The great-granddaughter of the last Nawab Nizam of Bengal

Shefali Saxena Monday 01st August 2022 09:05 EDT

Lyn Innes’ book ‘The Last Prince of Bengal: A Family’s Journey from an Indian Palace to the Australian Outback’ is more relevant than ever right now - as the Conservatives are on the verge of choosing between a man of Asian origin and a British woman for the position of Prime Minister. 


The Nawab Nazim (the Last Prince of Bengal) was born into one of India’s most prestigious royal families, his kingdom ranging from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. However, in 1880 British authorities forced him to abdicate and permanently abolished his titles. The Nawab’s change in fortune marked the end of an era in India. One hundred years later, Lyn Innes tells the true story of her great-grandfather The Last Prince of Bengal, and his family’s fall from power.


The Last Prince of Bengal tells the compelling true story of the Nawab and his family as they sought by turns to befriend, settle in and eventually escape, Britain. From glamourous receptions with Queen Victoria to a scandalous Muslim marriage with an English chambermaid; and from Bengal tiger hunts to sheep farming in the harsh Australian outback, this family history visits the extremes of British rule in the age of Empire, exposing complex prejudices regarding race, class and gender. Innes charts the intimate and the universal, looking – through the turbulent betrayal of a flamboyant Monarch – at what Britain did in India.


Lyn Innes is the great-granddaughter of the last Nawab Nizam of Bengal. Born in Australia, she moved to North America, earned a PhD from Cornell University and taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she became associate editor of OKIKE: An African Journal of New Writing, founded by Chinua Achebe. Innes is currently an Emeritus Professor of Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent, Canterbury.


What does a book like yours foretell about prejudices regarding race and its complexities during British rule? Do you think in reality, the situation is similar?


I found that class and wealth seemed to matter more to Victorians than race, religion, or colour. In London, in the 1870s the Nawab of Bengal was welcomed to aristocratic gatherings and court receptions, but his working-class English wife was never included. The Nawab's marriage to her was regarded as 'unworthy of a Mohamedan nobleman' and a reason to force his abdication. However, Indian royalty was never regarded as equivalent to European royalty. Similar attitudes towards Asian men and women persist now, but a working-class woman can become more prominent.

What is the kind of responsibility and persona you nurture as the great-granddaughter of the last Nawab Nizam of Bengal?

I think of myself as an Australian of Scottish, Indian and English descent. My descent from the Nawabs of Bengal gives me a connection to India and Indian history which I greatly value. At the same time, I have never been a royalist nor an admirer of Mir Jafir, and I feel it is important not to gloss over the role of the family in collaborating with the British both in 1757 and 1857. My ancestry has also made me particularly antagonistic to racism and imperialism of any kind.


What can British Indians (born in England) learn from your book about the British colonial rule, which is otherwise not taught in textbooks?


'The Last Prince of Bengal' shows that what mattered to the British in India was power and money, and that colonial rule, including educational, social, and infrastructural changes, were for the benefit of the British ruling class, not Indians. The arrogance of the British government officials toward Indians of all classes was appalling. Also, where people of different religions and cultures had often lived and interacted peacefully together, the British sometimes encouraged division.


If you were, to sum up, what Britain did in India for the contemporary generation in Britain, how would you describe it?


British colonialism in India cannot be condoned. Nevertheless, its heritage with regard to language, culture and economy has resulted in a contemporary British Asian population and culture which has benefitted all Britons. I am particularly aware of the many excellent writers, but also doctors, scientists, musicians, filmmakers, and, yes, chancellors and mayors.


What is the impetus of physical books and novels for you versus digital copies? 

Although I find it very helpful to access digital books and papers, especially for research, I do like to read physical books and appreciate the craft with which they have been designed and printed. I am delighted with the way in which Saqi books produced the biography of my great-grandfather, 'The Last Prince of Bengal'.

comments powered by Disqus

to the free, weekly Asian Voice email newsletter