The uncertain terminus of John Whitehill

Of all the friendships that William Macintosh cultivated on his arrival in India, that with the sometime governor of Madras, John Whitehill, was perhaps the most unlikely. An archetypal nabob, Whitehill embodied many of the traits that Macintosh would go on to criticise in his 1782 book. The pair were also temperamentally different; the phlegmatic Macintosh contrasting with the classically choleric Whitehill. For all their apparent differences, however, the pair developed a friendship that eventually spanned Madras, London, and Paris, and endured parliamentary efforts in the early 1780s to prosecute Whitehill for his actions, or inactions, whilst governor.

For much of the last month I have been researching and reflecting on the nature of this unlikely friendship, the unexpected factors that encouraged and sustained it, and the influence it ultimately had on Macintosh as he made his third major geographical pivot, from the East Indies to France, in the 1780s. At the same time, I have been curious about Whitehill’s life after his friendship with Macintosh had ended, and his uncertain fate in post-Revolutionary France. Part of my interest reflects a basic curiosity about what happened in the end, but also stems from the coincidental fact that the personal archives of Whitehill and Macintosh both have their origin in revolutionary seizures.

While Macintosh’s archive was never considered strategically important by the revolutionary authorities, Whitehill’s papers and maps were—given his former role in the governing structures of the East India Company—seen as vital geopolitical resources, and special instructions were issued for their seizure in Chantilly and onward transport to Paris, where they remain today in the Archives nationales as the “Papiers de John Whitchill [sic], ancien gouverneur de Madras“. These papers have been examined by the UCL historian Simon Macdonald in researching his eagerly awaited (by me, among others) book, Enemies of the Republic: Policing the British in Revolutionary Paris. Simon has been kind enough to share with me material from the collection that concerns Whitehill’s personal, political, and financial relationship with Macintosh.

What Whitehill’s papers don’t reveal, of course, is what happened to him after their seizure, and the details of his subsequent life are rather obscure as a result. There are some clues, however, in the secondary literature. Writing in 1807, for example, Frederick Lynch—a prominent critic of Whitehill’s former confidant, John Sullivan—noted that Whitehill had by then “died in exile in France.” Three years later, however, Lewis Goldsmith, chronicler of Napoleonic France, framed Whitehill as a still-living but penniless octogenarian, supported in his Chantilly home by an annual annuity from Catherine Grand, Princesse de Bénévent. It is difficult to know how much stock to place in either account; Whitehill would not, for instance, have reached his 80th birthday until 1815.

Recent research in Chantilly by Patrice Valfré, a scholar of ancient ceramics, has revealed more about Whitehill’s family connections to the city. Valfré shows that Whitehill’s daughter (or stepdaughter), Sophie, was married there at the age of 20 (in 1799 or 1800) to the wonderfully, not to say improbably, named Orledge White Penny, the 25-year-old son of a British merchant at Calais, Christophe Penny. Although this information does not resolve the issue of Whitehill’s uncertain terminus, it does show that the family continued to live in Chantilly after the Revolution. Given the fact, moreover, that Whitehill never reclaimed his seized papers—something that became possible following the Treaties of Paris (1814–15)—it would seem likely that he had died beforehand.

Doubtless the answer to the puzzle is out there somewhere amid the vast civil registers of post-Revolutionary France and their corresponding genealogical websites. As with Macintosh, however, Whitehill’s surname was rendered in a variety of distinctive ways—including “Whitil”, “Witchill”, and “Whittal”—that make searching and finding that bit more tricky. For now, however, I leave the story unresolved and hope that the clues here might eventually lead someone even more curious than I am to the answer.

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