Hastings, ever the gentleman, decided to let Francis fire first

Tuesday, April 4th, 2023

Philip Francis was wrongly convinced that Warren Hastings was responsible for all the corruption in Bengal, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), and challenged him to a duel:

The two duellists, accompanied by their seconds, met at 5.30 on the morning of 17 August at a clump of trees on the western edge of Belvedere, a former summer house of Mir Jafar, which had since been bought by Warren Hastings.

Hastings had hardly slept. He spent much of the night composing a farewell letter to his beloved wife Marian, to be delivered in the event of his death. It began: ‘My heart bleeds to think what your sufferings and feelings must be, if ever this letter be delivered into your hands … I shall leave nothing which I regret to lose but you. How much I have loved you, and how much, beyond all that life can yield, I still love you, He only knows. Do not, my Marian, forget me. Adieu, most beloved of women. My last thoughts will be employed on you. Remember and love me. Once more farewell.’


It was at this point that it became clear, as Pearse noted, ‘that both gentlemen were unacquainted with the modes usually observed on these occasions’; indeed, neither of the two most powerful British intellectuals in Bengal seemed entirely clear how to operate their pistols. Francis said he had never fired one in his life, and Hastings said he could only remember doing so once. So both had to have their weapons loaded for them by their seconds who, being military men, knew how to operate firearms.

Hastings, ever the gentleman, decided to let Francis fire first. Francis took aim and squeezed the trigger. The hammer snapped, but the pistol misfired. Again, Francis’s second had to intervene, putting fresh priming in the pistol and chapping the flints. ‘We returned to our stations,’ wrote Hastings. ‘I still proposed to receive the first fire, but Mr F twice aimed, and twice withdrew his pistol.’ Finally, Francis again ‘drew his trigger,’ wrote Pearse, ‘but his powder being damp, the pistol again did not fire. Mr Hastings came down from his present, to give Mr Francis time to rectify his priming, and this was done out of a cartridge with which I supplied him finding they had no spare powder. Again the gentlemen took their stands and both presented together.’

‘I now judged that I might seriously take my aim at him,’ wrote Hastings. ‘I did so and when I thought I had fixed the true direction, I fired.’

His pistol went off at the same time, and so near the same instant that I am not certain which was first, but believe mine was, and that his followed in the instant. He staggered immediately, his face expressed a sensation of being struck, and his limbs shortly but gradually went under him, and he fell saying, but not loudly, ‘I am dead.’


They found the wound not dangerous, having entered the side before the seam of the waistcoat a little below the shoulder, and passing through both muscles and within the skin which covers the backbone, was lodged within visible distance of the skin in the opposite side.


The doctor later reported that Hastings’ musket ball ‘pierced the right side of Mr Francis, but was prevented by a rib, which turned the ball, from entering the thorax. It went obliquely upwards, passed the backbone without injuring it, and was extracted about an inch to the left side of it. The wound is of no consequence and he is in no danger.’


  1. Lu An Li says:

    I believe the last duel in the classical manner occurred in Paris in the 1950′s. Two male ballet dancers got into an argument about how a dance routine was to be done. The argument became so heated they decided to end the discord with a sword duel. The two met in park in Paris, complete with seconds, swords, the whole business. The two dancers began their duel swinging their weapons until one man slashed the hand of the other, causing a slight flow of blood. Decided there and then that honor had been satisfied, the two then embraced and cried.

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