Caricature of Nawab Mansur Ali Khan

COVID Creative Events, Projects / May 5, 2021

‘Vanity Fair’ 16 April 1870

What would you do if one day when you awoke from the ordinary routine of your life and found that you are neither fully British nor fully Australian?

What would you do if in addition, you also found out that you have a great grandfather who was the Nawab or ruler of one of the richest and most populous Kingdoms in India and that he was also a direct descendant of someone who had helped the British East India Company to set up the British Empire in India?

Story of how a family feud helped a trading firm,  the British East India Company, to establish itself as a ruling power in India:

Last year I had the rare opportunity to speak with Professor Lyn Innes. This was because a year back, I had put myself forward as a volunteer for the South Asian Cinema Foundation (SACF), a London-based voluntary charity dedicated to film education and exploration of Britain’s shared heritage and started volunteering for an exciting new project funded by UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), titled: “Selective Inclusion: African & Asian celebrities in London’s ‘Vanity Fair’ magazine (1868- 1914)”.

Professor Lyn Innes told us during a fascinating Zoom conversation that though born in the UK, she had grown up in Australia (after her parents had migrated from England to that country.) She said that one day she had found out about her ancestry, that her great grandfather was none other than Nawab Mansur Ali Khan (29 October 1830 – 4 November 1884).

The feelings she must have experienced then, must have been both challenging and confusing. Challenging because her discovery must have led to an automatic urge to find out unknown details of family history going back several generations; and  confusing because of what many people still think about the identity of the Nawab and his background. A complete revisiting and revision of the past is bound to have  seemed essential to be able to place the Nawab in the correct perspective.

Who was the Nawab?
Nawab Mansur Ali Khan of Bihar, Bengal and Orissa was descended from an influential family. He was a man of taste and an interest in the arts though he is today more remembered for having 5 wives (two of them British whom he had met and while in England) and 101 children.

Why did he come to England?
He came from Bengal to make a complaint in person to Her Majesty’s Government. His grievances were ventilated in the British Parliament but with little success.

Why did the British Parliament reject his complaint?
Parliament noted that Nawab Mansur Ali Khan, was a direct 9th generation descendant of Mir Jaffar and thus was actually not a Nawab.

Mir Jaffar was made a non-independent Nawab after he betrayed the then actual ruler of Bengal, Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah.

Who was Mir Jaffar?
He had helped the British acquire control over some of the richest parts of India — Bihar, Bengal & Orissa. Mir Jaffar was the Commander in Chief of the Bengal army under Siraj ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, but betrayed him during the Battle of Plassey. He was recognised as the rightful successor to the defeated and deposed Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah after the British victory in the Battle of Plassey of 1757.

What happened in the Battle of Plassey?
This battle helped the British East India Company seize control of Bengal. And, over the next hundred years, they acquired control over large parts of the Indian subcontinent and extended their paramountcy over more than 500 princely stated that lay scattered over India.

Why did Siraj ud-Daulah ‘s Commander in Chief, Mir Jaffar plot against him?
It is reported to have been a family feud. Siraj’s grandfather had only three daughters. His first daughter had no children. The second sister had one son, Shaukat Jang. And her third sister had one son, Siraj. Although the third sister’s son Siraj was made the Nawab, the first sister wanted the second sister’s son to be the Nawab. The first sister, therefore, had secretly conspired against him with the help of Mir Jaffar along with some rich merchants – Omi Chand and Jagat Seth.

My analysis of the Nawab’s caricature in ‘Vanity Fair’:

1. Given the above background of Nawab Mansur Ali Khan, he must have been quite a confident man in his lifetime.

However, looking at his ‘Vanity Fair’ caricature and comparing it with some other caricatures made approximately during the same era, the Nawab’s posture doesn’t appear to be impressive and betrays a lack of confidence.

2. The caricature is like that of an old man who is unable to carry his own weight. In sharp contrast with some of his actual photographs taken round about this time, he appears quite a confident gentleman.

3. The ratio of his height shown in his caricature is unevenly executed. I’m not sure  if this was deliberate, but definitely it’s not something that the Nawab himself would have approved of.

4. The fact that the Nawab was featured in London’s ‘Vanity Fair’ when he was visiting Britain with his young sons, indicates the extent of his fame and public image or influence. Stationed in England at a time when there were far fewer immigrants than at present, it is clear that he would have really stood out from the rest of the people.

5. His exotic sword, silk dress, the stylish crown on his head, the jewellery he is shown wearing in the caricature must definitely have added either to Xenophilia or Xenophobia.

6. In my opinion, the Nawab must have definitely preferred being shown in his caricature minus the peculiar glasses that give him a comical appearance!

He must surely also have preferred to being shown as a proportionately built and a more tall and stately individual. Moreover, very importantly he would have presumably also have liked to have been shown standing upright with a straight and confident posture. All this would have made his caricature closer to his personality as evident in contemporary photographs.

7. The Nawab was a man who had taken two British wives during his stay in London. He had also had a lavish wedding ceremony. Very interestingly, and (as his great granddaughter Lyn Innes mentioned), he had also generously provided for the education of a younger brother of one of his British wives to enable him to qualify as a Barrister.

His generosity could have been easily included in the text placed alongside his ‘Vanity Fair’ caricature. Interestingly, it wasn’t!


–  Was it  because it was hidden and the Editor of ‘Vanity Fair’, did not know about it?

  • OR, was it because History is written by the victors who often have hidden agendas.

    It’s the job of us from later generations to revisit our Heritage, ferret out facts and try to bust myths and legends! —Alkananda Mahapatra Asthana

Alkananda Mohapatra

A Business Consultant based in the Financial services industry in London. Alka would like to describe herself as a socialite, a dreamer, a writer, as friendly and fun loving as well as spiritual. 

Her interests include: Dance including Odissi, a form of Indian classical dancing, reading and traveling.

More from COVID Creative Events, Projects