The Honourable Member

Ancestorsonboard was launched last week with the long-distance outbound passenger lists for the period 1890-1899, being the first 10 years of records held within The National Archives’ BT27 record series.

By the 1890s, Britain’s long relationship with India had become a complex entanglement, full of contradictions and paradoxes. It’s interesting to see in the passenger lists for vessels heading out to India not just British passengers but also a good number of Indians – and not just the occasional anonymous ayah attending young children (an ayah was an Indian nanny, usually greatly beloved by her charges, judging by autobiographies and oral histories of the British in India). If you search on ancestorsonboard under any common surname from the sub-Continent, there is a decent chance that you will be returned positive search results. Try for yourself under names such as Ali, Banerjee, Khan, Rahman or Singh. Some of these men – and they usually were men – were professionals: lawyers, doctors and teachers who had been educated or trained in UK. Others were Indian princes – the other day I came across His Highness The Maharajah of Kapurthala.

Click below to see a page of a passenger list from 1896 which, five names from the end, includes “Bhownaggree Mr MP”, a single male “gentleman” travelling from London to Bombay. We cannot be entirely sure but it seems highly probable that MP refers to Member of Parliament and not the initials of the traveller in question. If so, this passenger list captures a historic figure in Anglo-Indian relations. Although today not a household name like Gandhi, Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownaggree was well known in his day. His achievement was to become only the second Indian to be elected to the House of Commons and the first Tory MP to be so – the first Indian MP in Britain, Naoroji, had entered the House as a Liberal Party MP in 1892. Against all expectations at the time, Bhownaggree, who was a barrister, won a seat in Bethnal Green in London’s East End in 1895 and, moreover, held it and was re-elected in 1900. Bhownaggree also serves as a salutary warning against the over-simplifying of history: he was a supporter of the British Empire and yet a campaigner against the over-taxing of India, respected by Gandhi as a champion of the rights of Indians in South Africa but known by other Indian nationalists as “Bow and Agree” because of the accommodations he made with the British.

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