“Coffee and Pistols for Two”: The Decline of Dueling in the East India Company

Benjamin Matthew Secrist

In the armies of “John Company,” the duel survived as a recourse for zealous junior officers to resolve disputes and jealously protect their sense of honour.

By the mid-19th century, the practice of duelling was in decline in Britain and across Europe. Over four thousand miles away, this martial tradition continued in the Honourable East India Company. In the armies of “John Company,” the duel survived as a recourse for zealous junior officers to resolve disputes and jealously protect their sense of honour. While Company officers that sought satisfaction with a pistol frequently avoided military justice, the inexorable sentiment against duelling effectively ended the practice in India by 1851. As a distinct social class, officers in the armies of the Honourable East India Company were set apart from their counterparts in the more affluent British Army officer corps. The majority were the sons of civil servants, merchants, clergy, lawyers or other Company officers. British Army officers often described them as “ungentlemanly,” “vulgar,” or “cockney,” and “not so agreeable or polished.” Company officers were acutely aware of this social disparity and many attempted to imitate the manners and habits of British Army officers. The practice of duelling culture in their ranks can partially be viewed as a manifestation of this phenomenon.
“Coffee and Pistols for Two”: The Decline of Dueling in the East India Company
'Officers of the Bengal Light Cavalry', India, 1844

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“Coffee and Pistols for Two”: The Decline of Dueling in the East India Company
'The Morning after the Ball', India, 1845

For centuries, duelling existed primarily as an extrajudicial exercise of the aristocracy and so-called gentlemen.

For centuries, duelling existed primarily as an extrajudicial exercise of the aristocracy and so-called gentlemen. However, by the 19th century, a burgeoning and ambitious middle-class began to emulate some of the affectations of the patrician order. As duelling spread into the ranks of the Company’s decidedly middle-class officer corps, it was exacerbated by the climate of India, where gambling, drinking, and the obsession over honour occasionally drove men to violence. Extreme social pressure might also compel an otherwise reasonable officer to accept a challenge to duel. In 1850, Ensign George Huxham testified at his court martial that his fellow officers would not speak to him after he refused a duel, and branded him a coward. Huxham felt obliged to accept the duel to repair his reputation and impugned sense of honour. As it existed in the 19th century, the duel was an event of ritualised violence between two individuals, typically fought with pistols, to resolve a dispute. Reasons for instigating a duel varied, but commonly involved perceived insults, slights, injury, or affronts to one’s honour. While seemingly trivial by modern standards, such acts could be considered gravely serious offences by officers that fiercely guarded their reputations. Those that accepted a challenge did so often out of a perceived social obligation or because they feared being labelled a coward. A challenge could be delivered either verbally, or in a written format, both of which were common during this period. In the parlance of the period, the antagonists in a duel were referred to as the ‘principals.’ The primary arbiters of the duel were the appointed representatives of the principals, known as ‘seconds.’ The seconds were typically friends or confidants of the feuding parties, and they shouldered significant responsibilities during a duel. First, and foremost, the duty of the seconds was to attempt arbitration and prevent the duel from occurring. If they were unsuccessful, it was the task of the seconds to negotiate the terms of the duel, and ensure that it was conducted in a fair and honourable manner. They also were expected to guarantee a surgeon was available in the event of injury. When the terms of the duel were agreed upon, the principals and seconds typically met in secret, often during hours of darkness. This was ostensibly the final opportunity for the seconds to resolve the dispute before pistols were produced. Once ready, the two principals exchanged shots or discharged their pistols in the air to end the affair without bloodshed. In practice, duels between Company officers frequently deviated from this model, as heated emotions might hasten the encounter. If no one was wounded, duels between Company officers often concluded amicably. By this point in the evolution of the duel, the intent was ostensibly not to kill your opponent, but to face the danger, prove your own courage, defend your sense of honour, and achieve “satisfaction.” Therefore, once pistols were discharged, and the seconds agreed upon the conclusion of the affair, the two principals often considered the matter to be settled. Occasionally, emotion overwhelmed decorum. This was the case with Lieutenant Stephen Nation, who, in 1842, attempted to continue his duel with Lieutenant George Brook after it concluded, and hurled insults at his opponent when Brook refused to shoot again. Anti-dueling sentiment reached its zenith by the mid-nineteenth century. The Association for the Discouragement of Duelling provided a strong voice against the practice and Britain's anti-dueling laws were bolstered in 1844. Duels were expressly prohibited by Company regulations as well as the Articles of War. Even attempted acts of duelling were liable for prosecution in the Company, as was aiding or encouraging a duel. Indeed, some life insurance companies even refused to pay out policies for clients killed in a duel. In an infamous watershed example of Britain’s shifting stance against duelling, Lieutenant Colonel David Fawcett’s widow was denied his pension after he was killed in a duel in 1843. The attitude against these so-called “affairs of honour” saturated print media in India, where duelling was routinely denounced. However, it must be noted that during this period, literature remained available that supported, and even prescribed procedures to properly execute an encounter. Abraham Bosquett’s The Young Man of Honour’s Vade-Mecum provided the perspective of a purportedly experienced duellist that asserted the duel encouraged civility and gentility. Likewise, The British Code of the Duel presented an exhaustive defence of duelling, alongside a nuanced synopsis for conducting the affair. In 1833, the United Service Journal even published a lengthy article describing the duties and responsibilities of a second during a duel. As late as 1844, an article on the status of duelling in India suggested that the practice was not merely tolerated or ignored but often encouraged by young regimental officers as a method to police the behaviour of their peers. The strongest voices against duelling attempted to appeal to the Christian beliefs of their audience, arguing the practice was an affront to those principles. However, those that defended duelling generally conflated religious predilections with their own unique conceptions of honour and gentlemanly behaviours. Sidestepping the religious concerns of his audience, the author of The British Code of the Duel asserted that “humanity is identified with honour, and that the qualities of a true Christian, are the same as those essential to form the character of a gentleman.” This dichotomy between Christian virtue and the obligations of gentlemanly honour plagued duelling for the majority of its existence. A fanciful account titled Confessions of a Eurasian most adroitly encapsulated this duality. Published around 1832, this story followed the son of an East India Company officer who was encouraged to fight a duel by a character called Major Nettlehead. Our protagonist asks his compatriot; “would it not be more Christian-like to forgive him?” Major Nettlehead retorted, “More Christian-like, undoubtedly...but not quite so gentleman-like.”
Ancestry UK

The last significant duel between Company officers was a tragic farce.

The frequency and persistence of duelling in India during this period speaks to its resilience to external pressures. It is impossible to determine the true number of duels conducted in mid-19th century India, as most were never documented. The duel was often conducted in private to avoid arrest and prosecution, and fatalities were occasionally attributed to sudden illness. Tales of duels disturbing the early morning air with the crack of pistol fire paints a vivid picture of India, where young men exchanged shots while servants waited with fresh coffee. Duelling remained a constant presence in India during this period, as nearly every year between 1830-1851, at least one high-profile duelling incident became a focus and fascination of the Anglo-Indian press. By analysing eighteen distinct duelling incidents, we can develop a profile for an archetypal Company duel. The challenging officer was likely a Lieutenant, with an average of eleven years in service, and about half of instigators were senior in rank to the officer they challenged. Around two-thirds of duels in this study were the result of arguments that led to, or resulted from, an insult. The severity by which insults were perceived amongst Company officers cannot be understated. In 1831, Lieutenant James Rattray was killed by his friend Lieutenant William Miller when the latter jokingly insinuated that Rattray was neglecting his daily duties. A few years later, Lieutenant Arthur Davies lay dying from a bullet wound inflicted by Lieutenant Robert Joy, killed over an argument that ended with the words blackguard and coward. Despite strong public distaste for duelling, Company officers often escaped official punishment for participating in an “affair of honour.” Only about 57% of officers in this study faced a court-martial for their actions. Of those cases, two officers were incarcerated, one was demoted, and five were dismissed from Company service. As the duel was intrinsically a private affair, cases that went to trial were frequently dismissed for lack of evidence, or remitted by a higher authority. Younger officers were typically granted more leniency by the court, frequently judged to be lured into conflict through youthful inexperience and emotional immaturity. The last significant duel between Company officers was a tragic farce. In 1851, an argument led Lieutenant William Fraser to issue a challenge to Lieutenant Hugo James. With only one pistol, and a single bullet between them, the two flipped a coin to determine who would fire a live round, and who would fire a bent bottle cap. Fraser was shot in the leg, significantly wounded by his close friend and housemate. Neither were punished. Thus, the regretful and absurd history of duelling in the Honourable East Company came to an ignominious end, leaving a trail of dead officers and ‘satisfied’ honour in its wake.
“Coffee and Pistols for Two”: The Decline of Dueling in the East India Company
Madras infantry officer, 1840
“Coffee and Pistols for Two”: The Decline of Dueling in the East India Company

Benjamin Matthew Secrist

Benjamin Secrist received his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina - Pembroke, and his master’s degree from Norwich University. His primary research focus is the culture, education, and training of the officer corps of the British East India Company. Benjamin operates the Instagram account @BritishHistory365, where he posts about British history topics every day.
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