Agra: Jan Willem Hessing’s ‘Red Taj’

Jan Willem Hessing was born in 1739 in Utrecht and he passed away in 1803 in Agra. At the age of 13 he signed as soldier in the service of the Dutch East Indian Company VOC, reaching Ceylon in 1752. There he participated in the Dutch siege on Kandy under baron Van Eck. He returned to the Netherlands for a short while and he left for India again on 2 October 1762 as sergeant of the ship Ritthem commissioned by the Delft Chamber. According to the VOC archives he deserted the Dutch company on 7 August 1771. He was considered a military adventurer.

I base this on Bauke van der Pol’s travel book “De VOC in India”. Van der Pol writes that other Dutch, English and French European servicemen also tried their luck as military adviser of local Indian rulers. Hessing joined the army of the India Maharaja Madho Rao Sindhia in the battles with other Indian rulers. As colonel he was successful. The maharaja tasked him with setting up his bodyguard that he also led. In 1799 Hessing becomes commander of the Red Fort in Agra. Shortly after that bad health forced him to leave this job. He passed away on 21 July in 1803 according to his tombstone in the Red Taj in the age of 63 years, 11 months and five days.

Hessing became wealthy in India. He married Anna Derridon, an euro-asiatic French lady from Pondicherry, the French enclave in South India. Ann and the family helped built Hessings’s mausoleum with red salt stone in complete Indian style known as the Red Taj.

The VOC had a trading post in Agra from 1621 and 1720. They bought up the indigo plant that gave a blue colour used in the Dutch textile production in these years. The Dutch also bought in cotton and silk from here that was stored an brought by caravans to Surat 800 kilometres away on the coast. Agra was also a supply post for Dutch missions to the courts of the Great Moghuls in Delhi and Lahore.