Tinned Salmon and the Caledonian Mercury: Importing Scotland to Sumatra

Tinned Salmon and the Caledonian Mercury: Importing Scotland to Sumatra

Throughout Hall’s career, his fondness for Scotland and his homeland remained. In part, this enduring affiliation reflected the sheer number of Scots entering the Company during this period. Of the journey to India in 1763, he wrote to his brother John ‘we had no less than 28 Messmates, mostly Scots, from whose various Dispositions much might have been cut’.[1] In Sumatra, Hall’s letters back to his relatives in Scotland are littered with references to other Scottish Company men. In 1755, he listed four other Scots in a letter to his sister, finishing ‘Mr Nairne another Scotch Factor is also well at Marlbro in the Employment of Secretary’.[2] The Hay brothers from Drumelzier, Peeblesshire were based at Sumatra and in 1762 while in London, Hall wrote ‘they are both well, I brought a letter from them & forwarded it.’[3] After the Battle of Buxar at Patna in 1764, Hall wrote ‘Poor Peter Carstairs, Sandie Wedderburn’s nephew was shot at Patna with a Canon ball, his Brother James came out in the same Ship with me is now about settling his Affairs & I believe will go Home again & content himself to wait for the Estate of Kinross which he is Heir to.’[4] These Scottish networks simultaneously maintained Hall’s connection to Scotland as well as supporting him in various ways: Charles Stuart offered him accommodation in Calcutta, the Hay brothers executed his will, and Captain Mackleish shipped him claret wine.[5]

Beyond his fellow East India Company servants, the love of his homeland was kept alive by the letters exchanged with his family and friends. He assured his brother at the very beginning of his career, ‘You know I cant write you any news, these I shall expect from You, even to the minutest Article, for you may Sure I shall gape for them.’[6] Epistolary correspondence was a means for Hall to maintain connections to his family. Even so, it often took six months for a letter to reach Sumatra, meaning the contents often felt out of date. Hall wrote in response to a letter from his mother, ‘You write me a long letter of news, which you may be sure gives me vast pleasure, I can only say I rejoiced at some & sorry for others; Reflections are lost at such a distance of Time & place’.[7] Letters could also get lost. Hall wrote despondently in 1757 ‘I take the Opportunity of a Vessell [sic] touching here & which is now bound for Bombay or Surat to acquaint you and all my friends of my Welfare and I should now be more particular was I not almost certain this Bitt [sic] of Paper will be buffetted [sic] about the World and God knows when, come to your Hands’.[8] The weakening of emotional ties over the period of years and the death of his mother in 1756 also led to Hall corresponding with fewer people. In 1765, Hall wrote sadly to his brother John, ‘I dreamed of the Two Youngsters last night & don’t write to any body now, but you.’[9] The spiritual link of Hall’s dreams and more physical one of epistolary correspondence suggest how family networks and intimacy were maintained in empire. These dreams offered an instant connection that could otherwise take over a year to bridge with letters.

Books and newspapers sent by his relatives from Scotland likewise maintained this link. Hall wrote from Natal four years after his arrival in Sumatra to his brother John, ‘My dissappointment [sic] in not having the Caledonian Mercury (by which we call the Scots Magazines) was very great and I believe had I kept a Collections in this Part of the World, my Customers would not all have left me’.[10] Here, his fellow Scots are both his customers and his community. This use of national newspapers attached Hall to an imagined reading community, akin to the form outlined by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities. Anderson sees the newspaper as something read almost simultaneously by many members of a country. As he argued, ‘The date at the top of the newspaper, the single most important emblem on it, provides the essential—the steady onward clocking of homogeneous, empty time.’[11] According to Anderson’s analysis, this simultaneous reading of national newspapers created an ‘imagined community’. However, for Hall, receiving the newspaper some six months after they had been published, this reading was near-simultaneous only with his fellow Scottish East India Company men. Hall’s reading of the Scottish newspapers can not be conceived as ‘homogeneous’ time, rendering him part of ‘a solid community moving steadily through history’.[12] Instead, his position in a precarious British territory, connected to Scotland by a haphazard postal system, meant Hall was outside of this national time. This demonstrates his insecure connection to Scotland and the tactics he employed to maintain these swiftly disintegrating relationships.

His brother William also kept him regularly supplied with books. In 1755, Hall received Jean Frédéric Bernard (ed.), Recueil de Voyages au Nord (1715-38) in ten volumes, Bernard-François Mahé de la Bourdonnais, Ses Mémoires (1751) in three volumes, and a map of China. Hall was not particularly happy with his brother’s selection and complained ‘the Two first are thrown away upon me as I can scarce read them & the last is useless, there not being one chart in it to the Westward of China & those only of the inland parts, so that I am inclined to think, it is another than what you order D. Wilson to send me for which reason I have some notion to send it back & have Ferdinand Count Fathom or such new Books in its Room’.[13] Hall inability to read French thwarted his ability to read both Bourdonnais’ memoirs of life as a naval officer in the French East India Company and Bernard’s collected exploration accounts of North America, Greenland, Japan, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. The charts, likewise, were dismissed as next to useless. While Hall might struggle to read Bernard’s Recueil de Voyages he could, however, look at the images. The frontispiece of the first volume, for example, displays Hermes and Pheme above watching over a European, one hand raised Plato-like to the heavens while offering the other hand to a seated, apparently disinterested (and very dark) Native American. While to the reader at ‘home’ in Europe, such a contrast could serve to underline Western superiority in contrast to the uncivilised ‘native’, for Hall this classically idealised representation of exploration and colonisation was far from his experience of the lazy indigenous population, indebtedness and omnipresent threat of war and imprisonment. For those in Europe, such accounts can be classified as ‘escapism’ from everyday life. As Michel de Certeau has argued ‘readers are travellers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves’.[14] For the ‘nomad’ Hall, an active ‘despoiler’ of the natural wealth of Sumatra far his own ends, such exploration accounts were far closer to the quotidian. If Hall was indifferent to these travel accounts, then his choice to swop the chart for Smollet’s The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) is equally telling. Instead of reading of exotic exploration, he sought comfort in Smollet’s novel depicting the fictional escapades of Count Fathom, a young English man who roamed the Continent, having lots of rank sex along the way. While the image of the European coloniser of foreign lands little interested Hall, Smollet’s depiction of a Continent-traversing dandy offered Hall an appealing form of escapism.



Food appears to have been another way for Alexander to maintain his connection to Britain and, sometimes specifically Scotland. In a letter to his brother William, he indulged in the fantasy of teleportation: ‘Had I such a Magicians Rod as you mentiond I would make better use of it than you. You speak of making only one visit here. I would be in England three times a day viz Breakfast dinner & Supper, to eat bread of which we have none on this Coast’.[15] He went on to list the exorbitant price of flour and beer, respectively 3.5 and 3.4 times more expensive in Sumatra than in England.[16] It was perhaps this expense and captive market that encouraged Hall to pioneer his own form of tinning and preserving food. After he was forced to return to London to be exchanged as a prisoner of war, he asked his brother ‘The Eggs may come in Time if they arrive here before 1st March. The Portable Soup ought to be put in Bottles, for the Dampness of the Sea Air, makes it musty in a months time’.[17] The success of these endeavours to package and send Scottish food abroad varied. While portable soup, a powdery substance akin to modern-day stock cubes, was a relatively conventional foodstuff to ship abroad, salmon and eggs were less so. Hall reported from India:


My Salmon from Cockburn of Berwick, turns out well tho’ it had not very fair play, for I told him to put it in Double Cases, its true he did so, but he did not fill up the interstice with a Salt Pickle as I desired him, besides there were some of the Cases which would not hold in some Salt Beef Pickle I poured in, aboard ship during the Voyage. I dare say he may sell many Hundreds Kitts if its done properly. Pray send me out Four 1/2 Kitts every year. Let them also be sent to George Fairholme. The Torwoodlee Eggs would not keep cross the Line, they did not stick much, but they were very much evaporated & of a stinking Straw Taste.[18]


Hall attached a very precise sense of place to his description of the food — both spoiled and unspoiled. Even while economics and monetary returns remain at the forefront of his mind — Cockburn ‘may sell many Hundreds Kitts if its done properly’ (presumably to Scots in India) — the eggs are ‘Torwoodlee’ and the salmon ‘Berwick’. The sense of place Hall attached to food becomes a means of situating himself in the geography of home: salmon tinned and transported, sometimes unspoilt, relocated his local geography of the Borders to Sumatra.[19] The manner in which economics and sentiment overlapped in Hall’s letters and schemes suggests the difficulty of separating out the two. The potential trade in salmon becomes a form of sustenance—literally, figuratively and economically—connecting Hall to the landscape of his birth.

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[1] Alexander Hall to John Hall, 3 September 1763, NAS, GD206/2/499/24.

[2] Alexander Hall to sister [Isabella?], 9 December 1755, NAS, GD206/2/504.

[3] Alexander Hall to John Hall, 17 April 1762, NAS, GD206/2/499/19.

[4] Alexander Hall to John Hall, 15 October 1765, NAS, GD206/2/499/25.

[5] Alexander Hall to John Hall, 3 September 1763, NAS, GD206/2/499/24. Alexander Hall to John Hall, 15 October 1764, NAS, GD206/2/499/25.

[6] Alexander Hall to John Hall, 26 March 1751, NAS, GD206/499/15.

[7] Alexander Hall to Margaret Hall, 5 June 1754, NAS, GD206/4/2.

[8] Alexander Hall to Margaret Hall, 15 November 1757, NAS, GD206/2/500/3.

[9] Alexander Hall to John Hall, 15 October 1765, NAS, GD206/499/25.

[10] Alexander Hall to John Hall, 30 November 1755, NAS, GD206/499/16.

[11] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 1983), 37.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Alexander Hall to William Hall, 4 December 1755, NAS, GD206/501/6.

[14] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (London, 1984), 174.

[15] Alexander Hall to William Hall, 4 December 1755, NAS, GD206/501/6.

[16] Alexander Hall to William Hall, 4 December 1755, NAS, GD206/501/6.

[17] Alexander Hall to John Hall, 8 January 1763, NAS, GD206/499/23.

[18] Alexander Hall to John Hall, 3 September 1763, NAS, GD206/499/24.

[19]For the shipping of food between colony and metropole during this period, see Elizabeth M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, c.1800-1947 (Oxford, 2001), 68-71; Troy Bickham, ‘Eating the Empire: Intersections of Food, Cookery and Imperialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, Past & Present, 198 (2008), 71-109.