- The Inordinately Strange Life of Dyce Sombre: Victorian Anglo Indian MP and Chancery ‘Lunatic’ by Michael H. Fisher
What do we call the man at the center of Michael H. Fisher’s new biography: an Indian prince, a nabob, a Black, an Oriental, a Eurasian, a libertine, a lunatic, a country-born person, an MP, a member by marriage of the British aristocracy?
David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre must surely be the most unusual of all the persons Fisher pursued in his previous book, Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain, 1600–1857 (2004). Fisher now has scope to tell Dyce Sombre’s complex and baffling story, from his adoption by a courtesan-become-ruler, the Begum of Sardhana, to his death in a British boarding house while he awaited a sixth hearing in Chancery on his alleged madness. Fisher makes a compelling case that his subject was unusually “inordinate”: he did not fit the conventions of his day, and he challenges our own.
Dyce Sombre was the great-grandson of an Indian woman and a man who later became the lover of Farzan, Begum of Sardhana, a princely state near Delhi. Dyce Sombre’s ancestor, Walter Reinhardt, made his fortune as a mercenary and allied [End Page 365] himself to a further fortune, the Begum’s vast wealth. Reinhardt’s granddaughter married George Dyce (possibly a descendant of David Ochterlony, the British Resident at Delhi and Dyce Sombre’s namesake). The Begum hoped her former lover’s descendent might become her adopted heir.
Dyce Sombre thus became the ward of the Begum, raised by her to succeed to her wealth and title. But as was the case with many Indian princes, Dyce Sombre at age twenty-eight found himself heir to much of the Begum’s wealth but not her state, for the British annexed Sardhana without compunction. Lawsuits over the Begum’s personal properties continued for decades and were settled at last in 1873, twenty-one years after Dyce Sombre’s death. Fisher recounts Dyce Sombre’s early years in a way that makes clear why he might have become subject to delusions. As a boy, Dyce Sombre found the Begum’s favor conditional upon her caprice and his entire devotion, a fact she made clear by poisoning a slave in his presence to prove that she might murder him, too, with impunity. Partly owing to his father’s attempt at a coup d’etat, Dyce Sombre’s education was irregular. He was, like the Begum, a devout Catholic, but he was schooled by evangelical Baptist and Anglican ministers. Finally he attained facility in Persian, Urdu, and English. He thought of himself as “country-born” (that is, not British born), and all his life he faced down prejudices while navigating among cultures (107). Indeed few places on earth were as cosmopolitan as Sardhana in its own unusual way; beyond Sardhana, Dyce Sombre had constant difficulties negotiating cultural differences.
Distinguished by nothing save his ability to please the Begum, or at least retain her favor, Dyce Sombre embarked on a hedonistic course of indulgence. He purchased the society of his male companions—British, “country-born,” and Indian alike—by providing them with large unsecured loans and by losing fortunes to them at the gaming table. He also paid for numerous female companions.
At the Begum’s death, Dyce Sombre made his way to Europe, in part for pleasure and in part hoping to recoup his losses to the East India Company. There he attempted with mixed success to move in the best society, shortly purchasing a seat in Parliament (which was later annulled on account of bribery). Unfortunately, he also encountered a woman as ill-placed and ill-starred as he, Mary Anne Ricketts Jervis, the daughter of a newish viscount. At the age of twenty-seven Jervis married Dyce Sombre, despite his obesity, mixed ancestry, and philandering. Why Dyce Sombre imagined that a charming flirt, who...