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A guest post by Rebecca Rideal.

In April 1664, a House of Commons committee was set up in Westminster to investigate the nation’s declining cloth industry. It didn’t take long, however, for committee members to widen their focus to the deterioration of English trade more generally. Over the previous few years, mercantile tensions between the England and the Dutch Republic had grown steadily (erupting into the First Anglo-Dutch War, 1652–1654) and much of the blame for this perceived deterioration in trade was levelled at the Dutch. Throughout committee meetings, influential London merchants were encouraged to voice their grievances. With their companies venturing further afield for mastery of trade in gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, silks and spices, key complainants were the Levant Company, the East India Company, and the Royal Adventurers for Trade in Africa, whose headquarters and boards were all based within the capital and whose ships docked and delivered along the Thames. They complained that the Dutch had taken possession of all the former Portuguese territories, especially along the West African coast where they had severely inhibited England’s ability to trade.

capecoastcastle1682

Cape Coast Castle in 1682.

In fact, that same year, a forty-three-year-old Irish-born sea captain named Robert Holmes had been sent by the London-based benefactors of the newly-formed (and state-backed) Company of Royal Adventurers to facilitate the company’s expansion. Founded by the Duke of York and Prince Rupert of the Rhine on the belief that there were rich gold fields along the Gambia river, the company regularly came into conflict with Dutch trading bases along the West African coast. As the small fleet set off from the Thames, its primary goal was the acquisition of gold but Holmes also had explicit orders, for the first time, to establish a trade in slaves, with the aim of acquiring 3,000 per year to sell to the West Indies. He was instructed to ‘kill, take, sink or destroy such as shall oppose you’, but the unwritten truth was that in order to achieve these ends, he would need to take possession of Dutch trading bases.

In his forty-gun flagship, the Jersey, Holmes led a taskforce of English vessels to capture the Dutch fortress of Carolusborg, on the northern part of the Gulf of Guinea. He took with him a new spring-based pendulum watch, designed by the illustrious Dutch scientist and inventor Christiaan Huygens and refashioned by the Royal Society ready for the sea. It was hoped that the watch might enhance the accuracy of navigation. A cunning man who, by his own admission, looked ‘his enemies in the face with as much love as his friends’, Holmes was also a determined military leader and knew these waters well. With the support of his loyal crew and aided by the latest naval weaponry and navigation equipment, he seized a cluster of trading bases before setting his sights on the main prize, Carolusborg. It took Holmes eleven days of hard bombardment to capture Carolusborg, which was renamed Cape Coast Castle under English control.

His actions on behalf of Royal Adventurers for Trade in Africa far exceeded what the company’s backers had expected and Holmes found himself in the unanticipated situation of being reprimanded for capturing Dutch vessels. That said, his achievements were not unwelcome and, along with the wider grievances raised by London merchants and influential war-hungry court factions, they would trigger the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667). The Dutch eventually managed to win back many of the African trade posts Holmes had taken, but they never again had control of Cape Coast Castle; a fortress that, over the next two centuries, morphed into the rotten heart of the British Transatlantic Slave Trade.


revised-1666_Bpb.jpgAdapted from 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire. Rebecca Rideal is a writer, former TV producer and historian. Her first book 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire is published by John Murray and out in paperback today, 23rd February.

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The Profligate SonIf this were a novel by Dickens or Thackeray, you may well nod approvingly at exaggeration for effect. But this book is a morality tale which is all true.

The principals are the upright William Jackson Senior and his wastrel son, William Jackson Junior. Other leading characters include the boy’s long-suffering, loving mother, and other intimates who mainly comprise fond uncles, in-laws, servants and sundry accomplices. The whole story runs to the late 1820s but he main action takes place from 1807 and 1814.

Jackson père had made a modest fortune as so many before and after him as an employee of the East India Company, in his case as a Collector in the Madras presidency. He blotted his copybook somewhat through the mishandling of an incident involving a recalcitrant local prince. It took him years back in London to restore his reputation.

Choosing not to return to India, Jackson instead opted to go into semi-retirement as a pillar of the London middle-class and country squire, putting all his hopes in the assumed future achievements of young William, his only surviving child. He deemed the Law was the best option for the young chap.

Unfortunately, young William had other ideas turning out to be the epitome of the dissolute, Regency wastrel, a Beau Brummel in miniature. He had vague ideas of soldiering, a romantic enough notion given the period. Sent away to be educated in the classics, he was from the start completely out-of-control. By his mid-teens he had been expelled from several schools, fought a duel, contracted venereal disease and swindled dozens of shopkeepers, landlords and sundry suppliers around town.

Dressed to the nines and with a handsome prostitute on his arm, page after jaw-dropping page, William descends further and relentlessly into criminality. Nobody – parents, teachers, the military, the courts – can curb his excesses. Everyone loves a naughty anti-hero, but William is shocking.

In total contrast, his father is a dull, upright, moralistic fellow, but one cannot help feeling for the man.

The primary source for this entertaining book is Jackson Senior’s detailed but unpublished account of his son’s every action and his own response to it. Filial Ingratitude was written in three volumes and in addition to its author’s account included meticulously copied correspondence between the main parties and much commentary, margin notes and so on. To him, reputation counted for everything; it seems he felt that getting everything down on paper protected him somehow.

Nicola Philips takes the Jackson story and places it in the broader environment they inhabit, making us familiar not just with London’s streets but  with the city’s major London criminal justice institutions. Bow Street, Marlborough Street, and Old Bailey. The prisons of Newgate, the Fleet and Clerkenwell. The hulks at Woolwich, and indeed lock-ups and courts further afield, but at the risk of spoilers, I shall leave it at that.

Our period is during the Napoleonic Wars when specie was in very short supply. Much of the economy ran on bills of exchange, promissory notes etc. The system relied totally on men’s reputation and their word, otherwise the whole economy would come crashing down. And no formal police force! This created a perfect hunting ground for gentlemen swindlers and fraudsters of young William Jackson’s ilk.

It is extraordinary too,  just how sophisticated, intricate and extensive were social and business networks during the period. The reader – no less than Jackson senior – is left astounded at which hapless members of his family’s network the young Jackson was prepared callously to exploit, using all the low cunning of the amoral desperado. He was always one step ahead of his astonished and fuming parent, but in the end within the grasp of certain creditors – and the law.

Ultimately the father, and then the obedient mother, withdraws protection and all support, leaving the profligate son completely exposed. The story by no means ends there but you’ll have to buy the book to find out.

Even though we only really get the father’s side of the story, and taken that the louche Regency dandy fraudster was a far from uncommon type during our period, I found it very difficult to sympathise with William Jackson the younger. Except maybe a tiny bit at the end.

A true Regency tale, with dollops of absorbing social, legal and criminal history thrown in, beautifully told.

Warmly recommended.

The Profligate Son (332 pp) by Nicola Phillips is published by OUP on 24 October with a cover price of £20.00, although available for less.

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This letter to the Times from 1852 complains about the plight of Indian beggars on the streets of London, from one of their fellow nationals, so it would seem. One wonders whether he too was an Indian servant, albeit educated, on a visit with his employers. Or perhaps a native civil servant from Bombay – he certainly appears acquainted with the edicts from the Bombay authorities.

Hat-tip to reader Julian Craig, who spotted this in the Times Digital Archive.

* Update: See Julian’s comment below on the possible ambiguity of the writer’s ethnicity.

victorian london

20th July 1852

Sir,

I was not a little surprised on my arrival from India in this glorious part of the world to see in this metropolis several Indian beggars, who are a great annoyance to the public, but more so to the Indian gentlemen who visit England. Now, I frequently entered into conversation with them and inquired the cause of their begging in London ; the only reply that I could obtain was that their masters had died and they were left unprovided for; no other resort is left to them but to beg. England is overstocked by various people already and the following rule should be strictly adhered to and acted upon by the authorities in India, which would in a great measure put a stop to the coming of Indian beggars to this free land and it would be highly beneficial to the public as well as to the Indian delinquents themselves, who often perish for want of care and the effect of the climate :

‘ GENERAL DEPARTMENT
The Hon. the Governor in Council is pleased to intimate for general information, that under instruction from the Hon. the Court of Directors [ of the East India Company ] the customary deposit of five hundred rupees will in future be required on account of all [ Indian ] servants leaving Bombay by any route for Europe.

By order of the Hon. the Governor in Council
W. Escombe
Secretary to Government
Bombay Castle, 11th February 1846.’

At present there are upwards of 200 Indian beggars in London itself, and many are certainly left through the treachery of the parties who brought them, and are anxious to return to India, but for want of means they are unable to do so, actually starving and suffering, and if all the Indian beggars be called upon, many of them will volunteer to return home and it would be an act of infinite charity to send them to India, and to call upon the authorities of the port from which they were allowed to embark for England, for infringing the above order, and to adopt such measures as to totally put an end to the suffering of Indian foreigners in this country.

I sincerely hope that this letter may attract the attention of those in this country who have the power of interfering and taking up the matter, and to obtain passage for their poor Indian subjects, whom circumstances have thrown in their land.

Yours obediently,
AN INDIAN GENTLEMAN “

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