Family & Friends: Daniel Defoe

I hope to post a number of articles about Thomas Bowrey’s friends, family and acquaintances, starting with Daniel Defoe.

Daniel Defoe is probably best known today as the author of Robinson Crusoe. He was, however, a prolific projector and, in this, had much in common with Bowrey. In 1708, Defoe wrote two letters to Bowrey. The first, probably dated 9 March 1708, said:


I have yours of the 8th Instt in which you Desire a Meeting with me to Advise &c. On something you have to propose.

You Can Not Take it ill Sir That being wholly a stranger to you And My Self a Person Not without Enemyes, I make Some little stipulation beforehand, after which I shall show all Readyness to give you. The best advice or Assistance I Can.

If Sir you please to Communicate in Writeing Anything of the business you Design to propose to me by which I may judge whether I am able to Render you any Service or not. Or If you please to Call as you Come to the Exchange at Waits Coffee house in Bell yard in Grace Church street and let the Mistress of the House know when and where you would meet and but in the least give a knowledge of your person, I will wait on you as you shall Direct.

You will Excuse my being thus Cautious for which I shall give you Very sufficient Reasons when I see you. Interim I am

Sir, Your Most Humble Servt

De Foe

The second letter was written five days later:


I Wrott you a line Or Two last week in Answer to yours and being wholly a stranger to you Desir’d a word Or Two of your affair.

But I Am So Well Satisfyed Since in your Character, That Hearing you have been Indisposed I give you This trouble to Let you kno’, I shall be Very Ready to Meet you where you please, in Ordr to do you Any ServiceI am Capable of, – and if your Illness Continues So as to Make your Comeing Abroad Inconvenient, Tho’ I have not a great Deal of Time to Spare, yet Rather Than your business you have to propose should Suffer by Delay, Il make No Difficulty to Wait on you at your House.

I am, Sir, Your Very Humble Servt

De Foe

As Defoe had included the story of the Worcester in his History of the Union between England and Scotland which he had written by the end of 1707 (although not published until later) it would be surprising if he did not know who Bowrey was. In 1697, Defoe published his first book, the Essay on Projects, and Bowrey is likely to have known his as a likeminded projector (defined at the time as a person who planned and set up projects or schemes). In the opinion of their contemporaries, projectors were believed to be dangerous and disruptive people. Defoe, himself, wrote in the Essay, although this age swarms with such a multiude of projectors more than usual. He believed men aspiring to fame and fortune through ambitious projects were in danger of becoming rogues should their projects fail to make enough money. The decision to contact Defoe is not likely to have been taken lightly by Bowrey. So it is infuriating that for a man who kept so much of his correspondence, no draft of Bowrey’s letter to Defoe survives. In fact, there is no other direct documentary evidence of Bowrey and Defoe’s acquaintance. However, it is likely they kept in touch and discussed at least one project together.

In February 1699, the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London discussed the setting up of a settlement in the South Sea. Bowrey and a Captain Rossey, who had been in these parts, were invited to present their proposal for such a settlement. Although the Court at first resolved to adopt the proposal, at the next meeting there was an objection to the resolution when the minutes of the previous meeting were read. There was some debate and it was resolved to adjourn any further debate of the proposal. It appears, at this point, the scheme for a settlement lapsed and was not discussed again.

In a letter written in July 1711, Defoe claimed he had proposed a settlement on the Pacific coast of Chile to William III shortly before the king’s death in March 1702 and, had Not Death prevented him, it would have been Then Put in Practice. Whether or not Defoe’s proposal was considered favourably by the king, it is probable both he and Bowrey had been interested in South Sea settlements for some years by the time they met. Was this what they discussed and did they remain in contact, refining their proposals, over the following years?

In May 1711, Robert Harley obtained the approval of Parliament to establish the South Sea Company and the bill received royal assent on 12 June. The passing of the bill in Parliament was the starting signal for the many projectors who had for years worked on schemes for settlements in the South Sea to make their submissions.

Defoe put his proposals to Harley in three letters in July 1711. He proposed setting up of colonies in Chile and on the Atlantic coast of South America. Like others who had clearly not experienced the region, Defoe suggested an English trading post in Chile should be connected to a colony in Patagonia by a route across the Andes. It is unlikely Harley consulted Defoe about his proposal. Defoe’s correspondence indicates the two men never met between early March and early August 1711. Later that summer, Defoe publically attacked Harley’s South Sea scheme, regretting the combining of the floatation of the national debt with the opening of the South Sea trade.

In September 1711, Bowrey presented his own proposals to Harley. These were similar to those of Defoe but more detailed. Did he do this in response to a request from Defoe or because Bowrey saw Harley had not responded as he would have liked? It is likely Bowrey knew of Defoe’s disappointment. He had published his views in both the Review and in his Essay on the South Sea Trade. Bowrey, who it is clear from his papers kept up-to-date with current affairs, is likely to have read these. Bowrey followed-up these proposals with a letter stressing the need to set the scheme in motion as soon as possible and a further, seventeenth sheet Essay setting out precisely how the South Sea trade should be carried out. In November the same year, Bowrey backed his belief in the trade by investing £810/6/2 in the new South Sea Company.

Despite his efforts and those of Defoe and other, no attempt was ever made by the South Sea Company to set up settlements on either coast of South America. Less than a decade later but long after Bowrey’s death, the South Sea Bubble started.



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