Edinburgh World Heritage - Learn more about the international careers of the Bell brothers Andrew and James


Learn more about the international careers of the Bell brothers Andrew and James

The inscription to the Bell brothers includes the initials H.E.I.C.S.  This stands for Honourable East India Company Service.  Andrew Ross Bell and James Hamilton Bell were both in Company service.  

The Honourable East India Company was set up in 1600 to trade with south Asia.  It quickly focussed its attention on the Indian sub-continent and over time shifted from pure trade to controlling territory.  Alexander Liston, whose memorial we have just seen, was involved in a key stage of this shift, the conquest of Mysore.

By the time the Bell brothers entered the Company’s service it was to all intents and purposes an imperial power.  This meant changes in what the Company’s staff were expected to do and how they interacted with the people of India.  Previously, the key skill for Company servants was to work effectively with Indian rulers and traders.  They tended to be young, single men and they often formed stable, long-term relationships with Indian women.  Now increasingly Company servants were administrators and judges, expected to marry British wives and hold themselves aloof from the Indian population they ruled.   The careers of the Bell brothers illustrate these changes.

The elder, Andrew Ross Bell, entered Company Service in 1827 when he was 18. He became a political agent, in theory a diplomat to an independent Indian state, but in practice someone who exercised control on behalf of the Company.  His last posting was an important but dangerous one, to Quetta.  This is on the border with Afghanistan, in what is now Pakistan.  Then as now the area was unstable.  The East India Company took control of Quetta in 1839 at the start of the first Anglo-Afghan war.  That war was to end in 1842 with the British Army that invaded Afghanistan wiped out almost to a man.  Andrew Ross Bell did not live to see this disaster: he died in 1841, aged 32, a victim of an outbreak of fever in Quetta.  His obituary in the Asiatic Journal suggests he was a prickly character:

‘We announce, with sincere regret, the death of Mr. Ross Bell, at Quetta, on the 31st ult.  The loss of this gentleman must be looked upon as a serious calamity, for, with all his faults of temper, Mr. Ross Bell possessed high talents, and when his hot youth had passed, would have become a most valuable public servant.  Cut off, however, in the prime of life, his untimely fate must be a source of deep regret, even to those whom, amid the difficulties and perplexities of conducting official business in such a disordered country as Scinde, he may have given umbrage to.’

We get a more sympathetic picture from his will, written just before he set off for the dangerous Quetta posting.  He left a life-time annuity of 600 rupees per annum to ‘Shah Jehan Begum at present residing in Delhi under my protection and who has resided under my protection ever since the Month of January 1832’.  Otherwise, his estate was to be inherited by his son James, born in Simla in the year 1837 ‘and who now resides with his mother Shah Jehan Begum in Delhi’.  James would come into his inheritance in 1858 when he reached 21.  Meanwhile he was bequeathed his father’s watch.  If James died before he reached 21 the inheritance was to be divided between the two of Andrew’s siblings ‘who may happen to be poorest and least well to do in the world at the time’.

The younger brother, James Hamilton Bell, entered Company service in 1829, also at the age of 18.  He became Civil and Session Judge of Guntoor on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in the stable heartland of Company territory.  In 1839 he married Mary Louisa Sewell the 17-year old daughter of a British Army officer.  They had five children born between 1841 and 1848.  James died in 1850, aged 39.  Mary then received a Company pension of £300 per annum and continued to draw it until she died in 1909, aged 84.

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