By Times of India, published by Indeed News
Chennai: “I may have relatives in India,” US President-elect Joseph Biden had declared on his maiden visit to Mumbai in 2013, when VP-elect Kamala Harris’s Tamil Nadu connection was not headline news yet.
Biden, then serving as VP, was referring to a Mumbai resident who, he said, shared his surname and had written to him back in 1972, referring they were both descendants of someone who worked for the erstwhile East India Company.
Biden, who was 29 at the time and had just been elected to the US Senate, said he wanted to follow up on the claim but couldn’t.
A few years later, during another speech, Biden said his “great, great, great, great, great grandfather George Biden” was a captain in the East India Company who settled in India and married an Indian.
Though there are no records of a George Biden, two siblings named Christopher Biden and William Henry Biden did serve as captains in the East India Company, according to Gateway House, a foreign policy think-tank based in Mumbai.
Christopher was 12 and his brother even younger when they started as third and fourth mates on the route between London and India via the Cape of Good Hope. In 1821, Christopher captained the Princess Charlotte of Wales and made four return journeys between England and Calcutta. He also captained the new Royal George (1,426 tons) on one voyage. Each return journey lasted a year, wrote Tim Willasey-Wilsey, visiting professor in the department of war studies, King’s College London.
William died of a stroke at Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1843, when he was 51 years old. Christopher settled down in India and became a well-known figure in Madras (now Chennai).
In 1830, Christopher wrote a book, “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”, that is still available online. From managing a diverse crew and passengers on tiny ships during long taxing trips to tales of drunkenness, theft, murder, mental health issues and sailing through storms, reefs and shipwrecks, the tome is a collection of fascinating stories.
Christopher was married to Harriott Freeth and the couple had a son and two daughters, one of whom died on a voyage back to India and was buried at sea.
During his 19 years in Madras, Christopher became known for his diligence, kindness, and commitment to the welfare of orphans and widows of mariners of all nationalities, including Indians. He also worked to improve maritime safety. His son, Horatio, became a colonel in the Madras Artillery.
In 1858, Christopher died in Madras. His tomb and memorial tablet lie in the Madras Cathedral, with a portrait of him with his pet dog. The chennai museum portal’s list of inscriptions on tombs or monuments in Madras volume I mentions that “Christopher Biden was committed to his charge and fell by the hands of a band of fanatics on the eleventh of September”.
Several established historians, however, have not yet found any direct connection between Christopher and Joe biden. A few have considered out any connection between the two, especially because Christopher was not married to an Indian.
“He’s talking about a George Biden, and there is no record of Christopher Biden having married an Indian. They don’t tally. There must be a separate George Biden, somewhere else, ”said historian V Sriram.
Historian and novelist William Dalrymple said, “I just read the article myself, but have no details”.
Despite the sketchy information, if the President-elect does have an ancestor who worked for the East India Company and lived in India, Christopher seems to be a likely candidate for a belated shot at a different kind of fame.
Top: US President-elect Joseph Biden and VP-elect Kamala Harris. Photo: Times of India and published by Indeed News