Book of the Day: Seawolves

Seawolves Cover

Continuing my education about pirates, today’s featured book is Eric J Graham’s Seawolves: Pirates and the Scots. Concentrating on my exact period of interest, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the focus on Scots involved in piracy does not limit its relevance to Captain Thomas Bowrey’s life. A large section of the book concentrates on the case of the Worcester and recognises its significance on Anglo-Scottish relations.

There is a clear description of the event surrounding the Annandale, without which it is extremely unlikely that the Worcester would have been seized by the Scots. Graham also presents the clearest, most comprehensive and balanced account of the happenings in Scotland from the arrival of the ship at Leith to the subsequent consequences. In some ways, it is a shame that Graham’s focus was on piracy and the Scots because I would love to see his forensic examination of the documentation applied to the Worcester before her arrival in Scotland and the case of the Prosperous, which is only mentioned in passing during the story of the Speedy Return and the Content, and Thomas’ other ship.

More generally, Graham demonstrates that for many the hope of adventure, fortune and, even, fame was a huge attraction for those whose life at home was extremely hard during this period. However, he dispels the romanticism by showing that life at sea was even more brutal. Seawolves is strongly recommended.

Seawolves Publisher


Book of the Day: A General History of the Pyrates

Pyrates Cover

Today’s book is a bit of a mystery. As you will see from the cover picture, my Dover edition of A General History of the Pyrates claims to have been written by Daniel Defoe. Inside, the facsimile of the title page, notes the author a Captain Charles Johnson, originally published in 1724. The full title, according to this page, is A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, and also Their Policies, Discipline and Government, From Their First Rise in the Island of Providence, in 1717, to the Present Year 1724.

Although many editions attribute to book to Defoe and few of the books claimed to have been written by him were actually published under his name, it is by no means certain that he was the author of this book. According to Manual Schonhorn, the editor of this edition, Professor John Robert Moore identified it as being by Defoe in 1932. However, Wikipedia claims that, more recently, Arne Bialuschewski of the Kiel University, Germany has attributed it to Nathaniel Mist, a former sailor, journalist, and publisher of the Weekly Journal.

For my purposes, it does not matter a great deal who wrote the book, any more that it was published after the death of Captain Thomas Bowrey. I have found it a useful starting point for any research into piracy. Do not be misled by the extended title. The author did not limit himself to the years 1717 to 1724 (for example he includes a biography of William Kidd who was executed in 1701) and Schonhorn’s notes extend the date range of the book well beyond the limited eight years of the title. The stories of Thomas’ Prosperous and Worcester as well as that of the Speedy Return are included.

Piracy played an huge part in Thomas’ life and career. If you want an understanding of the complexity of piracy at this time, how people were sucked into the life and the global nature of it, this book is a great starting point. Those with interests in female pirates with find the stories of Mary Read and Anne Bonny. In addition, he includes a description of the parts of a ship from Captain John Smith’s 1692 The Sea-Man’s Grammar plus a description  of different types of vessels of the time from Dr William Burney’s 1815 Marine Dictionary, Improved and Enlarged with illustrations from William Falconer’s 1769 Dictionary of the Marine. It is an extremely useful book and this edition is still and available and the one I would recommend.

Pyrates Publisher


Book of the Day: The Great South Sea

South Sea Cover

One of the misconceptions about Captain Thomas Bowrey is that, at some stage, he sailed to the Americas. He never did but it is understandable that people should think he did. I had to construct a timeline of his life to prove to myself that he did not go there. Why should this have been? There are a number of his surviving manuscripts proposing settlements on the east coast of South America. He wrote these in support of the setting up of the South Sea Company.

Glyndwr Williams in his The Great South Sea: English Voyages and Encounters 1570-1750 summarises Thomas’ contributions without falling into the trap of assuming that he must have been there. He sets out the complex set of relationships between those with an interest in the region at the time – including Thomas, William Dampier, Daniel Defoe and Robert Harley – and how they shared information.

Like many people, I had heard of the South Sea Bubble but did not fully understand the full story of the South Sea Company. Williams book puts it in context of the exploration of the Pacific Ocean over almost two centuries. It is a complex tale of those interested in adventure and the search for knowledge alongside the greed of others and their search for wealth.

Thomas, like Defoe and many others, had great hopes for trade with the region but were frustrated by Harley’s political imperative to reduce Britain’s national debt. In the end, all were disappointed.

South Sea Publisher

Book of the Day: Practical Navigation

Today’s post is a slight divergence from my current run of recommendations. Yesterday I collected my copy of Practical Navigation from Peartree Bindery in Norwich. The photographs show the before (below) and after (above) state of this book. It seems that the book may have taken to sea at some stage in its life because the back cover had been wet and shrunk. I find it wonderful that it is a book that has been used but also treasured enough to last as long as it has. When purchased at auction the book was in its original binding but loose with some spine loss, endpapers and some pages missing. It was in a sorry state. Binding repaired and conserved, and stored in an archival quality box, I hope it may now last another few centuries.

Thomas Bowrey had a copy of John Seller’s Practical Navigation in his library when he catalogued it in 1711. Originally published by instrument maker and King’s Hydrographer in 1669, the year Thomas arrived in India, this edition was printed in 1699 for Jeremiah Seller at Hermitage in Wapping close to where Thomas lived at the time. There is unfortunately no indication of the book’s original owner. In over three hundred years, only John Hughes clearly dated his autograph in 1759 and, later, on 1 July 1766. Other owners were Francis Robe and Elisabeth W.

As I wrote a few days ago, navigation was primitive but developing during Thomas’ life. John Seller’s Practical Navigation was an Introduction to the Whole Art. Containing The Doctrine of Plain and Spherical Triangles. Plain, Mercator, Great-Circle Sailing; and Astronomical Problems. The Use of divers Instruments; as also of the Plain-Chart, Mercator’s Chart and both Globes. Sundry Useful Tables in Navigation: And a Table of 10000 Logarithms, and of the Logarithm Sines, Tangents, and Secants.

Book of the Day: Sextant

Sextant Cover

Today’s book represents another element of my essential education required to enable me to write Captain Thomas Bowrey’s biography. I was fortunate to have been able to do a year’s sailing whilst at school. For me, anything was better than running round a hockey pitch in the mud but I actually found that I enjoyed it. We prided ourselves in not being fair-weather sailors, like the other schools in the area, and my claim to fame was that I was the only person who never capsized during the whole year. This was probably due more to my determination to stay out of the water than my sailing skills. Unfortunately, navigations skills required on Ricky Aquadrome were nil. I was familiar with Longitude and knew that Harrison’s solution  post-dated Thomas’ death and this book was my attempt to understand navigation during his life time.

David Barrie’s Sextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans sets out a history of navigation interspersed with a personal tale of his own transatlantic solo voyage. Barrie starts his story with a reminiscence of watching Mutiny on the Bounty at the age of nine and, immediately, ensures that his readers understand the difficulties of navigation in the days before GPS and the immense skill of Captain Bligh – whatever his other failings. His description of Fletcher Christian’s despair at the sextant being destroyed along with the Bounty puts it all in perspective. Once hooked by this start, my education was painless.

It became clear to me just why Thomas’ knowledge of the East Indies, especially of the Malay Archipelago was so valued by other sea captains once he returned to England. His time in the region predated even Isaac Newton’s reflecting quadrant, the precursor of the sextant. We know little of the equipment carried on Thomas’ ships in the Indian Ocean but his papers contain a great deal of information about the fitting out of his ship after his return home. None mention the earlier seaman’s quadrant although there are accounts for the purchase of replacement glasses and cards for compasses. The quadrants may have been the personal possessions of those employed to navigate the ships but, if so, they were not included in the essential equipment of a young midshipman educated in navigation.

When Thomas’ drew up a catalogue of his books as he neared the end of his life, he included the 1699 Seller’s Practical Navigation. My recently acquired copy is currently being rebound so I am unable to check what was considered cutting edge navigation at the time but I am looking forward to comparing notes once it is in a readable condition.

Sextant Publisher

Book of the Day: Monsoon Traders

Monsson Cover

It is relevant that both my previous featured book and today’s both have titles including the word Trade. So often the colonial nature of the East India Company is what is stressed but, in Thomas Bowrey’s day, its only interest was trade. There are references within the records of the Company that point to settlement building – for example, at Bombay there were efforts to stop widows and their children returning home – but these settlements were still only envisioned as viable trading communities. But Bombay was different having been ceded to England in the dowry of Catherine of Braganza. In the main, the factories were little islands that existed by permission of the local rules.

Monsoon Traders: The Maritime World of the East India Company is a series of essays that consider the wealth and power that grew from this trade alongside the maritime service essential for it to be carried out. In another beautifully illustrated book, the authors of the essays: H V Bowen, John McAleer and Robert J Blyth focus on the beginnings and end of the Company plus diplomacy, conflict and conquest by sea.

Today, globalisation is of great concern and it is important that we understand its roots. The desire for goods from across the world has existed for centuries. The only difference is the nature of the luxury goods we coveted. Where once we imported spices, silks, porcelain and tea, today it is the latest technology and designer clothing.

Monsoon Publisher

Book of the Day: Trading Places

Trading Cover

Although Thomas Bowrey was never employed by the East India Company, he lived his live in the Company’s shadow and it was essential that I understood it before I started writing his biography. So many of the histories of the Company were written years ago and are extremely dry reading. Breaking this mould Anthony Farrington, an expert in the India Office Records at the British Library, has written a readable and beautifully illustrated book.

Trading Places: The East India Company and Asia 1600-1834 was written as a companion to an exhibition with the same name at the British Library in 2002. It is an exhibition that I wish I had seen. The book explores all aspects of the East India Company from its founding in 1600 to the influence on Britain of the Asian trade. Despite being a slim volume. the range of the book is demonstrated by chapters on Bantam, spices, textiles, the Company factories and the expansion into China before Farrington explores how the East Indies trade morphed into the British Empire long after Thomas’ time.

The Company may have almost disappeared from the public consciousness but it was the foundation of modern global economy. This book helps explain how we got to where we are today and deserves a wider audience than it probably has.

Trading PUblisher