Death by poison

When British women followed their brothers out to India in the eighteenth century, they were expected to find husbands, preferably well paid officers or officials.  If they failed, they were sent home with a reputation as a failure.  So when 18-year-old Elizabeth Cotgrave from Chester turned up in Chennai in 1772, the pressure was on.  Her brother John was a Captain in the army and introduced her to his friends, and luckily for Elizabeth, one of them turned out to a be a relative of the Earl of Llandaff, a young officer called Captain Richard Mathews.

But Mathews turned out not to be so lucky.  130 years later, his descendants believed that he had died in the Black Hole of Calcutta, an infamous event in which an unknown number of British soldiers had died after being crammed into a tiny airless space by the Indians whose country they were trying to take over.

But the Black Hole took place in 1756, when Richard Mathews was a child, so he cannot have died there.  The truth was, if anything, even more gruesome.

Mathews rose through the ranks rapidly, so that by the time Elizabeth’s brother John died at the battle of Cuddalore in 1783 as a Major, his brother in law was already a General, and Commander in Chief of the British East India Company’s land forces.  No doubt his aristocratic connections helped.

When his forces were defeated and captured by Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, everyone expected that General Mathews would be treated according to his rank.  Incarcerated as a prisoner of war maybe, but properly housed and allowed his servants and privileges.  But Mathews was separated from his men, had all his possessions confiscated, was thrown into a ‘filthy dungeon’ and chained in irons.  He suspected his meals were poisoned, so he refused to eat, and some of his gaolers took pity on him and gave him scraps of their own food.  Eventually, the man in overall charge of the prison was told that if he continued to allow the General to live, he would himself pay with his own life.  So he stopped the untainted supplies from reaching Mathews.  Forced to choose between starvation and poisoning, Mathews ate one last meal and drank “to quench the rage of inflamed thirst” and six hours later, on 7 August 1783, was found dead.

Family notes made by Henry V Hewitt, 1907
British Library: IOR/N/2/1
James, L. (1997) Raj: the making an unmaking of British India, p.222.
Hill, S.C. (1902) List of Europeans and others in the English Factories at Bengal at the time of the siege of Calcutta in the year 1756, Calcutta, pp.2-6.
Thomson, W. (1788) Memoirs of the late war in Asia, with a narrative of the imprisonment and sufferings of our officers and soldiers, London, Volume 2, pp141-3.
National Archives: PROB11/1134; PROB11/1158; PROB11/1156.
Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, 1904.
Particulars of Mr Burdon’s interest in the property of the late General Richard Mathews, Newcastle, 1809, Tracts and Pamphlets of the Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle upon Tyne, p.10.
Gloucestershire Record Office: D637/IV/9
Hodson, V.C.P (1946) List of the Officers of the Bengal Army 1758-1834, Part 3, (Phillimore, London), p.254.

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