Modern Asian Studies

Colonial Gifts: Family Politics and the Exchange of Goods in British India, c. 1780–1820

a1 University of Warwick

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In August 1851, James Russell travelled to London from his estate on the banks of the Tweed. As a young man decades earlier, Russell had served as a cavalry officer in India, and he was anxious to exploit this visit to the metropolis to renew his acquaintance with the men who had formed his social circle years ago in Hyderabad. Having arrived in London, James Russell called on Charles Russell (no relation) at the latter's residence in Argyle Street. Chairman of the Great Western Railway, Charles Russell too had passed his youth in India, serving as a lieutenant in the Company's army and as an assistant to the diplomatic Resident at Hyderabad—his older brother, Henry. In a letter to his brother—now Sir Henry and (thanks to his Indian fortune) the proprietor of an extensive landed estate in Berkshire—Charles described James Russell as ‘still a great oddity, almost mad I think’, but conceded that ‘all his feelings are those of [a] gentleman and his pursuits have always been intellectual’. To substantiate this assessment of his old friend's sensibilities, he instanced James Russell's retention and use of a dictionary given to him by Charles in Hyderabad. ‘He gratified me by telling me that he still retained “a handsome Greek Lexicon” which I gave him, when he resumed the study of Greek’, Charles informed his brother Henry. ‘On his way home [from India] he followed the retreat of the ten thousand with Xenophon in his hand; and he has since worked hard, he tells me, at the Greek historians, poets & dramatists’. Having reminisced in London with Charles, James Russell journeyed to Berkshire to visit Sir Henry Russell, who read excerpts from Charles's letter aloud to his guest. ‘I always liked him’, Sir Henry wrote to his brother upon James Russell's departure, ‘and when I read to him your reference to early days, his eyes filled with tears’.


1 This paper was originally presented at a workshop on ‘Consumption, Modernity and the West’ supported by the AHRB-ESRC Consumption project and the California Institute of Technology. Revised versions of the paper were delivered to the History Department seminar at the University of York and the Long Eighteenth Century Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London. The author is grateful to the audiences of those meetings for their comments, criticisms and suggestions, and to John Brewer, Sarah Hodges, Josephine McDonagh and Frank Trentman for their close readings of earlier versions of the text.