Object of the Month

Meet the Ochterlonys

Major General Sir David Ochterlony, Bt. K.C.B. Miniature portrait, watercolor on ivory

Major General Sir David Ochterlony, Bt. K.C.B.

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Rakashi Chand
Assistant Reference Librarian

Many men and women born in Boston, Massachusetts, have achieved fame and fortune in other places, but few have traveled as far from their place of birth as Major General David Ochterlony of the British East India Company, the "Conqueror of Nepal" and Resident at the Court of Emperor Shah Alam. This early nineteenth-century miniature portrait on ivory depicts Ochterlony as a military commander in India.

Who was David Ochterlony?

David Ochterlony was born in Boston on 12 February 1758, the eldest son of Captain David Ochterlony of Scotland and his Boston-born wife Katherine Tyler, a niece of Sir William Pepperell. After Captain Ochterlony died insolvent in 1765, the family moved to England where Katherine married Sir Isaac Heard, Garter King-of-Arms, who was both a father figure and close confidant to Ochterlony throughout his life.

Sir Isaac used his influence to send Ochterlony to India as a cadet in 1777. Due to his determination, negotiating skills, and understanding of Indian culture, Ochterlony rose through the military ranks, serving under Lord Lake in the battles that released Emperor Shah Alam from Maratha influence. Ochterlony was appointed the first British Resident at Delhi, responsible for the protection of the Emperor and the safety of the city. He successfully defended Delhi against an attack by Holkar, a Maratha chief, and for his service was bestowed with the Mughal title "Nasir ud-Daula" (Defender of the State) and appointed permanent Resident at Delhi.

Ochterlony's greatest success came in the Anglo-Nepalese War when he commanded one of four columns under General Hastings that destroyed Kaji Amar Singh Thapa's army and Gurka authority in 1815. Ochterlony used his knowledge of the terrain and intercepted letters to wage a skillful mountain warfare campaign. He also employed his diplomatic skills by enlisting former enemy troops. For his success Ochterlony was made Knight Commander of the Order of Bath and created a baronet. When the government of Nepal refused to ratify the treaty of Sagauli, Ochterlony swiftly moved against them, forcing an immediate ratification of the treaty and bringing the war to an end on 5 March 1816. For his services, Ochterlony was advanced to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Bath.

By 1823 Ochterlony's failing health forced him to take a less demanding post. In 1824 Durjan Singh tried to seize power after his uncle Baldeo Singh died leaving his infant son Balwant Singh as Raja. Ochterlony supported the rightful heir and issued a proclamation in defense of the Raja that was repudiated by Lord Amherst. Amherst's lack of confidence is said to have left Ochterlony feeling "abandoned and dishonored" and to have hastened his death in Meerut on 15 July 1825.

Life among the Anglo-Indians

Tradition says, "Sir David Ochterlony took the evening air in Delhi followed by his thirteen wives, each on their own elephant." It was not unusual for British officers serving in India at this time to become comfortable in Mughal-Hindustani culture. Ochterlony's courtly and diplomatic manners earned him the trust and admiration of Emperor Shah Alam and his retainers. Ochterlony's favorite wife was Mubarak al-Nisa, an ambitious woman who gave herself many titles including "Begum Ochterlony" (Madame Ochterlony). Ochterlony had six "natural" children with two or more of his Indian wives, but he feared that his children would not be fully accepted by either English or Mughal society. His children were part of a new class in India known as Anglo-Indians. Anglo-Indians lived respectably in the English quarters of India; too white to live with Indians, yet considered too "dark-blooded" to live in England.

Sir David's only son was Roderick Peregrine Ochterlony, born in 1785. Roderick had both an English and Mughal education. In 1808, he married Sarah Nelly, the daughter of Lt. Col. John Nelly of the Bengal Engineers, at Allahabad, India. See the online presentation of the miniature portraits of Roderick and Sarah Ochterlony. Roderick and Sarah had three children, including Charles Metcalfe Ochterlony, born in 1817, from whom the Ochterlony line of baronets descended.

Mubarak Begum, Sir David Ochterlony's favorite wife, fought against the British during the great Indian rebellion (the "Sepoy Mutiny") of 1857, demonstrating the drastic breakdown in British-Indian relations caused by racism, segregation and oppression. By then, the India that Ochterlony had made his home no longer existed.

About miniature portraits

Portraits in miniature originated as a private and personal form of art to be kept in the pocket or worn as jewelry. Miniatures emerged in the sixteenth century as small painted works on a base of vellum. In the eighteenth century, artists began using an ivory base for its translucent qualities. Miniature artists needed precision, patience, and a steady hand to create these beautiful works. The artist began with a graphite sketch that was then built up with transparent washes of color and finally completed by either a hatching technique or a stippled application of paint. The painstaking process of creating miniatures usually involved a series of extremely small brushes, a microscope, and a reducing glass through which the artist could look at the sitter. By the nineteenth century, miniatures were large enough to exhibit on a parlor table in both oval and rectangular forms.

The Ochterlony miniatures are but three of more than 150 miniature portraits in the Massachusetts Historical Society's collection, all of which can be found in our online catalog ABIGAIL Because of their unique and fragile nature, it is necessary to make an appointment in advance to view miniatures and other artwork. For more information, please contact the Library at Library@masshist.org.

Suggestions for further reading

Bean, Susan S. Yankee India: American Commercial and Cultural Encounters with India in the Age of Sail 1784-1860. Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum, 2001

Coleman, A.P. "Sir David Ochterlony" in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Dalrymple, William. "Assimilation and Transculturation in Eighteenth-Century India: A Response to Pankaj Mishra," Common Knowledge, v. 11, issue 3 (Fall 2005), p. 445-485.

New England Miniatures: 1750-1850. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1957.

Wehle, Harry B. American Miniatures, 1730-1850: one hundred and seventy three portraits selected with a descriptive account. Garden City, NY: Published for the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Doubleday, Page and Company, 1927.

Williamson, George C. Portrait Miniatures: from the time of Holbein 1531 to that of Sir William Ross 1860: a handbook for collectors. London: G. Bell, 1897.


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