Love In The Time Of The Empire
Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana was the toast of London town. A prince from the Orient captured the popular imagination of Victorian England. A newspaper account of the period describes him as athletic, dark and handsome; bedecked in fine pearls and sparkling jewels like most Oriental despots. Jung had good reasons to be no less: he had taken state power in Nepal during the Kot Massacre of 1846, survived the Bhandarkhal plot aimed at destroying him a year later and was now, in 1850, the first prince from the South Asian Sub-continent to be invited at the court of Queen Victoria.
Both aristocracy and nobility vied with one another to give him the most opulent reception possible. On a particular mid-June evening when London warms up to fleeting summer solstice, Jung was preparing himself for yet another party. Staying at Richmond Terrace, just a stone's throw away from Buckingham Palace, Jung had easy access to the drawing rooms of the rich and famous. He was already getting bored by the attention lavished on him. He was a man of action and his one goal was still unrealized which made him restless: his eagerly awaited audience with Queen Victoria who was resting after giving birth to a son, Arthur William Patrick, later to become the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn.
Jung was also missing his two wives. The journey from Nepal to England was physically arduous for the mountain prince having to navigate many days and nights the treacherous seas and mentally strenuous as the trip was heretical from a religious point of view. For high caste, Hindus crossing the ocean meant denigrating one's status in society. Jung had taken with him huge casks full of holy water from the Ganges River for daily ablutions to expunge his sins. Jung took a quick shower and sprinkled himself with the water from the Ganges. He dressed in Oriental splendour: the chestful of military decorations, the bejewelled sword, the baju armband containing holy mantra prayers from the Veda and the sarpanch, the headgear adorned with expensive pearls and diamonds.
A six-horse carriage was waiting for him. He drove with his entourage consisting of his two younger brothers Jagat Shumsher and Dhir Shumsher, his personal attendants and a retinue of bodyguards to London Tavern for a banquet hosted by the Court of Directors of East India Company. He wanted to quickly end the formalities and return home as early as possible. The hosts introduced Jung to yet another adoring group of London high society. The Kingdom of Nepaul was a friend of Great Britain and the supplier of the hardy Gurkha soldiers the Raj relied upon in those turbulent days of anarchy and mutiny in India. Jung expertly worked the crowd; slightly bowing to a Lord here, tipping his crown to a Lady there. He suddenly stopped. His sixth sense told him he was being closely watched and he turned around slowly to see the loveliest pair of big blue eyes he had ever beholden. Jung was bewitched. The host introduced Jung to the most arrestingly beautiful woman he had laid his eyes upon. She had long, flowing golden locks and strawberry complexion. Her name was Laura Bell.
A scandalous love affair ensued that would have far-reaching consequences for Nepal-Britain relations and Jung's own political future back home. Jung Bahadur was captivated by the youthful Irish lass, barely out of her teens but she was a courtesan of first order. Laura in turn was smitten by the aura of Oriental opulence and power personified by Jung Bahadur Rana. British India had lavished on his visit vast sums of money which he in turn now lavished upon Laura. Jung put her up in a fitting residence at Wilton Crescent in the very heart of Belgravia. It is documented that Jung spent £ 250,000.00 on his demimonde the sum of which was later underwritten by Governor General Lord Canning as a sign of further goodwill.
Jung spent his days in Britain reviewing march-pasts, inspecting armouries, visiting factories and getting a close glimpse of the masters of India he so admired. He knew that to preserve Nepal's sovereignty an alliance with Britain was not only necessary but absolutely essential; he had first-hand experience of the travails of his maternal grand uncle Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa after the Anglo-Nepalese War was terminated by the humiliating Treaty of Sugauly in 1816. Jung now had another reason to stay longer in England, his paramour Laura Bell.
Jung Bahadur stayed a total of three months in England, mostly in London but also visited Coventry and Edinburgh. All the while his fondness for Laura Bell grew and he lavished one expensive gift after another on her. As the date of departure drew near Jung expressed his desire to stay longer in England but his brothers were successful in persuading him to return to Nepal fearing a political accident back home as Jung had many enemies at the Nepalese court. Leaving Laura Bell behind was heartbreaking. It is said that Jung's parting gift was an expensive diamond ring with a promise to fulfill her every wish.
As future events unfolded the political opponents of Jung Bahadur had sprung a trap for him upon his return and one of the accusations made against him was his love affair outside his caste. Jung evaded the trap once again and became even more powerful following his visit to Britain. He was awarded the title of Maharajah of Kaski and Lamjung by the king. Years later it is said that Laura Bell sent a written request to Jung Bahadur through the British Resident Colonel George Ramsay begging him to come to the rescue of the British during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Accompanying the letter was the very ring Jung Bahadur had once gifted her as a sign of his love. The Nepalese court was divided over whether to help the British or stay neutral. But he could not deny the final request of his paramour. Jung personally led his troops to the gates of Lucknow. A few years after Jung Bahadur left England Laura Bell married a British socialite and settled down. Later she became close to Prime Minister Gladstone in a relationship historians are still trying to decipher. She was eternally working the corridors of power, a true courtesan to the last.