Book of the Day: Kegwin’s Rebellion

Today’s book, Ray and Oliver Strachey’s Kegwin’s Rebellion (1683-4) An Episode in the History of Bombay, demonstrates one extreme of the range of material I am using to write the biography of Captain Thomas Bowrey. As a detailed description of a short rebellion at a tiny, newly settled fort on the Indian subcontinent it is particularly niche. It does, however, hint at the nature of the attitudes within the East India Company.

A collection of small islands off the north-west coast of India, Bombay had passed from the Portuguese to Charles II in Catherine of Braganza’s dowry in 1661. At that time, there was just a manor house  close to where the Gateway to India stands today. Seven years later, this white elephant was leased to the East India Company. Samuel Smith had been employed in building the fortification of the Company settlement up until his death in 1669. By the early 1680s, the Company attempted to impose an austerity budget on Bombay. Captain Richard Kegwin of the Bombay militia, believing that the Company was mismanaging the island, seized it in the name of the Crown and wrote to the king asking him to take it back under his own control. Charles II, disagreeing, sent Sir Thomas Grantham out to resolve the rebellion.

The story of the rebellion is a tale of political rivalries and entrenched attitudes that are only too familiar today. They hint of the imperious attitude of those employed by the Company even at this early stage of its history. This attitude is abundantly clear in Moin Mir’s The Prince Who Beat the Empire: How an Indian Ruler Took on the Might of the East India Company set many years later.

I was drawn to today’s book whist trying to understand some of the characters in Bowrey’s story. Both Stephen Adderton and Henry Smith (probably Samuel’s brother) were involved in the rebellion. Smith has been considered a ne’er-do-well but he may simply have been a principled man at odds with the Company who expressed his dissatisfaction in too hot-headed a way. The history of this time and place has been written in the main by the Company. Care needs to be taken in unravelling it.

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