The British Empire Library

Deeper than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, Forgotten Explorer

by Jenny Balfour Paul

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The author is so identified with indigo, the true blue dye, its history and present day use that it was inevitable she would jump at the news of the unpublished journals of an indigo planter in 19th century India. The journals, in the British Library, total nearly 3,000 pages and are what the writer, Thomas Machell, called his 'Talking Papers' that he sent home to his clergyman father. It is easy to see how the journals attracted the author too, with their unpretentious watercolours, and frank observations of an essentially lonely young man. Thomas was a born traveller. Aged twelve he persuaded his younger brother Lancelot to run away from their Yorkshire rectory. They walked three hundred miles to Portsmouth, short of food and money, before a family friend forwarded them back to their anxious parents. Thomas leaves home for good, aged sixteen, becoming a midshipman on the East India ship Worcester. He arrives in Hong Kong and is an eyewitness to the first Opium War: 'We saw scenes so distressing it is still painfull to recall them. Whole families laying dead or dying, women and children stabbed, strangled or poisoned by their own frantic relatives, more cruel in their frenzied fear than the enemies storming their town.'

The young midshipman then sails on a coaling vessel, the Ganges, around Cape Horn to America. On a further voyage, to the Marquesas Islands of Polynesia, he falls, Gauguin-like, in love with a local girl, a 'nut brown maiden of the Sea' as he describes her. One senses this was the happiest encounter of his life.

But restlessly he travels from Calcutta to Suez by dhow, assuming Arab dress and growing a long dark beard like his Muslim fellow sailors. A little sketch of the crew performing a devotional ceremony at the start of the voyage emphasises the unique experiences of this curious wanderer. So where does the indigo come in? By 1850 Thomas is unsettled and wandering round Bengal until he is offered a job as manager of the Rooderpore indigo estate, near Jessore. This doesn't suit him for long though, and he is off again, returning to England after surviving cholera, but then back to India where he explores Kashmir and the North West Frontier with Lancelot, who by now has forged a successful military career for himself. Jenny Balfour Paul is right to explore the tension between the two brothers - few siblings could be so unalike. Lancelot, the handsome soldier, Thomas the wanderer with an unspecified physical defect, possibly a club foot, from which he cannot escape, no matter how far he travels. He dies, aged 39 in 1862, and his tomb, discovered by the author and her daughter, still exists at Narsinghpur, Madhya Pradesh.

Interspersed with Thomas's travels are those of the author, their paths frequently crossing, particularly in southern India so 'that I couldn't tell whether I was stalking him or he was stalking me'. This approach to her subject, trying to enter the mind of a man long dead, even at one point doing a 'past life regression' with an Indian psychotherapist, will annoy some readers. It dilutes the content of the book - is it the story of Thomas Machell, or the author? Despite a number of coincidences, intuitions, and chance discoveries, this biographical and autobiographical approach doesn't really work. All good biographers try to get into the minds of their subjects, but there are ways of doing this and imagining one is one's subject, removes the boundaries of objectivity. There are two books struggling to get out here, both equally interesting, for the author is a gifted story teller, but both are weakened by their juxtaposition. There is a long diversion when an American great great nephew of Thomas is found and two fictional chapters on how Thomas might have recorded the last six years of his life, including a report of his own death. A better editorial hand would have teased out these various strands - autobiography, novel, and history and guided the author more closely. Her achievement in rescuing Thomas from obscurity is commendable and perhaps his journals will be edited and published now. But one senses this book has been overlong in its writing, since a number of acknowledgments are to people no longer with us. There is no index, as there should have been.

British Empire Book
Jenny Balfour Paul
First Published
Medina Publishing
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2015 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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