Sex and Slaves in Sumatra and Scotland

Sex and Slaves in Sumatra and Scotland

Hall was bound up in the genteel Scottish male views of sex common to the mid-eighteenth century. It is a topic often discussed openly in the letters to his brothers. Before leaving for India, his brother John wrote to him of a rumour that he had impregnated a local girl called Jennie. Alexander denied the charges, responding ‘I shall certainly grow vain if so many charges of fornication be laid to my door I am sorry for poor Jennie: I hope my Mother won’t hear of it tho’ I assure you its not mine. If I had as good a name here 10 to 1 I wou’d be pressed from going to India & make more of it at home’.[1] Nor had any desire for matrimony crept in after five years in Sumatra. He wrote in 1755, ‘Ay Poor Charles Elliott married! I am sorry for it G_d keep me from it on this Coast I would sooner, Sir John, tie a Millstone round my neck &c.’[2] Instead, like many during this period, Hall had sex with at least one Indian woman. If this extra-marital sex was something to be written and joked about only to male members of the family, it is unsurprising that after Alexander’s death his sister only found out about his illegitimate, mixed-race daughter from her brother’s will. She asked Alexander’s executor Robert Hay to send the child if thought appropriate.[3] Isabella’s brother John harboured more doubts and wrote to Hay inquiring whether Alexander daughter ‘is Tawney Colourd or not’. This concern about skin colour informed whether she should be sent to Scotland. If ‘Tawney’ she should be kept in India ‘where her colour is no detainment’ but if ‘she is of the ordinary Complexion of this country I dare say my sister would be glad to have her here to exert herself in the care of her Education but if she be of a colour different from our’s it would be making her miserable to bring to a place where she would always be particular’.[4]Robert Hay responded, without making reference to skin colour, ‘The known regard your Brother had for it put it out of all doubt with me the sending of it’.[5] Hay and Isabella Hall kept up a steady correspondence over the next decade until Hay’s return to Peebleshire in 1777. These letters display real concern for Peggy on both sides while revealing the manifold tensions that sending her to Scotland engendered. Tracing Peggy and her maid’s journey from Sumatra to the Borders demonstrates the ‘black presence’ in rural Scotland during the mid-eighteenth century, suggesting the role that the East India Company had in instigating ‘counter-flows to colonialism’.[6]

Peggy was also one of the few material ‘things’ that Alexander Hall left behind—he made little money in Sumatra. She was born at Madras in November 1761, conceived during Hall’s period under parole when he was unable to work, and was christened at Fort Marlbourgh in 1762.[7] Sending her to Scotland was one of the first difficulties that Hay and Isabella had to negotiate. There was little chance of her staying in Sumatra. As Hay wrote ‘Especially as Children after the[y] arrive at her age learn little good in India having none but servants who are mostly slaves to converse or play with I have therefore taken the opportunity of Mr Idell returning to England of sending the Child well knowing the regard he had for her Father woud [sic] make him take the greatest care of her he can’.[8] One of the men who looked after her on the voyage home described her as ‘very Short of her Age but I believe, one of the best temper’d Children in England’.[9] By 1770, Isabella could claim Peggy was ‘much grown since she came to this Country’ and a year later further on that ‘she continues to thrive and grow vastly, and is much improved in her colour tho she still speaks like a Foreigner which Im surprised at as she came here so young; she continues to remember you with kindness, which is all the return she can make for the trouble you had about her Fathers affairs but she is a good-hearted child and I hope will turn well out.’[10] Here, Scotland is perceived as a country where Peggy can ‘thrive and grow vastly’ in contrast to her stunted growth in Sumatra. Even so, Dunglass could not cure all ills: Isabella continued to speak ‘like a Foreigner’. By 1773, Isabella reported that Peggy had ‘come to an age that needs a little more Education than I can give her at home, and as I am not to be in Edh for some time myself I propose to send her to a boarding Schooll for a year or two, I woud therefore wish to have a little of her money sent home, to be lay’d out for her Education, and such things as she may need, from time to time’.[11] Isabella Hall perceived education as one means of overcoming the Peggy’s ‘foreignness’ in accent, displaying how Peggy’s mixed-raceness could be overcome by Scottish climate and education.

Balinese slave in Batavia in 1700 from Cornelis de Bruin Voyages de Corneille le Brun 1718

Balinese slave in Batavia in 1700 from Cornelis de Bruin Voyages de Corneille le Brun 1718

If Peggy Hall was an enigma to her Scottish family, then the nurse ‘Betty’ caused more practical problems. Henry Idell, bringing with him from India the daughter of deceased Alexander Hall in 1767 listed ‘the following ‘belonging’ to Miss Peggy Hall’:

One Trunk contg wearing Apparell

One Pair of Gold Earrings

One Pair of Gold Sleeve Buttons

One Gold Ring

One Slave Woman named Betty

One chest of Wearing Apparell belg to Betty[12]


The casual listing of ‘Betty’ as ‘belonging’ to the young Hall casts the woman as an ‘object’. It suggests that the Indian servant could be perceived of as an exotic and valuable object just as ‘gold ring’ or clothing from Surat. This translated into ‘Betty’ being unable to dictate when she could return to India: as Idell wrote ‘The Nurse is a Slave & must return to India’.[13] While Idell was supposed to organise Betty’s return to India, by September of the following year the Halls had heard nothing more. Instead, Sir John organised one Neilson to carry her by boat to London and then petitioned a Mr Braham to get her passage on a ship to India: ‘and you will have the Satisfaction of doing a charitable action to the Poor Woman who is pining to be home—I believe she belongs to Mr Robert Hay and I suppose he will be glad to have his servant again. I saw his Father and his Brother Mr William to or three days ago’.[14]

However, Braham failed to find Betty a passage back to Sumatra and Isabella Hall wrote ‘I’m affraid [sic] we shall be obliged to bring her back from London again which I shou’d be sorry for, as the poor Woman, wishd much to be home, was of no use here, and probably woud be missed in your service—she behavd herself very well while she was here, and took good care of the Child’.[15] Henry Idell resurfaced in the Spring of the next year and finally engineered Betty’s passage. This problem of how to return an Indian servant was not uncommon among the families of East India Company men — their ignorance of the system often meant long delays and sometime abandonment for the servant in question. Betty reached Sumatra safely and in January 1771 Isabella Hall wrote to Robert Hay, ‘we were all vastly glade [sic] to Betty the black Maids safe arrival in India and that her being so long away was no unconvenience [sic]’. [16]Some five years later, shortly before Hay was due to leave Sumatra, Isabella asked him ‘ I would wish to make a little present to Betty the black maid that here & beg you will take the trouble to give her two or three Guineas or what you think proper and place it to my account’.[17] Throughout these exchanges, ‘Betty’ is granted no voice or indeed even her own (Indian) name.[18] Indeed, her restriction to a near object to be shipped to Scotland and back to India is evidence of her relative powerlessness in both colony and metropole. After Hay left Sumatra, Betty disappears from the historical record.

Similarly, Peggy fades from the surviving colonial archive. The last we hear of Peggy in the Hall of Dunglass collection— and indeed the only example in her hand — is in the ‘Disposition of Margaret Hall’ that she signed on 8 October 1783 at the age of twenty-one. It grants her all money, lands and property to her aunt Isabella.[19] From this, it can also be gleaned that she was still living at the family’s ancestral home, Dunglass. It is not exactly clear what happened to Peggy after she grew up. By 1820 she was dead, and a Sederunt book for Pringle of Torwoodlee records ‘Residue of Miss Hall’s estate being £1400 liferented by Mrs MacMurdo, & divisible among such of the Children of Mr Pringle (exclusive of his heir) and of Mrs Macmurdo as shall survive her.’[20] The Halls’ connection to India, however, did not end with Peggy. When Sir James Hall, 4th Baronet remodelled Dunglass House in 1807, he decorated the drawing room with Chinese wallpaper and lacquered cabinets.[21] The history of Hall, Peggy and Betty should suggest the darker history that lurks behind such beautiful, exotic objects.

The drawing room at Dunglass House with green oriental paper.   Pubulished in County Life, 12/09/1925.  Copyright Country Life

The drawing room at Dunglass House with green oriental paper.
Published in County Life, 12/09/1925. Copyright Country Life

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[1] Alexander Hall to John Hall, 26 April 1750, NAS, GD206/499/3.

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

[3] Isabella Hall to Robert Hay and Henry Nell, nd, NAS, GD206/4/38.

[4]John Hall to Robert Hay, 16 December 1765, NAS, GD206/2/295.

[5] Robert Hay to Isabella Hall, 5 March 1767, NAS, GD206/4/40.

[6] Michael Fisher, Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain, 1600–1857 (Delhi, 2004). See also, Durba Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire (Cambridge, 2006).

[7] Henry Idell to Isabella Hall, 5 August 1767, NAS, GD206/4/33.

[8] Robert Hay to Isabella Hall, 5 March 1767, NAS, GD206/4/40.

[9] Henry Idell to Isabella Hall, 5 August 1767, NAS, GD206/4/33.

[10] Isabella Hall to Robert Hay, 13 January 1770, NAS, GD206/4/38. Isabella Hall to Robert Hay, 9 January 1771, NAS, GD206/4/38.

[11] Isabella Hall to Robert Hay, 18 November 1773, NAS, GD206/4/38.

[12] London signed Thomas Neilson, 26 August 1767, NAS, GD206/4/33.

[13] Henry Idell to Isabella Hall, 5 August 1767, NAS, GD206/4/33. On Indian slaves in Britain, see Margot Finn, ‘Slaves out of Context: Domestic Slavery and the Anglo-Indian Family, c. 1780-1840’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 19 (2009), 181-203.

[14] John Hall to Neilson, 7 Sep 1768, NAS, GD206/4/30//13. John Hall to Mr Braham, 7 September 1768, NAS, GD206/4/30/10.

[15] Isabella Hall to Robert Hay, 29 October 1768, NAS, GD206/4/38.

[16] Isabella Hall to Robert Hay, 9 January 1771, NAS, GD206/4/38.

[17] Isabella Hall to Robert Hay, 4 January 1776, NAS, GD206/4/38.

[18] Spivak has referred to this naming practice as the ‘olympian violations of women’s names’. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives’, History and Theory, 24 (1985), pp. 247-272, p. 267.

[19] Disposition of Margaret Hall, 8 October 1783, NAS, GD206/2/193.

[20] Sederunt book for Pringle of Torwoodlee, 1820, NAS, CS96/323.

[21] ‘Interior of Dunglass’, Twentieth Century, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, G 90479 PO.