History revisited

Robert Melville: The artist, Indophile and imperialist who founded Grindlays Bank

Robert Melville Grindlay’s life is one of the many metaphors for the history and ambivalence of the British Empire in India.

By the end of the 19th century, the operations of the erstwhile banking giant, Grindlays, expanded to include a substantial portion of the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and regions of Africa and Southeast Asia. From conducting its operation solely from London for decades, Grindlays opened offices in Calcutta (1864), Bombay (1865), Shimla (1912), Delhi (1923), Lahore (1924), and Peshawar (1926). The firm underwent many changes in partnerships and acquisitions and attendant changes in appellation, including a merger with the National Bank of India (1948).

In 2000, ANZ Grindlays was acquired for $1.3 billion by Standard Chartered, following which the name Grindlays petered out of the public imagination. While many will know this already, very few know that the founder of Grindlays – arguably the first chief banker of the British Empire’s military expansions in Asia – was much more than a banking brand in his lifetime. He possessed not only infinite love for India’s landscapes and ruling elites, but also what Rudyard Kipling called the White Man’s Burden – the obligation to civilise and rule the subcontinent, through a sovereign dispensation.

Grindlays headquarters in London. Photo credit: E E, Bedford Lemere and Company/Wikimedia Commons.
Grindlays headquarters in London. Photo credit: E E, Bedford Lemere and Company/Wikimedia Commons.

Route to banking

Robert Melville Grindlay was born in 1786 at St Marylebone, at a time when the British Empire and Governor-General Warren Hastings were enacting controversial policies in Bengal. William Pitt’s India Act of 1784 intended to overhaul the management of the East India Company, marking the roots of a paternalistic form of government in India, which also shaped Grindlay’s early life. In 1803, his father, a London merchant, secured for his 17-year-old son a nomination as a cadet in the East India Company’s military service. A year later, Grindlay was promoted to lieutenant, rising to the rank of captain in 1817, and by 1820, he retired from the Bombay Native Infantry at the age of 34.

During his relatively short military career, Grindlay travelled extensively with his regiment. And on those travels, he produced an opulent volume of sketches and drawings depicting lives and landscapes of Western India. After returning to Britain, he compiled and published them as Scenery, Costumes and Architecture chiefly on the Western Side of India.

Issued in six parts from 1826 to 1830 and comprising of 36 hand-coloured aquatint plates with annotations, the album showcases scenes and subjects inspired by the rich architecture, natural scenery and local customs of western India. The specimens in the book include breathtaking depictions of Bombay, Hyderabad and Gujarat; mountains of the Western Ghats; Hindu temples, ancient caves, tombs and fortresses; and cultural practices such as sati – all meticulously represented in the underlying motif of elaborate colouring and deep contrasts, soft mists, golden sunlight and atmospheric effects.

Preparation for Sati, or the immolation of the Hindu widow, by Robert Melville Grindlay.
Preparation for Sati, or the immolation of the Hindu widow, by Robert Melville Grindlay.

Grindlay was employed as a secretary at the Committee of Embarkation at Bombay, and personal assistant to the governor of Bombay. His artistic and official standing gave him ample opportunity to keep up his correspondences with influential colleagues in the Anglo-Indian Society of India, even after returning to Britain. In 1828, he started an agency house, Leslie & Grindlay, with a partner in Birchin Lane, London.

Initially, the agency helped secure travel arrangements of its clientele, to India and back, procuring sea passages, clearing and shipping baggage. The services graduated to banking operations, including insurance, savings and encashment of cheques and drafts. By 1852 – the year Grindlay retired – the firm had become the most distinguished bankers and agents to the civil and military officials of the business community and the British army in India.

Imperial obligation

Although motivated by classical imperial capitalism, Grindlay’s writing tends to betray a rebellious commitment to the emancipation of the Indian economy and infrastructure. His vision for the imperial obligation that Britain owed to India can be best observed in a pamphlet he wrote around 1837, when he was an agent for the Steam Committees of Kolkata and Madras.

Approach to the Bore Ghaut, Robert Melville Grindlay.
Approach to the Bore Ghaut, Robert Melville Grindlay.

At a time when Chintadripet, a small township neighbouring Madras, had started operating its own railways – arguably India’s first railway line – the Red Hills Railway, Grindlay’s A View of the Present State of the Question as to Steam Communication with India, ardently endorsed the establishment of steam as a medium of locomotion in India, via the Red Sea. The pamphlet seems more significant in the light of the extreme apathy of the British public towards the regulation of the steady sea traffic to India, and the building of Indian Railways, especially in the late 1830s and early ’40s, notwithstanding the disastrous economic and cultural effects of the railway mania in Britain.

Grindlay was attempting to do for steam communication between Europe and India, what Rowland MacDonald Stephenson and Dwarkanauth Tagore were about to do for the railways – passionately endorse a stronger communication between foundries and factories in England, and the vast meccas of mineral and textile resources in India. Like Karl Marx, who believed that the railways would foster the growth of ancillary industries in India, Grindlay believed that unexplored networks of cotton, jute, spices and tea in India could help Britain’s ancillary industries in the east, and also overcome the expenditure of sustaining Britain’s intimate enmity with China.

This was also the time when the Anglo-Chinese wars were brewing, and two years after Grindlay’s pamphlet was published, the First Opium War broke out, concluding later in the concession of Hong Kong to Britain. Grindlay’s dream was realised in 1869, with the opening of the Suez Canal.

Scene in Bombay, by Robert Melville Grindlay.
Scene in Bombay, by Robert Melville Grindlay.

However, what remains as striking as ever is his subtle provocations to the annexations of the commerce of India, in the same breath as stating, “nothing that enriches India can be a matter of indifference to England”. This character of imperial obligation assumed a fiendish face in the late 19th century, when on the one hand millions were dying of famines in the Deccan, Rajputana or the Central Provinces, while the Famine Commission went on with calling for an expansive railway network. The budget for the railways was a hundred times more than that for irrigation canals, whose penetration, in the first place, would have reduced famine mortality a hundred-fold if not more.

Meanwhile, the Kiplings and Mark Twains, supposedly among the finest chroniclers of India’s railways and construction projects, were vacationing in the famine land, in first-class carriages without so much as batting an eyelid.

Life as metaphor

Like Stephenson, who ran The Englishman (an ancestor of the modern-day The Statesman), Grindlay established the periodical Home News (A Summary of European Intelligence for India and the Colonies) in 1847. A bimonthly in London, akin to The Spectator, it featured “an authentic record of European events for the civil and military community of British India and the colonies”. Meanwhile, with the Second Opium War and Anglo-Afghan War, reinforcements of European troops in the Indian army accelerated the roles of the civil and technological arms of colonial governance – the railways, posts and telegraphs. A steady stream of British officials and their families requiring private banking and allied services came knocking on the doors of Grindlays.

Grindlay’s life is one of the many working metaphors for the history and ambivalence of the British Empire in India. While his military career was to be his tutelage into aspects of financing and the need for insurance services, his paintings rendered India into a nubile – and a highly insurable – object of acquisition. He was one in a line of eccentric British Orientalists whose love for India treaded a political universe of grotesque ambiguities. They were never certain whether to civilise India, Britain must have stretched itself, or whether to preserve its Britishness, India ought to have been thoroughly impoverished. The course taken was the latter. Grindlay’s paintings usually veiled this remarkably, as a prolepsis.

With inputs from Dhirendra Shah.

Arup K Chatterjee is the founding chief editor of Coldnoon, an author and academic based in New Delhi.

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