The blog’s header image is an excerpt from a larger drawing done by a British merchant, Henry Hunter Murdoch, at a colleague’s bungalow outside of Calcutta in 1850.
The Murdochs—like many other nineteenth-century British families—were highly mobile, moving repeatedly within Britain and between imperial sites. Henry Hunter was born in Gibraltar on 13 March 1826, where his father (also Henry Hunter) was trading under a firm that he co-owned with John Bowring, later an acclaimed linguist, colonial administrator and writer. The company collapsed shortly thereafter, and the family returned to England, moving between Stoke Newington, Whitechapel and Mile End in the years to come.
In 1850, Murdoch was offered a position with an acquaintance’s firm in Calcutta. India, he later wrote, had been ‘a dream which I loved best’ for many years, and he eagerly set sail. He would spend the next two decades travelling between Britain and India, while his brothers moved to India and Australia. His son, Ellis, would also work at the firm in Calcutta, and later moved to British Columbia where one branch of his family remains to this day.
Recent articles have begun to address the traditional divide between academia and genealogy, suggesting that family history needs a more fruitful conversation between these different types of researchers. Tanya Evans and others suggest that there are many possibilities for academic historians in the methodologies used by genealogists, while in turn analyses by the former might be able to provide valuable context for the individual stories traced by the latter.
For me, there remains another fundamental problem with this divide: I fall on both sides. Henry Hunter Murdoch provides one example of the kind of British imperial mobility explored in my current academic research, but he was also my great-great grandfather.
Even as historians have grown more willing to situate themselves in their research, identifying their own interests and investment in their chosen topics, there remains comparatively little acknowledgment in the field of colonial history that some of us—indeed, perhaps many of us—have family links to the very processes that we study. I did not embark on my research with the intention of examining this aspect of my personal past, but I have found it increasingly difficult to escape. In Murdoch’s history, I find powerful reminders of the fraught terrain of researching colonial family histories as the descendant of one such family. How do I confront my place and inheritance in a narrative of imperialism? And how does this personal negotiation change the ways that I research and write on the topic?
I do not have answers to these questions. However, I have come to realise that my connections with Murdoch offer possibilities as well as anxieties. Most obviously, they have given me access to his writing and art, which remain in my family’s possession. While there are undoubtedly always politics that complicate the use of one’s own family records in historical analyses, such private collections do offer voices that otherwise go unheard in work that relies on institutional archives. Most histories of the British in India, for example, tend to focus on the ‘governing classes’: employees of the East India Company, members of the Indian Civil Service or military officers. In part, this reflects the priorities, histories and limitations of publicly accessible collections like the India Office Records. Murdoch’s papers thus not only offer an individual story that historians have not been able to access, but they also contribute to a wider and often under-examined narrative of the experiences and attitudes of what Raymond Renford calls the ‘non-official’ British in India.
There is more to be said about Henry Hunter Murdoch. I am still working out my relationship with his writing and art, which pose important questions for me about imperialism and migration, story-telling and memory, emotion and historical practice. For now, though, I will end by suggesting simply that this kind of personal connection reminds me first and foremost that a vast divide between academic history and personal history does not get me where I want to go. Not only do the methodologies and online databases of genealogists open up new possibilities for academic work, but conversations among family researchers of all kinds may also enable us to share and access new sources that exist outside of institutional collections, in the process helping us to produce a richer archive and a more complex history of families in colonial contexts.
– Laura Ishiguro
(Information, image and quotations from Henry Hunter Murdoch, 1850 journal and memoir, ‘My History,’ both in private collections.)