On This Day: 20 November 1700

On this day in 1700, Thomas Hyde wrote to Thomas Bowrey from Christchurch, Oxford. Hyde, at this time librarian at the Bodleian Library, was an orientalist who was helping Bowrey with his Malay-English Dictionary and other language projects.

I today’s letter he sent a number of words and phrases as well as further advice before returning to a subject he mentions over and over again in his letters. Hyde had an interest is all oriental curiosities and Bowrey’s part in the relationship was to obtain items and information via his mariner contacts. The one curiosity that Hyde obsessed about more than any other was the hand of a merman.

The merman was said to have been killed by Captain Juniper off the coast of Denmark and the merman’s hand cut off for display in England. The merman’s body was said to be 70 feet long. Hyde wanted to know if the story was true.

Manatees are usually said to be the origin of tales of mermaid sightings but there is a traditional Danish story of Agenet and the Merman and it is possible that this is the origins of the stories Hyde had heard. An underwater sculpture now commemorates the story.


On This Day: 19 November 1685

On this day in 1685, John Evans, East India Company chaplain at Hugli, Bengal (later Bishop of Bangor and Meath), wrote to Captain Thomas Bowrey on board the Borneo Merchant in Madras Roads.

Evans had loaded 14 Bengal maunds of opium on the Borneo Merchant for delivery to Elihu Yale (at this time employed by the East India Company but whose bequest partially funded Yale University). A maund was a unit of weight equivalent to 25 lbs (11.34kg). At the time, Bengal opium was considered the best in India. The market for opium was in the region now known as Malaysia and Indonesia.

As Yale was based at Fort St George, in this case it is not clear where the opium was destined. Elizabeth I instructed East India Company ships to bring opium back to England as early as 1601. By 1680, it was an ingredient in Sydenham’s Laudanum and other pills there. By Yale’s time in India, opium had been exported to China by English traders for decades. It is impossible to tell from today’s document whether or not the opium carried by Bowrey was for medical use in England.

On This Day: 18 November 1703

On this day in 1703, Captain Thomas Wybergh wrote from on board the Rising Sun at Deal to Thomas Bowrey acknowledging the latest orders he had sent. The Rising Sun was about to embark on a trading voyage to the East Indies.

This was very typical of Bowrey. He bombarded all his ships’ captains with instructions for as long as they were in English waters and, often, once they had left. Bowrey’s mind appeared to have worked constantly. He would dream up new ways of making money on his voyages, correct errors that he realised he had made in original instructions or react to changing political situations.

It seem to me that Bowrey was a nightmare to work for. At times he showed great compassion but rarely to his captains. When Joseph Tolson was later injured in an attack on the Mary Galley by French privateers, Bowrey had no sympathy, blaming Tolson for the ship later being taken after he had handed over command to his deputy because of his incapacity.

On This Day: 17 November 1709

Yesterday, I wrote about Thomas Bowrey’s claim for a large sum in compensation for the loss of the Worcester and her cargo. He could also be as persistent for much smaller amounts.

There is a great deal of correspondence from a Mr Spottiswood in Edinburgh concerning Bowrey’s claim of £40 (worth just under £5,000 today) against a Mr Short. On this day in 1709, Spottiswood wrote yet another letter, this time proposing that Bowrey settle out of court permitting Short to pay his debt a £10 over 18 months.

Nowhere in the correspondence have I been able to find how the debt was incurred but the only business Bowrey is known to have had in Scotland concerned the Worcester.  Later letters from Spottiswood suggest that Short had difficulty paying the final £10 of this debt, claiming that he had not realised that it had not been paid.

On This Day: 16 November 1705

On this day in 1705, Thomas Bowrey attended Queen Anne at St James’ Palace to hand her a petition in respect of the case of the Worcester. Unfortunately, the event was not important enough to be reported in the London Gazette. Bowrey, however, did record it, annotating the reverse of his copy of the petition: Petition to the Queen Delivered to her own hand November 16th 1705 at St James’.

Over the years, Bowrey (on behalf of all the owners of the Worcester) sent a number of petitions to Queen Anne but this appears to be the only one he delivered personally. I imagine that he wore his best suit and remembered the occasion as something special.

This particular petition requested the queen to grant the owners Letters of Reprisals for £35,006/1/3 (the equivalent of £5.335m today) against the Scots Nation. There is no record of how the petition was received by the queen but the owners of the Worcester never received the compensation to which Bowrey believed they were entitled.

On This Day: 15 November 1703

On this day in 1703, Thomas Bowrey paid Francis Wolfe’s bill for the mooring of the Rising Sun at the Chain from 30 September to 28 October. This receipt puzzled me and so my nautical education continues.

A mooring chain is a chain attached at each end to a fixed point. I expect that one or both of these fixing points may be on a dock side, harbour wall or the like but the examples I have found on the Internet are a chain between two anchored buoys. These allow one or more vessels to be moored in open water without using their own anchors.

Today, these appear to be used as a portable mooring but it appears that in Bowrey’s day the enterprising Wolfe had installed his own chain for which he could charge mooring fees.

Of course, I may have completely misunderstood and I am sure that someone will correct me if I have.

On This Day: 14 November 1705

On this day in 1705, Thomas Wybergh wrote to Thomas Bowrey from the Rising Sun in the Downs in the English Chanel. Bowrey helpfully noted on the reverse that the letter was received in Well Close Square, Wapping on the following day and that he replied to Wybergh on the 16th.

Wybergh started by writing: I do not doubt but you have thought long to hear from me having spent so much time before arriving here. Their return voyage had been delayed by bad weather. The outward voyage has been delayed by the Great Storm of 1703.  Wybergh does not mention if he was aware of the execution of his fellow captain, Thomas Green of the Worcester, but Bowrey was known to be concerned about his ships on their return voyages after this event and he would, indeed, have been glad to hear from Wybergh.

Wybergh says little more in his letter because the river pilot was still on board. Bowrey would have to wait a little longer for news of how successful, or not, the voyage had been. At least he knew the ship was safe. Success in the East was meaningless if everything was later lost.