Kamala Harris spoke movingly of her discussions with her grandfather PV Gopalan as they walked along the beach at Chennai. It now appears that her running-mate Joe Biden may also have ancestors who strolled along the same stretch of sand two centuries before.
Joe Biden first made the claim of an Indian connection in 2013. Two years later he elaborated that he was descended from George Biden, his “great, great, great, great, great grandfather” who was a Captain in the East India Company. After retirement George Biden decided to settle in India and married an Indian woman.
There are no records of a George Biden in India but there were two Bidens who became Captains of East India Company armed merchant ships (known as Indiamen). They were brothers. Both started out as humble Third and Fourth Mates in their early teens on the arduous route between London and India via the Cape of Good Hope. It was dangerous and uncomfortable work but the prospect of advancement made it attractive for sons of financially distressed but aspirational families. William Henry Biden started out in the Midas (414 tons). Eventually he would command the ships Anna Robertson, Ganges and Thalia (570 tons) before he died of “apoplexy” (a stroke) at Rangoon on 25th March 1843 aged 51. His were relatively minor cargo ships which traded mainly in Asian waters. His older brother Christopher Biden, by contrast, became a well-known figure in Madras (Chennai) for many years and he did settle in India.
Christopher began as a Fourth Mate. By 1807 he was sailing in the 1333 ton Royal George which made seven return voyages to India before 1818. By 1815 he had become its Chief Mate. In 1821 he became Captain of the Princess Charlotte of Wales (978 tons) and made four return journeys between England and Calcutta (modern Kolkata). He also captained the new Royal George (1426 tons) on one voyage. Each return journey lasted a year. Apart from being extremely gruelling each trip provided the opportunity for significant personal enrichment. In 1830 he retired from the Princess Charlotte and settled down in Blackheath, near London, to complete a book on which he had clearly been working for many years.
It carried the snappy title ‘Naval Discipline. Subordination contrasted with insubordination; or, a view of the necessity for passing a law establishing an efficient naval discipline on board ships in the Merchant-Service; comprising a valuable record of occurrences on board various ships; evincing the advantages arising from good order on the one hand, and the disasters attending the want of it on the other.’
In spite of its title it is a fascinating book (available to read online) which focused on the very real challenges of managing a diverse crew, passengers and (often) soldiers on a long taxing voyage on a tiny ship. He seems to have solicited stories from fellow Indiaman captains and the result is a kaleidoscope of dismal tales of drunkenness, insubordination, insolence, theft, murder and what we would now call mental health issues against a background of storms, dangerous reefs, men falling overboard, hostile ships, navigational errors and shipwrecks.
Respect and trust
His theme was that if you treat people with respect they will not abuse your trust. “I have had fancy balls, transparencies, plays, &c. in commemoration of those glorious days, and of the coronation, the birth-day of our gracious Sovereign, &c. and in no one instance has this indulgence been abused, or the duty of the ship neglected. I have frequently allowed seamen to dance on the lee-side of the quarter-deck. None of these trespasses upon the over rigid system of discipline have ever produced the least source of annoyance, knowing, as I trust I always did, where to draw the line, where to stop” (p.170).
He disapproved of flogging but reluctantly thought it needed to be retained as an ultimate sanction. “Flogging should only be resorted to when all other modes of punishment fail, or the offence is of such a magnitude that no doubt can remain in the mind of the captain and his officers of the offender being a fit object to receive so exemplary a punishment. The more I consider and reflect on the subject, the more fixed is the conviction on my own mind that it will be unwise and unsafe to deprive the commander of so necessary a power of control” (p.175).
Biden had married Harriott Freeth in his native Derbyshire (unlike many of his colleagues who were Scottish, the Bidens were from England) in 1819 and had a son and two daughters. Perhaps Biden felt he was too young to retire aged 41. So he bought a Chittagong-built teak ship of 712 tons, the Victory and sailed her on two trips to Colombo and Bombay in 1832 and 1834. On the second trip he discovered Nelson Island in the Chagos Archipelago.
Reputation for diligence
We do not know how financially successful the Victory venture proved; but it was innately hazardous to own a ship without sharing the risk with other investors. He may have lost money which was why in 1839 he set off to India aboard the Marquis Camden with his wife and daughter to become Master Attendant and Marine Storekeeper at Madras; in charge of shipping. On the voyage to India his daughter died and was doubtless buried at sea.
During his 19 years in Madras, Biden gained a reputation for diligence; for example placing lights along the coast to prevent maritime disasters. He was highly imaginative; constantly suggesting improvements for maritime safety. He was also actively involved in charities for widows and orphans of mariners of all nationalities including Indians.
His son, Horatio, joined him in Madras in 1846 and went on to become a Colonel in the Madras Artillery. There were also a few other Bidens in India; one of whom was headmaster of La Martiniere College in Calcutta (Kolkata).
In 1858 Christopher Biden died in Madras and is commemorated by a plaque in the Cathedral there. Apart from the memorial tablet in the Cathedral there is also a portrait of Biden by George Chinnery seated with his dog, Hector. His wife Harriott lived on in London until 1880. Some of her papers are kept at Cambridge University and testify to her husband’s kindness and their mutual love. Nowhere is there mention of an Indian wife but Christopher seems the most likely candidate if Joe Biden indeed had an ancestor in India.
Tim Willasey-Wilsey is Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London and a former senior British diplomat.
This article was originally published by Gateway House.