Mount Sion Tunbridge Wells

Thomas Bowrey and his wife, Mary, visited the spas at Bath and Tunbridge Wells on a number of occasions. In 1705 we know from correspondence that they stayed at the lodging house run by Mrs Brook in Mount Sion. Jerningham House which dates back to 1672 is the earliest known lodging house. It is not known if this was the house run by Mrs Brook but Thomas would certainly have known the house. Mount Sion is not very long.

Much of the tranquil charm of Mount Sion still survives and other buildings Thomas and Mary may have know n have also survived.

It is jut a shame that when we broke our journey to the south coast of Kent so that I could take these photographs the weather was so typically British. I set off from the hotel in sunshine having driven through torrential rain for three house for the rain to restart just as I found these period houses.

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The Taking of the Prosperous

In the spring of 1707 Captain Thomas Bowrey, an owner of the Prosperous, stood up before a House of Commons committee and related the story of the ship being taken by pirates at Madagascar several years earlier. The story of the Prosperous had begun in September 1701 when the two hundred and thirty ton ship armed with twenty-four guns had departed from London under the commanded of Captain John Hilliard. On board was Thomas’ cousin, Thomas Studds, one of the full complement of forty-four men.

From the start, the Prosperous was an unlucky ship. The voyage to the west coast of Madagascar was difficult but they eventually arrived during the following May at the end of the rainy season. Hilliard immediately commenced negotiations with the local king who promised to supply two hundred slaves within two months. This had always been the intention. The Prosperous included medicines for the slaves in her cargo. With good harbours, coves and beaches as well as plentiful provisions it seemed that life was improving for the crew. Glad to be on dry land again after their tedious voyage, the carpenter erected a tent on the shore within which to build the sloop, or service boat, they had brought in parts from England. A second tent was erected for storing trade goods to reduce the number of trips between ship and shore. However, the ship’s long boat continued to make such journeys to restock with water.

The presence of crew members of the Prosperous ashore had been noted by a group of pirates led by Thomas Howard visiting from other parts of the island. The pirates set about convincing a number of the crew to join them. They included the boatswain’s mate, Richard Ranton. At midnight twelve days after they had first anchored, as the turned members of the crew lay in wait on board, a group of pirates, together with Ranton, approached the ship in a boat. When the young midshipman, John Orp, on watch challenged them, Ranton answered it was the Prosperous’ longboat returning from shore with water. Orp passed them a rope and returned to what he was doing. The first pirate to board fired at Orp who, although not hit, played dead to save his life.

In a brutal attack, the pirates shot Daniel Perkins, the first mate, in the mouth at point blank range when he refused to surrender. The shot went through the middle of his chin and emerged from the side of his neck between the jawbone and his jugular vein, shattering his lower jaw. Simultaneously, the other pirates with the help of the turned crew seized the steerage where some of the crew were sleeping, firing indiscriminately as they did so. Ranton fired several shots at the second mate, Daniel Saunders, as he lay asleep in his hammock. Although injured, Saunders managed to escape to a boat tied to the stern of the ship. The pirates fired frequently at the door to the great cabin hoping to kill the captain as he emerged to see what was happening. Hilliard, however, managed to reach the quarterdeck by another route and without harm only to be shot twice in the right arm, breaking it in a number of places, and once in the left. Another crew member was shot and injured in his throat as he attempted to assist the captain and first mate.

Having demonstrated their brutality, the pirates offered the crew the opportunity to escape in the boats. The only alternative was a violent death. The crew chose to abandon the Prosperous, taking the wounded with them. Having gained control of the ship, the pirates finally showed a little compassion and sent ashore the supplies required for the carpenter to complete building the sloop, they had named Linnet, and it was on this twenty-eight of them departed from Madagascar on 3 August. Their number included the Saunders who had fully recovered from his wounds and Perkins who was still very sick. Hilliard and another man had already died of their injuries.

Howard took over the command of the Prosperous and joined up with another group of pirates on the Speedy Return led by John Bowen. The two ships attacked shipping, together and separately, until they came together again at Surat on the west coast of India where they captured two larger and better armed ships in September 1703. Having obtained more powerful vessels, the pirates no longer had use for either the Speedy Return or the Prosperous and they were burnt at Rajapore on the Malabar Coast.

Prejudice in the East Indies

Prejudice has always existed and, although legislated against, today is constantly in the news. Although we would prefer to believe it is not true of ourselves, prejudicial views are held by most people but conscience, public opinion and legislation ensures that, in the main, these views are supressed. During the period of the British Empire, this was not so among the white colonialists convinced of their own superiority. Earlier the situation was more complex. Thomas and most of his compatriots in the East Indies had little power. That they believed their religion and way of life was superior but had to accept local authority was demonstrated by the incident which resulted in Thomas being imprisoned at Porto Novo (I have written about previously). Another example took place in May 1685.

Thomas was at Achin. He spent a few days in difficult negotiations with the local officials in order to receive the necessary permission to land his goods. Having done so, he was frustrated by the weather. The wind was against him all day stopping him from returning to his ship. As soon as he was able, Thomas collected his personal possessions and ten bales of textiles he was selling on his own account. Thomas’ earlier frustrations melted away when his chests were passed by the Customs House without being opened. This was a privilege granted to the English. He took everything to the house he had rented close to the catacombs and bazaar. He would have preferred to live by the river from where he could keep an eye on his ship but there had been no house available there.

The next day, events turned against him. The English privilege did not extend to residential property. Thomas wrote that the local chief officer sent for him and told him no Christian merchant was permitted to stay in the house he had rented. None ever had lived above the English factory. He was shown an alternative which he took although it was not as satisfactory and the next day he grudgingly moved his goods to his new house.

Widow Burning

In the distance, Thomas could see a large fire. It was about half a mile away. He was on horseback, following a large group of adults and children leaving the town. A man’s corpse was burning. As he got closer, he could see a young woman beside another fire surrounded by a crowd. Without hesitating, the widow salaamed to her friends, handed Thomas some flowers from her hair and sprang into the fire.

It was 1672 and Thomas had broken his journey at a village for dinner. Before continuing on his way, his interpreter asked if he wanted to witness the burning of a widow. During his first year in India, he had heard a story about a case in which twenty-seven wives and concubines were burned. He had been told not all widows went to their death willingly but, when he rode up to her, the young woman standing by the fire seemed unexpectedly cheerful. He had questioned her, asking why she allowed herself to be so deluded by the Brahmins. They overheard and appeared angry but, before they were able to react, the widow smiled and said it was her happiest hour. Thomas suspected she was intoxicated.

Sati, widow burning seen as abhorrent by the thirteen year old Thomas, was not always condemned by Europeans in the late seventeenth century. Some admired the act. In the West generally, sati has never been properly understood but was a religious ritual that conferred a status similar to Christian sainthood on the deceased widow. The rite of sati was, in theory at least, voluntary and practiced only in Bengal and Rajasthan. It was not until 1829 when the East India Company passed the Abolition of Sati Act that any attempt was made to ban the ritual.

Despite Thomas’ horror, he was to voluntarily witness such Sati again in the future. He described two further widow burnings in Bengal. At one, the woman was unwilling but resigned. She stood courageously by the fire but, when the time came, refused to leap into the flames. The Brahmins moved to force her but she took hold of one and threw herself with him headlong onto the pyre, where they both died. Thomas demonstrated some sympathy with the widow’s defiance of the males in authority over her. Although it is not possible to ascribe modern-day feminist beliefs to him, it is an enlightened attitude at a time when within his own culture women were legally the possession of their fathers until married and, after, belonged to their husband. Only widows had any autonomy.

Imprisonment at Porto Novo

On 18 May 1687, the Council at Fort St George received a number of letters from Cuddalore all dated four days earlier. The first of these letters, which ended Sirs Your Most humble Servant … at present weighed down with Irons, had been written by Thomas Bowrey from the cookhouse of the havildar, or military commander, of Porto Novo. In a second letter, written the same day, Thomas added he feared he would be killed, and signed off melodramatically Your Most humble Servant in Affliction. What had happened that his fortunes had changed so dramatically>

Following a voyage in which he carried a cargo of cloth and slaves for two of the brothers of Ahmad Marcar. He was in dispute with Marcar who refused to hand over fabrics he had purchased on Thomas’ behalf. In the argument that followed, Thomas physically assaulted Marcar’s assistant on East India Company premises. Thomas was arrested and held in leg-irons in the cookhouse of the havildar. From his makeshift cell he wrote his letters to the Company. The first claimed the havildar’s superior had ordered his release but to no avail. In the second letter, written the same day, Thomas added he feared he would be killed.

The events leading up to this began when Thomas sailed from Porto Novo without the customs duties due on the slaves being paid. The brother who was responsible for them had disappeared and Thomas became liable for them by default. Then he stopped at Junk Ceylon, selling the brothers’ goods there rather than at Queda and Achin as contracted. Following his brush with Malabar pirates at the end of 1680, he is unlikely to have wanted to risk those based at Queda. On his return to Porto Novo, Marcar claimed that Thomas had sold the goods in a bad market. As he received less than he expected, Marcar withheld Thomas’ textiles in compensation. Having been arrested for the assault and failure to pay the customs duties, Thomas believed his dignity, and even his life, had been threatened.

The Company’s officers at Cuddalore were torn between the slight against a fellow countryman under their protection and their annoyance at Thomas’ actions. They were concerned Thomas’ future conduct may risk the factory’s security and their own lives. The Council at Fort St George was less sympathetic and demanded a bond for 10,000 pagodas, nearly £660,000 today, to indemnify the Company from any legal demands that may be made against them. In their opinion, Thomas should not have taken matters into his own hands, the officers at Cuddalore would have been justified in doing nothing and they intended to demand he accounted for his actions when he returned to Fort St George. For reasons which are unclear, Thomas was released by 24 May when he wrote in a calmer fashion to Fort St George setting out what happened. He confirmed he had given his bond to the Company and requested it be returned once the matter had been resolved.

Incident on the Hooghly

Captain Thomas Bowrey sighed with relief. He had found calm water. It had been a close shave but the Sancta Cruz was safe. As they were carried violently down the Hooghly towards the sandbanks he thought he was going to have to tell the ship’s Portuguese trader owners that he had lost it and her cargo. Having anchored on long cables he settled down to wait out the tidal bore. His complacency was shattered half an hour later when they were hit by the incoming tide and caught in an eddy that spun the ship round and round incapacitating everyone on board. A cable broke. The situation looked dire. Then a wind came up. He cut his remaining cable and was able to sail into a small creek and safety. Unwilling to take any further risks, Thomas remained there until the wind abated completely fourteen days later.

At the same time, two East India Company ketches, the Arrivall and Ganges, rode out the tidal bore at anchor in a safer place on the same reach as the Sancta Crux. On board the Arrivall was Streynsham Master who had recently arrived in India. William Callaway, Thomas’ very good friend, was taken seriously ill on the Ganges. A surgeon was sent but, expecting the worse, Master also sent the Arrivall’s captain, George Herron, the chaplain and a young man to the Ganges to pray for Callaway and secure his belongings. On returning to their vessel, the boat overturned and both the chaplain and the young man were drowned. The captain and four seamen were swept away on the upturned hull of their boat. Thomas’ purser happened to arrive at this point on a small ulak or cargo boat and managed to rescue the five. The purser Clement Jordan, also known as Du Jardin, was a free merchant trading on country ships at the time of the incident. Like Thomas, he was known to have been at Balasore in 1674 and they may have been friends since then.

It was September 1676 and Thomas had moved from Achin to Bengal. The Hooghly River, an arm of the River Ganges, flowed southwards into the Bay of Bengal. The strong tides on the Hooghly produced tidal bores when the head-wave of the incoming tide became restricted by the narrowing of the estuary and rose up over seven feet high as far up river as Fort William, Calcutta. The variation in the height of the tide between low-water in the dry season and high-water in the monsoon was almost twenty-one feet resulting in difficult conditions for navigation.

All ships heading for Hugli and Fort William needed the services of an experienced pilot but Thomas blamed his Ganges pilot for the incident claiming that he did not having sufficient knowledge of the conditions on the river. The East India Company had been training pilots on the Hooghly for seven years but there were only two experienced men at the time. Determined not to put himself in the same risk again, Thomas ensured he that educated himself. Many years later in 1687, whilst at Fort St George, he demonstrated this by drawing a chart of the river.