Migrating home: 'mixed' children and the return of the nabobs of India

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'Tom Raw visits Taylor & Co’s Emporium, Calcutta', by Sir Charles D’Oyly, c.1828
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The source provides a stereotypical image of British ‘nabobs’ and ‘nabobinas’ in India, surrounded by an excess of luxury commodities.  

British men who were employed in the East India Company, who acquired great fortunes in India and returned to Britain, were known as ‘nabobs’. ‘Nabob’ derived from the Urdu word ‘nawab’. Nawabs were high officials or princes in the Mughal empire, the empire that the EIC replaced in India in the 1700s and 1800s. In Britain, ‘nabob’ was a term of abuse, suggesting excessive wealth and influence.

The artist, Sir Charles D’Oyly (1781-1845), was himself employed by the East India Company in its civil service.

British migration to India: The East India Company

From 1600 until 1858, Britain’s relations with India—including the temporary and permanent migration to India of British men, women and children—were largely under the control of the English East India Company (EIC).  The EIC was initially a trade monopoly. Until 1813, English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh men who wished to trade in India and China could do so only if employed by the EIC; the Company’s monopoly over British trade in China continued until 1833.  From the 1750s to the 1850s, British trade in India was matched by the growth of a territorial empire on the subcontinent.  Decade by decade, the Company and the British government gained increasing political and administrative control of India, supplanting the Mughal Empire. Trade and political power required several thousand British men to live in India for extended periods. 

British fathers, ‘illegitimate’ children

Recruitment to the EIC was done by patronage, not by competitive examinations. The 24 Company Directors could nominate young men each year for military cadetships, civil service appointments and positions as surgeons. Without the support of EIC directors, no young man could gain Company employment. Who you (or your parents) knew determined whether you could make your fortune in Company India. Most young men who gained nominations were middle- or upper-class—the sons of military officers, clergymen, merchants and the like.

Whilst in service in India, many EIC men lived with Indian women, fathering ‘mixed-race’ children with their partners. When these men returned to Britain, they typically left their Indian partners behind. Many children of these unions also remained in India, but a few thousand were sent ‘home’ to Britain. Here the question of their place in society was controversial. Were they British, or Indian, or in-between? What was their racial identity? Should they share in the substantial wealth their fathers had extracted from India in the Company service, or did the fact that they were ‘illegitimate’ (that is, the children of parents who had not married) mean that they could not share in their family’s wealth? Should their fathers acknowledge their paternity, or hide these children from friends and family? Once they had been educated, did they belong in Britain, or in India?  Where was their ‘home’?

Return of the ‘nabobs’: the case of Sir Henry Russell

EIC men who acquired great fortunes in India and returned to Britain were known as ‘nabobs’.  ‘Nabob’ derived from the Urdu word ‘nawab’.  Nawabs were high officials or princes in the Mughal empire, the empire that the EIC supplanted in India in the 1700s and 1800s.  In Britain, ‘nabob’ was a term of abuse, suggesting excessive wealth and influence.  The political and commercial operations of the EIC were notoriously corrupt, and hundreds of EIC employees accumulated vast fortunes in India, money that allowed them to purchase large landed estates, stand successfully for Parliament and gain lucrative positions in government at home. 

One nabob family that has left many volumes of unpublished family correspondence are the Russells of Swallowfield Park, Berkshire. Sir Henry Russell, 1st baronet (1751-1836) served as a judge in the Calcutta Supreme Court from 1797 to 1813. His eldest sons, Henry (later Sir Henry) Russell (1783-1856) and Charles Russell (1786-1856) both worked for the EIC for many years in India. Together, they amassed enormous fortunes. Sir Henry migrated home to England in 1813. His sons Henry and Charles followed in 1819-1820. Sir Henry in 1820 purchased a large country house and landed estate, Swallowfield, in Berkshire (near Reading). Here Sir Henry’s son Henry lived with his wife and children. Charles Russell was elected Tory MP for Reading, 1830-1837 and 1841-1847 and later became the Chairman of the Great Western Railway. Many of Russell junior’s letters are about how to spend his Indian wealth and how to assist his brother’s political career.  But these letters (see PDF link below) also tell the story of Mary Wilson, the 'illegitimate' daughter born to Henry and an Indian woman in Hyderabad. Henry brought her ‘home’ to England at the same time as he returned with his wife and children. But he sent her on a different ship, gave her the surname ‘Wilson’ to hide her identity, placed her under the guardianship of his friend from India, Major Pitman, and (while paying a maintenance allowance) refused to meet her or to acknowledge that he was her father. The unpublished letters of Sir Henry Russell illustrate two dilemmas of EIC migration: the problem of nabobs’ reintegration into English society, and the problem of the national, racial and class identities of the migrant children they had produced with Indian partners on the subcontinent. The original letters are held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Correspondence between Sir Henry Russell (1783-1852) Major Robert Pitman and Mary Wilson, courtesy of Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, ref: MS. Eng. lett. c. 170. fols. 1-127)

Migrating ‘home’

The EIC was established as a trade monopoly, and the accumulation of wealth was always a priority for its employees. The Russell family history illustrates the ways in which service in India could catapult EIC employees and their families upward in the class system within a single generation. Sir Henry Russell, 1st baronet (1751-1836) was the son of a merchant in Dover, Kent and was trained as a barrister. By the 1820s, he had become a substantial landowner and a member of the Privy Council. His son Henry was a Justice of the Peace in Berkshire, while his son Charles was an MP. His daughter Henrietta also married an MP; his son Whitworth Russell played a major role in Victorian prison reform, advocating harsh disciplinary regimes in English penitentiaries. When the Russells migrated home from India in the 1810 and 1820s, they were exceptionally wealthy, and this Indian wealth allowed them to become part of the British political and social establishment. Their migration was two-fold: migrating to India in the 1790s gave them access to power and riches through the East India Company; migrating back to Britain allowed them to translate that wealth into power within the British state.

Mary Wilson’s migration ‘home’ to Britain was very different.  It was not of her own choosing, and did not lead to great wealth and high social position.  Her father Henry chose to raise her in England as an Englishwoman, but not as a member of his family or of his wealthy class position.  Many children migrated during the era of the British empire because their parents or the government ordered them to do so. Children born outside marriage in India often remained behind when their fathers returned to Britain.  It was more common in the 1700s than in the 1800s for EIC men to send their mixed-race children ‘home’ to Britain for education, marriage or employment.  Boy children who remained in India could serve as clerks in the Company service, but because of their ‘mixed’ race could not gain appointments as military officers, surgeons or civil servants in the Company service.  Mixed-race daughters in India sometimes married EIC military officers or surgeons.  Those children sent ‘home’ to Britain only infrequently entered the upper classes of British society; girls tended to be better integrated into affluent society, through marriage supported financially by the Indian wealth of their fathers. We do not know why Henry Russell chose to send Mary to England, but it was not unusual for men of his social position to acknowledge their duty to support 'illegitimate' children financially. Accepting this responsibility was a normal part of 18th- and 19th-century masculinity. Accepting Mary into his family circle, however, would have threatened the Russells’ new status within the British establishment.

Henry Russell’s response to the migration of his daughter Mary to Britain illustrates the complicated flows and counter-flows of population between Britain and India in the Company era. His acceptance of her right to be maintained by him in Britain as a child and adolescent was matched by his determination that she (in sharp contrast to his 'legitimate' daughters at Swallowfield) would work for her living as an adult. His refusal to acknowledge publicly that he was her father—or to entertain her in his family home—made her marginal status in his family conspicuously clear. 

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Questions and Student Activities

Some might read the story of Mary Wilson as a tragedy. Although Sir Henry Russell provided for her, his refusal to acknowledge her as his daughter meant that she was unaware of her true identity and background. Despite this, some might say she received far more than children born in similar circumstances to British male colonists in India, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere in the colonial world. Consider:

  • How might Mary’s life have been different from the lives of other ‘mixed’ children who remained in the colonies? Are there any examples from her time that you can use to compare?
  • Can you list the factors that led to Sir Henry Russell’s actions?
  • Mary’s case asks questions about the issues of nationality and identity. Would she have been considered ‘British’ or ‘Indian’ in her time? How about today? If things have changed, what developments have led to those changes?