Down Memory Lane
Heritage Buildings

A Fight for Honour

The early British in Calcutta indulged in the same traditions and practices prevalent at home, back in England; duels, being part of such accepted social behaviour, were witnessed quite frequently in 18th and early 19th century Calcutta. A Calcutta Reviewer reported that on the Maidan, opposite Alipur Bridge there were two trees beneath which duels were fought regularly. Even men at the helm like Robert Clive fought duels but the most famous one was certainly between Warren Hastings and Philip Francis, his chief antagonist in the council appointed by the Directors of the Company. Anindita Mazumder writes about this historical event which took place on 17 August, 1780
Among the chroniclers of old Calcutta, HE Busteed, gives us a vivid account of the duel that took place between Warren Hastings and Philip Francis at Belvedere. But before that we must dwell on the affront that led Francis to challenge Hastings in a duel. 
Warren Hastings was the first Governor General of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal but the directors of Company curbed his authority by appointing four members to his council including Richard Barwell, Philip Francis, John Clavering and George Monson. There was overwhelming bitterness between Hastings and Francis and at every moment the new Governor General found his moves thwarted since the votes of Monson and Clavering were cast against him and only Barwell supported him. Their strife led to the hanging of Maharaja Nanda Kumar on charges of forgery after he complained to the Council that Hastings had accepted bribes and was used by Francis and his friends against the Governor General.
The immediate cause of the duel was a minute written by Hastings to which Francis took affront. At the eve of Barwell's departure both had arrived at an understanding that Hastings would be allowed to continue war against the Marhattas which Francis later denied. Hastings wrote in the minute about his opponent's conduct as “I judge of his public conduct by my experience of his private, which I have found to be void of truth and honour.” After the Council had risen on August 15 Francis took Hastings to a private room and put in his hand a written challenge which was readily accepted.
Thursday, August 17 was the chosen date and Belvedere, the venue; Hastings arrived with his second, Colonel Pearse while Colonel Watson accompanied Francis. There was some deliberation over the spot as reported by Pearse; a walk on the grounds of Belvedere Garden was disapproved by Hastings for being “full of weeds and dark.” The road was thought to be too public as it was near riding time. Finally “a dry, retired spot” was chosen as the venue.
The pistols were loaded and Pearse suggested that the distance should be fixed; immediately Watson suggested Fox and Adam (referring to a recent famous duel) had taken 14 paces and it should be followed. Hastings observed that it was too great a distance for the pistols but no further objection was raised.
Both stood behind the mark and it is evident from Pearse's account that Hastings was unfamiliar with the rules of duelling and asked what he meant by “both should fire together”. When Francis observed he had never fired a pistol in his life Hastings said he did not have any advantage, having fired only once or twice, previously.Meanwhile, Francis came down from the firing spot saying his powder had gone damp and since his second had none Pearse supplied him a cartridge.
Again they took their stands and at the counting of one, two and three both fired. Francis fired first and missed his target while Hastings' fire found its mark on his opponent's right arm. Francis staggered and while attempting to sit, fell on the ground crying out he was a dead man. The rest ran to the wounded and found his injury was not a serious one. A sheet was brought to tie the wound and he was carried in a cot to Belvedere. He recuperated within few days and attended the Council where both were civil in their behaviour.
This incident might have altered the course of India's history as Hastings later admitted he would have surrendered to the Sheriff if things had taken an unfortunate turn.
A few months later in December, Francis left for England but continued to antagonise Hastings after the latter returned home to face a long drawn out battle for his impeachment but then it is another story.