On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott a rather interesting gift. In a bid to revive the long-forgotten legacy of John Lang, the first Australia-born novelist, Modi presented Abbott a commemorative photo collage of Lang’s distinct and important Indian connection.

Who was John Lang?

Born in 1816 in Parramatta, Sydney, Lang was a second-generation Australian. “His grandfather was an emancipated First Fleet convict of Jewish origin, transported essentially for stealing spoons. As for the young Lang, he was smart, audacious and a beneficiary of the colony’s efforts to transcend its convict beginnings," writes Rory Medcalf in his profile of John Lang, published in British magazine The Spectator in 2010. Mint spoke to Medcalf about Lang’s life in India. Click here for the podcast.

“Like his role model and sometime patron William Charles Wentworth, he saw journalism and the law as his roads to influence. Matriculating from Sydney’s first grammar school, where he excelled in Latin and Greek, he went on to law at Cambridge. Within months he was expelled for ‘Botany Bay tricks, not gentleman’s tricks’. His exploits included blasphemy, drunkenness, capping a college spire with a chamber pot, and—most unforgivably—appearing on stage."

Lang is best remembered in India for his career as a solicitor, more specifically, when he unsuccessfully defended the Rani of Jhansi in 1854 against the East India Company’s policy of land seizures under the infamous Doctrine of Lapse. Modi presented the original petition filed by Lang to Abbott.

About his early legal practice in India, Medcalf writes, “In 1851, he won a landmark case for Jottee Prasad, an Indian businessman contracted to provision British forces in the Sikh wars. When Prasad had tried to claim the fortune he was owed, the Company charged him with fraud. The wronged man turned to Lang.

“The Australian’s tenacious and flamboyant defence caught the Company off-guard. He dismembered the prosecution case, which his summing-up—described by a contemporary as ‘one of the most impudent perorations ever delivered before a British tribunal’—likened to the stench of a slaughtered pig. The corruption and illegality of the Company’s actions was made plain to the press and the public in India and Britain. The Company was compelled to honour its debts. Prasad was carried by a cheering Indian crowd from the Agra courthouse, and showered with gifts and wealth."

An Indophile in his own right, Lang, as Medcalf writes, was “a friend and student of India, its cultures and people, at a time when this was hardly a fashionable stance among white colonial gentlemen." He continues, “He stood out in British India by standing up for Indians—including one of the icons of the 1857 uprising, the warrior queen known as the Rani of Jhansi. He was a nuisance to the power of the day, the East India Company, whose rule he damned in print as ‘despotic and arbitrary’, and whose authority he shook in a historic courtroom victory. In all of this, there was something intrinsically Australian about Lang’s democratic, contrarian spirit."

Besides being a solicitor, Lang also practised journalism. He established a newspaper, The Mofussilite, at Meerut in 1845 and was considered among the earliest champions of a free press in India. The Mofussilite, Medcalf writes, “became an enduring vehicle for scandal, gossip and satire. Lang used it, along with a stint as an editor in London, to advocate equal employment rights for Indians as well as to expose the East India Company’s callous incompetence in the years leading up to the uprising of 1857."

Lang’s brand of journalism was critical of the Company, but “would never hesitate to make a stir when there was a promise of attention and circulation figures," writes Medcalf. He continues, “He craved an audience. He savoured a sensation. Like good journalists everywhere, he saw part of his calling as comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable."

Lang was never considered to be a literary genius. Medcalf describes him as “neither a great writer nor a bad one". Some of his best known works include “Too Clever by Half" and “Botany Bays", which have been reprinted multiple times since their publication. John Earnshaw, in a 1974 article published in the Australian Directory of Biography, writes, “Lang’s talent as a novelist was melodramatic and indifferent, except when he wrote of the scenes of his youth. To his later contemporaries he had, despite some human failings, a wide intellect, remarkable memory and sparkling wit."

In 1859, he published a book titled Wanderings in India, a copy of which can be found here for free. Lang was also a regular contributor to Charles Dickens’s magazine, Household Words.

Lang spent his last days in a place called Landour, located near Mussoorie, where he died of bronchitis at the age of 47. Lang is buried in the Camel’s Back Road Cemetery.

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