Today’s date has the somewhat dubious honour being the anniversary of a duel that took place between Warren Hastings and Philip Francis in 1780. Hastings had disliked Francis for a long time. The reason behind this is most likely the fact that he had once been promised support in his campaign against the Marathas by Francis on the Malabar Coast; support that was suddenly withdrawn when the same enemy was faced by the British on the banks of the Yamuna. At the end of the day, it boiled down to one man’s word against another. Hastings wrote a damning letter in early July of 1780 but held on to it till mid August.
He was so certain of Francis’s violent response that he also made a request to a certain wealthy native for ‘the sum of three lakh Sicca rupees’ presumably to make sure that the widow Hastings was comfortably provided for in the event of his death. Their marriage was only three years old although he had been involved with her since 1769 when he met her on ship while sailing to Madras. She had been the Baroness Imhoff at the time, wife to a minor German noble who was travelling to India to try and become a portrait painter in the wealthy colony.
In August 1780 he took her to Chinsurah where he left her with the Governor. Francis was sick with one of the many tropical fevers that made sure that not many British people of the time lasted in India for more than a few monsoons.
Hastings sent him the letter when he heard Francis was better. In it were many allegations and pointed remarks such as the following; that is judgement of Francis’s public conduct was based on the his knowledge of the manner of his private conduct which he decried as ‘void of truth and honour.’
Sir Elijah Impey, wrote:
‘This morning Mr. Hastings and Mr. Francis fought with pistols; they both fired at the same time. Mr. Francis’s ball missed but that of Mr. Hastings pierced the right side of Mr. Francis….”
(Belvedere House, William Prinsep 1838)
Colonel Pearse had been Hastings’s second and he described in great detail how they had thought of drawing pistols on a road leading to Alipore that crossed an avenue walk that had formerly belonged to Belvedere House. But Hastings refused, saying that the place was too dark and weedy. It is worth remembering that Belvedere House had been a gift to Hastings by Mir Jaffar the treacherous. After the duel Hastings sold it to Major William Tolly for the princely sum of 60,000 rupees. William Tolly had been behind the dredging of a seventeen mile canal to provide the people of Assam and East Bengal access to Calcutta. It is probably also worth remembering that the suburb of Tollygunge is named after him.