Of Intelligence, an Assassination, East Indiamen and the Great Hurricane of 1808

Illuminated initial I

n the woods at Dinlabyre some yards from the B6357 in the Scottish borders stands a ruined mausoleum. We picked our way across the boggy ground through bracken and brambles and found the remains of the old chapel. A semi-circular stone which had once been set above the main door appeared to have traces of an inscription. Painstakingly, using the plastic top of a biro to avoid damaging the stone, we removed the moss and revealed a tragic story. The memorial was to Violet Oliver, the daughter of a well known Sheriff of Roxburghshire, her husband Lt-Colonel David Richardson and their three young children aged 5, 4 and 3 who were “lost in the passage from India in November 1808”.

The memorial to the Richardson family at Dinlabyre. [Detail with inscription]

Stephen Taylor’s book Storm and Conquest published in 2007 tells us what happened (p. 77). The Richardsons were on board an Indiaman the Lord Nelson of 819 tons, built on the Thames in 1799, sailing from Madras (modern Chennai) back to England in convoy with several other armed merchant ships (the Glory, Experiment, Phoenix, Ceylon, Preston, Tigris and Ann). Because England was at war with France the convoy was accompanied by HMS Albion, a 74 gun ship of the line. It was the disastrous fortune of this convoy to encounter the great hurricane of 21st and 22nd November 1808 in the southern Indian ocean over 1000 miles due south of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), 1500 miles west of Java and 2000 miles east of Madagascar; altogether one of the most remote places on the planet.

Over the next few weeks most of the ships limped in to Cape Town, in various states of distress. But the Lord Nelson, Glory and Experiment never arrived. It was March 1810 before it was finally accepted that the Richardson family had all perished. David’s will had been sworn just prior to the voyage, conscious that all such trips were dangerous “in the event....of myself and my whole family being lost”.

Details from two paintings by Robert Dodd. Left: An East Indiaman sailing from Madras (1797). Right: An East Indiaman at Spithead (1797). [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

David Thomas Richardson was one of eleven children of a family in Langholm, Dumfriesshire, most of whom served the East India Company. A brother Gilbert was in the Bombay Maritime Service and later captained an East Indiaman. Another, William, of the Bombay Sepoys, was murdered by Tipu Sultan at Gopal Drooge in 1783. Two sisters were married to officers serving in India. David himself became a Country Cadet in 1779 before joining the 5th battalion of Sepoys with whom he was wounded serving under General Goddard during the Mahratta Campaign. He then transferred to the prestigious 3rd Bengal European Regiment. At some stage he learned Persian (Farsi) and Hindustani (a term that is more akin to modern Urdu than Hindi), skills which naturally removed him from routine regimental soldiering into the world of military diplomacy and intelligence.


Mirza Abu Taleb Khan from The European Magazine. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Richardson next appears in the remarkable Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan which describe the wanderings of an Indian Muslim scholar in India and Europe. The book, recently republished, fascinates and entertains thanks to Abu Taleb’s keen observational skills and his engaging vanity. He writes (p. 66) that in early 1799 “my friend Captain David Richardson, a Scotchman, came to visit me. As this gentleman perfectly understands both the Persian and Hindustani languages, we conversed on various subjects: and at length he informed me, that, as he found his health on the decline, he meant shortly to embark for Europe, in hopes that his native air might renovate his constitution; and that he should return to India in three years. He added, ‘As you are without employment, and appear depressed in mind, let me request you to accompany me. The change of scene, and the curiosities you will meet with in Europe, will disperse the gloom that now hangs over you. I will undertake to teach you English during the voyage, and provide for all your wants". In fact, as we shall see, there were more urgent reasons for Abu Taleb to leave India in such a hurry.

In February of that year they embarked on an elderly Danish vessel, the Christiana, as far as Cape Town but were so disenchanted with the ship and its captain that they waited at the Cape for the British Indiaman Britannia which they boarded in late September 1799, eventually arriving at Cork in December. Whilst in Cape Town Abu Taleb and David Richardson were entertained by Cape Town’s leading hostess, Lady Anne Barnard, who was sufficiently impressed by them to write to Lord Dundas (then Secretary for War in William Pitt’s government) (Khan p. 9). “I have sent a few letters of introduction with Capt Richardson and Khan Sayb [Abu Taleb]. The first is a man of learning and Intelligence who returns for health chiefly after twenty years spent in India. He is much esteemed and is of the party with Khan Sayb a Persian chief, a clever agreeable and good man, a man of letters also and far superior to most of the grandees of Indostan – he has the Honour to be a particular friend of Lord Cornwallis and travels chiefly to see the world, possibly he may combine some other motive which he will communicate to Lord Cornwallis but both are worthy of your notice I believe – Capt Richardson has translated many things from the Persian and in particular part of the Asiatic researches.”

Lady Barnard’s letter, with its clear insinuations about her guests’ intelligence functions, was as unnecessary as it was indiscreet. In Dublin Abu Taleb was immediately received by Lord Cornwallis (Lord Lieutenant and Commander-in-Chief in Ireland), After a few weeks he moved on to London where he met all the great and the good including Lord Dundas and several other key officials of the British Government and East India Company. Abu Taleb was well received and entertained wherever he went, paying particular attention to his aristocratic hostesses and their nubile daughters.

Meanwhile David Richardson had parted company with his travelling companion in Dublin and set off ahead of him to London. There followed an extraordinarily complex period in his personal life. In January 1801 a son was born to him by one Sarah Lester and christened in February at St Mary’s, Marylebone Road. This son, David Lester Richardson, would later become a famous orientalist and military academic in India writing numerous books of prose and poetry and with as complex a private life as his father. After the birth of his son, David senior set off for his home town of Langholm. Both his parents were long since dead but his step-mother was there and he soon became engaged to Violet Oliver, living at nearby Liddle Bank. They married in August 1800. Quite what she or her father knew about his recent dalliance in London is a matter of conjecture!

Meanwhile Richardson got in touch with his relative General George Harris who was just returning home after his decisive victory at the battle of Seringapatam which had resulted in the final defeat and death of Tipu Sultan. Richardson asked Harris to put in a good word for him with Lord Lake, who was just about to set out for India as Commander in Chief. In describing his own qualifications Richardson said that he could “lay claim to a tolerable knowledge in the Country Languages and to, at least, a common share of local information, which one and twenty years residence in India, could not well fail (without some physical defect) to have afforded [me]”. Also he makes reference to other well known military intelligence officers; Lt Col Michael Symes who was famous for a mission to Burma in1795, and Lt-Col Patrick Agnew who was involved in the surrender of Colombo to the British in 1796.

Abu Taleb himself was no stranger to political work. His father had been born in Persia before serving the Nawab (Muslim ruler) of the independent state of Oudh (Awadh). Abu Taleb was born in Lucknow, which since 1775 had been the capital. He too worked for the Nawab who, like him, was from a Shia family which hailed from Persia. Since 1773 there had been a British “Resident” at Lucknow keeping a close eye on the Nawab’s every move. The Resident Nathaniel Middleton persuaded Abu Taleb, against his better judgement, to help him resolve some of the intrigues at court. This worked well but, once Middleton had been removed from office, Abu Taleb was left without any protection and came under suspicion. A writer in the Asiatic Journal suggests that rivals “industriously propagated malicious reports against him, and insinuated that he was sacrificing the interests of his master to those of the English. This insinuation had an appearance of probability, from the intimacy which subsisted between Abu Taleb and the English gentlemen who resided at Lucknow”.

In 1787 Abu Taleb took his complaints to Lord Cornwallis (then Governor General and Commander-in-Chief India) who sent him back to Lucknow in 1792 to work for the new Resident, George Frederick Cherry. In Robert Johnson’s book Spying for Empire, he cites Cherry (p. 37) as an enterprising intelligence officer who “made contact with a number of pilgrims, merchants and exiles to gather information. In 1799 this enterprising officer served on the staff of Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) and ran a comprehensive network of agents”. Cherry also “made use of women of the court to acquire useful information, and of the ubiquitous eunuchs who had long served south Asian courts as couriers.”

However Cherry had made powerful enemies at Lucknow and was removed in 1796 to become Resident in the relative safety of Benares. On the morning of 14th January 1799 the deposed Nawab of Oudh, Wazir Ali, accompanied by a large retinue of men, paid an official breakfast visit to Cherry at his house and, at the start of an argument, suddenly seized and stabbed him. Cherry staggered bleeding out of the house but Wazir Ali's men finished him off in the garden before killing Cherry's assistants Richard Evans, Robert Graham and Captain Conway. Wazir Ali then made good his escape and remained on the run for a year. The British concluded that Wazir Ali's intemperate action may have been part of a carefully planned Muslim uprising against the British. Others must be at risk too.

That Abu Taleb had worked for Middleton and Cherry is clear but he was not a common spy. However as a Shia scholar and Persian speaker he was ideally suited to influence events in the crucial state of Oudh. Following the murder it was evident that he needed to be moved out of harm’s way. Why the East India Company chose to send the impecunious Abu Taleb on a four and a half year all-expenses-paid trip to Europe is less obvious. There were cheaper and nearer safe havens available. The likely reason is that the British anticipated Abu Taleb playing a key role in Oudh if and when the East India Company finally decided to annex the troublesome state. Furthermore when Abu Taleb returned overland from Europe via Constantinople and thence through Kurdistan and modern Iraq to the Shia shrines of Karbala and Najaf he may have been burnishing his credentials ready for serious political work ahead. In August1803 he reached Calcutta where he must have renewed his friendship with Richardson who was only 16 miles away at Barasat. In the end the East India Company never recovered its investment. Abu Taleb died soon afterwards in 1805.

Richardson too had returned to India, arriving in May 1801 with his bride Violet Oliver to set up the new staff college at Barasat. This college was intended to train East India Company military recruits in Hindustani and other local languages. One of the first students was Ensign Archibald Oliver, Violet’s elder brother. During his period as its first commandant until 1805, David Richardson was also ADC to the Vice President in Council (Sir George Hilaro Barlow) and found time to write the definitive history of the Bazeegurs (itinerant jugglers and actors) for the Asiatic Society of Bengal. He was one of a select group of Persian language examiners at Fort William in Calcutta (which included General Sir John Malcolm, also from Langholm).

Later in its short history until its closure in 1811 Barasat gained an unfortunate reputation. One observer wrote "He and his colleagues soon came to know the cadets at Barasat---and have nothing to do with them. They were little better than savages, gaming , smoking , drinking , fighting spurred gamecock, duelling , throwing their creditors in the pond and every evening galloping madly all the way from Baraset for a nights debauch in the stews and dives of the Calcutta bazaars” (Tuker p. 10).

But, in spite of Barasat’s alleged imperfections, this was a key moment in the evolution of education for the East India Company. After its reputation for rapaciousness under Robert Clive and Warren Hastings the new Governor General Lord Wellesley was determined to raise the standard of the Honourable Company’s military and civil servants with a particular focus on oriental languages. Fort William College was founded in 1800, Barasat in 1802 and the East India College at Haileybury in 1806. So David Richardson was at the forefront of a new breed of official, who steeped himself in Indian culture and language, and prompted a marked improvement in the standard of government in India. Calcutta became an intellectual centre not just for the British but for the Indians who were drawn to teach at such institutions.

In 1805 Abu Taleb’s former mentor Lord Cornwallis died suddenly only 3 months after arriving for his second term as Governor General of India. He was replaced by Barlow who appointed David as his Military Secretary. Barlow, who was mercilessly vilified in William Hickey’s diaries, was, like Richardson, a Persian speaker and they knew each other from their examining work at Fort William College. David (now gazetted as an officer in the 17th Native Infantry) served him for his two years as Governor General. The job clearly involved a lot of travel because Violet gave birth to children all over India. Jane was born in Calcutta in 1803, Mary at Cawnpore (Kanpur) in 1804, Elizabeth at Serajpoor (Serajpur near Madras) in 1805, William probably in 1806, and James in Calcutta in 1807. Three of the five survived childbirth. When Barlow suffered his humiliating demotion to the inferior role of Governor of Madras it appears that Richardson followed him. But Barlow was a disaster in Madras and immediately fell out with the military and civilian hierarchy.

It was little surprise, therefore, that, towards the end of 1808 and after nearly 30 years in India, David Richardson was ready to return home. As early as December 1806 his father-in-law William Oliver had written to the Duke of Buccleuch enquiring whether he could obtain a house on his estates for David’s retirement. David formally retired on 29th September 1808 and embarked at Madras with his family aboard the “Lord Nelson” at the end of October prior to the fleet weighing anchor on the 26th.

There are two harrowing accounts of the great hurricane of November 1808 which killed the Richardsons and all their fellow passengers and crew aboard the three Indiamen, Lord Nelson, Glory and Experiment. One was written by a survivor of the Ceylon and another aboard the Diana. The latter wrote;

“A summary description of this hurricane I gathered from others that were in the same storm. It appears that the oldest seamen in the fleet had never witnessed the like. The wind roared with such horrid bellowings, as to appal the stoutest heart. Thunder could not be distinguished from its tremendous bursts, and the dense watery atmosphere in which they were engulfed, seemed capable of excluding or even extinguishing lightning. Mere utter darkness was nought, in comparison with the hopeless dreary prospect arising from the fiery sparkling raging of the mountainous sea, which was confined to a small space around; for even the sky was hidden from us. The sea-spume exceeded the most violent rain; borne up by the tempest, higher than the top sail yards, it was kept floating, not falling, but whirled impetuously from the raging froth of the towering waves, it was keenly penetrating in every direction, insomuch, that it was with the utmost difficulty men could respire or breathe within it; frequently rendering it necessary to defend the nostrils with the hand, in order to respire with freedom. The elements of air, fire, and water, might be conceived so blended together, as scarcely to be distinguished from each other, being so intermixed in chaotic confusion”.

David’s sister-in-law, the poet Mrs G G Richardson, (herself the widow of an Indiaman captain and no stranger to the sea route from India) was so moved by the tragedy that she later wrote of it

“No ripple on that world of graves
remains to tell me where they were;
conjecture shrieking to the waves
is only answered by despair”.


“Account of the transactions that occurred on board the Ceylon East Indiaman during a dreadful hurricane which fleet encountered on its passage from Madras”. The European magazine and London Review vols 55-56.

Asiatic Annual Register vol 3 for 1801. London: Debrett, 1802.

The Asiatic Annual Register Or a View of the History of Hindustan etc. London: Cadell and Davies, 1802 and 1806.

Cornwallis, Charles. Correspondence Ed Charles Ross. London: John Murray, 1859.

Harriott, John. Struggles through life: exemplified in the various travels and adventures. London: Longman, 1808.

Hickey, William. Memoirs. 4 vols. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1925

Hodson, Major VCP. Officers of the Bengal Army 1758-1834. London: 1928.

Johnson, Robert. Spying for Empire: the Great Game in Central and South Asia 1757-1947 London: Greenhill Books, 2006.

Khan, Mirza Abu Taleb The Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan Ed O'Quinn.Toronto: Broadview Editions, 2009.

Moorhouse, Geoffrey. India Britannica. London: Collins, 1983.

“Papers of the Montague-Douglas-Scott Family, Dukes of Buccleuch.” National Records of Scotland GD224/522/3.

Richardson, D.T. An Account of the Bazeegurs, a Sect Commonly Denominated Nuts Calcutta: 1803.

Richardson, D.T “Letters to George Harris dated 5th June and 3rd October 1800.” Kent Record Office, Maidstone.

Taylor, Stephen. Storm and Conquest. The Battle for the Indian Ocean 1809. London: Faber and Faber, 2007.

Tuker, Francis. The Yellow Scarf : The Story of the Life of Thuggee Sleeman, or Major General Sir William Henry Sleeman, KCB, 1788-1856 of the Bengal Army and the Indian Political Service London: White Lion Publishers, 1977.

Willasey-Wilsey, Tim. “In search of Gopal Drooge and the murder of Captain William Richardson.” FIBIS Journal. March 2014.

Richardson, “Mrs G.G. To the author of Lines on the Loss of a Ship.” Poems. Edinburgh, n.d.

Last modified 6 September 2014