On October 3, 1692, Nathaniel Higginson became president of Fort St George, the centre of the East India Company’s fledgling operations in southern India. Like Elihu Yale, his predecessor, Higginson was born in New England, a part of Britain’s new colonies in America. But the two couldn’t be more different in style and temperament.

Chroniclers such as James Talboys Wheeler and Henry Davison Love describe Higginson’s six-year term as “one of peace and progress”. In contrast, Yale’s tenure was muddied by controversy: he was accused of colluding with a private trader to siphon off Company goods, and his contentious decisions cast a long shadow on Higginson’s time as president.

Although Higginson didn’t know it then, the year 1692 was significant in his life story for another reason. That March, in faraway Salem, Massachusetts, the first of the witch trials had opened on a property close to the Higginson home. Higginson had left Salem in 1674, but his family – including his father, a minister in the Puritan First Church, a Protestant denomination – still lived there.

Suspicion and rumours created a miasma of madness in the town. Anyone showing erratic behaviour was accused of being a witch. Higginson’s own family did not escape the hysteria. His sister Ann Dolliver, who had been depressed and melancholic since her husband’s death, was forced to appear before the adjudicating council and imprisoned for a few months.

Elihu Yale. Credit: Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Contentious time

Nathaniel Higginson was born on October 11, 1652, in Guilford, Connecticut. His grandfather, Francis, also a minister, had left England with his family at a contentious time. The ebbing of royal power and the assertion of Parliament coincided with a period of religious reformation and upheaval across Europe. In England, the different Protestant sects were engaged in vitriolic doctrinal disputes among themselves and with the Roman Catholic Church.

In America too, dissension was rife. Puritans like the Higginsons were caught in a rivalry with another Protestant sect, the Quakers. Meanwhile, the colonists vied with the French, the Dutch and the Native American tribes for control over the fur trade and land beyond New England. All told, life was precarious in 17th century America.

Higginson’s father John tried to return to England in 1669, but a storm pulled his ship into harbour in Salem. By happenstance, the community needed a pastor and so John settled there for the rest of his life, trading one uncertainty for another.

Higginson graduated from Harvard College in 1670, and four years later, departed for the land his grandfather had left behind – England. The visit was meant to be brief. The first of the French and Indian wars had impoverished Britain’s American colonies and Higginson was in search of a better life. In England, he was first a tutor to the children of an aristocratic family, and then a supervisor at the Mint in the London Tower.

Move to India

In 1683, he sailed to India as a trader for the East India Company. In 1688, he became the first mayor of the Madras Corporation, which had been set up by royal charter and which, in a radical move, included people of different ethnicities: “one Armenian, one or two Hebrews, one or two Portuguese, one or two Gentoos, and one Moor (or Mussalman).”

Four years later, as the second most important member of the Council, he found himself elevated to president of Fort St George when Yale conceded his position. That same year, he married an Englishwoman, Elizabeth Richards, whose father had been a Company trader in Balasore in the east. The couple went on to have nine children, four of whom died in childhood.

As president, Higginson had not only to look into his predecessor’s alleged misdeeds but also maintain a careful balancing act with other forces concentrated in the region. In 1690, a faction of the Marathas, led by Shivaji’s son Rajaram, sought refuge at the fort of Jinji, 155 km southwest of Fort St George. As it happened, they were soon besieged by Mughal forces led by Zulfikar Khan, the first Nawab of the Carnatic, and Swarup Singh Bundela.

Zulfikar Khan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The siege lasted eight years. During this time, Higginson chose a position of careful neutrality. He refused to mediate when the Marathas captured Ali Mardan Khan, a Mughal general, and the Armenian traders asked the English to step in. Nor did he pick sides when Zulfikar Khan imprisoned Mohammad Kam Baksh, Aurangzeb’s son who had tried to negotiate with the Marathas on his own.

It could be argued that Higginson had his reasons to maintain nonpartisanship. He couldn’t afford to antagonise the Mughals since it was the nawab, as the emperor’s representative, who issued farmans or land grants and the English wanted the nearby villages of Egmore and Purasawallkam.

In 1697, the English nearly clashed with the Mughals as Higginson vacillated over extending a loan to Zulfikar Khan. An advancing Maratha army from Thanjavur and Aurangzeb’s clear instructions to resume the siege at Jinji averted the showdown. In early January 1698, the Jinji fort was finally breached. Six months later, Higginson relinquished his presidency.

Company man

Higginson’s tenure at Fort St George saw a number of successes for the East India Company. As president, he had the task of securing the Company’s fortunes, strategically and financially. Pirates were threatening its ships on the high seas and Armenian traders, who had been welcomed into the fort, were known to have dealings with them. Wielding the authority of his position, Higginson convinced the Armenians to toe the Company line, solving one problem. To consolidate finances, he imposed regular customs duties on goods entering and leaving the fort and convinced merchants – mainly Hindus – to form a joint-stock company instead of operating via one chief merchant.

Crucially, during his time at Fort St George, Higginson worked to balance the interests and sentiments of various religious groups. When a dispute arose between two priests over a mosque in Triplicane (now Thiruvallikeni), he stepped in to mediate. When the bishop at Santhome had to sanction a pastor at Cuddalore, he ensured the appointment conformed to the interests of the Company. And when a Yale-appointed committee overseeing the revenues of two temples (“pagodas”) found itself in dispute, Higginson turned things over to the original group of merchants.

In 1697, he supported British traders in their efforts to secure Anjengo (now Achuthengo), an important trading outpost off the Malabar coast, after Umayamma Rani, the queen at Attingal, withdrew trading privileges granted in 1693. The British staved off a blockade and resumed the fort’s construction that boosted trade in pepper and cotton.

Volley of charges

Despite these triumphs, the spectre of Elihu Yale loomed large over much of Higginson’s time at Fort St George. Yale was accused of conspiring with Katherine Nicks, a female private trader, to steal Company goods. There were also accusations that he had allowed the construction of ramparts and fort walls without authorisation from the council. He also benefited dubiously from undeclared profits of the China trade made by his brother Thomas.

Following the mysterious death of three English members of the council, suspicious fingers were pointed at Yale, who in turn complained of being held against his will. Higginson strongly refuted the allegations in letters to London. The charges and counter-charges were finally buried when Yale left India in 1699, having made a substantial fortune in diamond trade.

Higginson was succeeded by Thomas Pitt, a former pirate whose fortune helped him win a parliament seat. Pitt’s grandson and great-grandson went on to become British prime ministers: William Pitt the Elder and William Pitt the Younger.

Pain of separation

Higginson left India with his young family in early 1700 and stayed in London the next 10 years. He always intended to return to America, especially after he was “invited” to consider the governorship of Massachusetts in place of the unpopular incumbent, Joseph Dudley.

His long stay away worried his father and brother. Their letters to him detailed the precarious lives of the ever-growing Higginson family amidst the wars with France. The tone of the letters varied: earnest and cajoling on some occasions, resigned and bitter on others.

His brother was keen to set up trade with the East Indies. In one letter, he wrote: “Dear Brother, Let not the distance of place be a means to make us forget each other. Remember the good days and reciprocal affections we once enjoyed; and let me be again happy in your company here.”

His father reiterated the hope that Higginson would do his bit for his family. In a long letter, giving him news of people who had passed away, he wrote dolefully: “But what is our life? It is but a vapour that appears for a little while, and then vanishes away.”

Yet Higginson never did make it home. He died of smallpox in London in October 1708. His father passed away two months later.

This article is part of a series on notable Americans who visited India before mid-20th century. Read the rest of the series here.