Welsh Identity in India, c. 1804-1813
This week, Dr Mary Chadwick (University of Huddersfield) examines the case of one Welshman in India and explores what this tells us about 19th century ‘British’ identity.
In 1804, fifteen year old Thomas Griffith left his family’s estate in north Wales to take up a commission as a lieutenant in the East India Company army. The letters he sent home over the next nine years, before his death in India, are held by the National Library of Wales. This post explores briefly the terms on and in which Thomas maintained and expressed his sense of a Welsh identity. Members of the Welsh gentry have often been seen as thoroughly and regrettably Anglicised; a growing body of work challenges this view, acknowledging instead the fact that the gentry viewed themselves as Welsh and expressed that sense of belonging in particular ways. Members of this social group living and writing in Wales used signifiers such as antiquarian histories of the country or references to Welsh mountains and rivers to denote their Welshness. Thomas, far from Wales, referred to Wales directly and defined himself as Welsh much more often than other members of his family.
Thomas’s early letters are packed with information about his voyage, his march to join his regiment and the sights he saw – a church in Madeira with “a wall built of … skulls and knee bones” [i], cinnamon groves on the coast of what is now Sri Lanka, and lions, tigers and crocodiles. Once settled, his letters were characterised by his desire for news of home. As Andrew Mackillop shows, this is typical of many British sojourners who hoped to make enough money, and maintain their health for long enough, to return home and live comfortably.[ii] Thomas routinely heavily underlined his references to Wales. When he learned that his battalion would be sent to Prince of Wales’s Island, now Penang Island off Malaysia, he wrote, “I shall be in a Wales once more.”[iii] On New Year’s Day, 1806, Thomas emphasised his affection for Wales in a manner which suggests that this was a way to his father’s heart. The letters preceding and following this one show that it was written at a time when Thomas was, like many company recruits, struggling financially and regularly asking for money from home. In this context, Thomas’s expression of a love for Wales might seem to represent a cynical attempt to wheedle money from his father. But the postscript reveals that, in fact, he had received no letters for over a year and was hoping simply to receive a reply.[iv]
In keeping with their characterisation as uncaring about their Welsh cultural heritage, the eighteenth and early nineteenth century gentry have been assumed to have been wholly Anglophone. Two years after he left Wales, however, Thomas rued the fact that he was losing his Welsh: “sometimes when I talk a few words of the Welsh language I very often mix some Hindustani with them and sometimes am quite at a loss as I have no person to talk with in Welsh but I very often sing Pennills to myself which I have not forgot.”[v] He mangled the Welsh plural – it should be penillion, a particular form of Welsh song – but his affection for and wish to maintain his knowledge of Welsh shine through.
In this letter Thomas also mentioned that he planned to call on a fellow North Walian. Networks formed in India were essential to the maintenance of a sense of national identity and evidence of their formation is crucial to those who consider Britain’s imperial history from a four nations perspective.[vi] Thomas socialised and shared news of home with two Welsh men in particular – Captain Ingleby, who he did not know before he arrived in India, and Henry Clough, with whom he had been at school – effectively recreating a microcosm of the community they left.
Thomas’s letters show that he and his family, viewed his contribution to Britain’s imperial project in terms which were familial rather than national, and personal rather than political. Direct references to Britain and Britons are noticeable by their absence. Amidst Welshmen, “Mosulmen”, Englishmen, “black men”, Scotsmen, “Hindoos”, Europeans and Christians there are no Britons. English, Scottish and Irish names appear alongside Welsh, however, and Thomas routinely notes the nationalities of his acquaintances. As he neared the end of his time in Prince of Wales’s Island and considered his future prospects he informed his father that he expected little preferment from the governor, Colonel Norman Macalister, as “no person but a Scotchman has any chance of getting anything from him.”[vii] This is the only suggestion to be found in Thomas’s letters that his Welsh identity might hinder his career and it represents a particularly revealing allusion to Scottish influence in India.
As the work of historians such as Bowen, Mackillop and Rees demonstrates, the direct allusions to Welshness apparent in Thomas Griffith’s letters are comparatively rare. His correspondence represents a particularly valuable resource for those studying Welsh gentry identities in general and, specifically, in relation to Welsh contributions to and understandings of British imperialism.
[i] Thomas Griffith to Jane Griffith, February 16th, 1805.
[ii] Andrew Mackillop, “Europeans, Britons, and Scots: Scottish Sojourning Networks and Identities in Asia, c. 1700-1815” in A Global Clan: Scottish Migrant Networks and Identities since the Eighteenth Century, ed. by Angela McCarthy (London: Tauris, 2006), pp. 19-47; “A ‘reticent’ people? The Welsh in Asia, c. 1700-1815” in Wales and the British Overseas Empire: Interactions and Influences, 1650-1830, ed. by H. V. Bowen (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), pp. 143-67.
[iii] Thomas Griffith to George Griffith, 20th March, 1806.
[iv] Thomas Griffith to John Wynne Griffith, 1st January, 1806.
[v] Thomas Griffith to George Griffith March 20th, 1806.
[vi] Bowen, “Introduction” and “Asiatic interactions: India, the East India Company, and the Welsh economy, c.1750-1830” in Wales and the British Overseas Empire; Lowri Rees, “‘Welsh sojourners to India: the East India Company, networks and patronage, c.1760-1840”, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History (forthcoming).
[vii] Thomas Griffith to John Wynne Griffith, April 8th, 1808.
Mary Chadwick is a Research Assistant in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield. She is preparing a monograph, Gentry Identities in Manuscript and Print: Anglophone-Welsh Literary Connections, c. 1720-1820 (University of Wales Press) before moving on to a project focusing on the relationships between Wales and India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.