The British Empire Library

Theodore & Eliza: The True Story

by Susan Harvard

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
When the engagement of Lady Diana Spencer to the Prince of Wales was announced, genealogists immediately started to trace her ancestry, but could get no further back than 1818, four generations away from the Princess. That was the date of baptism of five-year-old Katherine (Kitty) Scott Forbes in the Bombay Presidency. There was no doubt about Kitty's father - he was Theodore Forbes, from the impoverished Scottish gentry who, like many of his countrymen, had sought his fortune in India. But who was Kitty's mother? Speculation, fuelled by ignorance, claimed that she was a 'dark-skinned native of Bombay' called Eliza Kewark who was not married to Theodore, thus making her daughter illegitimate.

own research into his family's background and suggested to the author that she might write a novel based on the story of Theodore Forbes and Eliza Kewark. Luckily Susan Harvard resisted this idea and decided to carry out her own investigations based mainly on largely unsorted family papers in the library of Aberdeen University. 'It was there' she writes 'in Mss 2740 of the Special Collections in King's College Library, that, against the odds, the details of Eliza's poignant story had survived...the story of Kitty's parents, though hidden and almost forgotten, was not lost. It exists still on the worn pages of Theodore's letter book.. .in letters from his brother-in-law Agah Aratoon Baldassier of Surat...but above all, in Eliza's letters to Theodore, dictated to a Parsi scribe in her broken English...and always signed in Armenian script "Sahiba Forbes" and in English "Your affectionate Mrs Forbes".

Born at Boyndlie in Aberdeenshire in 1788, Theodore joined the East India Company as a civilian and he arrived in India a young man of twenty years old. By the autumn of 1809 he was appointed as Assistant Registrar in Surat and it was here he met and fell in love with Eliza who came from a respectable Armenian family. The couple were married according to the Eastern Orthodox ceremony and although no marriage certificate survives, Eliza refers to the ritual of bride and groom placing wedding crowns on each other's heads. The newlywed pair travelled together to Mocha, where Theodore took up the post of Political Agent. His job was to purchase coffee for the Company and to monitor merchant shipping at the entrance to the Red Sea. This was at a time when piracy was rampant and cargo-carrying ships were as much at risk from pirates in their fast-moving dhows as from tropical storms. The author was fortunate to visit Mocha and the Yemen in the 1990s. One couldn't do it today. The remains of merchants' houses were still visible then in the deserted ancient city - elaborately decorated three-storeyed buildings that hinted at what a rich and important place it had once been. It was here that the first child was born to the couple in October 1812. The little girl soon became known as Kitty and a nurse called Fazagool, who may have come from Africa, possibly as a slave, was employed to look after her. It was Fazagool who was later to accompany Kitty on her long sea-journey to England and to Theodore's parents at Boyndlie.

There is much more one could say about this book which is an astonishingly accomplished debut by the author. It is beautifully written, it is subtle in portraying its real life characters and is particularly good in describing the three cities that feature in the story of Theodore and Eliza; the cities of Surat, which was fast losing its crown to Bombay, and the Arabian trading centre of Mocha. It also brings out the discrimination that non-British women started to face in early 19th century India. Gone were the days when mixed marriages were accepted and even encouraged as a way of keeping British men out of trouble. Poor Eliza became a victim of this prejudice as Theodore realised that an Armenian wife was a handicap to his new career as a Bombay merchant. The story does not have a happy ending. Warmly recommended.

British Empire Book
Susan Harvard
First Published
Harvard Works of Art
Review Originally Published
Spring 2019 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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