Posted on: 10 August 2015

Book review:
The Inordinately Strange Life of Dyce Sombre by Michael H Fisher.
By William Dalrymple
The Guardian - 2010

William Dalrymple marvels at the tragic and extraordinary life of Britain's first Anglo-Indian MP.

At around 4am on 21 September 1843, a man recently certified as a lunatic escaped from his Liverpool confinement, gave his keepers the slip and disappeared into the night. Undetected, he managed to catch an early-morning express train from Lime Street to London. There he jumped on to another express to Southampton, where he made his way on an overnight steam packet to Le Havre. Within 48 hours of his escape from Liverpool he reached Paris, and checked into one of the best hotels in town. Shortly afterwards, he began collecting doctors' certificates to show he was of completely sound mind. With these secured, he began legal proceedings to recover the vast fortune that had been sequestered from him when he was declared non compos mentis, or, in the popular parlance of the time, a "nincompoop".

The supposed lunatic was Colonel David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, a multilingual and culture-crossing young Indian prince – or "half-caste Croesus", according to the London Daily News – who had already suffered the indignity of having his rich kingdom north of Delhi confiscated on the most dubious grounds by the East India Company. His life was a compendium of contradictions: he was raised by a former Muslim courtesan but became a pious Roman Catholic; he ended his days as both a Knight Templar and a Knight of the Pontifical Order of Christ. Exiled to London, he was blackballed from gentlemen's clubs and reviled in the streets as "a black bugger", but succeeded in marrying a prominent viscount's daughter, and became the first Asian, and only the second non-white, to be elected to the mother of parliaments.

Yet just as it seemed he had succeeded in breaking through the ceiling of high Victorian racial prejudice, Dyce Sombre's election was annulled for corruption, his marriage fell apart and his wife's family had him declared insane and took control of his fortune. He never succeeded in regaining most of it, despite alleging, from his exile in Paris, that his unfaithful wife had bribed the doctors to have him locked up so that she could seize his money; he also published a 591-page book, Mr Dyce Sombre's Refutation of the Charge of Lunacy, which he circulated to anyone he thought could help.

He continued to litigate unsuccessfully for a further eight years in an attempt to get his fortune back, though his case was not helped by his increasingly eccentric and immoral behaviour, with a succession of prostitutes and a charge of exposing himself in public. He eventually died, dejected and alone, in a cheap hotel in London, having returned to the scene of his humiliations to try one last time to salvage his lost reputation. It was only after his death that Dyce Sombre's lawyers won a series of cases proving that he had indeed been unjustly treated, and restored to his executors much of his fortune.

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This article is courtesy of Ratnesh Mathur.


Very interesting. A perfect story for a movie

Hmmm - interesting ... Perhaps on account of these allegations of corruption that seem to have swirled around David Octerlony Dyce Sombre's very brief tenure in Parliament, he is very much a forgotten figure in British political history. Not a particluarly clever move to be caught accepting a bribe shortly after the introduction of the Reform Act in '32 ! The man who is usually thought of as Britain's first Indian MP is Dadabhai Naoroji -- elected at Finsbury (London) for the Liberal Party in 1892 . The margin of his victory was so tight that he was known subsequently in the House of Commons as Dadabhai ' Narrow-majority’. Soon thereafter, in 1895, Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownaggree was elected for the Conservative Party at Bethnal Green -- he was very much a ' yes man ' and a bit of a stuffed shirt , thus his own nickname -- Mancherjee Merwanjee ' Bow-and-Agree '.

Nic to know.

Actually, there is a famous play on the life of his mother, Begum Samru. In the 80s, I recall Naseeruddin Shah play a stage role in it too. Finally being turned into a movie too. Look out for biopic on Begum Samru. Dyce Sombre features in it. ( )

Many books & plays on the life of Dyce Sombre's mother, Begum Samru. A biopic is slated to be released later, this year too. Historian John Keay's late wife, Julia Keay wrote her last book on the begum. Good read. ( )

Thanks mathurji for informing


Thanks for sharing good information