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    Joe Biden time for that Indian connection

    Synopsis

    Luckily Biden is not as common a name as Smith, so the chances of Bidens of US and India being (very distantly) related are not slim. But finding a definite connect will not be easy either.

    AFP
    Joe Biden
    US Election
    That the US President Elect Joe Biden may be eligible for an OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) card is a piquant thought. After all, during his 2013 visit as US Vice President he had mentioned that a “Biden from Mumbai” had contacted him in 1972 suggesting their “mutual great-great-great-great-something-or-other”—ie ancestor—named George had “worked for the East India Company back in the 1700s,” settled here and married an Indian woman.

    Back then Biden was a 29-year-old rookie Senator and probably had a lot more on his mind than digging out sundry distant cousins in India. But with India emerging as a significant factor in geopolitics and business going forward—and with the US Vice President-elect having roots in India—some team Biden team members may be trawling through ancestry.com, and William Dalrymple’s book The Anarchy about possible EIC connections.

    William Biden was born in 1787 in Sussex, UK to Joe and Anne Biden. In 1822 William emigrated to Baltimore in the US and married Mary Elkins. He died in 1849 and his descendants moved to Pennsylvania, where the new US President-elect was born in 1942. Luckily Biden is not as common a name as Smith, so the chances of Bidens of US and India being (very distantly) related are not slim. But finding a definite connect will not be easy either.

    Dalrymple, currently in Italy, was unable to come up with any details about a Biden in the service of Company Bahadur, but some recent articles and an old book do indicate that the “Biden from Mumbai” was right. This August, Tim Willasey-Wilsey of King’s College, London writing in Gateway House, a foreign policy publication revealed two Bidens were captains of East India Company’s armed merchant ships (colloquially called East Indiamen).

    The pair were brothers who as teenagers began as Third and Fourth Mates on the London and India route via the Cape of Good Hope. The younger one, William Henry Biden eventually commanded mid-size ships and died of “apoplexy” in Rangoon in 1843. But his older brother Christopher became a prominent figure in Madras (now Chennai) after a career commanding much bigger ships and a brief sabbatical in Blackheath to write a book.

    While that book bore the earnest title “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”, it indicated a keen eye and a conscience.

    Records also show that he found time to marry one Harriet Freeth in Derbyshire in 1819 and father a son and two daughters before making trips—to Bombay and Colombo—in 1832 and 1834 after buying a ship. Then in 1839 he again set off with his wife and one daughter (who died on the arduous journey) for a new job in Madras, spending the next 19 years as an uncovenanted, conscientious officer of the Madras Civil Service at Fort St George.

    That both the US President-elect and Vice President elect could have a common Chennai connection would definitely enthuse the Indian-American community there, which solidly backed that ticket in the election. In fact only a few kilometres separate Kamala Harris’ favourite childhood vacation destination of Besant Nagar (her maternal grandparents’ home) and the possible residence of Christopher Biden as “beach magistrate” in Madras.

    An exchange of letters between Biden and the Governor of Madras in the East India Company’s annual Despatch of the Governor General in Council to the Court of Directors regarding the repatriation of trafficked children may interest the Biden who will soon occupy the White House. Though the traffickers were acquitted due to a technicality, that Biden made it clear that he would ensure the children were restored to their parents.

    While Christopher Biden died in 1858 according to the commemorative plaque in a cathedral in Madras, Harriet died in London in 1880. Her papers at Cambridge apparently speak of their mutual love, so an Indian wife seems unlikely. But a portrait of Biden by George Chinnery seated with his dog Hector should resonate with President-Elect Biden whose German Shepherd Major will be the first rescue animal to be First Dog.

    Biden’s son, Horatio who to Madras as an army cadet in 1846 was just as interesting. Not only did he become a Colonel but was also an avid amateur photographer. In 1868 he offered the Bombay Government negatives of “Ellora, Roza, Aurungabad, Dowlutabad and Golconda at a reduced price of Rs 3,250” but was turned down. Sadly, a second offer of photos of “Ellora, Adjunta, etc., as also a complete set of apparatus etc.” was rejected too.

    Luckily, the ‘Biden Albums’ chronicling life and times of 19th century Western India can be found in the Alkazi Collection in New Delhi, the British Library’s Allardyce Albums and the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford. Clearly that Biden had a sense of humour too as there is also a “trick photograph” from 1858 in Aurangabad showing a heavily bearded Biden seated at a chess table with another image of himself as the opponent!

    That uncommon name Horatio, however, indicates a link to the Indian Bidens if not the American one just yet. The person who contacted Senator Biden back in 1972 was one Leslie Dunn Biden, according to the Mumbai Mirror, a resident of Nagpur (not Mumbai) who passed away in 1983. And his father, according to the family tree, was one Charles Horatio Biden—note that middle name!—who was, not surprisingly, a photographer of British ancestry.

    Leslie married a Portuguese from Goa, settled in Nagpur and had six children. Though Willasey-Wilsey writes of other Bidens in India including a headmaster of La Martiniere College Calcutta, his grandchildren say Indian Bidens are down to them. Unlike Leslie they do not claim kinship with the US Biden, but as they are the only ones (as far as they know) with that surname here, they are the only way Joe Biden can lay claim to an OCI card!
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    1 Comment on this Story

    Raj Rajdasharathy76 days ago
    Since both president and Vice President have historically proved their ancestry to india and particularly Chennai, it makes sense to give them their OCI cards for establishing more close connections to our advantage and theirs
    as well!
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