On This Day: 5 December 1704

On this day in 1704, William Livesay wrote a short note to Peter Tom of the Rising Sun asking for a dozen pale beer.

Tom was a part owner, alongside Thomas Bowrey, of the ship but it is not clear why he was on board. He was well educated – he had a very good hand and copied one letter in shorthand – but I do not think he was the primary supercargo. The supercargo was in charge of the business carried out on the voyage, second only to the ship’s master when the safety of the ship and crew were concerned. Sometimes two were employed on board and Tom may have been assistant supercargo.  This note indicates that Tom also acted as purser. Merchant ship crews were much smaller than those of Royal Navy and many roles were doubled up.

The note is interesting as it demonstrates that the cooperation between the personnel of vessels competing for trade in the East Indies went beyond the traditional obligation to protect lives at sea. They helped each out when they were short of provisions but, as the retention of this letter for over three centuries demonstrates, not altruistically. Repayment of the debt was expected, even if this was only once both ships had returned to England.

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