“Princely Bequest.” A 19th Century British Inheritance and its Journey Around the World

How does it affect a community when a large sum of money from overseas unexpectedly enriches one of its members? What sounds like the plot of a famous British historical period drama television series is actually one of the questions at the heart of this paper. By following the money, it sheds light on the path of a large 19th century inheritance from one generation and one proprietor to another, from pre-industrial Northern England to India, Canada, the newly founded United States of America, to Switzerland and later Britain again, before unfolding its potential in the services of the British colonial empire. Over the span of more than a hundred years, the considerable fortune consequently touched upon different communities and regions, always bringing with it sudden riches for a single person or family, and leaving behind a baffled community. The puzzles and questions that arise from the global movement of this inheritance from one community to the next are fundamental ones: What is wealth? To whom does money belong and what separates private possession from public good? What personal aspirations and public desires rise from such a sudden influx of capital? This paper highlights what geographical transfers of a large capital stock and with it the migration of specific wealthy individuals meant for the affected communities and how it changed perceptions of wealth as well as senses of belonging (to a certain social class, or group, or region, or political entity) of the actors involved. Through a transregional perspective, it looks at capital – specifically one particular capital stock – as a quasi-actor, a catalyst for conceptions of wealth and community during the “long nineteenth century”.

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