East Meets West: Exploring the Connections Between the East India Company and the Caribbean

By: Chris Jeppesen

I have found one of the most intriguing features of the database the category of ‘imperial legacies’. It is striking how many of those who claimed compensation in 1834 also had personal or family connections across the British Empire. Many of these directly linked the East India Company (EIC) – traders and conquerors in India – with the Caribbean slave economy. Historians have frequently treated these spheres in isolation, arguing that the evolution of British imperial power in the Caribbean and India had little in common either in character or personnel. Yet, the database seems to reveal a very different story, with these connections widespread and intricate.

Recently, I have been exploring the connections between the EIC and the Caribbean, with the database providing many interesting new leads. Historians have long commented on a ‘moral swing to the east’ taking place in the early nineteenth century as British public opinion turned against the Caribbean slave economy and towards a ‘civilising mission’ in India.[1] However, it appears that ‘West Indians’ were equally aware of the burgeoning opportunities India could offer and were quick to take advantage by procuring appointments for their sons in the EIC.

Take for instance, John Rycroft Best, who built a reputation as one of the leading members of Barbados’ ‘plantocracy’. He served as a member of the island’s council, was a leading opponent of abolition and was feted for his leadership of the militia during the suppression of the 1816 slave rebellion. Upon emancipation he successfully submitted eight claims for 1,323 enslaved persons, totalling over £27,700 in value. Yet, his family did not remain in Barbados, with three of his sons entering the EIC.

 His eldest and namesake obtained a Writership (EIC civil-servant) in 1818 through the patronage of EIC director James Daniel, a friend of his father since school, whose family were renowned Bristol merchants and held the mortgages on several of Best’s plantations. Although John Rycroft jnr died eleven years later, in turn, his two sons entered the EIC in the 1840s. By the mid-nineteenth century memorials had been erected in Barbados and India commemorating the family’s presence across the empire.

Another established Caribbean family, the Ricketts, also looked to India for new opportunities. The family had occupied a prominent position within Jamaican society since the mid-1600s. By the late-18th century, however, one branch was turning its attention east. In the 1770s George Poyntz Ricketts married Sophia, daughter of nabob William Watts, a connection that also made him the brother-in-law of the 1st Earl of Liverpool (father of the future prime minister) who was married to Sophia’s sister, Amelia. While George Poyntz Ricketts remained in the Caribbean, becoming Governor of Barbados in 1798, the family’s connections with the EIC were exploited to procure Writerships for three sons. In turn, several of George Poyntz Ricketts grandchildren and great-grandchildren served in India.

Claud and Boyd Alexander

Movement between the Caribbean and India did not only travel in one direction. The Alexander brothers – Claud and Boyd – who joined the EIC in the 1770s were painted in India by one of the leading artists of the eighteenth century, Johan Zoffany, in a portrait depicting Claud’s pleasure at successfully purchasing Ballochmyle estate in Scotland. Having served as Paymaster-General in Bengal, Claud seized the opportunity to make a considerable fortune of around £60,000. Upon returning to Scotland he set about improving his estate, building a cotton mill and founding a new manufacturing town at Catrine, Ayrshire.[2] However, he also used his fortune to establish his sons as West Indian merchants, two of whom appear in database; Boyd Alexander and William Maxwell Alexander claimed over £43,000 on their West Indian investments.

Charles Oakeley

Another former EIC official, Sir Charles Oakeley, also used the wealth accumulated in India to establish Caribbean connections. While his eldest son followed his father into the EIC, the second, Edward, was established as a West Indian merchant and managed Sir Charles’ Caribbean investments for which he claimed compensation. Sir Charles also married two of his daughters to West Indian merchants, Roger Kynaston Snr  and George Reid. Oakeley funded their West Indian business ventures and both men appear in the database, alongside their sons who had followed them into the family business.  Interestingly, at the same time both families had also sent other sons into the EIC meaning that by the 1830s the Oakeley’s were present on three continents.

Money, goods and people moved around the late eighteenth century empire through networks that spanned India, Britain and the Caribbean. The connections between the EIC and the Caribbean suggest new ways for historians to interrogate the dynamics of the early 19th century empire. Family networks transcended the oft cited public/private divide to become the central scaffolds in facilitating access to opportunities that promised wealth and status across empire. At the time of writing, the database lists 239 individuals with ‘imperial legacies’ and the total is growing all the time. I am convinced that many more who claimed compensation in the 1830s also had connections with the wider empire and would be excited to hear of any new links that you have uncovered.

[1] Peter Marshall, ‘The moral swing to the east: British humanitarianism, India & the West Indies’, in Peter Marshall, ‘A free though conquering people’: eighteenth-century Britain and its empire (Aldershot, 2003), essay IX

[2] Peter Marshall, East Indian fortunes: the British in Bengal in the eighteenth century (Oxford, 1976), p.215, 243-244