Description

William Fraser (1784-1835) was a notable British civil servant.

He is mainly known for the "Fraser album", a series of paintings commissioned by top Delhi artists that depict North India and Indian life during his time. It is now scattered over a number of private and institutional collections.

After fighting them in the Nepal war, he was also the first to recruit Ghurka for the British army.

He was a very cultured man who set high standards for himself, as becomes obvious from a letter to his mother at age 25:

"To obtain a knowledge of this country, of eastern manners and literature, to acquire the distinguishing qualifications of an eastern Gentleman and national servant in India, that is to attain that knowledge which will best fit you for the discharge of any publick situation I would lead your attention to three branches of study; viz a scientific and grammatical knowledge of the eastern languages which I class thus as to utility, Arabic, Persian, Hindoostanee, Sanscrit, Bengalee, etc. A personal intercourse with natives of all denominations and castes, to acquire idiom, dialect, manner, local knowledge, knowledge of custom, character, prejudice, religion, internal arrangement, ancient hereditary habits and distinguishing characteristics. A constant conversation and intercourse with the most intelligent well informed respectable members of your Calcutta society, those who are remarkable as classical oriental scholars. Those of research ability, statistical and political knowledge. Those who are distinguished for the parts they have acted & the employment they hold. All such in the mixed and superb society of Calcutta you must constantly meet and if you like to become intimate and familiar with. Particularly if you impress in manner & wish an ardent desire to obtain a great celebrity or similar fame. In mentioning these three pursuits I include none of your original European persuits, studies or book amusements, which much ever hold their primitive value & situation of parallel utility." 1

 

When his brother James visited William's place in Delhi in March 1815 he noted:

"Certainly William's house is a curiosity. Tygers' skins, caps of Tyger's heads, saddle cloths of ditto, quantities of saddlery, matchlocks, bows and arrows, quivers, belts, armour, guncases. All his guns and swords had gone to Nahan for him being with the army. Persian books and curiosities of all sorts filled up the place. I shall certainly get hold of some of these things and convey them from India to Inverness" 2

 

In action

Apart from his cultural pursuits, he was fond of danger and often placed himself in the midst of it. If there was a war, he went and would often be in the leading charge. During a failed attack at a Nepalese fort in Kalanga, he got shot through the neck with an arrow. A few days later, in a letter to his brother, he wrote:

"I now write to you sitting up and quite well, all but a little stiffness in the neck. Fortunately my wound was from an arrow. It passed across my neck between the gullet and windpipe, avoiding on each side the arteries and large vessels. Had it been barbed as every other one was it must have cut the great arteries; but it was a smooth round point." 3

 

Assassination

William Fraser was ultimately assassinated in his house in Delhi in 1835 over a legal dispute with Shamsuddin Ahmed Khan, Nawab  (viceroy) of princely state Loharu. Shamsuddin's father Ahmad Baksh Khan was a close friend of William and had entrusted him with arbitrage between his sons over their inheritance. Shamsuddin, the eldest son, felt he was entitled to more and had William assassinated. He was shot from close range with a sawn-off carbine and died instantly.

His untimely death was quite a shock to the Delhi community, as he was well-loved by both the British and many locals from all walks of life.

 

Legacy

The Fraser album offers a unique glimpse into north Indian life and its frontiers. What was especially ground breaking for its time is that top artists were employed to portray ordinary people. Until then, only the wealthy would have been depicted. The Fraser album consists of over 90 paintings, done between 1815-1819. Some of the artists remain unknown, but we know that at least Ghulam Ali Khan, a famous Indian painted based in Delhi, was involved. They sometimes worked from sketches by James Fraser, William's brother.

The following painting is particularly valuable for students of the khukurī, the knife of Nepal. It was painted in 1815-1816.

Ghurkas Fraser album

"Eight Ghurkas" Haryana, circa 1815-1816.
25.4 x 40.4 cm. Private Collection.

 

The painting is inscribed with the names of the people depicted in Persian, transcribed by William Fraser who was adept in various of the local languages:

"Dhunneea, a Thappa of Ascham

Joogeea, a Thappa of Ascham, a petty Rajship West of Nepal

Beeroo, a goorung of Goorka. The only real Ghorka.

Poorun, cast Thappa Mugur, of Tunnoo.

Runbeer, a goorung, of Tunnoo rajship, subject to Nepal.

Muneea, Rana cast, of Caskee.

Seeoobur, a house servant of the Nepal Rajah, Country Caskee, subject to Nepal.

Ramchunder, cast goorung of the little Rajship Lumjoong, subject to West of Nepal - his vil Tarkar"


The painting is important because it is the first and one of the few historical depictions known of the so-called hanshee khukurī.

 

Hanshee khukuri

A hanshee khukurī of the same period, author's collection.

 

References
1. Mildred Archer and Toby Falk; India Revealed, the Art and Adventures of James and William Fraser 1801-35. Cassell, London, New York, Sydney.

2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

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All the designs being true inlay, with almost no losses.

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Peculiar shield with catching hook, used by the Santali people of Bengal.

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Signed: Ricky Milnes, India 44, Burma 44, Ramree 45.

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