Bread Pelleting A Colonial Amusement

Anindita Mazumder

WHAM! The host was about to raise a toast when he was hit by bread pill which went right inside his mouth. Obviously, it was the handiwork of one of his guests. No, this was not one of the lowly punch houses frequented by the rowdy sailors or half-breds but a scene from a dinner party of upper class people, in fact the creme de la creme of Calcutta Society in the post Plassey days.

Believe it or not, these men –mostly company officials, rich merchants indulged in depraved practices to entertain themselves such as bread pelleting. Guests threw bread pills at each other at dinner tables. It was a favourite past time indulged in even by the fairer sex. Some people could throw the bread pills with so much force that it would be painful for the victim particularly if hit on the face.

But before going any further, let us examine the circumstances that led to the popularity of this pervert sport. The ‘nabobs’ as these men were called back home, were new to money which they earned through means, not entirely just, and enjoyed the fruits of the resultant power. Pilfering the resources of this country they lived a life of extravagance and whoring, gambling and duelling were the order of the day. “The nabob became a notorious and not too well-beloved a figure in English politics and society, “because of their senseless and vulgar extravagance. As Clive had said there was no end to his acquisitions but his own moderation. It is said that the Company lost more than half of its men during the decade after Plassey to disease or over indulgence in food and alcohol. Many of these men were actually boys and more over the access to easy money made them wayward.

But in their favour one may add there were hardly any form of entertainment and life was too uncertain in the swampy surroundings which went by the name of Calcutta. So insecure was the tenure of life that the European inhabitants of Calcutta met each year on November 15 to congratulate themselves on escaping the perils of rains. In 1767, a new cemetery had to be set up, the road to which was called Burying Ground Road, what is today known as Park Street. Great care was taken to shield women from funerals to ensure their ”vivacity” was unaffected. And HEA Cotton tells us “it was no unusual occurrence to sup with your host and leave him in perfect health and be summoned to attend his funeral on the following morning.” No wonder bread pelleting was looked upon as a great entertainer under such demoralising circumstances.

Hickey wrote about the barbarous practice of pelleting dining companions with little balls of bread made like pills and practised even by the fairer sex, in his dairies. He described bread pelleting in a party hosted by Daniel Octavius Barwell in 1779. Daniel, the brother of Richard Barwell, a member of Warren Hastings Council was also in the service of the company was considered to be achampion in bread pelleting. In fact, Barwell was so proficient in pelleting that he could snuff out a candle from a distance and that too several times, successively. Hickey described thesport as a “trick fitter for savages than polished society”.

As mentioned earlier, women were also adept in throwing these breadpills. Mrs Hester Ward, a memberof the family of Warren Hastings, described a conversation with the beautiful Mrs Grand whose escapades with Mr Philip Francis caused ascandal in Calcutta Society and who ended up in Napoleon’s France, marrying one of his confidantes.Mrs Ward recalled Mrs Grand’slamentations over the fact that the hosts had barred bread pelleting at the party. She looked sufficiently bored by the lack of amusement which came in the form of throwing bread pills.When Mrs Ward inquired she was told: ”It was the finest entertainment in the world. One made pills of bread and flicks them across the table with the help of finger and thumb. Some people could do it even by striking the table underneath but it would warn the victim.” She went on to say that even some ladies were adept in shooting it right into a gentleman’smouth as he opened it to speak. Mrs Grand herself was able to flick bread pills into a gentleman’s wine glass when he raised it for a toast and signed off saying ”but I improve MrBarwell said so.”

The sport produced many quarrels too. At the party of Daniel Barwell, Hickey recollected, a Captain Morrison made his abhorrence of pelleting clear and had declared that he would take it as an insult, but even before he could finish saying so he was struck by a pellet. Though it was done by a hand below the table the motion of the arm revealed the culprit, who was found to be a recent acquaintance. An enraged Morrison took a dish of a leg of mutton which had been set before him and hurled it towards the offender. It not only hit him on the head but knocked him off the chair and left him with a severe cut on the temple. It led to a bitter duel and the offender was shot through his body, left bed ridden for several months and never recovered wholly. After the duel and the resultant uproar, both chose to lie low and Hickey seemed to think it was the end of the savage practice.