Many of my distant relatives were soldiers. One was my first cousin five times removed Lieutenant General George Byres Mainwaring, eighth of the fourteen children of George Mainwaring and Isabella née Byres. He was born on 18 July 1825 and baptised on 21 October 1825 in Banda, Bengal, India. (Three more soldiers were his older brothers, General Rowland Rees Mainwaring, Captain Norman Mainwaring, and a younger brother, Cornet Charles Mainwaring.)

George’s mother Isabella was the illegitimate daughter of Lieutenant-General Patrick Byers of the East India Company’s Infantry, who in 1817 inherited a family estate at Tonley, near Tough, 20 miles west of Aberdeen. Isabella was probably Anglo-Indian, with an Indian mother.

George attended school at Mr Tulloch’s Academy, Aberdeen, not far from the residence of his maternal grandfather Patrick Byers, who took an interest in his grandsons. George was later taught Classics and mathematics at the school of Messrs Stoton and Mayor in Wimbledon, London.

At the age of seventeen, Mainwaring was commissioned into the 16th Bengal Native Infantry regiment, probably through the influence of his grandfather Byers. On 8 January 1842 he sailed for India.

In 1843 Mainwaring fought in the Battle of Maharajpur in the Gwalior campaign, and was awarded the ‘Gwalior Campaign Bronze Star’. He took part in the Sutlej campaign of 1845-46, including the battles of Moodkee, Ferozeshah, and Sobraon. He was awarded the ‘Sutlej Campaign Medal’ and two clasps in 1846.

Death of Major-General Churchill at the battle of Maharajpore. 1844 lithograph from Wikimedia Commons.

In 1854 Mainwaring returned to England. A considerable linguist, fluent in both Hindi and Urdu, he returned to India in 1857 at the time of the Mutiny to serve as an interpreter. He was posted first to Cawnpore (where his brother Charles had been murdered), and later transferred to the Punjab region.

In August 1860 at Chini [Kalpa] in the Valley of the Sutlej River, 125 miles (200km) north-east of Simla, Captain Mainwaring encountered the war-correspondent and artist William Simpson.

Simpson describes his their meeting:

A few days before our departure from Chini a Captain Mainwaring arrived from Simla. Mainwaring had travelled among the Lepchas in the Darjeeling district, and he told me a great deal about that race. The noted peculiarity of this man might be expressed by saying that he was a serpentphil. He seldom went out but he brought back a serpent in his hands, "all alive 0!" He stroked them, expressed his admiration for their great beauty, and wondered how any one could kill such lovely things. He seemed to have acquired some manner of handling the serpents, and whether they were poisonous or not appeared to make no difference to him. Somehow he had the power of a serpent-charmer. We learned afterwards that at some station where he had been quartered he collected some hundreds of serpents, and when a change of quarters took place he could not carry off his pets, nor would he kill them ; they were all set free in his garden, to the horror and fright of every one at the station, particularly of the ladies.

We had now been over two months at Chini, and on the 28th of August we began our march back to Simla. Mainwaring accompanied us.

George Mainwaring, it seems, had earlier been posted to Darjeeling and had travelled widely in Sikkim. For a while he lived with the Lepcha ethnic group of the Lebong area near Darjeeling, before moving to to a village called Polungdong (present day Phalut). Lebong is a valley about 1,000 feet below Darjeeling, a few miles to the north. Phalut is 50 miles north-west of Darjeeling in very remote country.

Lepcha is spoken in Sikkim and the Darjeeling area of West Bengal. In his travels Mainwaring became acquainted with the language, and 1876 published a Lepcha grammar. He had great affection for the Lepchas and their language. ‘Lepcha’, he said, ‘was the language spoken in the Garden of Eden’. Mainwaring also compiled a dictionary of Lepcha, published posthumously.

Phalut, with Mt Kangchenjunga at background Photographed by user Rkb95 2017 Image from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0
A view of the Himalayan peaks of (from the left) Mt.Lhotse, Mt.Everest, Mt.Makalu and Mt.Chomolonzo from Phalut in West Bengal, India. Photographed by user Shilbhadra in 2011. Image from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0
Lepcha man and woman from Dalton’s “Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal,” 1872. Image from Wikimedia Commons
Mainwaring’s Lepcha grammar can be read through GoogleBooks

Mainwaring spent over 30 years among the Lepcha. He has been described as “Lepcha Mad”:

Mainwaring’s involvement with the Lepcha people was not confined to their grammar and dictionary only for he actually lived like a Lepcha and one could almost claim that he thought like a Lepcha. He opened up a Lepcha school at Lebong and has been credited for buying a hundred acres of land for a collective farm for the Lepchas. He dressed in the Lepcha costume and even while attending official matters in Darjeeling he would not shed the Lepcha dress.

In the forward to his 1876 Lepcha grammar Mainwaring wrote that:

“Of the language I cannot speak too highly. The simple and primitive state in which the Lepchas lived is admirably shown by it. It has no primary word (beyond the words for gold and silver) to express money, merchants or merchandise, fairs or markets. Their peaceful and gentle character is evinced by their numerous terms and tenderness and compassion, and by the fact that not one word of abuse exists in their language. Nevertheless the language itself is most copious, abounding in synonyms and possessing words to express every slightest change, every varying shade of meaning, it admits of flow and power of speech which is wonderful, and which renders it capable of giving expression to the highest degree of eloquence. The language also arrests the astonishing knowledge possessed by the Lepchas. I shall here again make an extract from the letter before quoted:- “Of all the almost inconceivable diversity of trees with which the hills are covered ; of all the almost incalculable variety of plants and flowers with which the forests are filled ; the Lepchas can tell you the names of all, they can distinguish at a glance the difference in the species of each genus of plants, which would require the skill of a practiced botanist to perceive ; and this information and nomenclature extends to beasts, to birds, to insects, and to everything around them, animate and inanimate ; without instruction, they seem to acquire their knowledge by intuition alone. The trees and the flowers, and the birds, and the insects have therefore been their friends and companions. But now, this simple knowledge, this beautiful language, this once happy people are fast dying out. The Lepchas have left their woods and innocence and have fallen into sin and misery, and is there no one that will help them, no one that will save?

Mainwaring’s army career continued alongside his involvement with the Lepchas and their language and customs. In 1862 he was promoted to captain, and in 1867 to major with the Bengal Staff Corps. His promotion continued and he reached Lieutenant General on 1 January 1887.

He died on 16 January 1893 at Serampore, near Calcutta. He is buried in the Danish cemetery, Serampore.The gravestone reads:

60 Grenadiers.
Born 18th July 1824
died 16th January 1893.

Obituary in the ‘Englishman’s Overland Mail‘ (Calcutta, West Bengal) 25 January 1893:

On the 16th instant, General G.B. Mainwaring, of the Indian Staff Corps, died at Serampur, where he had lived for many years. On the military authoriteis at Barrackpur being made aware of hte fact, they ordered a public funeral, which took place on Tuesday afternoon. The Commanding Officer at Barrackpur, Lieutenant-Colonel J.D. Douglas, and a number of other officers were present, and the body was conveyed to the grave by Artillerymen. A Battery of Artillery stationed at Flagstaff Ghat, on the Barrackpur side of the river, fired the regulation number of minute guns as the funeral procession set forth. General Mainwaring, whose first commission was in the 16th Native Infantry, was present at the battle of Maharajpur, in the Gwalior campaign. He went through both the Punjab campaigns, and was also on service during the Mutiny. General Mainwaring was a student of Eastern languages, and had published a Lepcha Grammar. For some years he had been employed in preparing a dictionary of the same language. He claimed to have made some remarkable discoveries with regard to the origin of language, or what he called the "powers of letters," and he is supposed to have left some writings on the subject.

Obituary in the Madras Weekly Mail 2 February 1893:

General Mainwaring. 
The death of General G. B. Mainwaring, of the Staff Corps, says the Pioneer, carried off one of the few living students of the little known language of the Lepchas of the Darjeeling hills, For many years of his service General Mainwaring was on "general duty" at Darjeeling, engaged in the work of preparing a Grammar and Dictionary of the Lepcha language. The Grammar he lived to complete, and it was published by the Bengal Government some years ago. The body of the work is admirable, and it remains, and is likely to remain, the standard authority on the obscure language of a tribe which is rapidly dying out. For the Dictionary the General collected and collated very ample materials ; but towards the end of his life his health was weak, and he could not bring himself to face the task of carrying the work through the press. It will not, however, be lost to the scientific world. Some months before the General's death the Bengal Government had entrusted the task of bringing out the Dictionary to Dr. Adolf Grünwedel, Director of the Indian Section of the Museum of Ethnography in Berlin, a well known authority on Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Lepcha, who has already published a small glossary of the latter tongue. The fact that the work is in Dr. Grünwedel's hands is a guarantee that it will be a worthy monument of the labours of General Mainwaring, and of the German savant who has succeeded to the fruits of so many years' toil. 

Obituary in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette 26 January 1893:

The late Lieutenant-General G.B. Mainwaring, of the Indian Army, whose death is announced this week, was a cousin of our fellow citizen, Lieutenant-General R.Q. Mainwaring. He was born in India and nearly the whole of a useful life was spent among the natives of our great dependency. For many years he dwelt among the hills in West Calcutta, and became so conversant with the language of the Lepcha tribe that by direction of the Government he prepared and wrote a Lepcha dictionary. He rarely visited England, but once when he went to Reading to see a sister, an amusing incident occurred. He left a hamper in the cloakroom at the railway station and told the porter in charge of heard anything moving, to pour a little warm water on the basket. When he returned, and inquired after his deposit, he found the official, having detected mysterious movements in the hamper, had deluged it with boiling water and administered an effective quietus to a rare and valuable snake. The deceased, who was in his 68th year, entered the army in 1842, and was placed in the Indian supernumerary list in 1884. He served with distinction in the Punjab and Indian Mutiny Campaigns.

The Danish cemetery is heritage listed by the West Bengal Heritage Commission. The listing of the cemetery in the Hooghly district mentions General Mainwaring, author of Lepcha language dictionary, who died at Srirampur.

It has been suggested that Mainwaring’s studies of the Lepcha grammar and lexicon helped save the language from extinction. He is still remembered by the Lepchas:

  • The Sikkim Lepcha Youth Association confers the ‘G.B.Mainwaring Award’ annually to recognise and encourage contributions to the field of Lepcha language in Sikkim.
  • The Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association (ILTA), Kalimpong, celebrates the G.B. Mainwaring Birth Anniversary.


Wikitree: George Byers Mainwaring (1825 – 1893)

George’s grandparents, Rowland Mainwaring (1745 – 1817) and Jane Mainwaring née Latham (1755 – 1809), are my 5th great grandparents.