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Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions


Who was John Lang?

Rick Hosking

Grandson of a Jewish convict and stepson of a wealthy Sydney trader, John George Lang was the first writer to be born in Australia and spent his life in Australia, Britain and India.1 He was born in Parramatta near Sydney, New South Wales, in 1816. His father was a Scots sea-captain and landowner and his mother was born on Norfolk Island. Her father, John Harris, a Jewish convict transported for stealing eight silver spoons, arrived in Australia in the First Fleet in 1788. In 1789 Harris proposed and became a principal member of a night watch, which was the predecessor of a police force in Sydney, before he was transferred to Norfolk Island in 1793. In 1819 Lang’s mother married the Sydney merchant and sealing master Joseph Underwood, with the result that the boy grew up in a wealthy household that had strong connections with India and in particular with Calcutta. Lang was educated in William Cape’s School in Sydney, later Sydney College, where he demonstrated his abilities as a classics student and linguist by completing in 1835 a translation of Horace’s First Satire, his first published work; he won the school’s Classics Medal twice.

In March 1837 Lang left for England, where he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a pensioner (a fee-paying student), where he intended to study law. He was threatened with rustication and left Cambridge under a cloud, asked to leave for his flash style, or, as one source puts it, for his ‘Botany Bay tricks, not gentlemanly tricks’ (Crittenden 2005:38). His obituary records that he ‘distinguished himself in his own peculiar way by writing a quaint litany which was condemned as blasphemous and for which he was rusticated for a time’ (Crittenden 2005:58). There are also stories of a midnight session in which Lang climbed onto the roof of Trinity College to place a chamber pot on the weather vane, teaching the undergraduates assembled below the Australian ‘coo-ee’.

Lang completed his legal studies at the Middle Temple in London, proceeding to the bar in May 1841. His associate James Sheen Dowling wrote to his father, Sir James Dowling, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, that ‘Lang … [is] a clever fellow but somewhat troublesome. His family connections will somewhat mar his fortune, they will be stumbling blocks in his path; he has married a lady of very good connections and she may help him out of the mess’ (Earnshaw 1974:58). Dowling also recorded the view that Lang had left ‘by no means a good character in England either for gentlemanly conduct or sobriety’ (Crittenden 2005:45). In his last months in Britain he may have begun writing Legends of Australia.

Lang returned to Australia in October 1841 with his wife Lucy (née Peterson) and daughter; he was admitted as a barrister to the Sydney Supreme Court and tried to make his way in law. His brief stay back in Sydney was marked by his enthusiastic involvement in local politics and by further literary activity. His emancipist, ‘flash’ or currency lad (and Jewish?) background, no doubt fuelled by his ratbag spirit, made it difficult for him to find acceptance among the exclusives, sterling, or ‘pure merinos’, the wealthy free settlers untainted by the convict system. Lang was, as Crittenden rightly calls him a larrikin; his position in Sydney society became difficult. His behaviour before the courts in Sydney earned him a rebuke from the Chief Justice and he became known as the author of some highly embellished estimations of some of his fellow lawyers. Even though he was a supporter of William Charles Wentworth, Lang gave an unpopular and ‘maladroit’ speech in which he spoke against representative government (Crittenden 2005:38). It was time to find fresh fields.

Lang moved his family to Calcutta in India in 1842, where his wife’s brother, barrister Andrew Turton Peterson, joined them a year later. For several years Lang practised law in Calcutta, with little success at first. His family life did not prosper; his wife left him probably sometime between 1843 and 1845, returning to England with their children and leaving Lang free to live the life of the peripatetic bachelor-barrister and writer. Significantly, he refers to his domestic life and ‘home’ only once in Wanderings in India (Lang 1859:359). Free to pursue his interests, he decided to set up a newspaper in Calcutta, the first issue of which appeared in August 1845. He called it The Mofussilite and aimed it at the English-speaking military and civil employees of the various British enterprises in India and at those especially living up-country.2 The first number of the paper, incidentally, includes another version of his ‘Fisher’s Ghost’ story, which Lang had written nearly a decade before.

In 1846 Lang moved to Meerut, a centre of British trade and administration in Uttar Pradesh northeast of Delhi, taking The Mofussilite with him. In 1849 he became editor and later proprietor of the paper, which he described in 1858, together with the Delhi Gazette, as ‘With the exception of the Friend of India, when under the control of its original proprietor, these journals of the north-west that were by far the most remunerative of any newspapers in the East’ (Lang 1858:114).3 He had learned to speak Hindustani and Persian, his skill in the latter being apparent in his translations into English of the Persian poet, Sadi of Shiraz, which first appeared in The Mofussilite and has been republished more recently (Lang 1992). Lang also published many of his own stories and poems in the pages of The Mofussilite, some of his novels later appearing as books. (Crittenden (2005:223) gives a full account of Lang’s literary output.)

It is clear from reminiscences by old India hands that Lang was widely regarded as a gadfly, a thorn in the side of ‘John Company’ and the British administration. The wonderfully named Lieutenant-Colonel Balcarres D Wardlaw Ramsay tells the story of Henry Hardinge, First Viscount Hardinge of Lahore, Governor-General of India from 1844 to 1848, responding angrily to ‘more than ordinary abuse’ in the pages of The Mofussilite in squibs written by ‘Mr Lang, an extremely talented man’ (Ramsay 1882:124–125). Hardinge first considered horse-whipping or shooting Lang, but then, on a visit to Meerut, called Lang in for an interview. Lang is urged to speak without reserve, so he does. He asked Hardinge if he came to India to make money. Hardinge responded in the affirmative, to which Lang responded:

I came to India for the same reason; and I found I could not make money faster than by abusing your lordship’s policy. If I could have made as much by praising it, it would have given me greater pleasure. It is a simple question, not of principle, but of ‘L.s.d.’ Lord Hardinge was delighted with this frank avowal (Ramsay 1882:124–125).4

During the late 1840s and early 1850s Lang continued his legal practice, winning two important and lucrative cases that spread his fame through India, the first for Ajoodia (or Jyotee) Pershâd against the East India Company in 1851, and the second a case for the Rani of Jhansi. A reminiscence by William Forbes-Mitchell of the trial of Ajoodia Pershâd gives a fascinating insight into Lang’s character; the man who emerges is a partying, witty, flash, quicksilver-tongued larrikin who feeds on the scraps from the ‘John Company’ table, making his way on the proceeds of successful court cases, his newspaper proprietorship, his journalism and his fiction. He was drinking and living hard. Forbes-Mitchell gives a lively account of a drinking bet Lang made with officers present during the Pershâd case, that he would describe prosecution witnesses as ‘d—d soors [pigs]’ to their faces in open court. The following morning he did so describe the various court officials without being held in contempt (Forbes-Mitchell 1893:153–159). The East India Company eventually had its revenge, however, and Lang went to jail in Calcutta for three months for libel, as a consequence of publishing libellous remarks about prosecution witnesses in the Pershâd case in The Mofussilite (Crittenden 2005:xxx).

Between 1853 and 1859 Lang lived in London, where he moved in literary and theatrical circles, travelled in Europe and published (and republished) a number of his plays, sketches and short stories, many of the latter in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words. He may have known the famous writer, but the acquaintance was slight. The only reference to Lang in Dickens’ letters is in one he wrote to WH Wills on 10 March 1853, describing Lang’s piece ‘Starting a Paper in India’, which appeared in Household Words, 26 March 1853 as

very droll—to us. But it is full of references that the public don’t understand, and don’t in the least care for. Bourgeois, brevier, minion, and nonpareil, long primer, turn-ups, dummy advertisements and reprints, back form, imposing stone, and locking up, are all quite out of their way and a sort of slang that they have no interest in (Storey, Tillotson & Easson 1993:48).

Most of these printer’s terms were edited out from Lang’s piece.

Lang returned to India in 1859, remarried in 1861 (possibly bigamously and possibly to a mixed-race woman, Margaret Wetter). He spent his last years at Landour, Mussoorie, in the Himalayas, where he died in 1864 at the age of 47 from the effects of an ‘insatiable craving for champagne’, according to one source (Lohrli 1973:337). An obituary in The Madras Times records that Lang:

fell into the worst of habits and is a melancholy example of wasted talents and degraded abilities. Mr Lang might have lived many years an ornament to the society in which he might have shone as a literary man, but he chose otherwise (Routh 1964:207).

Lang is buried in the Camel’s Back cemetery in Mussoorie, high on a ridge among the deodars, looking out on the snow-covered Srikanta peak and the Banderpunch massif. His gravestone reads ‘John Lang: Barrister at Law’. These days several families run their goats in the old Christian cemetery, draping their washing on the headstones that still stand. We owe our knowledge of the location of Lang’s grave to the Indian writer Ruskin Bond who rediscovered it in 1964 (Bond 1972, 1980). In August 2005 Lang was remembered when a plaque in his honour was installed in Christ Church, the little Anglican church in Mussoorie, thanks in no small part to the efforts of diplomat Rory Medcalf and Victor Crittenden (Mahapatra 2005).

Works cited

Bond, Ruskin 1972, ‘Looking for John Lang’s grave’. Blackwood’s Magazine CCCXI.

— 1980, ‘Coda to Nancy Keesing’, Hemisphere 24(2).

Crittenden, Victor 2005, John Lang: Australia’s larrikin writer barrister, novelist, journalist and gentleman, Mulini Press, Canberra.

Earnshaw, John 1974, ‘Lang, John (1816–1864)’, in Australian dictionary of biography vol. 5, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.

Forbes-Mitchell, William 1893, Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny 1857–1859, Including the relief, siege, and the capture of Lucknow, and the campaigns in Rohilcund and Oude, Macmillan, London.

Lang, John 1835, Horace’s First Satire, JG Austin, Sydney.

— 1836, ‘Fisher’s ghost: a legend of Campbelltown’, in Margin 70 (November 2006).

— 1836, Violet, or, The danseuse: a portraiture of human passions and character, Henry Colburn, London.

— 1842, Legends of Australia, James Tegg, Sydney.

— 1853, ‘Starting a paper in India’, Household Words, 26 March.

— 1853, Too clever by half, or, The Harroways. Nathaniel Cooke, London. (Previously serialised in The Mofussilite, 1847–1848.)

— 1858, ‘Wanderings in India’, Household Words, 16 January

— 1859, Wanderings in India and other sketches of life in Hindostan, Routledge, Warne and Routledge, London.

— 1992, The rose garden: translations from the Persian of Sadi of Shiraz, Mulini Press, Canberra. (First published in The Mofussilite 1845.)

Lohrli, Anne 1973, Household Words: a weekly journal 1850–1859, conducted by Charles Dickens, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Mahapatra, Anirban Das 2005, ‘Remembrances of things past’, The Telegraph 21 August,, viewed 21.2.2012.

The Mofussilite (Newspaper), 1845–1876, PS D’Rozario, Calcutta.

Ramsay, Balcarres D Wardlaw 1882, Rough recollections of military service and Society vol. I, William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh.

Routh, SJ 1964, ‘The Australian career of John Lang, novelist’, Australian Literary Studies 1(3).

Storey, Graham, Kathleen Tillotson and Angus Easson (eds) 1993, The letters of Charles Dickens vol. 7, 1853–1855, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Yule, Henry and AC Burnell 1903, Hobson-Jobson: a glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and the kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive, new ed, edited by William Crooke, John Murray, London. (First edition published by John Murray in London in 1886.)

1   Biographical details are mostly taken from Victor Crittenden’s indispensable study (Crittenden 2005).

2   ‘Mofussil’ is defined in Hobson-Jobson (Yule and Burnell 1903:570) as ‘“The Provinces [in British India],”—the country stations and districts, as contra-distinguished from “the Presidency”; or, relatively, the rural localities of a district as contra-distinguished from the sudder or chief station, which is the residence of the district authorities … The word (Hind. from Ar.) mufassal means properly “separate, detailed, particular,” and hence “provincial,” as mufassaladalat, a provincial court of justice … About 1845 a clever, free-and-easy newspaper, under the name of The Mofussilite, was started at Meerut, by Mr John Lang, author of Too Clever by Half, &c., and endured for many years”‘.

3   Lang refers to his newspaper in Wanderings in India (Lang 1859:113,233ff). He speaks approvingly of editors with whom he had worked, many of whom were Indians, and praised one Muslim editor in particular for the squibs (anti-Government pieces) he had written (Lang 1859:240–241).

4   Ramsay (1882:125) notes that Lord Dalhousie, who followed Hardinge as Governor-General, ‘made much of Mr Lang, and invited him very often to stay at Government House’.

Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

   by Rick Hosking and Amit Sarwal