bengal, that really only began in Dhaka, shines a bright light on both Company and Raj and the lives of those who were a part of it.