Book of the Day: Kegwin’s Rebellion

Today’s book, Ray and Oliver Strachey’s Kegwin’s Rebellion (1683-4) An Episode in the History of Bombay, demonstrates one extreme of the range of material I am using to write the biography of Captain Thomas Bowrey. As a detailed description of a short rebellion at a tiny, newly settled fort on the Indian subcontinent it is particularly niche. It does, however, hint at the nature of the attitudes within the East India Company.

A collection of small islands off the north-west coast of India, Bombay had passed from the Portuguese to Charles II in Catherine of Braganza’s dowry in 1661. At that time, there was just a manor house  close to where the Gateway to India stands today. Seven years later, this white elephant was leased to the East India Company. Samuel Smith had been employed in building the fortification of the Company settlement up until his death in 1669. By the early 1680s, the Company attempted to impose an austerity budget on Bombay. Captain Richard Kegwin of the Bombay militia, believing that the Company was mismanaging the island, seized it in the name of the Crown and wrote to the king asking him to take it back under his own control. Charles II, disagreeing, sent Sir Thomas Grantham out to resolve the rebellion.

The story of the rebellion is a tale of political rivalries and entrenched attitudes that are only too familiar today. They hint of the imperious attitude of those employed by the Company even at this early stage of its history. This attitude is abundantly clear in Moin Mir’s The Prince Who Beat the Empire: How an Indian Ruler Took on the Might of the East India Company set many years later.

I was drawn to today’s book whist trying to understand some of the characters in Bowrey’s story. Both Stephen Adderton and Henry Smith (probably Samuel’s brother) were involved in the rebellion. Smith has been considered a ne’er-do-well but he may simply have been a principled man at odds with the Company who expressed his dissatisfaction in too hot-headed a way. The history of this time and place has been written in the main by the Company. Care needs to be taken in unravelling it.


Book of the Day: A Seventeenth Century Mariner

Mariner Title

Edward Barlow was a seventeenth century mariner who left a diary of his life at sea. Today’s book, A Seventeenth Century Mariner is Captain A G Course’s book based on this diary. You may, perhaps, come across Barlow having found one of his illustrations from his diary somewhere on the Internet.

Other than being at sea at a similar time to Captain Thomas Bowrey, there was likely similarity between them but Course’s book is still able to provide some of the details not available in Bowrey’s papers. Barlow was the son of a farmhand born well away from the coast who ran away to sea in a way often seen as romantic whereas Bowrey was the son of a naval captain born in a community of sailors and was born to the sea. Barlow started his career on a Royal Navy ship, a world rejected by Bowrey.

The original diary is held at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich but, frustratingly, Course’s book is not a transcript of it. However, today’s book still provides very useful details of a sailor’s daily diet. Within Bowrey’s papers, there are bills for food for his ships but not indication on how this was consumed on board. More importantly, the diary include the voyage Barlow took on an East India Company ship to Formosa (Taiwan or the Republic of China) as well as other voyages to India. He later commanded a Company ship.

Today’s book includes invaluable contemporary descriptions of places, or details about people, known to Bowrey.


Mariner Publisher

Book of the Day: Journal of the Plague Year


Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year has been a favourite of mine for a number of years. Defoe manages to evoke the absolute horror of living through the last great plague in London and I find it both harrowing and riveting. Perhaps it says as much about me as Defoe.

The haunting cry of “Bring out your dead!” by a bell-ringing collector of plague victims to be thrown into a mass grave, a plague pit, chills the reader. The descriptions of deserted London streets reminds you of a post-apocalyptic world. It is easy to imagine the fear you would have felt were you sealed up in your house with a plague victim or were living outside London at the time and a stranger approached your community.

Written in the first person and published fifty-seven years after 1665 it depicts a year in London when Defoe, like Captain Thomas Bowrey, was only a child. It cannot have been written from personal experience – it does not portray the simplistic view of a child –  yet you never feel this whilst reading. It is written in the first person, supposedly by a Londoner with the initials “HF”, who lived through the year alone.

Defoe was a prolific writer, a journalist who was said to have invented the novel. He was also an agent for Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford. In this book, he used all his experience and drew on his talents for reconstructing historical events in a work of fiction. It is realistic with memorable details that ensures that a work of fiction surpasses any first-hand account in its air of authenticity.




Book of the Day: Britain After the Glorious Revolution 1689-1714

Revolution Cover

Despite living in the East Indies for nineteen years, Captain Thomas Bowrey remained aware of the political situation at home. He delayed his return home once when the news of the death of Charles II reached India. He understood that the accession of Catholic sympathiser of his brother, James, to the throne had the potential for unrest in the country. When he finally arrived back in England in 1689, he learned that the so called Glorious Revolution had taken place whilst he was on board the Bengal Merchant.

The Britain After the Glorious Revolution 1689-1714 edited by Geoffrey Holmes is perfectly placed to through light on the country to which he returned for the last twenty-four years of his life. The book’s format is ten essays on different aspects of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century British history with an introduction by Holmes. The major aspects of the social and religious life of the period are covered and many of the essays touch on important aspects of Bowrey’s life including shipping, the South Sea Company and the union between England and Scotland in addition to events that affected him and his business such as trade, the press and the wars of the time.

T C Smoult’s The Road to Union and the final essay  have been particularly useful for me. The subject of the latter is Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford, in whose papers some of Bowrey’s proposals survive. They were probably introduced by Daniel Defoe who shared many of Bowrey’s trade interests.

Revolution Publisher

Book of the Day: Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book

Fettiplace Cover

… and now for something completely different. It would be difficult to find a greater contrast between the Language and Literature of Malaysia and today’s book, Hilary Spurling’s Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book. I hope that this demonstrates the diversity of material available for the biography of Captain Thomas Bowrey.

Within in Bowrey’s papers, there is correspondence about the Malay and other oriental languages alongside bills for food and, even, a dinner to celebrate the launching of one of his ships. When searching for book on food of the period, I could not resist purchasing Hilary Spurling’s book.

Although I have not yet proved the connection, Bowrey’s wife Mary Gardiner was distantly related to the Fettiplace family through her mother Frances Bushell. The mother of Frances’ nephew, Thomas Bushell, was Diana Fettiplace and he changed his surname when in inherited his uncle’s estate. This uncle was probably Elinor’s great grandson, Sir Edmund Fettiplace. Thus, any possible connection between Elinor and Bowrey is extremely tenuous but still proved irresistible when I was searching for books about the food of the period despite it being out of period.

Elinor was not unusual in being guardian of her own recipes but few such Receipt Books have survived and even fewer published. Recipes were passed down families and Frances was likely to have brought her own with her when she married Philip Gardiner. Bowrey moved in with the family when he married Mary and may well have experienced some of Elinor’s dishes although, as recipes usually passed through the female line, probably not. At the launch dinner mentioned earlier, Bowrey supplied the cook employed with a ham, no doubt prepared to one of Frances’ recipes. Unfortunately, there is no ham recipe in the book.

Fettiplace Publisher

Book of the Day: The Encyclopaedia of Malaysia: Language and Literature

Encyclopedia Cover

The wide-ranging nature of Captain Thomas Bowrey’s activities has had resulted in me having to educate myself in a similarly wide-ranging list of subjects. One of those subjects is the fascinating Malay language. This has not been as difficult as you may imagine. I should not have been so surprised to find Professor Dato’ Dr Asmah Haji Omar’s beautiful volume on the Malay Language and Literature in the Encyclopaedia  of Malaysia series. If you look in detail at many of today’s coffee-table books, so many of them have been printed in Singapore or Malaysia even when published elsewhere.

Today, we are used to English being widely understood but this was not the case in Bowrey’s day. In the earliest days, the English East India Company officials often resulted to Latin in their communication primarily because the Portuguese had been in the East Indies for so much longer. The intra-Asian trade had been in existence for even longer and the Malay language had become the lingua-franca of business. It was also one of the international language of diplomacy alongside Arabic and Persian. Malay is still the fifth most widely spoken world language. It is one of the official languages of Malaysia and Singapore and, in a slightly different form, of Indonesia. It remains an important contact language – that is a language spoken by native speakers of other languages. It is easier to learn than European languages.

Because of the importance of Malay Bowrey’s dictionary, the earliest Malay-English dictionary published, still has relevance now. It has been claimed that even today anyone following his vocabulary and rules for pronunciation would learn to speak Malay sufficiently to be understood.

This is more remarkable than you would imagine because Malay is a much more complex than English. There are three forms of the language: colloquial, formal and bazaar. Colloquial Malay is the spoken form used as a contact language. Formal, or standard, Malay is a highly developed language used for literature, education and administration in both written and spoken form. This written for of Malay is at least as old as written English. The earliest inscriptions used Indic-based scripts. As the use of Malay spread with the spread of Islam, an Arabic-based script known as Jawi came into use. The Malay Roman script known as Rumi was not adopted until the period of British administration long after Bowrey’s time.

Bazaar, pasar or low Malay was used as the trade language, that used as the lingua franca of the Malay Archipelago.  It is a reduced form, grammatically simpler with a smaller vocabulary. This third variation is the form Bowrey knew and the source of any criticism of his dictionary but he had been required to develop his own method of Romanising Malay for English speakers. When Malaysia and Indonesia agreed on a standard Romanised spelling system to replace Jawi in 1972, it was based on the existing Dutch and English systems. It was the culmination of the evolution of a written system in part started by Bowrey.

It is thanks to Professor Omar that I can understand all this.

Encyclopedia Publisher

Book of the Day: The Story of Fort St George

Fort Cover

Today’s offering is a tiny book, The Story of Fort St George by Colonel Douglas Muir Reid. Modest though it is, it was first published by the Diocesan Press in Madras in 1945 and has been reprinted twice in New Delhi in 1999 and 2007. My pristine copy is one of the latter Asian Educational Services reprints. It is not my only reprint from this useful publisher.

From the Forward by the then Governor of Madras we learn that Colonel Reid regularly conducted tours of the Fort making use of his unequalled knowledge and enthusiastic love of the Fort. I can easily imagine Reid to be one of those energetic amateur local historians whose passion for their subject results in them being the guardian of the sorts of gems that would otherwise be lost. His text is enhanced with delightful little drawings by Ismena R Warren. All this allows me to be forgiving of the poor print quality and weird layout of the book.

The books is written as if you are actually on one of Reid’s tours of the Fort and is full of the little details that help bring the past to life. Most books about the history of the East India Company stress the importance of the trade in pepper during the earliest days but only in this book is there the explanation that mustard was the only spice grown in England at the time.

For me, writing the biography of Captain Thomas Bowrey, it is the description of Fort at different periods with such details of how you would have arrived by sea and landed by surf boat that is so invaluable. The book also includes a set of plans of the Fort through the years and a useful historic timeline. In this case, size is not everything. A great deal of useful content is contained in just seventy-eight tiny pages.

Fort Publisher