A Friend of the Broom: The First Nepali to Visit England

It’s been said that Prime Minister Jang Bahadur, in 1850, was the first Nepali to visit England. One early account goes so far as to say that he was “The first Asian to visit England.” Another describes him as “the first Hindoo of so high a caste who has ever been presented to the Queen.”

The latter claim is probably correct, but Jang Bahadur was by no means the first Nepali, first Hindu, or “first Asian” to visit England. He was, however, the first head of state from Nepal to do so, in 1850. (The second was his nephew, Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher, in 1908.)

The first Nepali known to have lived in England was from Bhaktapur. As a young man, Motilal Singh fought and was captured in the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-16. He spoke English and impressed his British captors, one of whom encouraged him to migrate to England. Once there, however, and down on his luck, he joined the poor London street people including cripples, children, and other foreigners to eke out a meager living as a crossing sweeper.

A crossing sweeper’s job was to brush away muck, mud, and manure at city street crossings to keep pathways open for ladies in long dresses and gentlemen in fine apparel, for which he was given a gratuity.

Before automobiles, the streets of Victorian London and other cities were often crowded with horse-drawn carriages. It was said that in London alone, close to 100,000 horses passed along the unpaved city streets each day. You can imagine all the odiferous horse buns that had to be swept away to clear a path for those well-dressed ladies and gents to pass unsullied.

One day Motilal’s crossing sweeper career came to a sudden but happy end. According to a June 1850 London newspaper account ?

“Everyone one who has passed through St. Paul’s Church-yard to Cheapside on a rainy day, when birch brooms are very much in requisition, must have noticed the well-known Hindoo crossing-sweeper, who has for years past regularly stationed himself at the northeast angle of the Cathedral. A day or two ago he was at his post as usual, when the attention of the Nepaulese Ambassador [Jang Bahadur Rana], who was passing at the time, was attracted towards him. His Excellency ordered the carriage to stop, and entered into conversation with him [in Nepali], the result of which was that he threw his broom with desperate eagerness over the railing....

He now appears every morning arrayed in a new and superb Hindoo costume and is not too proud to recognise his old acquaintances and friends of the broom.”

After that, ‘MotiLall Sing’ (as he was known to the English) was often seen with the Nepalese mission visiting many places as an informal interpreter and companion. He is said to have accompanied the Nepalese entourage to France and is thought to have returned to Nepal with them.

There is no mention, however, of Motilal in the published accounts of Jang Bahadur’s historic European tour. His story appears only in a few short, obscure accounts in English newspapers of the time. The snippet above is from ‘Vicissitude of Fortune’, in London’s ‘Indian News’ of June 17, 1850. It was reprinted among excerpts from the European Press appended to John Whelpton’s ‘Jang Bahadur in Europe’(1983).

More recently, the Nepalese researcher Krishna Adhikari, while investigating Nepalese migration to England, found yet another story about Motilal in ‘The Economist’ of June 1, 1850. It forms the basis of Adhikari’s own short study entitled ‘A Nepali in Victorian England: Motilal?Soldier, Crossing Sweeper, Chronicler, published by London’s Migration Museum at www.migrationmuseum.org.

Better to be a lowly Friend of the Broom than a down-and-out Nepali beggar on the filthy streets of Victorian London. Better yet to be discovered and compassionately befriended by Jang Bahadur and his brothers, dressed up in Nepalese finery, and cheerfully toss your broom aside for a new life.