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A doomed love story

The anguished plea of a desperate wife and mother marks the culmination of a tumultuous love story that was ultimately scarred by the social attitudes to race and marriage in colonial India.

“Our beloved Kitty and Alexander thank God they are in good health and often hope to see their beloved father,” Eliza Kewark wrote to Theodore Forbes.

Theodore was a wealthy Scottish merchant who had made his fortune in India in the early 19th century.

Theodore arrived in India in 1809 as an employee of the East India Company looking for adventure and fortune. The 21-year-old merchant was posted to the port city of Surat, where he met Eliza through her brother-in-law, Aratoon Baldassier, who was acting as his agent.

Theodore described Eliza several times as a “girl”, suggesting that she may have been several years his junior. Eliza’s father was Jacob Kevork, or Hakob Kevokian, a very Armenian name, but there is no record of her mother. However, DNA test results show that she was Indian.

There had been a thriving Armenian trading community in Surat since the 17th century and there was some inter-marriage with the local population. When Theodore met Eliza it was common for British men to begin relationships with Indian women and to have children, even if they already had a family back in Britain.

Susan Harvard, who has been researching Eliza and Theodore’s relationship for almost 30 years, believes that the couple were married in the Armenian church in Surat in early 1812, shortly before he was posted to Mocha in current-day Yemen. However, it may not have been legally recognised. In his notebook, Theodore refers to Eliza as “the very pattern of what a wife ought to be” and in his letters addresses her as “My Dear Betsy”.

Their daughter Katherine (Kitty) Scott Forbes was born in Mocha in December 1812 and their son, Alexander, two years later. Eliza returned to Surat in 1815 and a second son, Fraser, was born in March 1817 but died aged six months.

Theodore had been offered a partnership in Forbes & Co, a trading company based in Bombay, where the senior partner was Sir Charles Forbes, a distant relative. But there had been a significant change in colonial society. An influx of British women to India had led to a change in social attitudes, with relationships with local women now considered inappropriate for the merchant class.

While Theodore worked in Bombay his wife, Kitty and Alexander were left in Surat.

In a series of pitiful letters, Eliza begged to be allowed to join her husband. In October 1817 she wrote of her hope that “Our Almighty may do so the lucky day as connect our eyes to eyes. Our children as they hope be make them love at your present will. I entreat you my dear sir you may call from hence as soon as possible. Then will be happy and save my life.”

The letters, which appear to have been written by a scribe in Surat, were signed “Mrs Forbes” followed by her title written in Armenian, presumably by herself. But in earlier letters she and Kitty both wrote in Hindi, suggesting a mixed heritage.

The following February she appealed for money for the family, describing Theodore’s “prosperous face with your merciful eyes” and how she prayed for “lucky day as we can meet to each another”. In a postscript she added: “Kitty and Alexander often ask after you their beloved Papa and I let you know they are in good health.” A week later she wrote again, seeking a reply to her letter.

In June 1818, Theodore’s friend Thomas Fraser wrote to him after visiting the family in Surat. “Kitty retains her good looks but the sooner you give the order about her departure to England the better as her complexion will soil in this detestable climate.”

So Theodore decided that his daughter, then 6, should be sent to his family home at Boyndlie, Aberdeenshire, where there would be less sun.

Eliza reluctantly accepted this plan but insisted that her faithful servant, Fazagool, accompany her daughter to Scotland. In another letter, she pleaded again to be allowed to rejoin her husband, writing: “My good sir, I pray you let me know by your leave I will bring my child to give in your hand by myself and after Kitty is dispatched to Europe then stay in Bombay or stay in Surat.”

It is Eliza’s final surviving letter to Theodore, so it is possible that the couple were reunited in Bombay. Kitty left for Scotland in August 1819 and Theodore decided to return to Britain the following year, but died aboard the Blenden Hall in September 1820.

In his will, written aboard the ship, he refers to Eliza as his “housekeeper” and leaves her a monthly allowance of just Rs 100 a month, less than half the sum she had been receiving. Theodore left Kitty, his “reputed natural daughter by Eliza Kewark”, Rs 50,000. His “reputed son” Alexander received Rs 20,000 and his father stated that he should remain in India.

Life for Kitty at Boyndile would have been very different from her home in Surat. Harvard said: “I don’t think her grandparents would have encouraged her to talk about her past because it could have given the impression that she was illegitimate and ‘coloured’.”

Mary Roach, the maternal aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales, agrees: “My mother appeared to have no knowledge of (Kitty’s Indian mother), so perhaps it was hidden.”

Kitty later married James Crombie, a member of the family that manufactured coats, and was a respected member of Scottish society.

Eliza was last heard of in 1834 when she wrote to Charles Forbes complaining that the annuity left by her “beloved master” had been halved. Charles Forbes forwarded her letter to her children but there is no record of a reply.

In a footnote to history, the current Earl Spencer, the brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, has named two of his daughters Eliza and Kitty.