Wajid Ali Shah and W.H. Sleeman: An Encounter of the Orient and the Occident

Rajarshee Gupta

Assistant Professor of English
Subhas Chandra Bose Centenary College
Lalbagh, Murshidabad

Between 1849 and 1856 the kingdom of Awadh underwent a crucial time in its local and Indian history. On one hand there was Wajid Ali Shah, the king of a dainty taste and a colourful life; on the other was W.H. Sleeman, the famous colonial administrator who rose to fame by eradicating the Thuggee, the Resident of the East India Company in Lucknow. The king was regarded by Sleeman to be worthless as a man of disciplined system and a ruler. His antipathy for the king is apparent in the extensive report he made on the condition of the contemporary Awadh. The conflict between the two, reflecting a clash of values and interest, bears the hallmark of British imperial interest in India. The exchange between these two men indicates at a discourse of Orientalism (borrowing from Said) initiated by the colonial power. The paper strives to examine the nature of the encounter of these two men in the Victorian colonial setting.
Keywords: Imperialism, Wajid Ali Shah, W.H. Sleeman, Orientalism, Victorian

Of the many causes that triggered the 1857 Uprising, the annexation of the kingdom of Oude (this archaic spelling of ‘Awadh’ has been used in this article) into the Company territory was arguably the most direct one. This paper focuses on one particular strand of actions going on in Oude – namely the dynamics between two men much significant to the fate of Oude – right before her annexation. Of the two giant figures one is Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Oude, poet, composer of music, patron of arts, whose extravagant life turned him into a living legend; the other is William Henry Sleeman, the Resident at the court of Oude (1849-54), the soldier and civil servant famous for documenting about and eradicating the Thuggee – an epitome of the no-nonsense British administration in India which valued sincere industriousness and moral uprightness, a gentleman embodying Victorian values perfectly. These two men, complete antithesis of each other, were brought into a knot by contemporary politics; the classical Nawabi culture of Oude had a clash with Victorian England, which had her own worldview and vested interest in India. The paper explores this clash of values and the resultant reactions from the representatives of the imperial British administration.
          The tenure of Sleeman at Lucknow is significant from more than one perspectives. As has been already mentioned, it denotes a clash of cultures and values, represented by Wajid Ali and Sleeman. In this dynamics Sleeman represents the values of Victorian England, and this point leads us to the aspect of the close association of Victorian values with British imperialism. British imperialism, while strengthening its clutch on India, pretended to embark on a civilising mission, eradicating evils from all sectors of life of the Indians and bestowing upon them the sharply opposite trait of a developed moral character epitomised by the nineteenth-century British man. Oude in Sleeman’s time was no exception. It conforms to Edward Said’s famous doctrine of construction of the Oriental Other by the Western imperialist power – an entity invested with largely negative attributes, “a sort of surrogate and even underground self” of the European culture (Said 3), against which the superiority of the Occidental power could be established, paving the path of creating Western hegemony in the colonies. The sense of superiority acted as the principal driving force among the imperialists, contributing immensely to rev up their zeal of undertaking the mission of civilising the ‘unenlightened’ world – which later would be famously and proudly hailed by imperialism all over the world as the “White Man’s Burden” (Kipling). Social welfare and moral uplift of the poor are marked characteristics of the Victorian era, like the growing notion of the racial superiority of the English in the world order1. Industrial Revolution in England, which reached its zenith at the time of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne, had already played a major role in British colonialism. With these characteristics at large, British imperialism became indomitable in the Victorian era. As for its view and treatment of the Oriental Other, it conformed to “the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, socio-logically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period” (Said 3) – a discourse which not only studies or understands, but also “control[s], manipulate[s], even... incorporate[s], what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world” (Said 12). We must explore Sleeman’s representation of Oude during Wajid Ali Shah’s reign keeping these tenets in mind, because in him were embedded the marked characteristics and values of early Victorian England, a compulsive imperialist power.
          Sleeman was appointed the Resident at Lucknow by Governor-General Lord Dalhousie in January 1849. Much debate has taken place regarding his direct role in annexation of Oude. His papers reveal him not as one supporting the annexation but as one against any such drastic act (Sleeman 2: 377-383). Yet, it was said by Major Robert Bird, his one-time assistant and later eyesore, that “Colonel Sleeman was the emissary of a foregone conclusion. He affected to inspect and make a report, but the character of his report was determined for him before he entered Oude.... [H]e pretended to try, but he was instructed simply to condemn” (Dacoitee 109). As soon as he took up the job, Sleeman was displeased with the state of affairs at Oude and decided to make a tour of the countryside and submit a detailed report to the higher authorities. His report and other correspondences represented Wajid Ali as a wretched and spineless ruler who had neither any intention, nor the capability of running his government as a good ruler should have (at least from an Englishman’s perspective). His report paved the way of abdication of Wajid Ali and annexation of Oude through the hands of Colonel Outram, Sleeman’s successor as the Resident.
Two gravest reasons, according to Sleeman’s correspondences, behind the king’s maladministration were that he kept himself in sole company of lowly eunuchs, fiddlers and dancers all the time, and that he was surrounded by corrupt court favourites and politicians who stole the state revenue and whom the king had no power to control. Innumerable times in his correspondences Sleeman alludes to Wajid Ali’s characteristic moral weakness and inability to govern his own kingdom. His complete distrust on the king becomes manifest in such assertions as follow:
The king [...] is utterly unfit to do anything with administration, since he has never taken, or shown any disposition to take any heed of what is done or suffered in the country. (1:lx-lxi)
When in health, the King never paid much attention to business. (1:liv)
...[T]hough he would not willingly do harm to anyone, he is unable to protect anyone. (2:354)
The longer the present King reigns, the more unfit he becomes to reign, and the more the administration and the country deteriorate. (2:368)
The king is a crazy imbecile, who is [...] made to do whatever [the corrupt musicians, ministers and eunuchs] wish him to do, and to give whatever orders may best suit their private interests. (2:369)
This is how representation of an ‘Oriental’ ruler submits to the discourse of Orientalism itself, and how that constructed “Orient” gradually becomes the binary opposite of Victorian England: strong, accomplished and efficient. The above quotations are but a few of the many instances where Sleeman accuses Wajid Ali of incompatibility as a king, and calls for British intervention in the administration of Oude for better running of the state. Sleeman was a colonial administrator who had already successfully brought the kingdom of Gwalior into the realm of British India, while managing to retain the ruling Scindia dynasty on the throne. He was given the assignment of Oude by Dalhousie in 1849 with a deadline (October 1849) for developing the state of affairs of Oude impending on Wajid Ali. Sleeman took charge of Oude with the presupposition that he would be running Oude by December 1849. He arrived at Oude with his head full of schemes of reformation and when he found Wajid Ali sick at bed when he arrived, like a true and industrious Victorian man meaning business, he promptly started planning the administration of Oude after the king’s death (Sleeman 1: l-lviii). He had arrived at Lucknow with no great esteem for the king, and the king’s physical weakness at the time of their first meeting certainly did not create a marvellous impression in Sleeman’s mind – rather it must have added to the already negative image of a nincompoop ruler.
The first clash of countering values and cultures between Sleeman and Wajid Ali perhaps started from this sick bed. Despite his severe illness, the king refused to consult either of the European residency surgeons or to take Western medicines (Sleeman 1: l, liii-liv). He relied on traditional Indian medicines and gradually came round. Sleeman looked dismissively at the king’s refusal of Western help to cure his illness, and surely did not like to see such an opportunity of gaining upper hand over the king in his personal space fail like this. At length the king, while gradually coming round, did permit the two European physicians to see him on the occasion of Dr. Bell taking charge of the Residency Surgeon over from Dr. Leckie. Custom dictated that the two doctors should pay the king a visit.
Two assertions in Sleeman’s record of this meeting raise our interest. First, both of the physicians “found [the king] much better in bodily health than they expected, [...] found no sign of any confusion of ideas, and are of the opinion that in the hand of a skilful European physician he would soon be quite well” (Sleeman 1: liii). The king’s curing health corroborated the effectiveness of traditional Indian medicines that he had been taking; therefore, the Englishmen’s conclusion that he would become “quite well” with European intervention where apparently there was no such need only proves the imperialist attitude of establishing the Eurocentric superiority, on the pretext of being ‘modern’, completely disregarding the Oriental traditional elements – and thus the process of establishing Eurocentric hegemony is set in motion. Secondly, right after recording the physicians’ opinion of Wajid Ali’s health, Sleeman asserts his own idea of the king in a mildly sneering manner, “His Majesty is hypochondriac, and frequently under the influence of the absurd delusions common to such persons” (Sleeman 1: liii-liv). One wonders at Sleeman’s medical authority of commenting on someone’s health, especially when he himself erstwhile recorded two European medical experts’ opinion that the king might actually need European medication to get well faster. This scoffing attitude of his is also a gesture falling in league with the imperialist mindset of disdaining anything that countered Western superiority. Wajid Ali, already held in disregard to some extent by Sleeman, took no time to sink lower in his view when he stuck to his decision of not taking English aid at the initial phase of the relation that was being established between the king and the new representative of the Company in his kingdom. Surely Wajid Ali’s rejection of European medication can be taken as a symbol of resistance against the imperialist manoeuvres, more of which he was to face later.
Sleeman represented Wajid Ali not only as an inefficient administrator, but alluded to the king’s weakness of character as well when time and again he expressed his scorn at eunuchs, musicians and nautch-girls being the king’s favourites and he being immersed in their unfruitful company all the time. His reports paint a picture of corruption where these favourite eunuchs, singers, musicians and ministers plundered the treasury, deluding the king. Sleeman was too disturbed with a king who loved being encircled by his harem, enjoyed the company of musicians and poets, whose hobby was flying kites and who entrusted eunuchs with important administrational responsibilities. Thus in his reports generated the picture of a king absolutely effeminate, worthless, weak in morals and neglecting his duties. This portrayal of the king was essential for British imperialism to establish the countering power of Western values which supposedly represented everything opposite to the portrayed negative traits. Especially his close association with eunuchs made a Victorian gentleman like Sleeman feverish. Sleeman openly expressed his contempt at the eunuchs holding high positions in the royal household as well as stately affairs. He reports in September 1852 that the king employed “nothing but knaves of the very worst kind in all the branches of the administration” (Sleeman 2: 369) and that along with two fiddlers, poetasters and ministers, two of the king’s most favourites were the eunuchs called Dianat-ud-daula and Husseen-ud-daula, who had control “over criminal justice, public buildings &c.” (ibid). Of course to a representative of Victorian England, a time and space marked by parochial ideas of human sexuality, eunuchs at high administrative offices was an outrageous idea. But it must be remembered that in India eunuchs had held high positions in administration since the Mughal era, and often rose to prominence and honour by showing their merit despite legally being mere slaves. Lucknow had always upheld the classical Mughal traditions and retained a prominence of eunuchs (khwajasarai) in her elite circle. However, the Company, which equated administration with the discourse of manliness, had identified eunuchs as a major cause of the mismanagement of the Oude administration and a verbal promise was elicited from Wajid Ali that he would no longer employ eunuchs in an ‘official’ capacity (Hinchy 422). In order to curb the influence of the khwajasarai in Oude administration, Victorian British imperialism had taken the path of targeting the eunuchs with accusations of corruption, and Sleeman’s vitriol-spitting at the eunuchs perfectly complied with this strategy. He followed the tradition of the British Residents in Oude who highlighted the blurring of boundaries between the private and the public in the overlapping of khwajasarai’s domestic and official administrative roles. Due to the association of eunuchs with domestic space, nineteenth-century Englishmen viewed khwajasarai as mere labours whose proper place was in the household, not the public domain. Besides, in sidelining the eunuch slaves from all important quarters of Oude administration, the anti-slavery attitude of Victorian England also contributed to a certain extent. But here the Company’s stance is shrewdly ambiguous. Hinchy rightly observes:
The silence of the Company on the enslavement of the khwajasarais – and its aim of confining khwajasarais to domestic slave labour – was symptomatic of what Indrani Chatterjee has termed ‘abolition by denial’. Chatterjee argues that the British defined household slavery as benign’ because they reduced slavery to the model of plantation slavery. In India, the British did not perceive the racialised organisation of slave labour and overt forms of violence thought to characterise slavery. [...] In the case of Awadh, the Company merely pressured the Padshah to confine khwajasarai labour to the domestic sphere, that ‘benign’ space of enslavement that in the colonial view was not really slavery at all. Indirectly, the Company affirmed the Padshah’s right to possess and employ slaves in its attempts to transform the khwajasarai community into politically insignificant household slave-drudges. Due to the ambivalence of the colonisers towards slavery in the princely states, a more effective case for annexation could be made by tying the employment of eunuch labour to a broader sexual politics that scrutinised intimate relationships, elite households, forms of embodiment and gendered behaviour in Indian-ruled states. (421)
Political exchanges between the British and Indian rulers over governance centred round masculinity. The effeminacy of Indian men had been a theme of colonial discourse from the early period of Company rule. Colonised men were characterised as inherently inferior to British men, who were perceived as the ideal of masculinity. Wajid Ali Shah was no exception. His association with innumerable women, musicians and poets allowed Sleeman’s perception of him as a weakling and good-for-nothing fellow to grow steadily. His poetic and musical excellence, his patronage of arts and taking part in pageants only added to his characteristic weakness and effeminacy in which British imperialism and the Victorian attitude held him. Sleeman’s sardonic tone is discernible when he reported to Dalhousie the king’s literary undertaking, enjoying a poets’ assemblage (mushaira) “from nine at night till three in the morning” and that he was told that Wajid Ali’s “versification was exceedingly good for a king” (1: lxxiii). Sleeman was famous for his knowledge of Oriental language and customs. Was he not aware that it was perfectly normal for such poetic assemblages to continue overnight? Or did he lack the linguistic expertise necessary to gauge the poetic ability of one of the best versifiers of Urdu literature? He also scoffed at the king for taking part in a Muharram procession, which, as Llewellyn-Jones observes, “most rational people, certainly in India, would have seen as an act of faith” (102). Sleeman further denigrated Wajid Ali by asserting that he aimed at nothing but “the reputation of being the best dancer, best versifier and best drummer in his dominions” (2: 388). Certainly to the Victorian worldview these were scandalously un-kingly behaviours, contributing to one’s ‘effeminacy’ and ‘imbecility’, and therefore Wajid Ali was not deemed quite a ‘king’ in the eye of that worldview.
The succeeding Residents, Richmond, Sleeman and Outram, disregarding the true merit of Wajid Ali, failed to see that he had made Lucknow a rich cultural centre with his patronage. The representatives of the Victorian worldview had hardly appreciated that he was one of the finest poets of his time (and of all time, to say so) who proficiently used no less than three languages (Urdu, Persian and Awadhi) in his compositions. Himself writing under the pseudonyms Qaiser and Akhtar, he was a patron of a number of excellent poets, performers and musicians. His great contribution to enrichment of the ghazal and thumri styles of music deserves distinct mention in the history of Indian classical music. The representatives of Victorian manliness had frowned at his association with musicians and dancing girls as signs of his dallying, lustful disposition; they overlooked the great support he provided to one of the Indian classical dance forms, kathak, to popularise it all over his kingdom. They chose to overlook his immense contribution to performing arts itself – that in Parikhana (‘House of Fairies’) established by him, numerous young girls were taught classical music and dance; that the versatile genius of Wajid Ali, playwright, composer, director and producer, invented a unique theatrical form of his own called Rahas. Though the operatic presentation of Rahas was largely based on kathak style, it was inspired by the Hindu festival of Ras, and combined elements from classical Indian dramaturgy. In Wajid Ali’s time the term Ras became popular as Rahas, “a drama with music, and rahas manzil (performance building) was equivalent to a theatre or opera house” (Llewellyn-Jones 51).
Choosing Hindu festivals like Ras and Vasant (Holi) for celebrating in a royal manner indicates at Wajid Ali’s liberal view towards the diversity of religion that his kingdom offered. His enthusiastic participation in the Mohammedan festival of Muharram further testifies this liberal view of his. And he was the ruler, fond of theatricalities, who in his birthdays would appear publicly in the attire of a Hindu hermit or jogi, with two belles in the costume of jogans (female ascetics) accompanying her, commencing a pageant that was named Jogia Jashn (‘Hermit Festival’). This openheartedness of Wajid Ali Shah towards both of the major religions of his kingdom and his eagerness for reaching his people through these acts did not attract the attention of the Britons; to them his parading in public in this manner seemed hideous for a king. They continued to condemn him, constantly accusing that he had no care whatsoever for the well-being of his kingdom.
Surely Wajid Ali was not as worthless as Sleeman’s projection of him. His urge of connecting directly with his subjects becomes apparent from his gesture of taking initiative of setting up mashghalah-ye-noshervani prior to Sleeman took charge as the Resident. It was an initiative of erecting a number of complaint boxes at public places of Lucknow in which people could drop letters and petitions, which would be read by the king himself. It is a different issue that due to a number of obstacles this initiative, started with all good intentions on the king’s part, did not succeed (Llewellyn-Jones 89). Lllewellyn-Jones proves Sleeman’s blame, that the king never showed any disposition to take any heed of what is done or suffered in the country, baseless when she records that Wajid Ali deputed his minister Ali Naqi Khan to run the administration when he was ill and wrote for him a manual of government in the weak state of his health. This document, Dastur-i-Wajidi, shows that the king, contrary to Sleeman’s idea of his ignorance of the goings-on of his kingdom, was fully aware of the maladministration taking place. He instructed his minister to take necessary measure against rogue soldiers, illegal tolls, the ritual of Sati (already banned in British India and forbidden in Oude), female infanticide and so on (Llewellyn-Jones 99). Although Llewellyn-Jones observes that Sleeman was clearly unaware of this document because it was not printed until a quarter of a century later (ibid), one may question as to a British Resident’s ignorance of a document of such significance, in which a king accused of maladministration instructed his deputy in the ways of governance in his absence. Sleeman decidedly had his eye on the king and had his spies planted in the royal palace who provided him with all the information regarding the king, including his daily schedule. Therefore it will not be entirely wrong to assume that Sleeman intentionally portrayed Wajid Ali in darker tones when he made such a slanderous report to the Governor-General (1: lx).
The Victorian mentality, set in the notions of stiff morality, utilitarian industriousness and masculinity, could not shed its bias when it came into contact with the culture of nineteenth-century Lucknow, so vibrantly colourful but verging on decadence. The British failed to appreciate the colours and frowned at the signs of decadence because partially the Victorian culture did not allow them to appreciate the Indian colours outstripping the labels of ‘alien’ and ‘exotic’, and partially harping on the negative, decadent traits of that ‘alien’ and ‘exotic’ culture of Lucknow had enabled them to satisfy their imperialistic zeal. Because Victorian morality did not wish to appreciate the essence of the Other that was constructed and had been being constructed, it could not gauge the moral strength of a man who appeared to dally with lowly dancing girls and musicians all the time, and yet was a teetotaller and a devout man praying five times a day; it failed to appreciate the moral dignity of a king who, in spite of showing all signs of a bad ruler, would not abdicate and leave his kingdom in the care of foreigners. Sleeman and his contemporary colonial administrators might well consider Wajid Ali Shah a frivolous, effeminate, irresponsible and worthless king. But to tell the truth, Victorian mentality could not gauge the notion of masculine power to a poet-composer-king who loved to embody Lord Krishna, the epitome of masculinity in Indian culture – an idea of masculinity which was very much alien, very much Other, to the understandings of Victorian England, a hungry imperialist power.

Notes and References:
1.     Victorian era was a period which started to indulge in scientific racism from an academic perspective, which arguably influenced the imperialist agenda. It received a gust of wind in its sail with the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), but we must remember that throughout the first half of the nineteenth century the study of phrenology was immensely popular in the Continent and in England. The study of phrenology (the study of human skull) allowed the Occident to produce the Orient in one sense, by studying the anthropology of various ethnic races and categorising them in various hierarchical levels in the world order, which of course placed the Caucasian Occidentals on a higher plain. It is interesting that Sleeman himself was a keen student of phrenology, believing the measurements of the skulls could help him identify criminal ethnic groups.
2.     Sleeman displays the inherent conceited snobbery of Victorian England and British imperialism when he constantly refers to the poets of Oude as ‘poetasters’ (2: 369).

Works Cited
Dacoitee in Excelsis; or the Spoilation of Oude by the East India Company. London: J.R. Taylor, 1857. Print.
Hinchy, Jessica. “The Sexual Politics of Imperial Expansion: Eunuchs and Indirect Colonial Rule in Mid-Nineteenth-Century North India.” Gender & History 26.3 (2014): 414–437. Wiley Online Library. Web. 05 August 2018.
Kipling, Rudyard. The White Man’s Burden: the United States and the Philippine Islands. Representative Poetry Online (University of Toronto Libraries). Web. 03 August 2018.
Llewellyn-Jones, Rosie. The Last King in India: Wajid Ali Shah. Gurgaon: Vintage (Penguin Random House), 2014. Print.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. 3rd ed. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.
Sleeman, William Henry. A Journey through the Kingdom of Oude. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1858. (Referred to in text as Journey-1). Print.

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