On This Day: 9 December 1703

On this day in 1703, James Brome wrote from Newington by Hyth in Kent to Thomas Bowrey in London. His very human letter has resonance today.

The Great Storm two weeks earlier had affected the whole of the south of England and Brome, in Kent, experienced its devastating power. He knew that the Rising Sun was sitting in the Downs at the time. His son, William, was a mate on board. He had held off as long as he was able but was desperate for news.

Today, news of major events spread via social media with the same immediacy as the storm of 1703 and people’s thoughts are for their loved ones but they rarely need to wait weeks for reassuring news. For the majority, their reassurance comes within minutes when they are contacted by mobile ‘phone or a status update on social media.

Brome received the reassurance he wanted. None of the crew of the Rising Sun was harmed in the storm (although a crew member fell overboard and died later). In his letter, he says that he was a Clergyman of God and he believed the storm was the greatest national judgement there had been for many years. Had he spent the previous fortnight searching his own conscious and praying that God would not punish his sins by taking his son? Even today, we tend to blame ourselves when someone is harmed. We just phrase it as ‘I should have stopped them going’ rather than ‘I am being punished for my sins’.


On This Day: 8 December 1684

On this day in 1684, a Monday, Captain Thomas Bowrey left Fort St George (Madras) for Porto Novo (Parangipettai). Today’s journey is different because, rather than travelling by sea, along the coast, this was overland whist Bowrey’s Borneo Merchant was riding out the monsoon in the Ennore Creek (a Madras backwater).

For some unknown reason, Bowrey wrote a detailed account of this journey. Other than that of his six-week tour of Holland and Flanders fourteen years later, this is the only diary Bowrey appears to have kept. Certainly, it is the only survival. The paper on which the account is written has a large piece missing from the right-hand corner but, unexpectedly, this damage occurred before Bowrey wrote on it. None of the text is missing.

The journey took under five days, starting at 09:30 pm and ending at 01:00 pm on Friday 12 December, during which Bowrey was carried in a palanquin by four or six Coolies sometimes up to their thighs in water. Strangely, he described the food eaten by his men but not what he ate during the journey. They rested once at a large stone Choultry (guesthouse) attached to the Bhoomeshwarar Temple close to the coastal town of Marakkananam and another time at the English factory at Koonimedu. Otherwise they slept out in the open together during the day and travelled in the late afternoon and overnight.

The total length of the journey was about 140 miles. The terrain varied between good dry ground, paddy (rice) fields, marshy ground and salt ponds. They crossed numerous rivers, some only knee deep but others as high as their navels.

On This Day: 7 December 1703

On this day in 1703. the Great Storm hit the south of England. That is true if you convert the date to the modern calendar and this points to a problem when it comes to writing about events before we aligned out calendar with the rest of Europe.

Thomas Bowrey did not live his life within England and did business with the whole of the world. At the time, people were fully aware of that other nations used a different calendar and used a date format that reflected that. Much of the time, though, people are and were lazy. When that happens, there can be questions about the actual date a letter or legal document was written.

Within Bowrey’s papers, there are letters written between Berlin and London which use the format 1/12 March 1703/04 as well as documents written in India using regnal dates for a king who had already died thousands of miles away.

In writing Bowrey’s biography, and these blog posts, to avoid confusion, I have attempted to standardise dates. My choice is to use the day used in England at the time but to start the year on the first of January. Using that formula, the Great Storm happened on 26 November 1703. Doing this, aligns me with other posters who commemorated the storm eleven days age but at odds with those who have posted about it today.


On This Day: 6 December 1696

On this day in 1696, Mary Bowrey wrote to her husband, Captain Thomas Bowrey, on board the St George Galley in the Downs. This is a rare survivor. Bowrey does not appears to have been sentimental and the letter was possibly retained because another from his father-in-law about business was on the same sheet of paper.

It was Tuesday night and Mary wrote to her der tomey (dear Tommy), signing herself your loven wife til death. She believed that they would not see each other for at least eighteen months while Bowrey commanded the galley on a trading voyage to the East Indies. Having assured her husband that she was well, she hoped that he would keep so, and then complained about the weather but that was the end of the social niceties. She knew what interested him.

Mary’s news was that her cousin had just informed her that the French king’s letter had been read in Parliament and she hope that they would quickly have peace. The king was Louis XIV and England, alongside the Dutch, Spain, Sweden, Scotland and others, had been at war with France for eight years. The war did not end until the following September.

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.

On This Day: 4 December 1704 & 1706

On this day in 1704, Thomas Bowrey sold two bales of East Indies cloth through Jacob Larwood in Amsterdam. These bales were probably from the Resolution or the Alexander Galley. Both ships had recently returned to London.

On this day in 1706, Thomas Bowrey sold a range of textiles by candle from the Rising Sun at the Marine Coffee House in Birchin Lane, London. Sale by candle is a form of timed auction.

Through his many contacts, Bowrey constantly checked prices goods were sold at in the east and back home. We can be certain that he sold these goods by different methods and in different cities because he believed that was how to obtain the best price with the lowest costs.

There were warehousing charges and commission on the sale by candle. To sell in Amsterdam there were more costs including transport costs including boat hire from Gouda, customs duties and brokerage on the sale. The decisions where and how to sell were complex. The date of return of any ship was never certain. Bowrey had to call upon all his experience each time a ship did return.

On This Day: 3 December 1703

On this day in 1703, Samuel Rowley the chief mate of the Rising Sun wrote to Thomas Bowrey from on board the ship at Zeeland. The letter does not start well: Worthy Sir This comes to acquaint you of the misfortunes yet has happened to the ship which I am heartily sorry for. However, Rowley continues by assuring Bowrey that the ship is safe and as tight as a Cup (was not leaking).

The Rising Sun had been caught up in the Great Storm the previous month and damaged, like hundreds of other ships. Despite this, Rowley appears to be blaming the ropemaker for what has happen. The ropes had given way.

In view of the colossal damage caused by the storm that is still remembered today, it seem to be unduly harsh to blame the ropemaker. 2,000 chimney stacks were lost in London and 4,000 mature oak trees destroyed in the New Forest. It was estimated that 8,000 people were killed during the storm, many of them ships’ crews. It was one of the worst storms in British history. Even the Eddystone was lost during the storm.

Blaming Bowrey’s ropemaker appears totally unreasonable. It is my opinion that Rowley and Wybergh, the ship’s master, were concerned to deflect any possible blame from themselves for the damage to the Rising Sun. Perhaps, only a week after the storm finding their bearing and finally making port, they had not yet learned how widespread the damage had been.