Nabobs, gold mohrs, and palanquins: Colonel Brandon and Warren Hastings

Colonel Brandon is hardly the kind of man a teenager would fall for. He’s ‘on the wrong side of five and thirty’ and talks of flannel waistcoats, which ‘is invariably connected with aches, cramps, rheumatisms, and every species of ailment that can afflict the old and the feeble.’ His gravity and reserve, the result of ‘some oppression of spirits,’ wouldn’t help. On the other hand, ‘he has seen a great deal of the world; has been abroad, has read, and has a thinking mind,’ being capable of providing ‘much information on various subjects.’ Still, ‘prejudiced against him for being neither lively nor young,’ Marianne Dashwood and Mr Willoughby are ‘resolved to undervalue his merits.’

While Elinor commends the readiness with which he always answers her enquiries, her sister finds him unbearably dull:

‘That is to say,’ cried Marianne contemptuously, ‘he has told you, that in the East Indies the climate is hot, and the mosquitoes are troublesome’ …

‘Perhaps,’ said Willoughby, ‘his observations may have extended to the existence of nabobs, gold mohrs, and palanquins.’

As Lady Susan puts it, ‘where there is a disposition to dislike, a motive will never be wanting.’ Willoughby may simply mean that Brandon is a boring old man who has nothing original or interesting to communicate. But he might also be hinting that the colonel’s past behaviour may have left something to be desired. People tended to be suspicious of Indian wealth, and Willoughby might have heard rumours. Elinor believes malicious gossip should be nipped in the bud:

‘I may venture to say that his observations have stretched much further than your candour. But why should you dislike him?’

‘I do not dislike him. I consider him, on the contrary, as a very respectable man, who has every body’s good word, and nobody’s notice; who, has more money than he can spend, more time than he knows how to employ, and two new coats every year.’

A mohr was a gold coin worth fifteen rupees, and the term nabob was applied either to governors in the Mogul Empire or to Englishmen who returned from India with a fortune. Among the latter was Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of Bengal and godfather to Jane Austen’s cousin Eliza Hancock. In 1786 he was impeached by the House of Commons on charges ranging from mismanagement and poor military judgement to corruption, extortion, and judicial murder. They were partly based on the allegations of Sir Philip Francis, a member of the Supreme Council of Bengal, with whom he had fought a duel. The process had been introduced by Edmund Burke, who then acted as parliamentary prosecutor, along with Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, all of them Whigs. The trial in the House of Lords drew large audiences, lasting from 1788 to 1795, the year in which Jane Austen wrote Elinor and Marianne, an early version of Sense and Sensibility. He was eventually cleared but the expenses of his defence left him significantly worse off. Eliza herself went to Westminster Hall to witness the proceedings, sitting there from ten in the morning to four in the afternoon. Lord Macaulay describes the excitement aroused by Burke’s opening speech:

The ladies in the galleries, unaccustomed to such displays of eloquence, excited by the solemnity of the occasion, and perhaps not unwilling to display their taste and sensibility, were in a state of uncontrollable emotion. Handkerchiefs were pulled out; smelling bottles were handed round; hysterical sobs and screams were heard: and Mrs Sheridan was carried out in a fit.

The Trial of Warren Hastings

In a previous post I’ve argued that Willoughby’s sympathies may have lain with the Whigs. Marianne, on the other hand, doesn’t know how to govern her feelings, and in Vol. II, chapter 6, has to be revived with lavender water and hartshorn. Perhaps the author thought they were just the kind of  people who would  mistrust a sensible man like Col. Brandon.

The Austens supported Hastings throughout his ordeal, and in 1794 Jane’s father wrote to him, thinking he might still have enough influence to advance Frank’s naval career. Henry, who was planning to marry his goddaughter, congratulated him on his acquittal, mentioning ‘many instances’ of  his kindness to him. The letter is revoltingly sycophantic.

His younger sister seems to have genuinely admired him:

And Mr Hastings – I am quite delighted with what such a Man writes about it. – Henry sent him the Books after his return from Daylesford … I long to have you hear Mr H’s opinion of P&P. His admiring my Elizabeth so much is particularly welcome to me.

Col. Brandon’s ‘fortune’ is ‘about two thousand a year,’ i.e. twice the amount Elinor considers necessary for comfort and happiness, but half Mr Bingley’s income and one-fifth of Mr Darcy’s. Mrs Jennings wonders what might have prompted his sudden departure for London on the very day of the Whitwell excursion:

The estate at Delaford was never reckoned more than two thousand a year, and his brother left everything sadly involved. I do think he must have been sent for about money matters, for what else can it be? I wonder whether it is so. I would give anything to know the truth of it. Perhaps it is about Miss Williams and, by the bye, I dare say it is, because he looked so conscious when I mentioned her.

His Indian wealth is never assessed – no one is interested in pursuing the subject. For all we know, it might have been used to pay off estate debts, just as Hastings’s was partly spent on lawyers’ fees. On the other hand, judging by the length of his tour of duty, it might not have been very large. While his financial situation is barely touched on, the second possibility seems more promising:

‘What! do not you know who Miss Williams is? I am sure you must have heard of her before. She is a relation of the Colonel’s, my dear; a very near relation. We will not say how near, for fear of shocking the young ladies.’ Then, lowering her voice a little, she said to Elinor, ‘She is his natural daughter.’

The colonel later explains that she had been entrusted to him by her dying mother, who was also his cousin and former sister-in-law:

She left to my care her only child, a little girl, the offspring of her first guilty connection, who was then about three years old. She loved the child, and had always kept it with her ….after the death of my brother …  she visited me at Delaford. I called her a distant relation; but I am well aware that I have in general been suspected of a much nearer connection with her.

Col. Brandon and his cousin had been sweethearts, but his father, who was also her guardian, wished, ‘against her inclination,’  to marry her to his elder son, so that her money could be used to save the family estate. As the lovers’ plans to elope to Gretna Green were discovered, the younger brother was banished from home, and she was grounded till she submitted to her uncle’s will. ‘I meant,’ the colonel continues, ‘to promote the happiness of both by removing from her for years, and for that purpose had procured my exchange.’ He sailed off to the East, but the union proved extremely unhappy:

My brother did not deserve her; he did not even love her … she experienced great unkindness … My brother had no regard for her; his pleasures were not what they ought to have been, and from the first he treated her unkindly. The consequence of this, upon a mind so young, so lively, so inexperienced as Mrs Brandon’s, was but too natural. She resigned herself at first to all the misery of her situation … But can we wonder that, with such a husband to provoke inconstancy, and without a friend to advise or restrain her (for my father lived only a few months after their marriage, and I was with my regiment in the East Indies) she should fall?

Edmund Burke, by Joshua Reynolds

Similarly, Austen blames the Prince of Wales for his wife’s indiscretions: ‘I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first.’

The colonel goes on: ‘The shock which her marriage had given me … was nothing to what I felt when I heard, about two years afterwards, of her divorce.’ Being still in England at the time, he must have learned about the wedding soon after it took place. The divorce would have been granted at least six months before the information reached him in India – news, good or bad, didn’t travel fast in those days. The husband would have had to sue his wife’s lover for criminal conversation and then obtain a legal separation from an ecclesiastical court. A Private Act of Parliament would have been required for him to be allowed to remarry. He must have found out about the adultery pretty early on, or else the procedure couldn’t have been completed so quickly. Could she have been pregnant with his younger brother’s child? Was he her ‘first guilty connection’?

‘It was nearly three years after this unhappy period before I returned to England … after I had been six months in England, I did find her,’ says the colonel. He came back almost five years after the wedding, then, and six months later he was introduced to little Eliza, who was about three – or so her mother must have declared. We must take Col. Brandon’s word for it, since there are no other witnesses. But for all we know, he might be lying to spare Elinor’s blushes, or trying to conceal an unsavoury past. On the other hand, how could he be sure his cousin was telling the truth? The girl may have looked smaller than her real age, and her development may have been delayed, especially as the mother didn’t have the means to support her. Could she have been conceived before he left for India? If they were intimate at the time, the thought must have crossed his mind – but how could he be certain? We must bear in mind that it was baptisms, not births, that were recorded in parish registers.

The parentage of another Eliza, Jane Austen’s cousin and sister-in-law, had been the object of speculation in India. After eight years of marriage, the childless Hancocks had moved to Bengal, where they became close friends with Warren Hastings, then a widower, who had been appointed the company’s representative at the court of the Nawab. Philadelphia got pregnant, and a daughter was born in 1761, to whom Hastings stood godfather. Though Lord Clive forbade his wife to keep company with the mother, alleging an extramarital affair with Hastings, Tysoe Hancock behaved like an affectionate father. Did he trust his wife? Was he in denial? Was he too proud to acknowledge the facts? Did he cover up for his business partner and patron?

Later on Hastings became involved with another married lady, Mrs Imhoff, whom he wedded after her divorce, having apparently paid the husband off. So perhaps he wasn’t that into Mrs Hancock after all, or didn’t want to hurt his friend’s feelings. Maybe he had his own doubts, or knew the child couldn’t be his. By 1775 he had settled ten thousand pounds on Eliza, but then again she was his goddaughter and he was a rich man. The evidence is inconclusive.

Illustration from

Whether or not Eliza Williams was Col. Brandon’s daughter, he felt he must confront her seducer:

‘Have you,’ she continued, after a short silence, ‘ever seen Mr Willoughby since you left him at Barton?’

‘Yes,’ he replied gravely, ‘once I have. One meeting was unavoidable.’

Elinor, startled by his manner, looked at him anxiously, saying,

‘What? have you met him to–’

‘I could meet him no other way. Eliza had confessed to me, though most reluctantly, the name of her lover; and when he returned to town, which was within a fortnight after myself, we met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct. We returned unwounded, and the meeting, therefore, never got abroad.’

Elinor sighed over the fancied necessity of this; but to a man and a soldier she presumed not to censure.

Of all the foolish, reckless things men used to do this is perhaps the most difficult to explain. Jane Austen must have heard about the 1780 duel between Sir Philip Francis and Warren Hastings. Alleging the former had gone back on his promise not to oppose certain measures, the latter wrote: ‘I judge of his public conduct by my experience of his private, which I have found to be void of truth and honour.’ Sir Philip felt compelled to challenge him, was wounded, and returned to England. He flatly denied having reached a political agreement with Hastings, though things might not have been so clear-cut. Was the provocation a desperate but deliberate attempt to get him out of the way? The governor-general certainly benefited from the outcome. He sounds regretful though, yet unwilling to take responsibility: ‘I hope Mr Francis does not think of assuming any merit from this silly affair. I have been ashamed that I have been made an actor in it.’

Warren Hastings was not the first man to engage in a duel, or to be suspected of having fathered offspring out of wedlock, or accused of corruption. I’m therefore far from suggesting that Jane Austen based a fictional character on him. But the tales we are told have a way of weaving themselves into the fabric of our own narrative, and the stories we read sometimes resonate with the echo of other voices …


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from

Adkins, Roy and Lesley. (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.

Gleig, G.R. (1841). Memoirs of the Life of the Right Hon. Warren Hastings, First Governor-General of Bengal, vol. II. London: Richard Bentley.

Dodwell, H.H. ed. (1929). The Cambridge History of the British Empire. Vol. IV: British India 1497-1858. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Koster, Kristen. (2011). A Primer on Regency Divorce and Annulments. Retrieved from

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. (1841). Warren Hastings, an essay. Retrieved from

Marshall, P.J. Warren Hastings. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from

Roy, Anindyo. (2005). Civility and Empire. Literature and culture in British India 1822-1922. Abingdon: Routledge.

Tomalin, Claire. (1999). Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.


2 thoughts on “Nabobs, gold mohrs, and palanquins: Colonel Brandon and Warren Hastings

  1. I doubt that Col. Brandon had sexual intercourse with the lady. It wasn’t in his nature. Also, if he had he would have had to confess it to keep his brother from committing what the church considered incest. The church’s definition included blood relations and relations by affinity. Usually that meant relatives by marriage . However, Ecclesiastical law held that it would be incest for a brother to marry any woman with whom the other brother had had sex. Quite an interesting post.


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