Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of Bengal, was born in Churchill, Oxfordshire on December 6, 1732. In honor of his birthday we’re taking a look at an historic writing box that bears his arms, made in Vizagapatam in the mid-18th century.

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The present box, bearing the arms of its owner Warren Hastings, is a superb example of the craftsmanship typical of Indian cabinetmakers working in the port of Vizagapatam in the mid-18th century. It is particularly notable in being larger than many known specimens, and containing an array of beautifully worked drawers on the inside, further enhanced with tortoiseshell veneer complementing the bands of ivory on the interior.  This piece would have been a prized object within the important collection of ivory furniture which Hastings assembled during his lifetime.

 

Located on the northern Coromandel Coast of southeast India, Vizagapatam, not far from Madras, boasted ready access to teak, ebony and rosewood from the surrounding Northern Cicars region.  As a trading port, it could also provide its craftsmen with ivory from Pegu, padouk from the Andaman Islands and sandalwood from the South, making possible the production of some of the most remarkable furniture of the 18th century.  The area was originally renowned for its dyed textiles, which had attracted European interest in the 17th century, the English founding a textile factory there in 1668.  Although the Dutch had previously established a trading post in 1628 to the north of Vizagapatam at Bimlipatam, the entire Cicars area came under control of the British East India Company in 1768.

 

Amin Jaffer has suggested that Europeans probably exercised influence over the design of this furniture, which, in colonial India, was traditionally commissioned through the supplying of a muster. Major John Corneille provides the earliest-known reference to the inlaid furniture of Vizagapatam, writing in 1756 that the city was “remarkable for its inlay work, and justly, for they do it to the greatest perfection.”  However, some known examples of ivory-inlaid furniture from Vizagapatam may have been produced as early as the late 17th century.

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The Vizagapatam ivory inlay may also have been inspired partly by the marquetry seen on portable European items such as rifles and gun cases.  Nevertheless, the exotic foliage and birds depicted on the ivory is undeniably Indian in character and most probably derive from the decoration found on textiles originating from the same area, decoration which had been incredibly popular with Europeans.  The birds may be huma birds, Persian mythological birds of paradise and good fortune, a jeweled example of which surmounted the legendary gold throne of Tipú Sultán of Mysore.   The ivory on the furniture was often engraved and usually filled with black lac.  On the present box ivory has been both inlaid and, particularly on the interior, used as bands of decorated veneer.

The armorial on top of the box refers to Hastings of Daylesford, as borne by Warren Hastings.  This branch specifically does not have a coronet round the bull’s neck  (figure 1).

 

Armorial of Hastings of Daylesford.

Figure 1: Armorial of Hastings of Daylesford.

Warren Hastings is one of the most intriguing, and perhaps controversial, figures of the British colonial occupation of the Indian subcontinent.  His family had been settled at Daylesford in Worcestershire (now Gloucestershire) since the 12th century.  However, his grandfather sold the estate in 1715 and by the time of Warren’s birth in 1732, the family was no longer as prosperous as they had once been.  His mother having died shortly after having given birth to him, and his father abandoning Warren and his elder sister only nine months afterwards, he was raised by his grandfather and uncle, the latter taking him to London in 1740.

 

After attending Westminster School, from which he did not graduate, a place was secured for Hastings in the Bengal service of the East India Company.  He arrived in Calcutta in 1750 aged only seventeen, and married Mary Elliott, widow of an army captain killed at Calcutta, in 1756.  Mrs. Hastings, and the two children she bore Warren, had all passed away by 1764.  In 1757 the Battle of Plassey brought Murshidibad under British control, and Hastings became the first British Resident there.  He enjoyed a lasting friendship with Mani (or Munny) Begum, one of the widows of Mir Jafar, the nawab (governor) of the provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Although she had not been the principal wife, Hastings appointed her guardian of Mir Jafar’s young son and successor.  In 1760 or 1761 Hastings took up a place on the Company’s council in Calcutta under Henry Vansittart.  However, Vansittart was forced to resign his governorship a few years later, with Hastings following him back to Britain in January 1765.

 

Returning to Madras in 1769, Hastings met his second-wife-to-be, Anna Maria Apollonia Chapuset, known as Marian, on the trip over, though they could not be married until 1777, after her divorce.  Hastings returned to Calcutta in 1772 as the new governor of Bengal, in which role he solidified British hold on the state.  When the British government imposed reforms on the East India Company in 1773, Hastings became the first Governor-General.  However, council members sent out from Britain at this time opposed him, with accusations of corruption eventually being brought against Hastings in 1775.  Surviving these, and eventually regaining control of the council, Hastings remained in India until 1785.

 

Figure 2: Portrait of Hastings by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Figure 2: Portrait of Hastings by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The present box appears to date from his first period of residency in India, and already at this point Hastings demonstrated a keen intellectual interest in the culture of the Indian sub-continent.  For example, back in England, Hastings commissioned Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint a portrait of him holding documents visibly written in Persian (figure 2).  He also wrote a proposal for a “Professorship of the Persian Language” at Oxford which he sent to Samuel Johnson.  And it is as an intellectual and patron that Hastings left his most positive lasting impression.  Hastings wrote of himself “I neither drink, game, nor give my vacant hours to music, and but a small portion of them to other relaxations of society.”  Nevertheless, his “garden house” outside of Calcutta was lavishly decorated.  He commissioned several important translations of Indian texts, most memorably that of the Bhagavad Gita done by Charles Wilkins, for which Hastings wrote an introduction.  He also collected Indian paintings and employed local musicians, as well as supporting European painters such as William Hodges, who traveled around India on Hastings’s generosity, and Johann Zoffany, who received several commissions from Hastings.  His patronage prepared the ground, in part, for the foundation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784.

 

Upon his final return to England, Hastings devoted himself to reclaiming Daylesford for his family.   After three years of negotiations he was successful and commissioned a new house from the architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell, laying out new gardens himself.  He and Marian moved in 1791. The sweetness of this success was marred, however, by impeachment proceedings initiated against him in Parliament by Edmund Burke, who saw in Hastings all that was wrong with British policy in India.  Burke introduced charges against Hastings 1786 and it was not until 1795 that Hastings was finally acquitted.

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Hastings lived the rest of his life at Daylesford, where his impressive collection of Indian ivory furniture was housed.  He died in 1818, his wife inheriting Daylesford and living there until her death in 1837.  The ivory furniture was, in large part, a gift of Mani Begum, the furniture being the subject of correspondence between Hastings and his wife in letters which survive to this day. Queen Charlotte, to whom the Hastings presented an ivory bed sent by Mani Begum, is credited along with Warren Hastings and his wife with leading the taste for ivory furniture at this time.