John Lang’s untold saga: From Parramatta Pub to the heart of India

By Indira Laisram
Author Sean Doyle // Pic supplied

Sydney-based author Sean Doyle unfolds the captivating narrative of John George Lang, Australia’s pioneering novelist, born in a Parramatta pub in 1816. Despite his Australian roots, Lang’s adult life predominantly played out in India, where he left enduring imprints on literature, journalism, and the legal landscape.

“Lang was instrumental in creating Australian literature, but he spent most of his adult life in India – and he died there,” notes Doyle.

In his new book, Australia’s Trail-Blazing First Novelist: John Lang (Sky Publising) Doyle describes Lang as a flamboyant and multi-talented figure who defied conventions. Lang’s great-uncle, James Larra, played a pivotal role in Lang’s early life, rising from convict status to become a prominent businessman in Parramatta. The pub where Lang was born, known as The Freemasons’ Arms, now stands as a historical landmark in George Street.

“Larra’s niece, Elizabeth Harris, was Lang’s mother. Larra held in trust for his nieces, Elizabeth and her sister, a parcel of 200 acres of land he was granted, adjoining Parramatta. He called it Harris Park – which is now the heart of Sydney’s Indian community. There’s a lovely synchronicity, crossing the centuries, between this and the fact that Lang adopted India as his home.

“Lang’s roots in both Australia and India create a fascinating symmetry. His great-uncle’s legacy in Harris Park intersects with Lang’s choice of India as his home,” says Doyle, who has written two travel memoirs: Beyond Snake Mountain: A journey in Rajasthan and Night Train to Varanasi: India with my daughter.

Doyle outlines Lang’s groundbreaking achievements as a writer, citing him as the first Australian novelist to craft a convict/bush novel set in New South Wales, write a full-length detective novel in English, pen an Indian travelogue, and achieve international bestseller status.

Australia’s Trail-Blazing First Novelist: John Lang By Sean Doyle

Lang’s literary prowess, however, was just one facet of his dynamic personality. Doyle delves into Lang’s role as a newspaperman, highlighting that he was the first Australian to establish a newspaper in India – The Mofussilite.

Operating from Calcutta, Ambala, Meerut, and Agra during the 1840s–’60s, Lang’s newspaper outlived him, solidifying his legacy as a journalist.

Lang’s legal acumen also comes to the forefront, with Doyle revealing Lang’s victory over the British imperial authorities in a court of law. Sean emphasises the significance of Lang’s role as the first barrister to defeat the British in court, especially given the prevailing power structures of the time.

“He was a barrister, having read Law at Cambridge University – until he was asked to leave – and the Middle Temple. He was actually the first barrister to ever defeat the British imperial authorities in a court of law. The fact he was a colonial lawyer appearing for an Indian subject in an Agra court-house only made the feat more noteworthy, given the era’s prevailing power structures. The victory made him a hero to the Indian people – and a villain to the Brits! The authorities would, in time, take their revenge …”

India, Doyle describes, was the great adventure of Lang’s life. “It gave him everything – two careers, triumph and tragedy, fame and wealth, a brush with royalty, sickness and despair, love and death.”

Lang’s confrontation with the East India Company, Doyle explains, made him a pioneer of the Subcontinental free press, but it also led to the destruction of his newspaper and the suppression of his accounts of British failures during the First Anglo–Sikh War.

The biographer goes on to detail Lang’s courtroom victory over the East India Company in the 1851 case of Jyoti Prasad, a triumph that cost the Company a staggering £100 million in today’s money. Doyle contends that this victory prompted the Company to intensify the infamous Doctrine of Lapse, an immoral strategy used to acquire territory and wealth across India.

“And that was how Lang came to meet Lakshmibhai,” Doyle cryptically concludes, leaving readers eager to explore the untold chapters of Lang’s life in this upcoming biography.

For more details on Australia’s Trail-Blazing First Novelist: John Lang, click here

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