Chowkidar Spring 2021 Preview

The continuing travel restrictions mean there are few visitors’ reports of cemeteries in South Asia and publishers are holding back on books, so Chowkidar has a slightly different content, but our regular features remain, including the lead article on hot air balloons in Burma and Bengal and the unhappy fate of two foreign balloonists there. The second and final selection of books that have influenced BACSA authors is published under the title A good ‘Oriental’ read with contributions from Sir David Gilmour and Dr Anna Dallapiccola among others. Our Area Representative Syed Faizan Raza has contributed an interesting piece on various grave sites in India, including the old British cemetery at Gurgaon, which will come as a surprise to anyone familiar with this modern concrete jungle near Delhi. But it was once a cavalry cantonment and the cemetery contains what may be an unique iron tombstone to Kathleen Isabel Chill, who died 23 April 1878 aged twenty-four years old. Other Chowkidar features include a short article on Ong Tong Burnett, the young Chinese man who emigrated to Scotland in 1769 and whose gravestone has been discovered in the Ellon churchyard in Aberdeenshire. There is also a poignant contribution from Tim Willasey-Wilsey about the decaying mass grave of British soldiers at Chillianwala, now in Pakistan, dating from a battle fought on 13 January 1849 during the second Anglo-Sikh war.


‘Colonel Percy Wyndham died in a balloon accident in 1879 in Burma’ was the intriguing headline of an email recently sent to BACSA from an American correspondent. Mr Frank Jastrzembski told us that he wants to make sure ‘the Colonel is honoured for his service, especially during the American Civil War’. So we asked what the British-born officer was doing in America, and how he came to drown in Rangoon’s Royal Lake? Clearly a colourful character, with a magnificent moustache to match, as his photographs show, Chowkidar began to unpick the Colonel’s story and to look at his unusual career.

Born at sea in 1833, Percy claimed to be the son of Colonel Charles Wyndham, a British soldier who had been ADC to the Duke of Wellington. Young Percy further claimed to have supported French students during the Year of Revolutions in 1848 and then gone on to serve as a cavalry officer in the Austrian Army before travelling to Italy to join Garibaldi. By his own account he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was knighted by king Victor Emmanuel which, he said, entitled him to use ‘Sir’ before his name. In 1861 Percy got leave to travel to America where he offered his military expertise to Union forces during the Civil War. He was captured by Confederates the following year but quickly released in a prisoner exchange. He commanded the 1st New Jersey Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of Thoroughfare Gap and on 9 June 1863 he was wounded at the Battle of Brandy Station. Evacuated to Washington DC it was here that he met his namesake, the English politician Percy Wyndham, who accused the Colonel of being a fraud, an allegation which was not refuted.

Wyndham returned to Italy at the end of the Civil War to complete his military service before setting up a number of business ventures, all of which failed. He then travelled to India, and after selling his military medals to raise cash, established himself in Calcutta in several eclectic roles. He became an opera impresario (there was an Opera House in Lindsey Street), returning to Italy to negotiate with the singers and he also founded the Indian Charivari in 1872, a satirical magazine based on the English Punch. After apparently falling out with Sir Richard Temple, lieutenant governor of the Bengal Presidency, Wyndham travelled to Burma where he offered his services to King Mindon. At the same time he began building hot air balloons and announced he would make an ascent on 25 January 1879 at 5.00 pm from Rangoon’s public park, next to the Royal Lake. An estimated 15,000 Burmese crowded into the park, many of whom paid for a grandstand view.

The balloon rose successfully and drifted westward, but then, according to an eyewitness, ‘a rent occurred in the cloth, and it was seen to be descending at first slowly, but as it neared the earth, with frightful rapidity; it fell into the Royal Lake only a few hundred yards from where the ascent took place…’ Taken unconscious from the water, Percy Wyndham could not be resuscitated. He was buried on 9 February in the Rangoon Town cemetery at Pazandaung. As BACSA’s Burma Register noted, the better-known Rangoon Cantonment cemetery was completely cleared in 1991, but perhaps the Town cemetery, in a less prominent location, still exists? Any news of it would be welcome, particularly by Mr Jastrzembski.

Although Colonel Wyndham’s later life, certainly in the USA, India and Burma is well documented, it is clear that questions remain. Why, for example, would a retired soldier and failed business man, educated only up to the age of fifteen, want to set up a satirical magazine? But perhaps the biggest mystery of all is why no-one has chosen to write a biography of this extraordinary man.

Thirteen years after Wyndham’s death, an American balloonist plunged to earth in Dacca. She was the exotically named Jeanette Van Tassel and had been invited by the Nawab of Dacca, Sir Khwaja Ahsanullah, to perform in front of the Ahsan Manzil palace on the bank of the Buriganga river that runs through the city. (The event had been noted briefly in Chowkidar in 1983, but we have more details today.) On 16 March 1892 a huge crowd gathered, some in boats, while the Nawab and various dignitaries watched from the palace gardens. All seemed to go well at first – the hot air balloon, inflated by a fire of burning wood, rose into the air, and flew over the palace, swept by a strong current of air. Then smoke was seen and it was clear something was wrong. The balloon, falling to earth over the nearby Ramna park, became enmeshed in a tall tree, though Jeanette seems to have survived the crash. It was as she was being helped down a bamboo pole or ladder that tragedy happened. The bamboo snapped and Jeanette plunged to the ground, fatally injuring herself. She died in hospital two days later. Her husband, Park Van Tassel, himself an experienced balloonist, seems to have accompanied his wife to Dacca, and arranged for her burial in the old Narinda cemetery there. But BACSA’s Area representative for Bangladesh, Mr Waqar Khan tells us that extensive research in the 1990s failed to find her grave.

The short-lived balloon craze lasted for a couple of years in the 1780s, inspired by the Montgolfier brothers’ experimental flights in France. The first unmanned balloon in India was launched from the Esplanade in Calcutta in July 1785 and Colonel Claude Martin, visiting from Lucknow, quickly built his own balloons using silk fabric over a bamboo frame, sealed with gum arabic. Colonel Wyndham’s balloon was made of longcloth, a cotton fabric produced in India, covered with petroleum and varnish. The challenge of producing an air-tight balloon that would not catch fire is met today with nylon and heat resistant fabrics but one has to admire these early aeronauts who supervised the manufacture of their own balloons and met untimely deaths in the East.

Chowkidar Spring 2020 Preview image
Narinda Cemetery, Dacca, where Jeanette Van Tassel was buried in 1892