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How Calcutta kept alive a line of William Shakespeare's family

Daily O
By Professor  

British Bengal was the last place to find heritage English literature. William Jones — who invented philology — and the other Orientalists, induced in Oxbridge and officials of the East India Company a newfound love for Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit. That benevolence went on even as Warren Hastings was pillaging Bengal, waging wars with the Marathas and Hyder Ali, or influencing the hanging of Maharajah Nandakumar of Birbhum. In 1788, Hastings was brought to impeachment by the Whigs, led by Edmund Burke and Richard Sheridan, in nothing less than a grand social spectacle, at the Westminster Hall. The events were most notably narrated later by Thomas Babbington Macaulay, the architect of English education in India. What was systematically untold, however, was how the bloody fortunes of the East India Company connected Hastings to Burke to Macaulay to the Shakespear family of Calcutta, who in turn became connected to the William Makepeace Thackerays, in a pedigree dating back to William Shakespeare.

The elephant hunter of Sylhet

William Makepeace Thackeray, grandfather of the more popular Victorian writer of the same name, came to India, as a collector in Sylhet. He amassed a loot by trading lime and elephants, to Chowringhee in Calcutta and Leadenhall Street in London. A route of 7,500 miles — from Esplanade to the Strand — was littered with the spoils and artefacts of the corrupt nabobs, in the 18th century. The Regulating Act of 1773, and later the East India Company Act of 1784, were brought in to supersede the rule of the Company. Quite ineffectually, of course.

Thackeray retired, in 1776. He was so rich that the next three generations of his family would not have to work. He even managed to sue the Company, and receive £3,700 — about £.7 million today — over the death of his elephants. The damage he caused to India was perhaps overshadowed in the genealogy he let loose in the country. Not only was Calcutta the birthplace of the author, William Makepeace Thackeray, but the city also kept alive one line of the Shakespeare family.

The John of the Stepney Shakespears

In the South Park Street cemetery, Calcutta, where the likes of Jones are buried, there are two Shakespear tombs. One of them is John Talbot Shakespear’s, who was born to John and Mary Shakespear, in England, in 1783. He entered the East India Company and arrived in Calcutta during the early 1800s.

In 1803, he married Emily Amelia Thackeray, the eldest daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray senior. Thackeray’s sixth son, Rev Francis Thackeray, married John Talbot Shakespear’s sister, Marianne Shakespear. Another of Thackeray’s sons, Richmond Thackeray, who came from London to become the secretary to the Board of Revenue, married Anne Becher. In Bath, Anne had met one Lieutenant Henry Carmichael-Smyth, in 1808, where the two fell in love. Since Anne’s grandmother was opposed to the marriage, she was told that Henry had died of lingering fever. Soon after Anne’s return to India, and her marriage, she gave birth to her only son, the novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, in 1811, at the Thackeray House, in Alipore. Ironically, while her lover, Henry, was still alive, back in England, her husband died of lingering fever, in 1815. He was interred at the North Park Street cemetery, which later became the Assembly of God Church School.

Thackeray’s father’s first name, Richmond, inspired the name of the youngest of John Talbot and Emily Shakespeare, Sir Richmond Campbell Shakespeare. He rose in the British army to an agent to the Governor General of Central India, and a Companion of the Bath, by 1860. Another of John Talbot Shakespear’s sons was named William Makepeace Shakespear. He died in Lucknow in 1835, where he was buried.

John Talbot Shakespear had a thriving career, and was appointed by Richmond Makepeace Thackeray as the assistant to the collector of Birbhum. He died at sea, in 1825. His tombstone lies in the South Park Street Cemetery. While the grave of his brother-in-law is washed away by history, Shakespear’s wife and his epitaph lie side by side, as monuments to the first and the last of the Shakespears in Calcutta, who hailed from the bard’s own family.

Notwithstanding the variant spelling of this line of Shakespears (without the final "e"), their link to William Shakespeare is confirmed in a forgotten Victorian discovery — George Russel-French’s Shakspeareana Genealogica (1869), and later reproduced partially in Charlotte Carmichael Stopes’ Shakspeare’s Family (1901). Russel-French claimed that this line came from the Stepney (or Shadwell) Shakespears, descended either from William Shakespeare’s brother, Gilbert, or uncle, Thomas. The reconstructed pedigree was furnished to Russel-French by Lieutenant Colonel John Davenport Shakespear, a nephew of John Talbot Shakespear. Among other evidences of the connection between the Shakespeare and Shakespear families, one was “the drawing on a parchment of a coat of arms, pronounced by an eminent herald…more than 200 years old, which is precisely the same…as the coat of arms granted to the Poet’s father in 1596.”  John Davenport Shakespear was in possession of this, in the 1860s. This serendipity may result in John Talbot Shakespear’s grave in Calcutta to be taken more seriously. Else it may go in the direction of Richmond’s grave.

From Calcutta, Macaulay wanted to promote Milton, Hume and Spencer in India. One does not need to be disillusioned with Macaulay to know literature or culture hardly featured in Britain’s imperial interests. India which has otherwise been rather generous to Shakespeare, and adapted the bard in all possible forms, let the first one of his line to come here, lie in oblivion. Time and again, historians have successfully exposed Britain’s inglorious empire. Each time they may have wilfully thwarted the nuances of the great cesspool of interests and characters that British India was. Neither Britain nor India has been very kind to their graves. And William Shakespeare an easy excuse or an overwhelming influence to remember or forget the life of an Indian Shakespear. What have we got to lose by remembering their graves?

“Be absolute for death; either death or life. Shall thereby be the sweeter,” answers Shakespeare.