Writer retraces her former life as an indigo planter

Indigo Planters After Tiffin, an illustration by Machell.  Picture: British Library
Indigo Planters After Tiffin, an illustration by Machell. Picture: British Library
Have your say

A Scottish writer, artist and traveller who underwent controversial “past-life regression” treatment in a bid to discover more about a globe-trotting Victorian adventurer whose life and travels she was tracking, will reveal details of the session at a series of lectures beginning tomorrow.

Dr Jenny Balfour-Paul, whose “Deeper Than Indigo” lecture is part of the Inspiring People talks for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, became fascinated by Thomas Machell (1824-62), an indigo planter, after uncovering a series of coincidences linking their lives across continents and centuries.

Balfour-Paul, an expert on indigo, the world’s only natural blue dye, first heard about Machell after a librarian telephoned her in 1999 to say he had spotted a watercolour entitled “Indigo Planters After Tiffin” by Machell in his diaries among a display of manuscripts at the British Library.

Balfour-Paul, originally from Edinburgh, who re-traced Machell’s travels to countries including India and Egypt, will also describe taking part in “anti-pirate” training on a cargo ship off the Yemeni coast while following in Machell’s footsteps. She found diary entries he had written about pirates boarding his ship, on the same day, 150 years later.

“When I called up the manuscripts from the library and had five of his volumes, a whole 3,000 pages, in front of me, the first thing I read was ‘Who would have thought I would have a chance to travel and meet people because of indigo?’ But at that stage I was busy and didn’t want to engage with them. But it never left me.

“Then a while later, I set off for India with my husband and found myself tramping around in Machell’s footsteps. When I came back I began to take the journals more seriously. That’s when I found I’d been in his footsteps most of my life.

Machell, the son of a Yorkshire vicar, left home aged 16, scrubbing the decks of a merchant ship and after many adventures in the South Pacific and Asia, worked for Bengal Indigo Company and then became a coffee planter in India. He became a progressive pioneer who abhorred violence and set up a school for poor village children.

Following the death of her husband, Hugh Glencairn Balfour-Paul, in 2008, Jenny decided to return to India as a passenger on a cargo ship.

“I was reading Machell’s photocopied diaries on board and it was most uncanny.

“We were on pirate watch, and on the same day, but in 1848, Machell wrote about seeing the ‘pirates eyes darting towards my pistols’.”

During the past-life regression, undertaken in India by a Jungian psychotherapist, Rashna Imhasly-Gandhy, Balfour-Paul said she experienced aspects of Machell’s life from childhood to his last hours.

In Deeper Than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, Forgotten Explorer, published last year, Balfour-Paul intertwines her lifetime travels with Machell’s, noting many similarities.

Balfour-Paul’s first talk is in Kirkcaldy tomorrow, followed by talks in Edinburgh and Glasgow on Wednesday.

Dr Mary Brown, a psychologist, formerly at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, said there was a lot of debate about past life regression.

“It is regarded as dangerous in the wrong hands but in the right hands is believed to be quite therapeutic.

“Psychiatrist Carl Jung believed the whole world had a soul which he called the ‘collective unconscious’. Some Jungians believe people have several lives, but that you don’t need to believe that to access people’s thoughts.”