img
img1

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

@

Brief history of the Duel Avenue of Kolkata

20 January, 2021 08:27:00
Brief history of the Duel Avenue of Kolkata

About 230 years ago in Calcutta, a duel was fought which could have changed the history of modern India. Fighting the duel were two of the most powerful men in India, Warren Hastings, the then Governor General of Bengal (defacto India) and Phillip Francis, member of the Governor General’s Council. The two men shot at each other, and any one of the two could have died that fateful morning. This duel which caught the public imagination at that time was fought at a deserted road in Calcutta, which since then has come to be known as the Duel Avenue.

Belvedere House painted by William Prinsep in 1838

Today at one end of Duel Avenue stands Alipore Observatory founded in 1877, the first observatory in India to record weather phenomenon using contemporary scientific methodology. But what happened on this very street on 17th August 1780? Four men were seen huddled in an animated conversation on the road (current National Library Avenue) leading from the Beveldere Estate (now National Library) towards Alipur. There seemed to be urgency in their gestures barely visible in the morning dawn. The men must have been of means for a coach with shiny horses stood nearby.

Warren Hastings, the then Governor General of Bengal (defacto India) and Phillip Francis, member of the Governor General’s Council. The two men shot at each other, and any one of the two could have died that fateful morning. This duel which caught the public imagination at that time was fought at a deserted road in Calcutta, which since then has come to be known as the Duel Avenue.

This was not a stroll in the park. Two of the most powerful men in India at that time were squaring up for a duel, where both would fire a gun shot at each other. The other two men who accompanied the challenges were their respective seconds who would oversee the duel and see the rules were followed, they were Colonel Pearse, the Commandant of Artillery, as the second to Hasting and Col Watson the Chief Engineer at Fort William, as second to Francis.

The site of the duel had to be discrete, it would have been extremely improper to see the two men holding the highest office in British India, firing at each other under public gaze. The early morning riders were expected any moment. The men started to walk towards Mr. Barell’s residence, (currently St Thomas school); another member of the Governing Council, on an old road that separated Mr. Barell’s ground from Belvedere. Moving a little further a dry spot was chosen as a proper place for the Duel. 

Warren Hastings

The Duel was an outcome of ego clash between the two gentlemen. Sir Francis along with members Monson and Clavering would form the majority in the Governing Council to block many policy decisions of the Governor General and at times would even question financial propriety in dealings of Warren Hastings. The affairs came to head when Warren Hastings wrote a scathing minute to a meeting, wherein he alluded that “I judge of his (Sir Francis) public conduct by my experience of his private, which I have found void of truth and honour. This is a severe charge, but temperately and deliberately made.” By reference to ‘his private’, Warren Hastings was referring to the scandalous affair of Sir Francis with Catherine Grand, one of the most celebrated beauties of 18-century British Bengal.

The Duel was an outcome of ego clash between the two gentlemen. Sir Francis along with members Monson and Clavering would form the majority in the Governing Council to block many policy decisions of the Governor General and at times would even question financial propriety in dealings of Warren Hastings.

On receipt of the minutes, Sir Francis found no choice but to challenge Warren Hastings to a duel. And the challenge was accepted. Col Pearse gave a vivid account of what transpired on the fateful day in a letter addressed to Lawrence Sullivan, a director in the East India company. On the fateful morning, Mr. Francis and his second Mr. Watson were already waiting at half past five near Belvedere when Warren Hastings arrived accompanied by Pearse his second. 

The two gentlemen were not great marksmen, with Francis having never fired a shot before, and Hastings mentioning before the start of the Duel of firing a pistol once or twice. They were also not aware of the rules, which the seconds detailed out. The distance between the duelists was marked out to be 14 paces or 35 feet (precedence from the duel in Hyde Park, 29 Nov. 1779, between parliamentarians William Adam and Charles Fox in which Charles Fox unfortunately died). The duelists were to fire at the count of three and to the extent simultaneously. Neither of them was to quit their ground until they had discharged their pistols. It so happened that Francis’s powder was damp and the ammunition was supplied by the Hastings camp.

Today at one end of Duel Avenue stands Alipore Observatory founded in 1877, the first observatory in India to record weather phenomenon using contemporary scientific methodology. But what happened on this very street on 17th August 1780? Four men were seen huddled in an animated conversation on the road (current National Library Avenue) leading from the Beveldere Estate (now National Library) towards Alipur.

On the count of three both the men fired. Francis missed his mark but Hastings found his. Francis staggered on the ground exclaiming he was a dead man. Hastings hearing this cried our “Good God! I hope not”, and immediately went to him.

Phillip Francis

Pearse in his letter remarks that both the men behaved like gentlemen. As Francis lay on the found injured, Hastings remarked that he hoped and believed the wound was not mortal, but that if any unfortunate accident should happen, it was his intention to surrender himself to the Sheriff. Pearse further goes on to relate that Mr. Hastings seemed to be in a state of such perfect tranquility that a spectator would not have supposed that he was about an action out of the common course of things, and Mr. Francis’s department was such as did honor to his firmness and resolution.

230 years have passed by, but the street still remains, and is called Duel Avenue. Much could have changed in the history of India had either of the two duelists had died that day. Hastings went on to remain Governor General for five more years after the duel till 1785, completing the total term as Governor General of 12 years (1772-1785). However, the strains of the duel remained, and upon return to England he was impeached in the House of Commons spurred by Edmund Burke on the instigation of Sir Philip Francis (the duel challenger) and it took 7 years of trial and Warren Hastings was acquitted in 1795. It is said on eerie nights on the Duel Avenue, still shots can be heard!

Story Tag:
  • Duel Avenue of Kolkata

Leave a Comments

Related Post

×