Imprisonment at Porto Novo

On 18 May 1687, the Council at Fort St George received a number of letters from Cuddalore all dated four days earlier. The first of these letters, which ended Sirs Your Most humble Servant … at present weighed down with Irons, had been written by Thomas Bowrey from the cookhouse of the havildar, or military commander, of Porto Novo. In a second letter, written the same day, Thomas added he feared he would be killed, and signed off melodramatically Your Most humble Servant in Affliction. What had happened that his fortunes had changed so dramatically>

Following a voyage in which he carried a cargo of cloth and slaves for two of the brothers of Ahmad Marcar. He was in dispute with Marcar who refused to hand over fabrics he had purchased on Thomas’ behalf. In the argument that followed, Thomas physically assaulted Marcar’s assistant on East India Company premises. Thomas was arrested and held in leg-irons in the cookhouse of the havildar. From his makeshift cell he wrote his letters to the Company. The first claimed the havildar’s superior had ordered his release but to no avail. In the second letter, written the same day, Thomas added he feared he would be killed.

The events leading up to this began when Thomas sailed from Porto Novo without the customs duties due on the slaves being paid. The brother who was responsible for them had disappeared and Thomas became liable for them by default. Then he stopped at Junk Ceylon, selling the brothers’ goods there rather than at Queda and Achin as contracted. Following his brush with Malabar pirates at the end of 1680, he is unlikely to have wanted to risk those based at Queda. On his return to Porto Novo, Marcar claimed that Thomas had sold the goods in a bad market. As he received less than he expected, Marcar withheld Thomas’ textiles in compensation. Having been arrested for the assault and failure to pay the customs duties, Thomas believed his dignity, and even his life, had been threatened.

The Company’s officers at Cuddalore were torn between the slight against a fellow countryman under their protection and their annoyance at Thomas’ actions. They were concerned Thomas’ future conduct may risk the factory’s security and their own lives. The Council at Fort St George was less sympathetic and demanded a bond for 10,000 pagodas, nearly £660,000 today, to indemnify the Company from any legal demands that may be made against them. In their opinion, Thomas should not have taken matters into his own hands, the officers at Cuddalore would have been justified in doing nothing and they intended to demand he accounted for his actions when he returned to Fort St George. For reasons which are unclear, Thomas was released by 24 May when he wrote in a calmer fashion to Fort St George setting out what happened. He confirmed he had given his bond to the Company and requested it be returned once the matter had been resolved.

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