Archive | September 2014

A passage to India

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This is as good as a guest post, since absolutely all the research for it has been done by my brother. It’s a short one, too, to make a change, and none too cheery. But it offers just a glimpse of Scots in the British Empire, and that seems timely given recent interest in the relationship of the one to the other.

Henry Maxwell was born in 1826 in Edinburgh. His father, also named Henry, probably died in 1831, at the age of 24; his mother Catherine lived until 1880, dying in a poorhouse in Dundee. In 1846, also in Dundee, the younger Henry married Isabella Ferguson/McIntosh (she was an illegitimate child, a fact that was even recorded on her death certificate; her mother Sarah Ferguson was perhaps 16 years old when she bore her, but may have been closer to 13). Henry and Isabella had a lot of children, two at least of whom died young, and Henry found employment in an industry that dominated Dundee at the time: jute.

Dundee was an established centre for whaling, and it had been discovered that whale oil allowed raw jute, a vegetable fibre imported from India, to be machine-spun into hessian on an industrial scale. For a while, driven by entrepreneurs known as Jute Barons, the industry boomed, and Dundee, “Jutopolis,” along with it. Henry Maxwell rose to be an overseer in a jute mill, and may have achieved the promotion by virtue of being literate: it is most unlikely he ever attended school, but his mother was the daughter of a printer, and thus almost certainly literate herself.

Around 1870, Henry moved to India, to Barnagore (Baranagar) in Bengal, on the Hooghly river just north of Calcutta (Kolkata). His relocation was part of a canny attempt by the Jute Barons to get ahead of the competition by establishing jute factories at source. In due course the jute industry in India would eclipse Dundee’s, but there is apparently machinery still in use in Indian jute mills bearing the legend “Made in Dundee.”

For Henry Maxwell, the poor boy from Edinburgh who was now in all likelihood managing part or all of a jute mill in Bengal, this must have marked a significant upturn in his fortunes. His wife and family, back home in Dundee, had moved to a more salubrious part of the city, a further indication of greater prosperity. But their luck didn’t hold. On August 17th 1872 we find Henry dictating his will in Barnagore, and two days later he’s dead. In Bengal in 1872 it’s a reasonable guess that the cause of death was cholera, but there were plenty of other possibilities. Henry left everything to his wife Isabella, including the sizeable sum of £655 he had saved in India. But back in Scotland Isabella herself was terribly ill: she died of TB in December of the same year.

If the Maxwell family had had a chance of achieving respectability, it was abruptly snuffed out. Henry Maxwell had taken out a life assurance policy and owned stocks and shares, quite the model of the middle-class man. But that all changed after his death. We’ve already heard how Henry’s mother died in a Dundee poorhouse in 1880. There were two poorhouses in Dundee, and Isabella’s mother died in the other one in 1887.

A desperate story, to be sure. But in this story of grinding poverty and (frustrated) social aspirations, the role of India is as a land of opportunity. Whatever impact the jute industry had on native Bengalis, for this Scottish family it almost provided the passport to economic security and social advancement. During the referendum debate the notion was widely bandied about that Scotland had somehow been the passive victim of British, or maybe English, imperialism. In reality Scots exploited the opportunities presented by the empire energetically, and were disproportionately represented among that empire’s functionaries. Henry Maxwell and his Jute Baron employers are a case in point.

As you may have guessed by now, my interest in these people is more than academic: Henry Maxwell was my great-great-grandfather.

Update, 18.04.2015. Henry Maxwell’s great-great-great-grandaughter, my niece, Mhairi Campbell, has located Henry’s grave in the Scottish Cemetery, Kolkata. No inscription survives:

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