ILLNESS OF CORT'S SON
Much of this material is derived from evidence given at hearings in Calcutta in 1802. The earliest evidence of young Henry in Bengal may be Robert Downie's testimony of knowing him "for six or seven years". Assuming that period terminates in Henry's leaving India in 1800, his arrival may be in 1793 or even earlier. However, if the end date is that of the hearing, then Michael Cheese's testimony of having seen him "eight years ago in Dinapore" is more significant, and his arrival may have been as late as 1794.
Either way, we can be sure that Henry cousin's John Harman Becher is already there when he arrives, as is his mother's cousin Edward Burges (whose illegitimate daughter Henry later marries), and probably Edward's father Thomas.
It seems Henry is engaged in an indigo-growing venture that may keep him away from Calcutta when his brother Coningsby and (probably) sister Harriet arrive with James Watson in 1796. Watson's party is cordially received by the Burges, whose friend Thomas Dowell marries Harriet the following year (there is a difference of some 18 years in their ages). Other evidence shows Coningsby leaving in 1798, so it is doubtful whether he witnesses the episode that leads to Henry’s confinement in a mental hospital.
By then young Henry's indigo-growing venture has failed, and he is in Calcutta, staying with his cousin John Harman Becher. Becher's marriage has broken up: he is in an apartment in Writers’ Buildings.
This building has an interesting history, well summarised by Kathleen Blechynden in Calcutta: Past and Present (London 1905). Originally built for Richard Barwell, who made a vast fortune in India, it was leased to the East India Company from 1780.
The house contained nineteen apartments, each furnished with a separate set of out-offices, and the rent was Arcot Rs. 200 per month for each apartment.
From Suresh Chandra Ghosh, The British in Bengal (ISBN 81-215-0819-3).
200 Arcot Rupees = 10 guineas approx
In 1785 the apartments are designated for the occupation of company employees earning less than 300 rupees per month, and rapidly acquired a reputation, which does not feature in the evidence presented to the 1802 inquiry.
For nearly fifty years Writers’ Buildings continued in the use for which it was originally intended, and maintained a reputation for fast living and extravagance of every kind. The costly champagne suppers of Writers’ Buildings were famous.
From Kathleen Blechynden: Calcutta: Past and Present
It is surprising to find John Harman Becher in such company. Is he really earning less than 300 rupees per month after ten years’ service, including a spell as Collector of the 24 Pergunnahs?
Whatever the background, it is not likely that he would engage in “fast living and extravagance”. But the sound of festivities in neighbouring apartments penetrates to his, and may well be a factor upsetting his guest.
On 29th March Becher entertains William Blackstone and John Stapleton to dinner. Blackstone later testifies that young Henry is "in very low spirits", evidently having just heard about the death of his sister Maria in England the previous June.
Stapleton reckons Henry owes him money. Next morning he sends a reminder.
Henry's reaction is extreme.
He asks his brother-in-law Thomas Dowell to come round immediately.
When Dowell arrives, his first conversation is with Henry’s host. Becher is worried about his guest's state of mind.
Henry can hear voices in the next apartment, accusing him of bestial acts. He identifies one voice as Stapleton's.
He wishes to challenge Stapleton to a duel. Will Dowell act as his second?
Neither Dowell nor Becher can hear these voices. Later witnesses will testify that Stapleton never visited the next-door apartment.
Dowell and Becher call in a doctor from the local mental hospital, and ask to have Henry confined there.
Two weeks elapse before Henry can be admitted. During this period he becomes increasingly violent and unpredictable. Dowell arranges a roster of soldiers to guard the apartment.
Henry remains in hospital for nearly two years. Staff will testify to further violent behaviour. One visitor, however, says he found young Henry "spoke sensibly on all subjects but one".
I endeavoured to persuade him to lay aside this nonsense as the only means of procuring his release and he immediately began to suspect me of some concealed design against him.
Evidence of Robert Downie at Calcutta hearing, March 1802
Eventually the authorities decide his best chance of a cure is a return to England. He leaves aboard the Rose on 1st March 1800.
He is on the high seas when his father dies in May.
Later he sues Captain Orrok of the Rose for keeping him confined in his cabin, as though he were mad! The Calcutta hearings of 1802 are held to establish the facts: their record, preserved at the National Archives (KB101/4/15), is the main source for the information given here.
Henry's subsequent marriage and voyage to Berbice (where he dies) suggest that his mental health does improve on his return to England.