Captain Thomas Bowrey: seventeenth century East India mariner and eighteenth century Wapping merchant who lived in fascinating times and was involved in many of the important issues of his day.
Although there has been much written about Captain Bowrey and most of his sources have been well known for many years over a wide geographic area, little has been written about Thomas Bowrey, the man. What has been written has been based on limited sources. Richard Carnac Temple did the most research into Bowrey’s life but did not have access to all the sources now available. He was, in any case, more interested in what Bowrey did than who he was. Other writers have had more restricted interests, studying only a limited range of sources – his correspondence, his writing about pirates or his experience of cannabis, for example.
To understand Bowrey the man, it is important to consider the totality of the primary material by, or about, him and, believe me, that is a great deal of material. There are serious questions about some of that material – does it all relate to one man; is it all genuine? All this points to a mystery to be solved: who, exactly, was Captain Thomas Bowrey?
I have great admiration for what Temple was able to achieve in the pre-digital age. Since his time, considerably more genealogical material has become available and all such material is more easily accessed. He was unable to fully identify Thomas Bowrey. Can this now be done? Why does this matter?
I believe that it does matter because although he was a relatively ordinary man, he lived in fascinating times and, by leaving the legacy of his “Papers”, we are able learn so much about them. What is known about him?
He was a successful sea captain who traded in the East Indies, observed the culture with which he interacted and learned sufficient of the lingua franca to write the first Malay- English dictionary. Once he returned to London, a very wealthy man, he had a happy married, if childless, family life whilst continuing to be active as a ship owner and merchant. He cared passionately about overseas trade whilst apparently remaining remote from the turbulent politics of the time. Despite this, he managed to get dragged into one of the major political controversies – one that still has resonances today.