October 30, 1773 A Tragic Love Story

From the fictional lovers Romeo and Juliet to the very real Roman General Marc Antony and his Greek Princess turned Egyptian Pharoah Cleopatra VII, the appeal of the Tragic Romance is as old as history and as new, as popular culture. Few such tales have anything over the tragic love affair of the unfortunate, Hannah Robinson.

Arjumand Banu was the daughter of a wealthy Persian noble, third wife of Emperor Shah Jahan of the Mughal Empire, who ruled the lands of South Asia from modern-day Afghanistan to Kashmir and south to the Deccan plateau of South India.

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As Empress consort and beloved by the Emperor above all his wives, Arjumand was better known by the title “Mumtaz Mahal”, translating from the Persian as “the exalted one of the palace”.   Jahan called her his ‘Malika-i-Jahan’, or “Queen of the World”.

The labor and delivery of a daughter, the couple’s 14th child was a terrible ordeal, a 30-hour trial resulting in postpartum hemorrhage and the death of the Empress Consort on June 17, 1631.

Shah Jahan went into secluded mourning, emerging a year later with his back bent, his beard turned white.  There then followed a 22-year period of design and construction for a mausoleum and funerary garden, suitable to the Queen of the World.

This was to be no ordinary building, this grand edifice to the undying love of an Emperor.  The English poet Sir Edwin Arnold described the place as “Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passion of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones.”  Today the palace is known among the 7 “Modern Wonders of the World” or simply, the Taj Mahal.

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In another time and place, the “Pillarization” of northern European society constituted a separation along religious and political lines, so strict that many individuals had little to no contact, with those outside their own pillar.  19th century Belgian society divided along three such cohorts,  segregating largely along Catholic, Protestant and Social-Democratic strata.

The worst days of the South African Apartheid system had nothing over the European society of the age, when it came to social segregation.  Pillars possessed their own institutions: universities, hospitals and social organizations. Each even had its own news apparatus.

The romance between Colonel J.W.C van Gorkum of the Dutch Cavalry and Lady J.C.P.H van Aefferden was a social outrage. The 22-year old noblewoman was a Catholic.  33-year old Colonel van Gorkum was a Protestant and not a member of the nobility.  The couple’s marriage in 1842 was the scandal of Roermond but, despite all that taboo, theirs was a happy marriage lasting 38-years.

The Colonel died in 1880 and was buried next to the wall, separating the Catholic and Protestant parts of the cemetery.  Van Gorkum’s Lady died some eight years later, wishing to be buried next to her husband. Such a thing was not possible.  She would be buried opposite the wall in the Catholic part of the cemetery, as close as she could get to her beloved husband.

Such was The Law for this time and place, but neither custom nor law said anything about a little creative stonework.  So it is the couple joins hands in death as in life, together and inseparable, for all eternity.

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 Oud Kerkhof cemetery in Hasselt, Belgium

From the 1997 film Titanic to the fictional Shakespearean lovers Romeo and Juliet to the very real Roman General Marc Antony and his Greek Princess turned Egyptian Pharoah Cleopatra VII, the appeal of the Tragic Romance is as old as history and as new, as popular culture.

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From Wuthering Heights to West Side story few such tales have anything over the tragic love affair of the unfortunate, Hannah Robinson.

Hannah Robinson was one of the most beautiful women in all Colonial Rhode Island, the privileged daughter of the wealthy Narragansett planter Rowland and Anstis (Gardiner) Robinson. Years later during the time of the American Revolution, the opulent Robinson mansion entertained the likes of the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau, but now I’m getting ahead of this story.

As a young girl, Hannah had nary a care in the world and spent countless hours on a large rock, enjoying the view overlooking Narragansett Bay.

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The view as it looks today, from Hannah Robinson tower

As she grew older, Hannah attended Madame Osborn’s finishing school in Newport. There she fell in love with the French and Dancing instructor Pierre Simond, the son of an old family of French Huguenot ancestry who liked to go by the name, Peter Simon.

The degree to which Simon reciprocated the young lady’s feelings is difficult to know, but Hannah fell hard.

Peter took a position as private tutor to one of the Robinison cousins, a short two miles away.  It wasn’t long before Simon was secretly visiting Hannah, at home. He’d hide out in a large cabinet in Hannah’s room.  The pair called it the “Friendly Cupboard”.  At night, Simon would hide out in a large lilac bush where the couple would talk for hours, and exchange letters.  Anstil was quick to get wise but she never let on, to her husband.

Then came the night Rowland spied the white paper, fluttering to the ground. He rushed to the lilac and beat at the bush with a stick until there emerged, a ragged French teacher.  After that, Rowland kept his eldest on a very short leash.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  If Hannah Robinson was stubborn, she came by it honestly.  In a rare moment of weakness, Rowland allowed Hannah and young sister Mary to attend a ball at Smith’s Castle some ten miles up the road, accompanied by a black “servant” called “Prince” who really was, it turns out, an African prince.

So it was, the trap was sprung.

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Smith’s Castle house, one of the oldest homes, in Rhode Island, is now a National Historic Landmark

The trio came to a place on horseback, where there awaited a carriage.  Peter Simon’s carriage.  Mary cried and Prince begged her not to go but, to no avail.  This was the couple’s elopement.  Hannah would have it no other way.

Rowland was apoplectic and cut off his daughter, from her allowance.  The happy couple moved to Providence, but Dad proved to be right.  Now penniless, Simon soon lost interest in his young wife and left her.  Sometimes for days on end.  Other times for weeks.

Hannah’s health went into a steep decline.  Not even the little dog sent by her mother, nor her childhood maid – a woman also named Hannah, could bring back her spirits.  The young woman wasted away in Providence as, just 35-miles to the south, Mary contracted tuberculosis, and died.  Anstis’ health failed.

Rowland Robinson would come to relent, but too late.  By that time Hannah’s health was destroyed.  The fast sloop from Providence delivered a sickly shadow of her former self.

The four strong servants carrying the litter were asked to stop by the rock, where Hannah had passed all those happy hours as a girl.  Watching the bay.  She picked a flower.  “Everlasting Life”.

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Everlasting Life

A sad reunion followed between Anstis and Hannah, the ailing mother and her sickly waif of a daughter.  Anstis would recover and live long enough to see Revolution bring independence to the former American colonies.  Not so the unfortunate daughter.  Hannah Robinson died at home on October 30, 1773.  She was 27.

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Hannah Robinson Tower, North Kingstown Rhode Island

In 1938, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built an observation tower at the place where Hannah use to watch the Bay.  At four stories in height the thing became useful for coastal watch, during World War 2.  The tower was rebuilt in 1988, using timbers from the original construction.

You can climb the Hannah Robinson tower to this day if you want, there in North Kingstown Rhode Island. Not far from the rock where that little girl spent a happy childhood, taking in the beauty of the bay. All those many years ago.

June 17, 1631 A Love Story

Paralyzed with grief and wracked by uncontrollable fits of weeping, Emperor Shah Jahan went into secluded mourning. He emerged a year later with back bent and beard turned white. Then began a 22-year period of design and construction for a mausoleum and funerary garden: a tribute worthy, of his Queen of the World.

The Mughal state was an early modern Empire ruling first over northern India and later, much of South Asia. Founded by military conquest in 1526, the Mughal Emperors ruled for 200 years marking much of the period, before the rise of the British Raj.

Prince Khurram was born on January 5, 1592, the son of Rajput princess Jagat Gosaini and the fourth Mughal Emperor, Jahangir.

Literally born to the throne, the infant prince was taken from his mother at the age of six days by the baby’s grandfather Akbar, the third Mughal Emperor who ordered the baby be raised by his first wife and chief consort, the childless Ruqaiya Sultan Begum.

Khurram was given the education befitting a Mughal prince and enjoyed a close relationship with his surrogate mother.

According to the later memoirs of his father Jahangir, the barren Empress loved his son Khurram, “a thousand times more than if he had been her own [son]”.

Arjumand Banu was the daughter of a wealthy Persian noble and niece to Nur Jahan, the 12th wife of Emperor Jahangir believed by many to be the real power behind the throne. Arjumand and Khurram were betrothed in early 1607 when she was 14 and he, a year older.

In an age of politically arranged marriages, theirs was a love match though the marriage would wait, another five years. Five years was an unusually long engagement for the time but court astrologers had deemed the date propitious, and so it was.

Meanwhile, Khurram ascended to the throne and adopted the regnal name, Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan married the Persian Princess Kandahari Begum with whom he had a daughter, but this was a political marriage. So it was with his other eight wives.

Political relationships with women who themselves enjoyed the status of royal wives but it was his second, Arjumand Banu, with whom the Emperor was inseparable. He called her “Mumtaz Mahal”, Persian for “the chosen one of the Palace”. At the royal court and on military campaign she was his constant companion and advisor. She was his ‘Malika-i-Jahan’ the “Queen of the World”, with whom he fathered 14 children in nineteen years.

It was on campaign on the Deccan Plateau where Mumtaz Mahal went into labor with the couple’s 14th child. The delivery was a terrible trial for the Empress Consort, a 30-hour ordeal resulting in uncontrolled postpartum hemorrhage.

Shah Jahan’s Queen of the World died on June 17, 1631.

Mumtaz Mahal was buried in a walled pleasure garden called the Zainabad. Paralyzed with grief and wracked by uncontrollable fits of weeping the Emperor went into secluded mourning. He emerged a year later with back bent and beard turned white. Then began a twenty-two year period of design and construction for a mausoleum and funerary garden, suitable for the Queen of the World.

That child who would never know her mother grew to be the Princess Jahanara who, at the age of seventeen, began to distribute gemstones to the poor. A plea for divine intervention on behalf of the woman who had died, giving her birth. Meanwhile, a grand edifice to the undying love of an Emperor rose along the southern banks of the river Amuna.

English poet Sir Edwin Arnold described the place as “Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passion of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones.”

20,000 artisans were employed on the project at a cost equivalent to 70 billion modern rupees, equal to $956 million, today. The ivory marble mausoleum was the centerpiece of a 42 acre complex including a great reflecting pool, a mosque and guest house, all set within a formal garden and surrounded on three sides by crenellated walls.

Years later, Shah Jahan would rejoin the love of his life in her final resting place. A treasure of Islamic art and architecture in India, one of the seven “Modern Wonders of the World” we know, as the Taj Mahal.

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