Untold lives blog

12 posts from March 2014

28 March 2014

Somewhere between freedom and slavery: runaway slaves in Britain’s Indian Navy

On 28 March 1854 the Persian Gulf Resident, Captain Arnold Kemball, wrote to the Government of Bombay, reporting that a coal shoveller on the East India Company’s steam frigate Akbar, moored at the Persian port of Bushire, had deserted his post. Kemball explained that the man was a runaway slave who had formerly lived in Bushire. Initially assumed to have been re-enslaved by his master, later reports confirmed that the man had in fact returned to his wife and child, who he had been compelled to leave behind in his search for freedom. Kemball requested guidance from the Government. Could he allow the man to be re-enslaved by his old master in Bushire? Or did the man remain under British protection?

  Bushire from the sea
From Travels in Assyria, Media, and Persia (British Library T 8304)  NocSee on flickr


  The case of the coal trimmer on the Akbar was not unique to Indian naval vessels. Slaves and manumitted slaves frequently made up the bulk of the crews employed on these ships. In his reply to Kemball’s query, the Governor at Bombay said that, according to the Akbar’s own commander, Lieutenant Balfour, European sailors in his crew numbered no more than twenty-two men, while ‘Seedees’ [Sidis: the name frequently used to describe the Africans in the Navy’s service] – most of whom were runaway slaves – numbered fifty. “I am assured,” the Governor wrote “ that the majority of our seamen on board our steamers are at this very time Africans and that the greater of their numbers are fugitive slaves.” 

Extract of a letter, dated 5 March 1855, from Henry Anderson to George Edmonstone,

Extract of a letter, dated 5 March 1855, from Henry Anderson, Secretary to the Government of Bombay, to George Edmonstone, Secretary to the Government of India (IOR/R/15/1/149) Noc

These statistics underline one aspect of the legacy of the Indian Ocean slave trade which was, arguably, at its peak during the mid-nineteenth century: itinerant African men, who had been taken from the place of their ancestral roots and frequently shorn of their familial ties, and who subsequently used Indian naval vessels as a means of absconding from their masters in order to obtain their freedom. This helped make the ports of the Gulf and north western shores of the Indian Ocean important tarrying points populated by a diverse mix peoples:  including Africans, Indians, Arabs, and Persians.

The case of the coal trimmer on the Akbar set a precedent for future, similar cases. The Governor ruled that, if the man had deserted his vessel, as the coal trimmer on the Akbar had, then the British had no influence over the man’s fate at the hands of local authorities.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project  Cc-by

Qatar Digital Library

27 March 2014

A truly original Richard III

To celebrate World Theatre Day we have the story of an East India Company sea captain performing the title role in Richard III at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 17 January 1803. 

Captain James Peter Fearon was born in London on 17 February 1773, the son of two well-known actors, James Fearon and his wife Mary. James Fearon died at Richmond aged 43 on 30 September 1789, leaving a widow and eight children between the ages of sixteen and nearly one.   Benefit performances were held in theatres to raise money for the family, with the Duke of Clarence contributing 20 guineas.

Eldest son James Peter was serving as a midshipman on the East India Company ship Queen at the time of his father’s death.  Perhaps an influential patron with whom his father had come into contact had helped to place the boy in a potentially lucrative career?  James Peter progressed steadily upwards through the ranks of ship’s officer, and was appointed captain of the East Indiaman Belvedere for her voyage to China from May 1801 to September 1802. 

His brothers also secured positions with the East India Company. Peter Fearon was appointed an officer cadet in the Bombay Army in 1799, and John Douglas Fearon was a cadet for Madras in 1807.  Two of his sisters became the wives of Company men and a third married a Royal Army officer in India.

  David Garrick as Richard III
David Garrick (1717-1774) as Richard III Images Online  Noc

Captain Fearon’s theatrical debut as Richard III was well-received by the large number of sailors in the audience and by the press.  He gave the performance twice more in January.  The Monthly Mirror believed that he could have a stage career as there was ‘much genius’ in his performance notwithstanding the blemishes. His voice was described as ‘uncommonly powerful, but not so melodious’ and he was praised for his ‘freedom of deportment, confidence, feeling, and unabating spirit’. However Fearon was criticised for hurrying through many of the most significant soliloquies as if he did not understand their meaning: ‘He appears, throughout, to be running a race with the character, and frequently gets the start of it’. The Morning Post wrote that the Captain’s face was capable of very little variety of expression, yet he had the great recommendation of being no imitator but a truly original Richard.

This triumph was followed on 9 February 1803 with Fearon’s appearance at Drury Lane as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.  Sadly this performance to a meagre audience was not well received. His portrayal of ‘deep and gloomy malignancy’ was described as feeble.

Captain Fearon was facing financial ruin as he trod the boards. He was declared bankrupt in February 1803. He was subsequently licensed as a free mariner by the East India Company and sailed for Bombay in 1807.  In another change of career Fearon purchased the Bombay Gazette in 1810, but this appears to have been an unsuccessful venture.  James Peter Fearon was living as a mariner in Calcutta when he died at sea in 1821. His will was proved in India, leaving his property to be divided between his mother and sisters.

Margaret Makepeace
Curator, East India Company Records  Cc-by

Further reading:

British Newspaper Archive - for example Morning Post 18 January 1803 and 29 January 1803

The Monthly Mirror vol XV (1803)

Philip H. Highfill, Kalman A. Burnim, and Edward A. Langhans, A biographical dictionary of actors, actresses musicians, dancers, managers and other stage personnel in London, 1660-1800 (1973-1993)

Find my Past for the Fearon family in India -

Cadet Papers of Peter Fearon IOR/L/MIL/9/110 f.401

Cadet Papers of John Douglas Fearon L/MIL/9/108 ff.562-63

Estate papers of James Peter Fearon IOR/L/AG/34/29/33 p.1057; IOR/L/AG/34/27/76 p. 982


24 March 2014

Meet the Benthams: an extraordinary Georgian family

The British Library has joined the Transcribe Bentham initiative, and needs your help to uncover the secret life of Jeremy Bentham, philosopher, reformer, and Georgian gentleman.  Transcribe Bentham, an online scholarly crowdsourcing project, invites members of the public to explore and transcribe the manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham.  Since its launch in 2010, Transcribe Bentham’s online volunteers have made important discoveries in UCL’s collection of digitised Bentham manuscripts, for instance in relation to his most famous invention—the Panopticon prison.

The British Library is digitising its own collection of Bentham papers and these are now being made available on Transcribe Bentham to complement UCL’s own on-going digitisation programme, virtually reuniting the two Bentham collections for the first time since Bentham’s death.  Volunteers do not need any specialist equipment or expert knowledge to begin participating—just a willingness to get to grips with 18th and 19th century handwriting and to type what they read into a text box using a specially-adapted transcription toolbar.  

  Pseudo-Voltaire (John Lind) to Jeremy Bentham, sent in 1774
NocPseudo-Voltaire (John Lind) to Jeremy Bentham, sent in 1774 (British Library Add MS 33537 f.294r)

Whilst the UCL collection contains mainly philosophical writings, in the British Library collection there is potential to uncover Bentham’s more personal side, as it contains thousands of letters.  Bentham was described by Jose del Valle, the Guatemalan politician, as the ‘Legislator of the world’ and such a title is certainly justified by the sheer number of nationally and internationally important figures with whom he corresponded.  Within the British Library’s collection are letters from the French general Lafayette, the English abolitionist William Wilberforce, and Alexander I, Emperor of Russia.  But the collection also contains a great deal of personal correspondence, and volunteers will encounter Jeremy’s extended family: his mother, Alicia; his step-mother, Sarah; his brother, Samuel, the renowned naval architect; his step-brother Charles Abbot, later 1st Baron Colchester, Speaker of the House of Commons; his nephew George, the famous botanist; and the patriarch of the family, Jeremiah Bentham.  There is even a letter from Jeremiah to Jeremy’s headmaster at Westminster School, complaining about the alleged plundering of his son’s book case by some older ‘lads’.  

   Jeremiah Bentham’s letter to Mr Cooper, complaining about the theft of little Jeremy’s school books

Jeremiah Bentham’s letter to Mr Cooper, complaining about the theft of little Jeremy’s school books (British Library Add MS 33537 f. 37r)  Noc

Because some of this correspondence has not been read since its original composition, discoveries made by volunteers have the potential to fundamentally shape and illuminate our understanding of Bentham’s life and relationships (the definitive biography of Bentham still remains unwritten).  Once completed, transcripts are presented alongside the original manuscript image in a digital repository, freely accessible to anyone interested in researching Bentham.  In addition, any volunteers who produce transcripts that are subsequently used in the new edition of Bentham’s Collected Works, currently being prepared by the Bentham Project at UCL and published by Oxford University Press, will receive full credit for their contribution in the particular volume’s acknowledgements.

Kris Grint
Research Associate, Bentham Project, Faculty of Laws, UCL   Cc-by

Visit the Transcribe Bentham  Transcription Desk today

Follow Transcribe Bentham on Twitter @TranscriBentham

Further reading:

Jeremy Bentham, Selected Writings, ed. by Stephen Engelmann (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011)

Philip Schofield, Bentham: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2009)


21 March 2014

A little wine for thy stomach's sake?

In a meeting that took place in Gombroon (Bandar Abbas) on 3 May 1729, a letter was read from the President and Council of the East India Company factory at Bombay.  This letter contains, along with the usual business of the Company, a complaint that a shipment of wine from Shiraz in Persia was ‘…so sour that they could never drink any quantity…’.  This led to the need for visits to the ‘Dutch punch house’ to buy liquor for the consumption of the Bombay Factory.  The letter goes on to admit that much of the wine has actually gone missing, though no one can say for sure whether it was given to a local official, Seyyed Ahmad Khan and his men, or whether it was distilled by the Bombay garrison and ‘expended in drams’.  The latter may be possible as there was apparently no arak left for them.  The fact that this shipment of wine mentioned comprised of 800 flasks, it can only be wondered how it all could have gone missing.  When the wine was sent from Persia it was considered to only be for the ‘immediate need’ of the Bombay factory, with a promise of a further, greater supply later.

Man smoking pipe with dancing wine bottles
   Add. 74284 f.125: “Flights of Fancy by J.F. Herring Junr. Jany. 1. 1831”  Noc

The records that these events have been drawn from are littered with references of alcohol of various sorts, whether fine wine and brandy from Shiraz or arak from India.  Alcohol was consumed often and in quantity, representing a huge expense on the Company, who seem to have been obliged to provide their employees with a regular tipple.  What makes this all the more interesting is that in 1728 the Company had made it completely illegal to gamble on their premises, viewing it as a sin and a vice.  They saw no issue in maintaining a wine house in Shiraz where they continued to buy and store wine in quantity despite a civil war tearing Persia in pieces and the threat of Ottoman invasion.  However, what is probably most interesting is that Muslim Persia was the major distributor of wine and that neither the Shi’a Persians nor the Sunni Afghans Turks were interested in stopping this lucrative business.

Peter Good
PhD student University of Essex/British Library  Cc-by

Further reading:
IOR/G/29/5 ff.4-60


19 March 2014

Pilgrim traffic during the First World War

Every year Indian Muslims undertake the journey from India to Mecca as part of the Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam.  Prior to 1947, the British Indian Government maintained a strong interest in the welfare and safety of pilgrims travelling from India, and regularly received reports from the British Agent at Jeddah on the yearly pilgrimage, copies of which can be found in the India Office Records.

  The Kabba at Mecca
The Kabba at Mecca c.1880s (X463 - plate 1)  Noc

The outbreak of hostilities between the British and Ottoman Empires in 1914 raised fears about the impact this would have on the Hajj.  In November 1914, the British Government published an undertaking in the Gazette Extraordinary that the holy places of Arabia and Jeddah would be immune from attack or molestation by the British naval and military forces so long as there was no interference with pilgrims from India.  Similar assurances were given by the Governments of France and Russia.  Despite this, there remained fears for the safety of the pilgrims who would be entering a zone of conflict.  There was also a concern among British officials that foodstuffs and other supplies exported from India for the use of pilgrims in Jeddah would be appropriated by Turkish forces.  The Indian Government had briefly stopped exports of food from India to Jeddah following the seizure of a cargo of food supplies by the Turkish authorities in March 1915.  However reports of distress amongst pilgrims and residents of the holy places had caused the exports to be resumed. 

In the summer of 1915, the Viceroy and the Secretary of State for India exchanged telegrams on the subject of whether to prohibit pilgrimage from India.  The Secretary of State favoured prohibition of pilgrimage for that year, explaining “It is not desirable that large numbers of such [British subjects] should visit enemy country during war.  We can neither protect them nor ensure food supplies. Turks might detain influential men as hostages and would tamper with loyalty of all more effectively than last year”.  However, the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, felt there should no prohibition as it would offend Muslim opinion in India, give an impression of British weakness, and be inconsistent with the British Government’s published undertaking.  It was finally decided to allow pilgrimage from India, but to discourage Indian Muslims from embarking on it.  Assurances were also sought from the Ottoman Government, via the American Government, that food supplies exported from India for the pilgrims would not be diverted to other purposes.

Despite the considerable difficulties, pilgrims continued to travel from India on pilgrimage to Mecca every year throughout the War, although in smaller numbers.  By 1917, the situation had improved enough for Lieutenant Colonel Wilson at the British Agency at Jeddah to write “It may I think be said that, for a War Time Pilgrimage, that of 1917 may be reckoned a great success from every point of view”.

John O’Brien
Post 1858 India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:

Revenue & Statistics Department File 3355/1914, Pilgrim Traffic and the War [IOR/L/E/7/792]

Europeana 1914-1918, a free online resource which brings together original wartime documents, films and stories from 20 countries across Europe.


17 March 2014

Richard Meinertzhagen - hero or scoundrel?

Tall, handsome and charming, Richard Meinertzhagen (1878-1967) was a well-known face of the British establishment.  As a war hero and ornithologist, he was befriended and trusted by many prominent figures such as Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence.  His role in historical events was even featured in films, including A Dangerous man: Lawrence after Arabia and The young Indiana Jones Chronicles.  

BL: Photo1083/10(0)  Portrait of Meinertzhagen by Bailey, in Indian photographs of F.M. Bailey 1900-03  Noc

But after his death this glowing image of Meinertzhagen as a British ‘hero’ was shattered when a number of frauds were discovered.  Amongst the bird collections that he donated to the Zoological Museum in Tring were many specimens stolen from the Natural History Museum. Prompted by this ornithological forgery, historians began to question the authenticity of his political persona. Brian Garfield’s book exposed Meinertzhagen as a ‘Colossal Fraud’, a liar, a charlatan, and possibly a murderer. 

  Portrait of Meinertzhagen
BL: Photo 1083/10(0)  Portrait of Meinertzhagen by Bailey, in Indian photographs of F.M. Bailey 1900-03 Noc

How many of Meinertzhagen’s picaresque adventures were real and how many were pure inventions?  His private letters to his ex-colleague Colonel F M Bailey (1882-1967) in the India Office Private Papers offer us a glimpse of another side of his personality.

 Meinertzahagen was supposedly a non-Jewish Zionist and a staunch advocate of the Jewish state of Israel.  He showed unusual sympathy for the plight of the Jews since the Palestinian Mandate in 1919 to the outbreak of the Second World War.  According to his Middle East Diary, Meinertzhagen claims he conducted three interviews with Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.  In a letter to Colonel Bailey dated 30 July 1933, he writes ‘I am now just off to see Hitler and Goering first as an ambassador from the British Jews to try and get Hitler to hold his hand’.  However, Garfield declares that these alleged interviews cannot be corroborated by any of the official records either in Britain or in Germany.

Was Meinertzhagen a true cynic who did not have any serious conviction one way or the other?  A letter to Bailey written on 24 September 1937 contains the remark: ‘…Fascism, Hitlerism, Bolshevism, Zionism and all the other –isms flourish.  Some day they will become –wasms and then the world will sleep again’. At other times Meinertzhagen expressed extreme right-wing political views.  In one of his letters of 1931, he claims he was ‘no believer in democracy, with the uneducated scum on top!’ 

In a letter dated 19 July 1953, Meinertzhagen gave the reasons why he refused a knighthood: ‘If I had accepted, I should have found it difficult to explain without divulging the work on which I had been engaged’.  So what particular “work” was he afraid to divulge? Could this be interpreted as a semi-confession that some of his ‘work’ in the past did not merit an honour from Her Majesty?

There is one particularly interesting piece of advice which Meinertzhagen gave to his friend in a letter of 27 January 1940 – Bailey should commission a ghost writer to spice up his memoirs to whet the appetite of the general public. Was his own Middle East Diary spiced up by a ghost writer?

Xiao Wei Bond
Curator, India Office Private Papers

Further reading:

IOPP/Mss Eur F157/246  Bailey Collection: Letters from Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen to Col F.M.Bailey, 1928-1960

Richard Meinertzhagen,  Middle East Diary, 1917-1956 (1959)

Brian Garfield, The Meinertzhagen Mystery (2007)

T.E. Lawrence,  Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926)


14 March 2014

The talented Mr Fox Talbot

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) was a Victorian scholar who is today best known for the invention of photography, specifically the process whereby a negative is used to make any number of positive images onto photographic paper.

  Programme of Reading Camera Club with photo of Fox Talbot
British Library: Fox Talbot Collection   Noc

What is perhaps not so well known is that Talbot excelled in and made significant contributions to many diverse fields of research including Assyriology, astronomy, botany, etymology, mathematics, philology, photography, photolithography, and science.  He also found time for a short political career, business ventures, management of the family estate and raising a family.

The British Library has catalogued Talbot’s notebooks plus 4,000 additional items including books, pocket notebooks, pamphlets, published papers, patents, loose notes, printers’ proofs, accounts, invoices, receipts, herbaria and other material. These additional items will soon be released to researchers and Untold Lives will be highlighting material showing different sides of Talbot and his life and times.  We start today with Talbot’s short political career.

Although Talbot was only involved in politics from 1832 to 1835, those years were a time of great social and political change in England. Standing as a candidate for parliamentary reform in the 1831 election, Talbot received just 39 votes. However, this was out of a total number of 129 entitled voters so the result was deemed a success by political reformers and a song was written in his honour.  

Words of song written in honour of Fox Talbot

 British Library: Fox Talbot Collection  Noc

  Talbot’s copy of the 1831 electoral resultNocBritish Library: Fox Talbot Collection
Talbot’s copy of the 1831 electoral result with those who voted for him highlighted in red. There was no secret ballot so those eligible to vote could be bribed or coerced especially if the candidate was their landlord.

The 1831 Parliamentary reform bill failed and another election was held in 1832. Talbot was elected supporting the reformist Whig government. From 1832 to 1834 several important bills were passed including the Reform Act of 1832 which extended the voting franchise; the Agricultural Labourers Act 1832 which regulated wages and set a minimum wage; and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.

  Printed letter to voters in Chippenham about the Reform BillNoc British Library: Fox Talbot Collection  This document dated 5 April 1831 shows that one of the ideas of the Reform Act of 1832 had already been decided upon - the right to vote depending up on the ownership of property to the value of £10. Though this bill was much criticised it did extend the voting franchise and paved the way for further reforms.

Document entitled The Labour Rate British Library: Fox Talbot Collection  The list of wages for employable people, at the bottom of the page, includes boys as young as 10. Noc


Document calling for Talbot’s attendance in Parliament for the slavery vote British Library: Fox Talbot Collection  Slavery Abolition Act 1833 The document calls for Talbot’s attendance in Parliament for the slavery vote and hints at the machinations of political life at the time. Noc

Interference from King William IV meant that several governments were formed and then dissolved in quick succession 1832-1834. In this speech made in 1834 Talbot warns of economic and social damage resulting from this instability and the threat this poses to the effective implementation of the reforms just passed.

Speech made by Talbot in 1834

British Library: Fox Talbot CollectionNoc

Talbot became disillusioned with politics and when an election was called in 1835 he declined to stand for re-election and thereafter maintained only a mild interest in politics.

Jonathan Pledge
Cataloguer, Historical Papers  Cc-by


12 March 2014

Thomas Jewell Bennett: an early supporter of Indian Home Rule

‘Private letters are like gold-dust’, I was told when my family donated to the British Library a small collection of letters and printed documents belonging to my great-uncle by marriage, Sir Thomas Jewell Bennett (1852-1925).  As editor and principal proprietor of The Times of India, 1894-1901, he modernised and expanded the business until it would come to be regarded as the leading newspaper in Asia.

  Photo of Thomas Jewell Bennett
Thomas Jewell Bennett -courtesy of Pat Farrington and her family

All dated 1897, eleven private letters from government officials and others offer a fascinating ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse into the new spirit of popular resistance to British rule led by the Hindu nationalist, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, known as ‘the Father of Indian Unrest’.  The writers variously praise Thomas Bennett, test his reactions, offer advice, pressure him to toe the government line, criticise the Viceroy or even ask for help. Clearly, The Times of India was a force to be reckoned with.

The letters cover a range of issues such as the Poona Tragedy, the Maradabad sedition appeal, the prosecution of Tilak for sedition and an unexpected letter from Arthur Strachey, the judge in the second Tilak trial, appearing to justify his verdict. Some of the writers are very frank, seemingly based on the assumption the editor would not break their trust.

I was surprised to discover that my great-uncle had ‘forced the Bombay Government to prosecute Tilak for his inflammatory articles’ (The Times obituary, 1925), but he was known to be a cautious man and probably afraid of mass uprisings.  It goes on to say that he worked steadfastly for Indian advancement.

Thomas Bennett was clearly an important opinion-former.  As a newspaper man who had left school at the age of 14 (the son of a solicitor’s clerk), he took an independent stance, speaking ‘truth to power’ when he could. The Oxford National Dictionary of Biography says: ‘His support for the Raj was discriminating... He wrote largely on Indian topics and championed Indian grievances with regularity and compassion’.

In 1901, when he left India, he was presented with an address of thanks by 3,000 agricultural workers in Gujarat for bringing their grievances before the government during the famines they suffered in the late 1890s.  

  Address of thanks from 3,000 agricultural workers in Gujarat  IOPP/Mss Eur F542 Noc

After his return to Britain, Thomas Bennett became a Unionist MP for Sevenoaks, 1918-1923, speaking mainly on Indian affairs.  He was an active member of the Joint Select Committee which framed the Government of India Bill (1919) to expand participation of Indians in the government of India.  According to the ODNB, he was a vehement critic of racism in the Empire.  He made a spirited speech in the Commons in July 1920 on the report about the unrest in India in 1919 which included the massacre of unarmed civilians at Amritsar. Thomas Bennett was knighted in 1921 for public services.

Outside Parliament, my great-uncle continued to work on Indian issues, often through contributions to The Times.  The documents show he had a small but influential outsider role in supporting Indian political development. However, he is an ‘unsung hero’.

Pat Farrington   

Further reading:

IOPP/Mss Eur F542 Papers of Thomas Jewell Benett donated in 2007

John O’Brien, Sir Thomas Jewell Bennett Article 7, eBLJ, 2007