Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXX No. No. 14, November 16-30, 2020

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

Sriram V

A Place for Biden

Ever since Joe Biden, now the US President elect, announced his intentions to run for that high office, interest in his ancestor with Indian connections has peaked. He had himself spoken of his great great great great great-grandfather George Biden, who after service with the East India Company, settled down in India, after marriage with a native woman. It is significant that no records of a George Biden have as yet surfaced.

In August this year, an article by Tim Willasey-Wilsey, Visiting Professor of War Studies, King’s College, London, was published in the website gatewayhouse.in (see Biden’s Ancestral Chennai Connect – https://www.gatewayhouse.in/joe-biden-chennai/). It has since made the rounds on social media. This concerned Christopher Biden, who was Captain of several ships of the East India Company and then returned to England in the 1830s only to come back to Madras a few years later. Here he rose in position and society, eventually becoming Master Attendant of the Madras Harbour and was known for his charitable disposition. He died here in 1858 and a memorial plaque to him is in St. George’s Cathedral. Willasey-Wilsey has speculated that this man may have been Joseph Biden’s ancestor, though his name was not George. There are other loopholes – Joe Biden is a Catholic while Christopher Biden, though Irish was clearly Protestant, given his memorial at St George’s.

Captain Christopher Biden seated,with his dog Hector.Courtesy:artnet.

Also, there are no records of Christopher having wedded an Indian woman. He, in 1819 had married Harriott, a Derbyshire girl and she accompanied him on his second and final voyage to Madras. The couple lost a daughter en-route. Mrs Biden lived long, dying in 1880, in the UK.

There however appears to have been another daughter. And this is evident from the proceedings of the Committee of the Biden Testimonial Fund, which was formed immediately after his death, in 1858. This was headed by (afterwards Sir) Walter Elliot who is remembered today principally for having excavated the stupa at Amaravati and shipped much of it to the British Museum, leaving some of the remnants at the Government Museum, Madras. The artefacts are even now known as the Elliot Marbles, after the more famous Greek equivalents named after Elgin, even though the Amaravati stupa was of limestone.

North Railway Terminus Park, where Biden Place once stood

Be that as it may, Elliot and his Committee worked hard on the Biden fund and collected donations from Bombay, Calcutta and of course Madras, all testimony to the popularity that Capt. Biden enjoyed. The money, it was resolved, would be used “for the construction of a building or the endowment of an institution called the Biden Home for Sailors, the erection of a monument over his grave and of a tablet in the cathedral, and the payment of his funeral expenses.” The last appears to indicate that Biden, for all his sterling qualities, had not made sufficient money. This is further buttressed by the fact that the Advocate General, the Hon. Sydney Smythe petitioned the Honourable Court of Directors (the East India Company was still functioning) for an annuity for Mrs. Biden and her daughter, in view of “his long, zealous and loyal service”.

This the Company agreed to and the wife became entitled to a pension of 50 pounds per annum thereafter.

In the meanwhile, a sum of Rs 9,696-1-0 was collected and out of this, after paying for the tablet and the funeral expenses, Rs 8,017-0-3 remained. It was deemed that this amount was too small for the construction of a Biden Home for Sailors and so the money was made over to the existing Sailors’ Home at Royapuram with the proviso that the institution change its name to honour Biden. This the latter body was most happy to do and so it became the Biden Home for Sailors. It appears to have also been known as the Biden Home for Destitute Seamen. In 1939, the Madras Tercentenary Volume noted that the building was no longer being used for its original purpose. As per Gabriel Sathianathan, a long-standing friend and reader of Madras Musings, Biden Place as it came to be known, was used as a guest house for captains of the merchant navy. He recalls it to have been a huge compound with pillars announcing the name Biden Place at the entrance. Karthik Bhatt, a regular contributor recalls visiting Biden Place in the early 1990s when it was residence for Port Trust officers. Located at the end of North Railway Terminal Road, Royapuram, Biden Place has made way for the large oil tanks by the harbour. Beside this is a park that is practically under the Royapuram flyover and in its centre is a square with an anchor moulded out of cement. This establishes the naval connect to what was once Biden Place.

Christopher Biden had many great qualities but one of the most heart-warming stories about him is the way he exposed trafficking in children, all along the Madras coast. This was in 1839, while he was serving as the Beach Magistrate, Madras. Early in November that year, the Maydeen Bux, a native brig flying British colours and under the command of a nakhuda (native captain), arrived at the Madras harbour. Its cargo was timber but when searched it was found to contain 32 children, aged between four and ten. The vessel was immediately impounded as per the instructions of Biden and the nakhoda and other crew arrested. Notwithstanding their protests that the children were all employed as cookhouse assistants, they were charged with kidnapping the boys and girls for sale as slaves.

While the story does not have a happy ending, there is no doubt that Biden emerges as a hero. He immediately alerts the Government over the matter and then with the help of a translator, manages to get the names and details of the ancestral villages of each of the children. Even as this is progressing, another vessel, the Srivatsa Lakshmi, arrives with a similar group of children. This too is impounded and Biden takes charge of the human cargo. Among all the correspondence that is generated, one is particularly touching – it being the month of November, Biden petitions the Government for a supply of blankets so that the children can remain warm.

In the meanwhile, the Collectors and District Magistrates of all the towns that form present-day Andhra are alerted about these children, it being established that all of them are Telugu-speaking. Based on the details provided by the boys and girls, teams are sent by the respective district officers to the villages named and contacts established with the parents. It then transpires that this is a regular racket. A read of the official responses received is revealing – some are happy to deny the existence of any such practice in their area and with equal certainty are glad to name other districts where it happens, others just brush it off as something that happens all the time. This is common practice especially during times of famine writes an official. But there are some who are more sensitive and one of these is WU Arbuthnot, Magistrate of Vishakhapatnam. He sends out search parties with single-minded focus and eventually, as many relatives as possible of the children are rounded up and sent to Madras as witnesses.

The testimonies of the children are gut-wrenching. Most have no idea if they were sold and where they were bound. Many had had their names changed. Interrogation of the seamen revealed that the children were to be sold as slaves in the Dutch East Indies. There was however a legal issue – not one of the parents or guardians were willing to come forward to prosecute and so, at Biden’s insistence and with pressure from the Governor, Lord Elphinstone, the Government acted as prosecutor, with George Norton, Advocate General, leading. That there were vested interests is clear – there was a repeatedly expressed view that a ship ought not to be sequestered for so long, especially “at this time of the year.” The trial ended in acquittal. The judge, Edward Gambier, let the accused off on a technicality for which Norton very nicely apologised. The government however censured him for his lapse.

Biden was left with the task of reuniting the children with their parents or near relatives. At the point at which the record stops, he still had 15 of them in his custody. We can only hope that they eventually led happy lives.

At his suggestion it became law all along Madras Presidency to have ships searched for unaccompanied children being kept captive and perhaps that did see some reduction in their being bought and sold.

 

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