On 22nd January 1838, Isabella Napier, wife of Col Johnstone Napier of the East India Company, left her home near St George’s Cathedral. After she, her youngest daughter and an ayah had got in to a hired coach, Veerasawmy, the coachman was instructed to drive to the Adyar residence of Edward Francis Elliot, Chief Magistrate and Superintendent of Police, Madras.
It was the culmination of a whirlwind romance or an adulterous liaison depending on which way you looked at it, lasting a couple of months. Mrs Napier chose to abandon the matrimony of 17 years and three older children to seek happiness elsewhere. Thereafter, Mrs Napier and Mr Elliot lived together much to the consternation of Col Napier and no doubt to the absolute delight of everyone else in Madras.
The cuckolded Col. Napier filed two suits on 31st January 1838. The first, admitted on the plea side of the Supreme Court of Madras, was on an act of trespass by Elliot, apart from ‘adulterous intercourse and criminal conversation’. The second, filed on the ecclesiastical side, was against Isabella, for divorce. Napier engaged the redoubtable George Norton on his behalf and the plaint filed is a classic. Isabella was referred to as ‘being of a lewd and vicious temper’ and as for Elliot, he was portrayed as one of ‘loose morals and profligate habits’ who had ‘carnal knowledge of her body’. There followed a brief trial in which some of the best-known names of Madras were called to give evidence. All of them professed being puzzled, for they had known the Napiers to be a very happy couple.
On 19th February, Elliot was ordered to pay Rs 25000 as damages to Napier. The divorce was pronounced on 5th April. The latter however needed ratification by a special Act of Parliament in London. This required a re-examination of all witnesses on oath in Madras, duly conducted in November 1838. By then Isabella had brought forth her next child and a new set of witnesses were the household servants, all quizzed on the sleeping arrangements at the Elliot residence. Veeratha Ayah, employed as Thanikachi (water bearer), Saugeevi (dresser boy), Guffoor Saib (butler) and Meerjaun (hookahburdar) shot briefly to fame.
The Act of Parliament was pronounced on 30th November 1838. Napier was free to remarry. Isabella was forbidden from marrying Elliot. But Elliot was a powerful man and his father, the Hon Hugh Elliot had once been Governor of Madras. The ban on matrimony was lifted and on 7th August 1839, Isabella and Elliot were married in Madras. Napier was in all likelihood not invited. The marriage was a success with two more children of which a son became Chief Justice of Baroda State.
Edward Elliot had a long and successful innings in Madras and when he retired to England, a road in Mylapore was named after him. Ironically, it was the same thoroughfare down which Isabella had fled. Today we know it as Radhakrishnan Salai.
This article appeared in The Hindu’s Hidden Histories column today