Enter Nimmo Road in San Thome and you are in a different world. Gracious mansions from an era long past greet you on both sides, one of them housing the Spanish Consulate. The thoroughfare commemorates Erskine Nimmo, a ‘free merchant’ of the 18th century who probably lived here. The term free merchant indicates that he was operating independently of the East India Company.
He appears to have been fairly successful in his chosen trade, whatever it was. Besides this, he was actively involved in floating lottery schemes by the means of which the Government of the day was funding several public projects. He was of course also an active participant in what was then the biggest scam on earth – lending money to the Nawab of Arcot at usurious rates.
Nimmo died intestate in Madras in 1805. Almost immediately, William Fairlie, the ‘Prince among Calcutta merchants’ and after whom Fairlie Place in that city is named, filed for possession of all of Nimmo’s effects, on the grounds that he was owed money by the latter. Thanks to the efforts of Binny & Co, his agents in our city, Fairlie obtained Letters Of Administration approving the takeover from the Supreme Court of Judicature in Madras. He returned to England a few years later and in 1812, got similar Letters of Administration issued by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury so as to gain control over Nimmo’s assets in England.
But he was not to enjoy these additions to his already considerable wealth. William Nimmo appeared out of the blue in England in 1815, after spending several years in the West Indies. As next of kin to Erskine Nimmo, he filed for quashing the Letters of Administration given to Fairlie. The case of Nimmo vs Fairlie was to drag on for fourteen years during which period Fairlie conveniently died. Judgement when pronounced decreed that William Nimmo was entitled to Letters of Administration to the estate in England. But if he wanted to lay his hands on what was in India, he would have to file a fresh suit in Madras.
He rather wisely chose not to do so, for he had already managed to get what was the most lucrative among Erskine Nimmo’s Madras possessions – Carnatic stock or compensation for what was owed by the Nawab of Arcot. During the period that the suit was pending in England, the East India Company had already taken possession of the entire Arcot kingdom. A team of Carnatic Commissioners had been appointed to go into the Nawab’s debts and settle them. Several claims were rejected as fraudulent but among those upheld was that of Titus Briggs, writer in the East India Company in Madras. Sometime in 1796, Briggs had made over his claim to Erskine Nimmo for some monetary consideration. This had in turn become Fairlie’s and thereafter William Nimmo’s.
It was a handsome windfall for William Nimmo– a sum of two thousand and forty six pounds, nine shillings and seven pence, in 1818.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated June 14, 2014, under the Hidden Histories column