‘In significant respects, Edinburgh was an Indian city’: India’s legacy in Edinburgh
India Street

Blog by Roger Jeffery, University of Edinburgh

The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protests and the campaign to change the wording on the Melville statue in Edinburgh have highlighted how many symbols of colonialism and imperialism not only remain visible in British cities, but are being contested with a renewed purpose. These campaigns to revisit and critically examine our colonial and imperial history have gained public momentum. I’ve been working for the last five years on a broad programme of academic research into the links between India/South Asia and Edinburgh. Although London, Liverpool, Glasgow and Dundee have been treated as ‘Imperial cities’, very little has been written in a similar vein on Edinburgh. Yet it is abundantly clear that, from the early 1700s, the East Indies were a major source of funds coming to Edinburgh and became increasingly significant for young men who went abroad in search of employment, fame and fortune. I wanted to understand the ‘local Empire,’ using a ‘glocalising’ approach to the entangled histories of a city and its place in the Imperial project. While plenty has been written on interactions between Scotland and the Empire, in the discussion of cities the topics covered have been very limited in scope. Lots on buildings, or exhibitions, less on how extracted capital was used in a local context, or the networks and family fortunes created through the Empire. And where there was material it wasn’t joined up: historians have treated the missionaries, doctors, soldiers, civilians and merchants separately.

My project is now well into its stride. A network of people within and outwith Edinburgh has formed a loose coalition, bringing varied interests to the wider vision. I edited a volume that looked at a series of aspects of Edinburgh’s history where the links with India were significant. India in Edinburgh: How the Empire affected Scotland’s Capital covers not only the money that came to and through Edinburgh but also some of the items in the city’s museums, galleries and botanic garden. And we have chapters on India and the city’s leading schools in the 19th century, and on how the University attempted to maintain its record of getting its graduates into the Indian Civil Service.

One of the chapters in the book reported on my research. Given my background in the sociology of public health in South Asia, starting with doctors was an obvious step. But it was also a sensible one. In 1826 Andrew Duncan junior, an – admittedly biased – Edinburgh professor, claimed that the city hosted ‘the first medical school in the Empire’. Medical training in Edinburgh was provided by both the University and the ‘extra-mural’ medical school, where leading doctors taught. Edinburgh not only played major roles in the modernisation of medical education in the UK from the 1750s to the 1850s, but in addition, a good proportion of those doctors went to India. As late as the end of the 19th century, Edinburgh punched well above its weight in training and examining doctors. My talk with Ryan Devlin in a podcast for the Royal Medical Society on this important story of Edinburgh medicine’s links to India, is now available on Soundcloud.

Two shorter extracts from that interview highlight aspects of these links that I find particularly interesting (though it’s hard to choose!). The first focuses on women’s medical education. Sophia Jex-Blake, well known for her campaign to force Edinburgh University to accept women medical students in 1869, also opened the first women’s medical school in the city in 1886. After a split in 1888, a second medical college for women opened, often credited to the 25-year old Elsie Inglis. This made no sense to me: how could she have established the women’s medical college while still completing her medical training? India enters this story in several ways. Elsie was born in India and came to Scotland only as a young teenager, and most of the individuals who organised the founding of that college had strong India connections, often being close to Elsie’s father, an ex-member of the Indian Civil Service. Of the 360 women who trained in Edinburgh and qualified between 1885 and 1914, India was an important source of recruits: 45 were born in India. It was also a popular career choice: 80 spent at least some time working there. This story is told in more detail in a clip from the interview.

Another example of the close links between India and Edinburgh can be told through Edinburgh’s fascination with anatomy, and with skulls in particular. In the edited book, Ian Harper led on a chapter considering the origins and fate of the skulls collected from India, starting with those collected by phrenologists at the beginning of the 19th century, leading up to the collecting done mostly by Edinburgh medical graduates at the end of the century. Skull-collecting and measurement by Sir William Turner, Professor of Anatomy from 1867-1903 and Principal of the University from 1903-1916, contributed to particular forms of ‘scientific’ racial theories. This story is told in more detail in the second clip from the interview.

This forgetting of the significance of India, a failure to remember and to assess the impact of the Indian Empire in Edinburgh, is what I am trying to overturn. In significant respects, Edinburgh was an Indian city: The networks of individuals, families and institutions that linked Edinburgh to the Indian Empire was an important part of how the city developed from a provincial, Europe-oriented and subordinated city within the United Kingdom, into one of the important spaces that constituted the empire. Ideas about the purpose of empire and on how to understand Hindu society were addressed in the Scottish Enlightenment. Money gathered in India also contributed to how the city was transformed, with the growth of the New Town. But the extant histories of the city say little about these links, or about how much of the public and private capital that helped pay for these buildings came from India, and how Indian links helped sustain the middle class, in particular, through the 19th century. More on these topics can be found on the Edinburgh India Institute website.

I am taking this project forward by spreading the word about these links to allow for a renewed interest in the contribution India made to the city. We already have two online walking tours, hosted in Curious Edinburgh, which can prompt an awareness of some two dozen locations in the Old and New towns. A guide-book, suitable for both locals and visitors, that can tell more stories about how India is linked to many, many more locations across the central area, Leith and the suburbs, is under preparation by Hauke Wiebe, with my assistance. I am also putting together an anthology of writings about India by people who were influenced by Edinburgh and who influenced how people in Edinburgh saw India. Next steps involve engaging with different communities of interest in the city: so far, former pupils of the Edinburgh Academy, and the Old Edinburgh Club.