Two brothers, William and Christopher Biden, had served in armed merchant vessels of the British East India Company in early 19th.Century. The vessels plied between Britain, Mumbai, Colombo, Chennai, and Kolkata. While William died of a stroke, early in life, Christopher went on to make a lot of money and stayed in Chennai for 19 years till his death in 1858.
According to British diplomat-turned historian, Tim Willasey-Wilsey of King’s College London, William and Christopher Biden could well be the India-connected ancestors of the US President-elect, Joe Biden. In a speech he made at the Bombay Stock Exchange on July 24, 2013 when he was US Vice President, Biden had talked of one George Biden who was an India-linked ancestor.
In an article written in August this year for the Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Willasey-Wilsey says that, like Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Biden could also have had roots in Chennai.
“Kamala Harris spoke movingly of her discussions with her grandfather P.V.Gopalan as they walked along the (Besant Nagar) beach at Chennai. It now appears that her running-mate Joe Biden may also have ancestors who strolled along the same stretch of sand (further North) two centuries before,” says Willasey-Wilsey, a diplomat-turned Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.
Two years after his Mumbai oration, Biden said 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, Joe Biden claimed.
But Willesey-Wilsey found that there are no records of a George Biden in India and that he had married an Indian woman there. But there were certainly 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 (modern 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,” Willasey-Wilsey says.
The book carried a “snappy title” which ran thus: “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 inordinately long title, the book is fascinating, Willasey-Wilsey says. It is on the very real challenges of managing a diverse crew, passengers and (often) soldiers on a long taxing voyage on a tiny ship. Christopher 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.
Christopher Biden’s theme was that if you treat people with respect they will not abuse your trust.
It seems that his putative descendent, Joe Biden, has inherited this credo. Joe won’t call his rival Trump “sleepy old Donald” or something to that effect.
“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” Christopher writes.
He disapproved of flogging but reluctantly thought it needed to be retained as an ultimate sanction. That too is like the current American President-elect.
“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,” Christopher recommends.
He had married Harriott Freeth in his native Derbyshire in 1819, and had a son and two daughters. Unlike many of his colleagues who were Scottish, the Bidens were from England. Perhaps Biden felt he was too young to retire aged 41. So he bought a Chittagong-built teak ship of 712 tons, 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.
“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,” Willasey-Wilsey says.
The author goes on to say that 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. But nowhere is there a mention of an Indian wife but Christopher seems the most likely candidate if Joe Biden indeed had an ancestor in India, Willasey-Wilsey says in conclusion.
(The featured picture at the top is that of Tim Willasey-Wilsey, Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London, and a former senior British diplomat)