A Scandinavian 'Nabob' of the British Empire: The Discovery of a New Colonial Archive

Joseph Stephens’ life history forces us to rethink our understanding of India’s railway development, the wider distribution of colonial wealth in the Western world, and the transnational nature of British imperialism.

It happens once in a while that a significant archive of a colonial businessmen gets discovered in an attic. The caretakers of a manor house – the Huseby Bruk – in the Småland region of South Sweden discovered boxes full of papers and objects, lying silently in an upper story dark hall. These were the India papers of Mr Joseph Stephens. Stephens, in India, was a railway contractor of one of the earliest railway companies in the colonies: the Great India Peninsular Railway Company (GIPR).

Railways, cotton and Empire

Established in the 1850s, the GIPR built railways and its infrastructure in the emerging global metropolis, Bombay, and the surrounding countryside. British colonial officials’ attempts to penetrate the interiors of Khandesh and Berar region were motivated by the political-economic logic of integrating the region into the colonial economy.

This was the cotton belt of India. Cotton – because of its role as a raw material of the British industrial revolution – was the most sought imperial commodity along with tea and sugar. British textile mills had been flourishing on the cotton balls produced by enslaved Africans in South and South-Western USA. But the American Civil War (1861-65) disrupted the supply of slave-produced cotton, giving a chance for the cotton belt of India to serve its mother country. Stephens helped in building an infrastructure of conveyance to bring this commodity from the peasant fields to the Bombay cotton market. In the cotton belt, he constructed stations, station houses, cotton guard houses, railway fencing for the GIPR and ginning factories for industrialists where cotton was pressed.

Once cultivated, cotton was pressed at ginning presses, picked up by Indian and European merchants, stored at warehouses near railway lines, and then travelled to Bombay via rail from where it was traded to various local and global markets. Stephens was a small pawn in this large commercial imperialism that connected India, Britain, the US and Deccan fields. Railways were a powerful institution of British colonialism that facilitated the economic exploitation of colonies and a smooth control over its people.

Stephens and the archive

Material in the archive, now kept at the Linnaeus University and the Huseby Estate, offers to historians a nuanced micro-history of the global processes and connections, the internal working and expansion of the colonial state into mofussil areas, railway infrastructure, application of science and technology in the everyday, and labour and capital relationship. It is a conventional personal archive in the sense of its collection of Stephens’ correspondence with his father, sister and brother-in-law and his diaries. From this material, you get to know the role of family values and familial links in the making of a 19th-century businessmen and the everyday world of an imperial family.

However, there are two things which are very unique in the archive: first, his business correspondence with the local administration and the GIPR, and second, his contracts with artisans and headmen of workers. Both these types of materials had been missing in South Asian socio-economic history. This material opens up new lines of inquiry with regard to the contractual making of Indian railways, Scandinavian participation in British imperialism, and colonies as lands of opportunity.

The colony as a land of opportunity, and the making of a railway contractor

When Stephens, the son of a Copenhagen University professor George Stephens, arrived in India in December 1859, he was merely 19 years old. His father took a loan to finance Stephens’ journey to the colony. Full of energy and enthusiasm for making money and a career in the colony like many other British sons from the lower and middle classes, Stephens apprenticed under his brother-in-law (John Abbott) to learn the tools, theories and methods of civil engineering. The personal and professional were not disentangled in his times. After finishing his apprenticeship in three years, he, under Abbott’s patronage, began to subcontract work from major British construction firms such as Lee & Watson.

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By 1865, he was a full-grown contractor, sending tenders to the district offices and the GIPR head office in Bombay. To do so, one needed the ability to speculate the cost of railway and building construction in a mofussil area, engineering and social skills, offer cheaper and best tenders, command the will of thousands of workers, and have a European supervisory staff. Stephens’ papers narrate his story of not only fortune making but also how one built a career in the colony, navigated its dangers, and acquired prestige. Subordinating ‘natives’ was as much an imperial project as much it was a personal project of identity formation.

Having had a Danish and Swedish upbringing within a migrant English family, Stephens first learned English and Hindustani language, the art of letter-writing, and arithmetic. He also narrates his story of becoming a colonial master: hunting wild animals of India, studying nature, learning the colonial sport cricket and dressing up as a colonial master.  ‘You now compose as good English as myself. Two exception: that your spelling is not yet quite perfect, and that you do not put a full stop at the end of a sentence. When the sense and action end, the sentence also should come to a close,’ wrote his father from Copenhagen.

In January 1861, he accepted the post of an assistant (inspector, surveyor, accountant) to a small contractor named E.W. Winton and moved to work on viaducts in the north-east region of Nashik. While Joseph aspired for a career inside the company and was disappointed with a lower position that he had got, there were not yet rivalries between contractors and engineers based on their educational difference. In the absence of engineering colleges, the only route to become a contractor or an engineer was to finish an apprenticeship contract under an established engineer/contractor. The Royal Indian Engineering College in England became operational only in 1872.

Because of similar training and work, boundaries between the identities of an engineer and a contractor were very fluid. Obituary biographical records of the past members of the Civil Engineering Institute in London suggest that engineers became contractors and vice versa. To give an example, Henry Fowler, who in collaboration with W.F. Faviel took the first contract of the GIPR, was a successful resident railway engineer in England. Like contractors, the employment of engineers both as a government official or as an engineer of the GIPR could be contractual. Nevertheless, Stephens remained a contractor throughout his ten years of career in India. The separation between the two identities became sharper only after he left India in 1869 when engineering colleges and associations professionalised the engineering occupation.

The making of the Indian Railways

Stephens’ archive suggests that small level contractors were important in the railway building of modern India. The ruling East India Company contracted the work to the GIPR and other railway companies, the GIPR then contracted the work to big construction companies who then further subcontracted to small contractors. While the major GIPR lines were only open for big contractors with a large capital, the mofussil lines were open for smaller players who built their careers in India and were not always a product of the metropole experience. Historian Ian J. Kerr found that the GIPR also produced a successful Indian Parsi contractor, Jamsetjee Dorabjee, who undertook five major contracts in the 1850s and ’60s. The circulation of higher scientific and technical knowledge was not always a metropole-colony urban phenomenon, but was also produced in the interiors and involved non-British citizens.

Other than providing an interesting history of small-scale private accumulation in the emerging imperial capitalist world, Stephens’ archive is unique in many ways because of its detailed nature. Take the example of detailed contracts between Stephens and workers. They are rare evidence as such documents have not been found in any other South Asian archive, and historians until now studied the legal relationship between workers and masters through laws. Detailed contracts with carpenters, masons, stone dressers and headmen of workers tell the history of how employers tied workers in an unequal relationship. If a worker failed to provide services in the stipulated time and agreed manner, they were liable to be fined and jailed. The same was not the case when an employer defaulted.

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Terms and conditions of the contract tells a larger history of capitalists’ distrust of labour. Workers were assumed to be dishonest, careless, and selfish. Contracts gave power to employers to control this wayward behaviour of manual labourers. They were and are tool to discipline labour, produce work time, and control labour. India’s foremost labour historian Prabhu Mohapatra suggests that contracts in the modern period did not emerge to replace unfree labour (slavery, bondage, unpaid labour) with free labour between two equal parties with individual rights. Rather, they produced unfree and violent labour relationships by criminalising the ‘free’ exit of workers, and unfree labour relations continued to remain a hallmark of capitalism.

Sweden and the British Empire

By 1866, Stephens had emerged as a powerful contractor who took direct contracts from the GIPR. He had made a huge fortune which enabled him to buy a 600 acre forest-cum-industrial estate, Huseby, in Samåland in 1867. He told his father that he had two options: one to take up an engineering/construction job in England and live like a bourgeoise, and the other to buy a huge estate with a manor house in Sweden and live like a landed gentry. The latter was the path of the British East India Company officials who after making huge fortunes in India returned to England to live a landed gentry life and buy a seat in the British parliament. Notoriously knows as Nabobs, these individuals were direct beneficiaries of colonial exploitation and British imperialism. Stephens chose to be an English Nabob but in Sweden with his limited fortune. He married a woman of ‘class’ and sat in the Swedish parliament.

But Stephens was an entrepreneur at heart – a self-made person – and he saw an opportunity to turn this poor Swedish estate into well-connected refurbished ironwork and timber estate. Småland, going through famines and outward migration to the US in the middle of the 19th century, was livened up by the colonial money Stephens had made in India. He developed the forest and iron workshop of the estate, sold products to Swedish, Danish and English markets, and hired a significant local population.

As an owner of a huge estate, Stephens family was susceptible to rumours that the money from the colony to buy the Huseby estate was achieved through wrong means. Local newspapers articles, written with the help of Stephens’ daughter, Florence Stephens, countered the myths of any slave-trading links of Stephens in the 1950s. The image of Stephens was portrayed as one of a civil engineer – a noble bourgeoise profession. The colonial links were rarely evoked.

To understand this, we have to dig deeper into Sweden’s official nationalist history writing. Linnaeus University-based historian Gunlög Fur suggests that Swedish historians constructed a humanised international image of Sweden that had no place for Sweden’s colonial past. Sweden was portrayed as a country that did not engage in slavery, colonialism, exploitation of the third world countries and their resources. In the post-Second World War context, Sweden constructed an image of itself that was benevolent, democratic and moralised. We need to see the newspaper cuttings (dating 1953) – buried in the basement archive of the Lund University – which brought up Stephens’ colonial past in a larger context of the nation making project.

It was true that empires were built on the regimes of slavery, forced and involuntary labour. Stephens had directly benefitted from the patronage of his English brother-in-law. Stephens, though born in Stockholm, was an immigrant to Småland. When he arrived at the Huseby Bruk, he was more English than Swedish and could hardly read and write Swedish. He continued to do his business in English and Swedish for a while and attempted to sell his estate timber to the Indian railways.

The colony, though left behind, remained a key influencer to his business regime in Sweden as he sought new connections in imperial England and governed wage labourers and artisans at his estate through contractual relationships. The Stephens’ archive weave together India (the colony), England (the coloniser), and Sweden (a Western nation state) in one thread which, otherwise, may appear totally disconnected in the mid-nineteenth century. Stephens’ life history forces us to rethink our understanding of India’s railway development, the wider distribution of colonial wealth in the Western world, and the transnational nature of British imperialism.

Arun Kumar is an Assistant Professor of British Imperial and Colonial History at Nottingham University. He writes on the socio-economic history of modern India, particularly the histories of the labouring poor and castes. He tweets at historian_arun.