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Historical Connections Between Massachusetts And India

Rakashi Chand

On Saturday, 2 February, 2019 the Massachusetts Historical Society hosted a special event, Boston to Bombay; Historical Connections between Massachusetts and India. The event highlighted items in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society that help illustrate the extensive relationship between Boston and India. After a gracious welcome by Catherine Allgor, the President of the Historical Society, Peter Drummey, the Stephen T. Riley Librarian, and Rakashi Chand spoke about the manuscripts and artifacts on display revealing the connections between Boston and India.

Rakashi Chand said “Ships from Boston and Salem sailed to India on a regular basis, and brought back not only goods, but ideas, fashion, religion and philosophy; therefore Boston had a greater connection to India than any other part of America. The Historical Society holds many wonderful resources portraying the relationship between the United States and India, and more specifically, Massachusetts and India. We would have liked to display more, but had to select a sample due to time and space constraints. As an Indian-American born and raised in Boston, organizing this event and conducting this research was paramount, because finding these historic connections also connects our community to this place.”

Boston and India: 18th Century Connections

Several items on display showcased the interactions between Boston and India in the 18th century. A bottle of tea leaves collected after the Boston Tea Party represented the North American role in being forced to fund the British East Indian Company.

Three miniatures portraits were on display. One, from 1818, depicts Major General David Ochterlony, who was born in Boston in 1758. Ochterlony went in India as a cadet by 1777 and rose quickly in military ranks. He was called the “Conqueror of Nepal” for his victorious campaigns and given the title “Defender of State” by Shah Alam. Miniature Portraits of Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal by an unidentified 18th century artist, done in watercolor on ivory surrounded by garnets, were also on display.

Benjamin Joy of Newburyport, Mass. was appointed the first U. S. Counsel to India by President George Washington. Although the British refused to acknowledge him as Counsel he remained as an “agent” in India for three years. Visitors were able to view Joy’s sea chest. It was made in India and accompanied him on his voyage back to Boston.


The Ice Trade

Boston’s most lucrative (and surprising) trade with India was ice. Ships full of ice cut from the ponds of Massachusetts would sail across the globe to ice houses in Bombay and Calcutta. Frederic Tudor of Boston, known as “the Ice King,’ became very wealthy due to the ice trade. Ice cut from Walden pond was sent to India, as Henry David Thoreau contemplated in WaldenThe pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.” bringing the two worlds together. Items on display to illustrate the ice trade included a print of the ice being cut from Spy Pond; a print of the harbor at Calcutta; a copy of Walden; and a letter from Calvin W. Smith, an agent of the Tudor Ice House in Bombay, to his mother expressing his amazement after visiting an animal sanctuary.


John Eliot Parkman in India

John Eliot Parkman, brother of historian Francis Parkman, went to India in 1855. He not only marked his travels on a wonderful 1855 map of India, he also wrote about his travels and excitement in letters home. He even painted some of the people he met along the way. Visitors were able to see a travel map and a watercolor painting by Parkman as well as a letter from Parkman to his mother:

Calcutta February 22nd 1855

"My dear Mother,


“...We have been living there now about a fortnight and like it better and better everyday. The house is about 3 minutes from town, almost on the banks of the river, and in the pleasantest place near Calcutta, we have a large garden and a tank in it almost as large as the Frog Pond, and beside these advantages two dogs and a billiard table. there is one drawback however to a new comes in the shape of jackals who drift about to the house every night and gangs above 50 and howl like so many rampant Devils- , it is unnecessary to add that I slept but little the first three nights but I have since got used to them.

Mr Bullard who has just come down from up country is living with us but goes to Paris by the steamer, he has told me such stories about Delhi, Agra and half a dozen other places that I am well-nigh crazed and probably shall remain in that condition till my turns come to travel. (!)


Mr. Lewis has given me $50 a month but you have no idea what an expensive place this is, I was insane enough to think when I was at home that living here was remarkably economical, but I have since learnt better (at my cost of course). I can live in Boston for half the money I am obliged to spend here. Clothes are very cheap but then you have to have so many, that it comes to about as much, if not more than it does in Boston..."


Bostonians Travel to India

William Scollay kept a journal while travelling and studying in India from14 November 1811 to 28 October 1812. The journal includes descriptions of his stay in Calcutta, impressions of the landscape, and most interestingly, Hindi classes taken at the College of Fort William. Scollay fills the pages of the travel journal with vocabulary lessons.

The Log of the Bark Hannah Sprague kept by Horatio Stockton Rotch in 1845 is one of the many ships logs in the collections of the MHS.  The log was kept on a trading voyage from Boston to Madras and Calcutta, India. Entries record longitude and latitude, course, winds, and distance traveled and narratives kept at Madras and Calcutta.


Letters from India

A selection of 19th-century letters focused on social justice and the link between Indian and Boston reformers were on display. Raja RomMohan Roy, known as the “Father of the Indian Renaissance,” wrote to William Ward, Jr. of Medford on 5 February 1824. Roy was a social reformer who criticized the Caste System, polygamy, and the treatment of widows. He also advocated for women’s right to inherit property.

In a 24 September 1887 letter to Mrs. Andrews, Pandita Ramabai indicates that she will stop in Boston on route to Manchester NH, as part of a national tour. A group of Bostonians formed the American Ramabai Association, to support the work of Pundita Ramabai as she tried to create a home and school for child widows in India.

In a letter by K. L. Nulkar to the American Ramabai Association in Boston, he advocates for the rights of the child widows in the care of the home to practice their own religion, and he reminds the American benefactors that these schools are secular. Photographs of K. L. Nulkar and his wife and child were displayed alongside the letter.

The event concluded with a Question and Answer session, and an opportunity for visitors to take a closer look at the objects and manuscripts on display. The Massachusetts Historical Society was delighted to host this event and welcome new people.

If you are interested in learning more about items related to India in the collection, please contact the library at  library@masshist.org or you can contact Rakashi Chand directly at rchand@masshist.org.  The Massachusetts Historical Society is open to the public and welcomes you to conduct research or attend a public program, located at 1154 Boylston Street in Boston or you can find them online at www.masshist.org.


PS: We chose to use names as represented in the historical manuscripts, prints, and artifacts we had on display. As such, we began the presentation by explaining to the audience that though certain names are not accurate, they are the names used in historic texts. The title of the event was derived from historic texts and should be taken in the 19th-century historical context.


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