Family History is a subject which can take you to all sorts of unexpected places that you cannot imagine. From one parent, or one grandparent, you can travel on a journey half way across the world to find your ancestors. One such family, from which I am descended are the da Costa family. The da Costa family, though originally from Spain, settled in India and worked in the service of the East India Company and later the British Civil Service. Though Roman Catholic and originating in Europe, the da Costas seamlessly fitted into the world of the British Raji. They worked within the civil service, sent their children to public schools in Britain and India and were, as far as one could tell, the height of respectability. Or so it seemed.
Researching the da Costa family lead me to discover my five times great uncle, Ephraim da Costa. Ephraim, like his brothers Samuel and Joseph, worked in the service of the East India Company as lawyers and judges. In India, any legal matters that involved locals or Europeans were dealt with by the administrative courts – also known as Zillah Courts. As a rule, for most of the 19th century, the British didn’t like to engage too much with the squalid goings on of the subjects of their empire and so left it up to people like the da Costas to judge and preside over the peoples’ disputes. This isn’t to say the Zillah Courts were unimportant – for local Indians they were their easiest means of settling a disagreement. For the British, they were seen as necessary but ultimately unimportant.
Ephraim da Costa seemed at first to be like his brothers – an upstanding member of society who had an uneventful life. The only great upset that seemed to have occurred was when his house nearly fell down as a result of the great Nepal Earthquake of 1836. However, things began to become interesting when I found his wife and children on the 1871 UK census in Paddington. Ephraim’s wife was Elizabeth Boilard; she came from a respected French Catholic family. The Boilards and the da Costas were close; Elizabeth’s sister Emilia married Ephraim’s brother, Samuel and members of the both families would often pop up as witnesses to the other family’s weddings. Yet here was Elizabeth and her children, thousands of miles away from her husband? Initially, I thought perhaps the move might have been because of Ephraim’s death. Ephraim had indeed died in 1871 but not when the census was taken; the date on which the census was taken was the 21st of April 1871 whilst Ephraim died in June of that year. Why then were the family separated? Was their eldest daughter Cordelia trying to recover from the death of her husband Thomas four years earlier? If this was the case, why was Ephraim not with the family? And why had they decided to go thousands of miles away shortly before Ephraim’s death? It truly was a family history mystery.
For two years it remained a mystery. Then, out of the blue, I was contacted by a book dealer in Brighton. He had found a book called The Family Journal of the da Costa family, written by Ephraim’s nephew, my ancestor, Samuel da Costa. The book contained a detailed and scandalous account of the da Costa family. After some correspondence with the owner, I was able to purchase the book. Upon receiving it I managed to piece together what had exactly happened with Ephraim.
Samuel begins his account of his uncle by stating the facts to his life and how he had been an upstanding member of society, who he married, the names of his children and his career. Samuel then moved on to, in his words “the downfall of his spirit.” Ominous words which lead up to a startling revelation.
It soon became clear that the reason Elizabeth and her children had left India for London was because they had discovered a secret that had forced them to flee their home. It was that Ephraim, respected judge and supposedly a devout Roman Catholic, had a mistress! The revelation was shocking to begin with, but the shocks did not end there. It turned out that Ephraim had three children by his mistress, whom he had set up running a boarding house in Calcutta. Ephraim, it seemed would regularly “go and visit this lady” telling his wife he was doing official business.
After Elizabeth’s departure, Ephraim began to make plans for his retirement. By this time Ephraim was in his mid-60s and seemed to intend to settle with his mistress, now that his wife and children had deserted him. Deciding it would be better to settle with his mistress in Calcutta rather than attempt to explain his wife’s absence to his neighbours, Ephraim sent for an assortment of his valuables that had been at his boarding house. When he received the boxes that should have contained his valuables he found that they had been all taken. In a scene reminiscent of Dickens and witnessed by Samuel himself, Ephraim slapped his hand across his face and cried out in anguish “I am undone! This wretched woman has undone me!”
With some hesitation, Samuel decided to allow his broken uncle to stay with him. Though a strictly religious man who saw Ephraim’s deeds as “foul profanity” and “ungodly”, Samuel clearly felt that family was family; his father had died relatively young and Ephraim was someone whom he had known since childhood. Ephraim was, however, not a well man. Whether it was a result of his activities as a judge or because the two women in his life had left him, Ephraim soon became ill. It was apparent that he was on his death bed. Realising that unless he had his last rights, Samuel attempted to find a priest who would give them to Ephraim. Unfortunately, none of the many local Roman Catholic priests would agree to give Ephraim the last rites – the news of his wife’s departure and the flight of his mistress had been spread far and wide. Eventually, Samuel was able to obtain the services of a Bengali priest of dubious qualification. So dubious was his claim to be a Roman Catholic priest that Samuel ended up describing how he had to constantly correct the “ignorant man” whilst his uncle lay dying!
Ephraim’s life was one of contradictions and tragedy. Whilst he strove to be the model of respectability, he carried on a double life than eventually caused him to die without his wife or children whilst his nephew and a Bengali priest argued over his body. Perhaps if he attempted to live up more to the responsibility of his position he may have had a happier life and a happier end? We can never know.
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