Deeper than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, forgotten explorer

“A wonderful book”
Stuart Jefferies,The Guardian
“One of the most remarkable books I have ever read”
AN Wilson
“Travelogue, memoir, detective story, love story – her book is partly each of these and wholly compelling… Balfour Paul makes him [Machell] live on the page.”
Michael Kerr, The Telegraph


This intriguing odyssey, set on the edges of time, encompasses biography, memoir, detective story, travelogue and history to tell a remarkable tale of East-West connections and a mysterious love.

The author’s quest begins when the word ‘indigo’ draws her to the illustrated journals, now in the British Library, of Victorian traveller Thomas Machell. She finds her life to have striking echoes of his, not least travels to and within India, a career in indigo, and a passion for journal writing. She is also intrigued by his aspiration to write ‘a novel in the form of an autobiography’ and by his quirky watercolour sketches.

Retracing his footsteps – overland and by sea – from his ancestral home in the hills and dales of northern England to remote parts of the Middle East and Asia, she is often in her own footsteps too.

Machell of Crackenthorpe, born in 1824, first demonstrated his yearning for adventure when only twelve, and at sixteen left the family rectory to fulfil his childhood dream of travelling to the East. By chance, he witnessed many important historical events, including the infamous ‘First Opium War’ and ‘Indian Mutiny’. He spent most of his adult life in India; the author tracks him to indigo plantations in rural Bengal and Bangladesh, to coffee estates in Kerala’s Malabar Hills, to unexplored regions of central India and to the city of Calcutta.

Machell also travelled up the Indus River to the North-West Frontier and by sea from India to Egypt with Muslim merchants. The author voyages aboard the last freighter to take passengers from UK to India, facing the same threat of pirate attack in the Red Sea as Machell. She also follows in his wake by cargo ship to the most remote Polynesian islands, setting for his passionate love affair, and seeks his colourful descendants in the New World.

This spellbinding book brings to life Machell’s untold story, that of a spirited outsider reaching into the future at the height of British colonialism. Serendipity, intuition and an enchanting relationship, as well as the author’s quest to uncover the missing years of Machell’s life, give this book its magical extra dimension.

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