The British Empire threw up an amazing array of colourful characters and none more so than David Ochterlony. With such a name it is obvious that he has a Scottish background. His father came from Forfarshire, now Angus, north of Dundee, while his mother was a native of Boston in Massachusetts, where our David was born.
In 1777, when the American War of Independence was sputtering across the New World, Ochterlony sailed to India and joined the Honourable East India Company as a cadet. The following year, aged 19, he became an ensign (equivalent to a second-lieutenant) and then a lieutenant in the Bengal Native Infantry, one of three private armies that the East India Company ran. Ochterlony fought in the Second Mysore War, where he was wounded and captured. Surviving that ordeal, he was released on the outbreak of peace and slowly climbed the ranks. That in itself was no mean feat, given the horrendous death rate by disease among British soldiers in India.
As a Lieutenant-general, he took part in his second major war in 1803 when he was with Lord Lake in his campaign against the Marathas. Ochterlony was no armchair soldier, fighting at the battles of Koil, Aligarh and Delhi. As Resident at Delhi, he held the city against the very able Yashwantrao Holkar, a feat that saw him later sent to the border with the Sikhs, one of the major powers in India.
Ochterlony was promoted to Major-general in 1814; the same year war broke out between the East India Company and the expanding power of Nepal. After successfully commanding a column, Ochterlony took over the Company’s army in this war and defeated the Nepalese – the always-formidable Gurkhas.
All fine and dandy and good for him. There is no doubt that Ochterlony was an able officer, but the British Army in India had many able officers. If they had not, there would have been no Empire. So what made Ochterlony different to any of hundreds of other British commanders?
Perhaps it was his eager acceptance of local culture. Such a thing had been commonplace in the 18th century, but as the 19th century wore on, the old happy-go-lucky attitude of the British was fading and they became more rigid. Perhaps it was the influence of more British women that altered things, but barriers appeared between British and Indian, particularly in regard to sexual relationships between the two peoples.
Ochterlony was said to have thirteen Indian wives, or at least thirteen Indian women who lived with him. He was the British Resident at Delhi, where the old Mughal Empire had its capital, and in the evening, Ochterlony took all his wives around the walls of the Red Fort, each woman riding her elephant.
I used parts of Ochterlony’s life for my character, General Jack Baird, in Jayanti’s Pawns, one of my Windrush series. I did not use the full man, for truth would be too strange to alter into fiction.
Ochterlony’s wives could be women of strong personality, rather than the milk-and-water variety that some writers claim women of that period should be. For example, there was Mubarak Begum, who had been a dancing girl before she married Ochterlony. She converted from Hinduism to Islam, made the hajj to Mecca and dominated Ochterlony’s household and, possibly, also dominated Ochterlony. Known as Generalee Begum, she nearly converted Ochterlony to Islam, called herself lady Ochterlony, but offended both the British and the Indians, so became very unpopular.
Ochterlony is barely remembered now, but perhaps he should be. He was a soldier who fought very able enemies and a man who embraced a different culture. Perhaps above all, Ochterlony should be remembered for winning the respect of the Gurkhas, who have fought on the British side for more than two centuries. Well done, that man from Boston.