John Lang: From Botany Bay to Bombay

John Lang was born in Sydney, a second generation Australian whose grandfather had been sent to the fledgling penal colony at Botany Bay for stealing a pair of spoons. He was educated partly at Cambridge and partly at other less stuffy institutions after being thrown out of Cambridge for drunkenness and climbing onto a roof to tip a chamber pot over one of its spires.


He went to Calcutta to practice law and ended up defending Indians against the corrupt East India Company. His clients ranged from Indian business men that the Company had conveniently forgotten to pay all the way to the fiery queen of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai. The Company was trying to confiscate her estates as she had no children!

While not practicing law and being a thorn in Britain’s well padded side, he learnt Hindi and Farsi and managed to write over twenty novels, poetry, essays and sketches. He was always typically Australian, a champion of the downtrodden and fiercely sarcastic in his observations of the British in India.

He also published a newspaper the Mofussolite, mofussil being a word that denotes provincial in India.

He died at 47 in 1864, his drinking and the heat being what killed him in the end. His grave can still be seen in Mussoorie.

“It behoves me, however, to inform the reader that, recently, the tone of Anglo-Indian society during the hot seasons is very much improved. Six or seven years ago there never was a season that did not end as unhappily as that which I have attempted to describe; but it is now four years since I heard of a duel in the Upper Provinces–upwards of four years since I heard of a victim to gambling, and nearly three since there was an elopement. It is true that the records of courts-martial still occasionally exhibit painful cases; but, if we compare the past with the present, we must admit that the change is very satisfactory. I do not attribute this altered state of things to the vigilance of commanding officers, or the determination of the commanders-in-chief to punish severely those who offend. It is due chiefly to the improved tone of society in England, from which country we get our habits and manners. The improvement in the tone of Indian society has been very gradual. Twenty years ago India was famous for its infamy. Ten years ago it was very bad. It is now tolerable. In ten years from this date, if not in less time, Indian society will be purged entirely of those evils which now prey upon it, and trials for drunkenness and other improper conduct will happen as rarely as in England. Year by year this communication between our fatherland and the upper part of India will become more speedy and less expensive; and thus will a greater number of officers be enabled to come home on furlough for a year or two. Nothing does an Indian officer so much good as a visit to Europe. When a man has once contracted bad habits in India, he cannot reform in India. To be cured he must be taken away for a while from the country. There have been instances of officers who have had strength of mind to alter their course of life without leaving the East; but those instances are very few.

The East India Company should do all in its power to encourage young officers to spend a certain time every seven years in Europe. Instead of six months’ leave to the hills–which six months are spent in utter idleness, and too frequently in dissipation–give them nine months’ leave to Europe. This would admit of their spending six months in England, or on the Continent, where they would improve their minds and mend their morals, as well as their constitutions.

The East India Company should also bring the Peninsular and Oriental Company to reasonable terms for the passage of officers to and from India. A lieutenant who wishes to come home, cannot at present get a passage from Calcutta to Southampton under one hundred and twenty pounds. So that he gives up more than four months’ pay for being “kept” thirty-six days on board of a steamer. Three pounds ten shillings per diem for food and transit!”

~ John Lang, Wanderings In India

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