Records refer to him as a ‘congenital fighter’ and this is amply borne out by the battles he fought on behalf of Madras and its vast Presidency. Henry Nelson was a partner in Parry & Co from 1845 to 1861. He was Chairman of the Madras Chamber of Commerce thrice, in 1849, 1859 and 1860.

Nelson’s technique was to flood the Government with demands and when called for negotiations, withdraw all but the most important ones. Thus, when the drains of Madras became a matter of concern (nothing ever changes does it?) he presented Governor Sir Charles Trevelyan with a slew of demands ranging from land reforms to a Town Hall. He then chose to give up all of them if the Governor would do something about the drains. That was done and the city breathed easy for a while.

The Commissioner of Police was another target and one of Nelson’s missives claimed that people committed crimes just to enjoy life in the penitentiary, such being the leniency in prison! All these were minor battles compared to Nelson’s spirited campaign opposing the implementation of Income Tax, in 1859. He organised public meetings, wrote letters and had a powerful ally in Trevelyan who lost his job in the process. It was during this battle that Nelson wrote a startling proposal for Governmental reforms.

Claiming that Civil Servants ran the administration under the thumb of the authorities “very largely ignorant of the conditions and feelings of everybody in India except themselves”, Nelson demanded a reconstitution of the Legislative Council with representation of the people! Let each Presidency have its own Executive and Legislative Council, he demanded, with each having three non-official European members and one each from the Hindu, Muslim and Anglo-Indian communities. And let each Legislature elect a member to the Supreme Legislative Council in Calcutta. Coming as it did so soon after the Mutiny, Nelson’s idea was considered seditious. But it had its echoes in the later Morley-Minto reforms, the Montagu-Chelmsford dyarchy and finally, Independence. Ironically, despite his attacks on the bureaucracy, Nelson’s daughter Emma married the celebrated JL Lushington of the Madras Civil Service!

Nelson firmly believed that India could produce cotton of the same quality as America and did much work in that area. He espoused scientific advances and on 13 October 1853, sent one the first telegrams from Madras. It set him back by Rs 10. He championed the cause of the Madras Port, a project that nobody believed in and in 1862, he, along with the Governor of Madras and the Commander-in-Chief, screwed in the first pier. We last see Nelson answering a Parliamentary Committee on the conditions of Indian sugar cultivation in 1862. By then he was living in retirement at Denmark Hill, Surrey.

There is no portrait of Nelson in the public domain. He is described as having a “quizzical, doggy Scots face with a particoloured beard, a pugnacious mouth and a lively eye.” It goes with the personality.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated 14th August 2012 in the Hidden Histories Column.