Biden’s Indian Connection Goes Back in History

Chennai: Kamala Harris spoke movingly of her discussions with her grandfather P.V.Gopalan as they walked along the beach at Chennai. It now appears that her running-mate Joe Biden may also have ancestors who strolled along the same stretch of sand two centuries before.

Joe Biden first made the claim of an Indian connection in 2013. Two years later he elaborated that he was descended from George Biden, his “great, great, great, great, great grandfather” who was a Captain in the East India Company. After retirement, George Biden settled in India and married an Indian woman.

There are no records of a George Biden in India, but there were two Bidens, who became Captains of East India Company armed merchant ships (known as Indiamen). They were brothers. Both started out as humble Third and Fourth Mates in their early teens on the arduous route between London and India via the Cape of Good Hope.

William Henry Biden started out in the Midas (414 tons). Eventually he would command the ships Anna Robertson, Ganges and Thalia (570 tons) before he died of “apoplexy” (a stroke) at Rangoon on March 25, 1843 aged 51. His were relatively minor cargo ships, which traded mainly in Asian waters. His older brother Christopher Biden, by contrast, became a well-known figure in Madras (modern Chennai) for many years and he did settle in India.

Christopher began as a Fourth Mate. By 1807, he was sailing in the 1,333-ton Royal George, which made seven return voyages to India before 1818. By 1815, he had become its Chief Mate. In 1821, he became Captain of the Princess Charlotte of Wales (978 tons) and made four return journeys between England and Calcutta (modern Kolkata). He also captained the new Royal George (1,426 tons) on one voyage. In 1830, he retired from the Princess Charlotte and settled down in Blackheath, near London.

Biden had married Harriott Freeth in his native Derbyshire (unlike many of his colleagues who were Scottish, the Bidens were from England) in 1819 and had a son and two daughters. Perhaps Biden felt he was too young to retire aged 41. So he bought a Chittagong-built teak ship of 712 tons, the Victory and sailed her on two trips to Colombo and Bombay in 1832 and 1834. On the second trip, he discovered Nelson Island in the Chagos Archipelago.

We do not know how financially successful the Victory venture proved; but it was innately hazardous to own a ship without sharing the risk with other investors. He may have lost money which was why in 1839 he set off to India aboard the Marquis Camden with his wife and daughter to become Master Attendant and Marine Storekeeper at Madras; in charge of shipping. On the voyage to India, his daughter died and was doubtless buried at sea.

During his 19 years in Madras, Biden gained a reputation for diligence; for example placing lights along the coast to prevent maritime disasters. He was highly imaginative; constantly suggesting improvements for maritime safety. He was also actively involved in charities for widows and orphans of mariners of all nationalities, including Indians.

His son, Horatio, joined him in Madras in 1846 and went on to become a Colonel in the Madras Artillery. There were also a few other Bidens in India; one of whom was headmaster of La Martiniere College in Calcutta (Kolkata).

In 1858, Christopher Biden died in Madras and is commemorated by a plaque in the Cathedral there. Apart from the memorial tablet in the Cathedral, there is also a portrait of Biden by George Chinnery seated with his dog, Hector. His wife Harriott lived on in London until 1880. Some of her papers are kept at Cambridge University and testify to her husband’s kindness and their mutual love. Nowhere is there mention of an Indian wife, but Christopher seems the most likely candidate if Joe Biden indeed had an ancestor in India. — Gateway House