Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter IX (A Tragic History)

indigo-plantation-granger[1]

On our way to the library, I passed beside a weathered portrait of my father. I recognized the painting from my childhood, though I remembered it being more colorful than it actually was. I resembled him closely right down to our upswept auburn hair, though he was, admittedly, quite pale.

I suppose that I should say a bit more about his exploits and the circumstances of my childhood, although I honestly despise the kind of books that spill ink over long tangential asides as if their authors were paid by the letter. Ultimately, however, I consider it better to include a few pages of exposition than to potentially confuse my readers by restricting myself to hints and innuendo about the past, as I’ve done until now.

When I first began to consider the prospect of writing this book, I thought that I would make it a lengthy third-person epic beginning with my father’s birth in Scotland. But two considerations ultimately dissuaded me from this course of action. The first was that I would have been compelled to write at length about people and places unfamiliar to me personally, which would have ruined the honesty of this account. How, for example, would I have portrayed my mother, a woman whom I’d never met nor even seen in a daguerreotype? My second concern was that I didn’t wish to seem to be casting judgment on the India of my father’s youth, a civilization I never knew beyond stories of cock-fights, native mistresses, and drunken brawls, a broken but rambunctious dreamscape that saw the British hungrily engorging themselves on the carcass of a dying aboriginal culture. I was born just as that old India was being torched and a new, gentrified colonial holding was taking its place on the funeral pyre.

My father John Maxwell first came to India in 1806 when he was only 16 years old. He was ostensibly seeking adventure and fortune, but I think it was more likely that he was escaping the influence of his father, a Presbyterian minister from Aberdeen who, I was told by my aunts, used to beat all of his children regularly to the point of bleeding. He began his career in Calcutta working as a Europe-shopkeeper on Court House Street. Europe-shops sold all sorts of goods in those days from carriages to coffins and could turn a great deal of profit if properly managed. My father’s store was evidently one of the finest in the city, celebrated for its Portuguese wines.

Independently of his partners in the shop, he soon made a small fortune for himself supplying goods to what were then the remote settlements of Cawnpore and Fatehgurh. In those days, budgerows would only make the trip upcountry a few times per month and there was great profit to be made servicing the more inaccessible stations of the Doab. His work made him the acquaintance of Captain Nathan Blenkinsopp, an elderly English commander of one of the several native infantry divisions at Cawnpore. Appreciative of both my father’s wit and talent for consuming copious amounts of liquor without collapsing, Captain Blenkinsopp eventually arranged for him to become Agent to the Army and Military Store Contractor. Needless to say, these proved to be most lucrative commissions.

Rupee Pandit, my grandmother, was a Nagar Brahmin and an ayah in Captain Blenkinsopp’s household. Her given-name at birth was of course not Rupee, but this is what Captain Blenkinsopp always called her, and the moniker stuck. It was remarkable to me that she was able to transform that sardonic name into an endearing one. In fact, I don’t know her original name even now, though I always knew the family to be called Pandit. She told me many times that our ancestors were descended from officers in the army of Alexander the Great who’d come to India two millennia ago to fight the elephants of King Porus. The blue eyes of several members of the Pandit clan were considered proof of this theory. Although I would have loved to have believed this tale, in my heart, I knew that the aforementioned color more likely came by way of Liverpool than Pella.

Rupee’s daughter, my mother Elizabeth, had such a fair complexion that most people assumed that she was the product of an affair with Captain Blenkinsopp, whose English wife was long since dead and whose son by his first marriage, Daniel, was then away at school in England. This rumor about Elizabeth’s parentage was only fortified by her being raised as the Captain’s ward, to say nothing of the open prominence which my grandmother enjoyed in that household. It was never made clear to me whether or not my mother formally married my father, though the silence on this subject leads me to assume that there was in fact no ceremony. Still, they certainly lived together as husband and wife until her death in childbirth in 1830. Afterward, Rupee left Captain Blenkinsopp’s villa and came to live with my father, eventually becoming something like his personal secretary, an extraordinary role for a native woman. Captain Blenkinsopp evidently cared enough about her interests to ensure that she was well-educated despite her station and well compensated upon his death. He even found sporadic employment for her brother Pulkit as a drummer in the 56th Native Infantry. The poor man was not of sound mind, but he was well meaning and incapable of malice.

I do not know if my father loved my mother. By the same token, I don’t have any especial recollection of much warmth between him and Molly either. This is not to say that my stepmother was a frigid or unkind woman. She invariably did her best to behave with as much compassion and consideration toward me as toward Vivian when I was a child, and she allowed Rupee to continue living with us at the Highlands as buriah ayah along with Pulkit. Still, it was always somewhat of a stuffy household that my father and stepmother kept, even after the birth of Peter in 1832. I remember wondering if they ever visited each other’s bedrooms.

In those days, there was still an old law in force in India forbidding Europeans from owning substantial amounts of land in their own right. Since I was native-born, my enterprising father was able to use my name to accumulate a great deal of property. After he died suddenly from an apoplectic fit after a tiger hunt in 1836—just one year before the law was changed, incidentally—I   inherited controlling interest in five indigo factories in addition to outright ownership of 36 villages, several cotton presses, indigo vats, and even a rum distillery at Jajmau and an opium clipper called the Nereid docked at Calcutta. Altogether, the property was valued at 13 lakhs.

Since I was only six years old when I came into this inheritance, my father’s will stipulated that my property be put under the management of Daniel, the son of Captain Blenkinsopp. He had recently returned from England after his father suffered a sudden bout of paralysis. Daniel’s display of filial piety as he cared for his dying parent evidently made a strong impression on my own father, who promised to look after Daniel following Captain Blenkinsopp’s death. It took place but one year before his own. His final testament actualized his promise.

Daniel, whom everyone assumed to be my mother Elizabeth’s half-brother, promptly formed a company called Blenkinsopp and Co. and managed my inheritance during my upbringing in Scotland. Vivian and I lived with my father’s spinster sisters, their father, the brutal minister, having long since died, choked to death on haggis. By the time that we sailed back to India in 1847, Daniel was a regular nabob. The family’s wealth seemed unlimited. Returning as I was to the District after so long an absence in an abstemious Scottish household, needless to say, I began to positively hemorrhage money.

What followed were the happiest two years of my life, at least before a sudden fit of coldness descended upon Vivian that all the intensity of my love for her could not thaw. Christopher, Daniel, and I spent a fortune together gambling, buying carriages, and throwing enormous burra khanas on my estates. I remember how often Peter would beg to accompany us on our nightly adventures. We treated him like a child, though, and often took malicious pleasure in holding out hope and then ignoring him. The conviction with which I felt him to be my junior is somewhat ludicrous in retrospect. After all, he was only two years younger than I was. Daniel was much older than anyone else in my circle of friends, already in his late forties. Perhaps it made him feel young again to spend time with Christopher and me. It was our private joke that we never smoked ganja with him.

My readers will wonder about the ramifications of this wasteful state of affairs. Vivian, who had evidently taken a childhood fancy to Daniel before we left for Scotland and allowed the wound to suppurate, of course said nothing to criticize us. Molly, a woman of the old order, similarly did not ask any questions, particularly because she favored Daniel very highly. Besides, Peter had inherited a great deal of money from my father which she herself was responsible for managing, so she likely had troubles of her own to occupy her attentions. For all of these reasons, no one supervised Daniel or inquired after his motives too closely. He had by then effectively managed my estates for nearly two decades in my absence. Besides, reckless spending was commonplace among young aristocrats in the District. We all competed with each other in heedlessness, and I had more to prove than anyone because I was self-conscious about my parentage.

After Vivian announced that she was going to marry Daniel, life suddenly became altogether grimmer for me at the Highlands. I spent most of my time smoking ganja and charas with Christopher. I abandoned India for Scotland soon after Julia was born in 1849 and lived the life of a hermit among my old haunts.  Only two years later, though, I was compelled to return to the Highlands again when news of a disaster broke.

What happened, in brief, was this. In March of 1850, Daniel vanished. He claimed to have gone off to Singapore to visit his uncle, Admiral Brandon Blenkinsopp. He never reached his destination, however, and it was presumed that he was robbed on the open road and killed. Then, only weeks after his disappearance, out of the blue, news broke that Blenkinsopp and Co. had failed for 15 lakhs. Native and European creditors alike began to swarm around the carcass of my holdings like eye flies, all demanding their share of the decaying rot. I soon learned that most of my land had been heavily mortgaged by Daniel, but thankfully, property technically in my name could not be auctioned off to rectify the debts of Blenkinsopp and Co. For this reason, I believed that I still had a chance to salvage my inheritance.

By the time that I returned in 1851, the sircars and shroffs and virtually the entire native staff of Blenkinsopp and Co. had vanished. The Sub-Deputy Collector of Revenue (E. A. Reade-I’ll never forget his name) wished to make a severe example out of me and threatened to seize the entirety of my property unless I could immediately pay what was owed to the Government in back taxes. This man was an ancient enemy of my father’s, and since I was my mother’s son, he saw me as less than his equal, to say the least. I wrote to the Commissioner of Revenue at Allahabad begging for more time, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. When I urged my native collectors to demand rent more scrupulously from our ryots than they had in the past, Reade accused me of bullying and terrorizing them simply because we’d seized some cattle from a raving old man and sold it outright for profit. The farmer in question had paid irregular taxes for years and dared to be surly to my men when they reached his farm. He certainly would have gotten much worse treatment under a native Indian zamindar. But I cannot dwell on this topic at length. It pains me to remember how corrupt and confused the state of my estates had become.

Completely unable to pay back what was owed, I was forced to watch in silence as the bulk of my property was put up for auction. Most of my farms and villages were bought up by one Kullulooddeen Khan, who agreed to provide me the insulting allowance of 29 pounds a month. I passed Reade on the road soon after this, and he made a sarcastic remark under his breath loudly enough for me to hear it. When I told him to go to hell, I caught the attention of several native passersby who began to whisper to each other. So he noisily called me a “bankrupt nigger” to show them he meant business and continued on his way. It was soon after this that I left India again. I thought that I would never return.

The Maxwells lost everything but the Highlands. Peter, recently married and a father for the first time, was put in charge of the estate by Cruttenden and Co. of Cawnpore, to whom the property had been mortgaged. Molly personally appealed to the director of the company and his wife for mercy and sacrificed a great deal of the family’s remaining money as collateral (effectively impoverishing me completely, incidentally). Compared to me, I suppose Cruttenden and Co. saw Peter as the true heir to what was left of the magic of the Maxwell name in the District. As a matter of fact, over the period of the next few years, he managed to pay off everything that was owed on the estate, using the remainder of his inheritance and increasingly meager profits from the yearly indigo harvests to do so. He was even eventually named Deputy Opium Agent in charge of all the East India Company’s poppy fields in the vicinity of Cawnpore, a singular honor.  The family was still far from prosperous, however. Clans like the Churchers and Joneses had long since eclipsed our own in the District.

Here, then, as I wrote at the beginning of this account, were the leavings of my father’s kingdom: a run-down mansion with a red tiled roof and a fanciful name, two stories high on a lonely plain. There was also a factory with some vats that was close by, a drying house, and the assistant’s bungalow where Christopher lived. The rest was only a fading memory. I was fortunate to still own the opium clipper Nereid, which was beyond Molly’s grasp when she liquidated the family’s holdings.

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