Cultures Clash in 19th Century Court Case

Doing research on two continents, a westmont historian studies a contentious case set in a culturally complex society
Chandra Mallampalli

Chandra Mallampalli

A white woman living in India under British rule marries a poor, local man from the lowest class. They share little in common except devotion to a religion that is barely tolerated where they live. By acquiring a contract to produce and sell liquor, the mixed-race couple become surprisingly wealthy and successful. Then the husband dies without a will, and his widow and his brother struggle to control his estate and lucrative business, engaging in a nine-year court battle.

This may sound like the plot to a Dickens novel or a television mini-series, but it’s the true story of a family who lived in India during the 19th century. History professor Chandra Mallampalli became fascinated with Charlotte and Matthew Abraham and spent a year researching their lives and the famous legal contest Abraham v. Abraham for a book he is writing.

“The case raises important questions about human identity and religious boundaries,” Chandra says. “The Abrahams straddled so many worlds in a culturally complex society not unlike our own. It offers insight into how we can live as Christians and still be bona fide citizens of a multicultural world.”

Charlotte Fox, the daughter of an English father and Portuguese mother, married Matthew Abraham, an Indian from the lowest caste. They were both Anglicans, but as Chandra has demonstrated in other scholarly work, Christians in India were marginalized during the colonial period despite British rule. Matthew rose from poverty when his father started working for the East India Company selling meat, something higher-caste Indians avoided. Eventually, he gained the right to produce and sell alcohol to British soldiers in the area and built a flourishing business with help from his brother, Francis. According to Hindu tradition, only Francis and the two sons could inherit Matthew’s wealth after he died. But British law granted such rights to the widow. As Charlotte and Francis wrestled for control, she took him to court. Preliminary decisions in India sided with the brother, but the widow appealed the case to the English Privy Council, which ruled in her favor.

“The case sheds light on many aspects of human experience: cultural identity, the acquisition of wealth, the role of gender, the history of family, the effect of colonialism on individuals and the challenges of living between two different cultures and races,” Chandra says. “The depositions provide useful details about life for both British and Hindu residents of 19th century southern India.”

Splitting his time between India and England and lecturing at universities in both countries, Chandra spent a year doing research. The story of the Abrahams so engrossed him that he even tried to track down living descendants, and he made contact with members of the family in England. He also located the Abrahams’ tombs in India (left) and visited Bellary to see the site of their distillery. Exploring the area where the British lived added important historical details. He wondered if anyone remembered the court case, but even the attorneys had forgotten. After working in India during the fall, he arrived in England in January. Lightly clad, he stepped off the bus into frigid air. The contrast in climate symbolized the sharp cultural differences he encountered in his research.

Chandra himself understands the challenges of straddling cultural, racial and religious boundaries. His parents, who are Hindu, immigrated from India, and he was born and raised in Wisconsin. His family thought it odd when he became a Christian as a student at Gustavus Adolphus College. After earning a master of divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary, Chandra lived in India for a year reporting on the persecution of Christians there and writing about religious freedom. He became intrigued with Indian history and decided to return to school, earning a master’s degree and a doctorate in South Asian history at the University of Wisconsin. He has taught at Westmont for eight years. “I’m interested in the history of Christians and in how people from mixed cultural backgrounds describe themselves,” he says. “So the Abraham v. Abraham court case has really engrossed me.”

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