When I decided to write the biography of Captain Thomas Bowrey I was acutely aware of my unsuitability for the task. I was not a historian, I was not a writer, I knew nothing about the East Indies and I was certainly no expert in all things maritime. I was not totally unprepared. I had been interested in early-modern history, especially of London, for some time. I had had some magazine articles published. I had done a year’s sailing whilst still at school and I had cruise round the world – over time and not always in the same direction but still …
Alongside immersing myself in the papers of Thomas Bowrey and writing the book, I have had to undertake some serious education including a number of non-fiction writing workshops. This Book of the Day series is highlighting my non-fiction reading list covering a wide range of subjects from the East India Company to Restoration London and there is more variety to come as the series continues. Whilst these gave me skills and facts, they could help me understand what it would have felt like to be a mariner in the days of sail: what the life was really like; what would have directed my days and nights; what I would have feared.
Fortunately, I discovered the novels of J D Davies and Alexander Kent (the late Douglas Reeman) with their sagas of Matthew Quinton and Richard Bolitho. These protagonists may have been officers in the Royal Navy and lived a generation before and after Thomas Bowrey but their stories, written by experts, have provided me with a painless and enjoyable education. The backgrounds of the two authors were different: Reeman was a Royal Naval officer during WWII while Davies also served in the Royal Navy, he was a teacher and historian before turning to writing full-time. What both have done in their novels is to take their reader into the mind of a captain of a early-modern sailing vessel.
Today’s book, Vestiges of Old Madras, 1640-1800: traced from the East India Company’s records preserved at Fort St George and the India Office and from other sources Volume 4 – Index Volume by Henry Davison Love is here as a representative of all three volumes edited from primary sources by Love. Whilst only this index sits on my desk, the three volumes to which it refers are freely available on the Internet.
Love’s first volume contains a selection of accounts and descriptions of Fort St George and is the one in which there are a number of references to Thomas Bowrey taken from the East India Company records and Sir Richard Carnac Temple’s publications. At the beginning of chapter five, Love comments that considering the number of Europeans frequenting Madras – merchants, soldiers, clergymen, doctors and ships’ captains – it is remarkable that so few writings of this period are extant regarding Fort St George and its social life. Despite Love’s hopes, no other old manuscripts like those of … Thomas Bowrey have since been discovered and this is one of the reasons why Thomas’ papers are still considered important today.
For anyone researching early Madras residents, volume one’s many lists of residents are particularly useful. Many of Thomas’ friends and associates are listed here but nowhere else other than in his papers. At present, without the work of Love and others who have painstakingly edited some of the Company records, it would be an almost a huge task to find some of these individuals in the manuscript copies at the British Library. It is one of the reasons that, alongside writing his biography, I am slowly building a more detailed catalogue of all Thomas’ papers and other records relating to him.
In order to kick-start myself after my short interlude, I have decided to feature one of my long-time favourite books today. I love The Dreadful Judgement: The True Story of the Great Fire of London especially for Neil Hanson’s vivid description of Thomas Farriner’s walk through the streets of plague-ridden London. It was a London shortly to be afflicted by a second disaster, the Great Fire. Farriner was, of course, the baker whose shop was the origin of the blaze.
Captain Thomas Bowrey lived through both the Plague and Fire before departing for nineteen years in the East Indies. Hanson’s account was one of the sources I used to reimagine his life in Wapping. However, The Dreadful Judgement is so much more than just beautifully crafted description of events and the human stories, it is also a meticulously researched historical detective story, It combines modern knowledge of the physic of fire with eye-witness accounts.
Remarkably for such a work rooted in factual research, The Dreadful Judgement is as easy to read as a novel. I never cease to enjoy it.
At the weekend, I attended a Bookbinding Masterclass at the British Library lead by Shelagh McCarthy. I returned to find that real life has caught up with me with such mundane issues to sort out as our fixed rate energy tariff ending soon. As a result, I have taken my eye off the ball that is Captain Thomas Bowrey for a short while. I will get back to my featured book series shortly.
The Masterclass far exceeded my expectations and I find that I love bookbinding. Since my return, my focus has been on tracking down the equipment and materials I need to continue making books at home. Over the next week or so, I shall be distracted by the arrival of my orders. I know that, once it has all arrived, I shall be side-lined into preparing a short biography of one of my ancestors to make into a book.
Rest assured that I will not desert Thomas for long and be patient. The photograph at the top of this post shows the five books I made: a lilac codex-style pamphlet book; an accordion book with patterned cover; a red Japanese Stab-style Stitched book; a blue Coptic codex; and a claret case binding. I leave you with a close-up of the final book we made, the case binding. I think you will agree that it looks like a “proper” book.
I am not sure why I have not featured The Worlds of the East India Company sooner. It is a book I have used for reference often whist writing Thomas Bowrey’s biography. Edited jointly by H V Bowen, Margarette Lincoln and Nigel Rigby the book is a series of fourteen interdisciplinary essays published to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the East India Company in 2002. This list of contributors is impressive and the book does not disappoint.
The various essays consider a wide range of subjects from the beginnings of the Company to its lasting legacy with detailed focus on some of its consequences such as Lascars in London and it influence on art. I have found five of the essays particularly useful.
Om Prakash started off with The East India Company and Indian while Femme Gaastra wrote about War, Competition and Collaboration: Relations Between the English and Dutch East India Companies in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The rivalry between the English, and later British, and the Dutch in the East Indies was an important element of shaping European involvement in the East Indies in which the independence of traders such as Thomas was an important factor.
Shompa Lahiri’s contribution was Contested Relations: The East-India Company and Lascars in London. The country ships, such as Thomas’, relied on lascars for their crews. For example, when he was attacked by Malabar pirates in 1680, there were four Europeans on board (including a Portuguese boy) but the remaining crew were lascars.
Bruce P Lenman considered The East India Company and the Trade in Non-Metallic Precious Materials from Sir Thomas Roe to Diamond Pitt. It was these non-metallic precious materials such diamonds and musk that Thomas used to transfer much of his wealth home at the end of his nineteen years in the East.
Finally, P J Marshall wrote the Afterword: The Legacies of Two Hundred Years of Contact. There is something for everyone interesting in the East Indies in this book.
Moving on a few decades from the Restoration, my next featured book is Maureen Waller’s 1700 Scenes From London Life. By this time, Captain Thomas Bowrey had settled into married life in Wapping. Alongside his business documents relating to his East Indies trade, some of his more domestic papers have survived. Although they do not supply a full picture of an early eighteenth century household – there are many accounts from his tailor but none from Mary’s dressmaker – his archive also contains records of the property he owned including housing and a china shop.
Maureen Waller’s book with its detail of the life of Londoners at the time is a useful companion to Thomas’ domestic records allowing me to bring alive the life of his household. It was an exciting time to live in London, a city that had recovered from civil war, plague and fire to have become the most magnificent city in Europe. It was this city that Thomas helped supply with the exotic luxuries that the capital craved. His ships were included in the floating forest on the Thames.
1700 describes the life Thomas lived, the coffee shops he frequented, the Exchange where he did business and the city around him. It is another invaluable member of my bookshelf.
Captain Thomas Bowrey was born on the eve of the Restoration making Liza Picard’s Restoration London perfectly targeted to his life. Subtitled From Poverty to Pets, from Medicine to Magic, from Slang to Sex, from Wallpaper to Women’s Rights, the range of the book makes it another invaluable go-to addition to my bookshelf.
The practical details of daily life are so often missing from social history books. Although Liza concentrates on the decade between 1660-1670, that is the period before Thomas left for the East Indies, much of the information about everyday life will have remained relevant following his return home. Whatever I need to know as I write Thomas’ biography, the answer is likely to be found within chapters such as The Household; Money, Poverty and Class; Cooking, Meals, Food and Drink; or Clothes, Jewellery, Cosmetics, Hairdressing, Washing and So On.
Liza’s writing style, sense of humour and eye for detail make her book both entertaining reading and a useful reference book. With a legal background, her preference for use of primary sources ensures that you can have confidence in the information presented. Although focusing on the period of Samuel Pepys’ diary, the copious use of other sources ensures that we see a London that is not restricted to his peculiar view of life.