Untold lives blog

5 posts from June 2012

29 June 2012

What shall we do with the drunken sailor?

On 3 July 1630 a meeting of East India Company Council members was held at Armagon, a trading post situated to the north of Madras.  The ‘consultation’ involving both Company merchants based ashore and officials from the ship Star had been called to discuss the case of Gyles Wadley.  Wadley had been granted leave to go ashore ‘to recreate himselfe in honest Civill manner’. Unfortunately he had become intoxicated and had entered houses, beaten and abused the people there, and set their bedding on fire. One of the houses attacked by Wadley belonged to one of the chief men of the town who informed the Governor.  The Governor ordered that Wadley be put in prison.  A servant from the English house at Armagon saw Wadley being led away and asked that he be handed into his custody to prevent him from doing any more mischief.  Wadley however had other ideas and ran away from the servant.  Later that night, Company merchants Christopher Read and Thomas Tempest went out to bring in some of their people who were absent from the house after the evening curfew.  They found Wadley asleep in the house of a Mestiso soldier and asked him to go to the English house with them, but he escaped as soon as he came out of the door.


  British grog - bearded sailor in striped top holding drink

British Grog (Add. 74284 f.122) © The British Library Board Images Online


In the morning Company officials received a number of complaints about Wadley, including one from the Governor.  It was decided that Wadley should be ‘made fast’ in some convenient place in the Company’s house and there receive 50 lashes upon his bare back for his offence.  He was also ordered to pay for any damage.  This punishment was intended to deter other Englishmen from acting in a like manner.  Fresh regulations were also issued for the better government of the men in the Star: those with shore leave in future ‘shall not dare to lodge out of the Companies howse, or to be forth, after the ringing of the Bell’ on penalty of receiving 50 blows ‘well laid on, uppon their buttocks, with the stocke of a musket’.

This story is just one of the misdemeanours involving men sailing in the Star which are recounted in a volume of the East India Company’s marine records (IOR/L/MAR/C/4).  Other wrongdoers were disciplined for bad language and indiscipline; quarrelling and fighting; theft; and playing cards when supposed to be manning the watch.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


25 June 2012

Queen Charlotte’s Arcot Diamonds

The India Office Records contain a cache of correspondence from Asian royal families to the British monarchy. From 1760 to 1784 one of the most prolific writers to George III and Queen Charlotte was Muhammad Ali Khan Walajah, the Nawab of Arcot. At this time European and Indian politics became closely intertwined following the development of autonomous regions in India arising from the breakdown of centralised Mughal authority. The French and English backed rival claimants to the Musnud (throne) of Arcot, both hoping to gain control of the Carnatic trade. British victories over the French during the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War ensured their candidate Muhammad Ali Khan was proclaimed Nawab of Arcot.

Queen Charlotte
Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744 –1818), wife of King George III.

©Lessing Archive/British Library Board  Images Online


The Nawab’s letters provide insights into his personal thoughts on the continuance of British support and the fate of his successors, and his dislike of certain British officials. Of particular interest is a letter to Queen Charlotte dated 7 October 1771 (BL, IOR/H/104 pp. 649-652). In it the Nawab informs Charlotte about the final hours and death of his beloved wife the Nawab Begum after illness. He recounts the Begum’s thanks for British support to her husband and how she entreated her husband and children to maintain the friendship. The Nawab eloquently describes the sense of loss felt by himself and his children. The Nawab Begum wished to “be personally remembered” by Queen Charlotte and had made the Queen a bequest from her own personal jewels: “a cluster consisting of a brilliant set round with other diamonds, cut & polished after the manner of this country, with a polished emerald drop scallop’d on the surface and the edge”. Could this be a reference to the famous Arcot Diamonds thought to have been given by the Nawab of Arcot to Queen Charlotte in 1777?

Richard Scott Morel

Archivist, East India Company Records


18 June 2012

Victor Sassoon and Shanghai

The charismatic Sir Victor Sassoon was heir to a great fortune of a banking dynasty which originated from Iraq and later expanded from Bagdad to Bombay and Shanghai.  Like the Rothschild family, the Sassoons moved their headquarters to London in the 19th century and within a few decades they became members of the British establishment.

Sassoon portraits

 Portraits of Sassoon and his wife inside his former residence

Sir Victor, however, decided to spend the second half of his life in Asia.  In the 1920s, he had several titles to his name: Chairman of E.D. Sassoon Banking Co. Ltd; Member of the Indian Legislative Assembly; and Member of Royal Commission for Investigation of Labour Conditions in India.  Apparently his official position conflicted sometimes with his private interests.  As a result, he ran into some trouble with the tax collectors in India and he decided to transfer the bulk of his capital to Shanghai.

  Former residence of Victor Sassoon in Peace Hotel, Shanghai
 Former residence of Victor Sassoon in Peace Hotel, Shanghai (or Cathay Hotel)

Shanghai in the 1930s was a thriving commercial centre and a “tax haven” for Western adventurers.  Sassoon came to cosmopolitan Shanghai as a serious investor in real estate with an estimated capital of around (US) $85 million.  In less than a decade, Sassoon transformed the face of the city with a series of luxury hotels and apartment buildings which are to this day still the most important landmarks of Shanghai. 

Despite his huge commercial success and his privileged life, Sassoon was a worried man.  His busy social life with numerous lady friends hid a deep-seated anxiety because he was a stateless person living at the mercy of a foreign land.  The impending possibility of war and widespread anti-Semitism dashed his hopes of returning to Europe.  In Asia, the Japanese threatened to take over all of China and to establish a Pan-Asia-Pacific empire.  As far as Sassoon was concerned, the only option was to protract his stay in Shanghai as long as it remained in a state of anarchy.  Fans of J. G. Ballard may remember the scene of 1930’s Shanghai in his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun.  The British were seized with panic when Japanese invaded the city.


Letter from Sassoon to Yvonne FitzRoy

IOPP/Mss Eur E312/4, f.69
Letter from Sassoon to Yvonne FitzRoy dated Shanghai 3 May 1939


From his letters to Yvonne FitzRoy in the 1930s, Sassoon emerges as an intermediary between Britain and Japan, although he had no official title at that time.  In one letter he laughed off the rumour that he was involved in arranging secret loans to the Japanese government for the development of northern China as a defence against Russia.  In a memorandum written in 1939, however, Sassoon portrays himself as a shrewd operator engaged in direct talk with the Japanese Emperor, Finance Minister, and other important members of the National Diet (the Japanese Parliament), proposing to turn a district of Shanghai into a Japanese settlement.  In order to ensure the extraterritorial rights of other foreign settlers in Shanghai, he had to sell part of China to the Japanese without the consent of the Chinese government. That revelation may come as a shock to the people of Shanghai, who always considered Sassoon as their trusted friend. 

Sassoon eventually left Shanghai in 1948 before the communist takeover of China.  He transferred his assets (except real estate) to the Bahamas.  Wary of the scourge of anti-Semitism, he converted to Buddhism and devoted his later years to philanthropy.

Xiao Wei Bond
Curator, India Office Private Papers


10 June 2012

Attempted Assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh

This week we continue our royal theme.  Today is the 91st birthday of HRH the Prince Philip and to mark this we have a story about an earlier Royal Prince who held the title of Duke of Edinburgh. The messages of support in the story echo the good wishes which are being sent to Prince Philip for a speedy recovery from illness.

Address from the Taluqdars of Oudh and native residents of Lucknow to Queen VictoriaWithin the India Office Records can be found addresses to the British Monarch from people and organisations in British India. One such example is from the Taluqdars of Oudh and native residents of Lucknow to Queen Victoria. It conveyed congratulations on the escape of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, from assassination on 12 March 1868 while on a visit to Sydney, Australia.

  Address from the Taluqdars of Oudh and native residents of Lucknow to Queen VictoriaIOR/L/PJ/3/1105 No.161

In 1868, Prince Alfred, fifth child and second son of Victoria and Albert, toured Australia as part of a round the world voyage while in command of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Galatea. In Sydney, towards the end of the visit, he was invited to a fund raising picnic held at the beachfront in the suburb of Contarf in aid of the Sydney Sailors’ Home. The event attracted 1,554 guests, a much larger crowd than the organisers had expected, who would consume 1,182 magnums of champagne and 798 bottles of beer by the end of the day. After lunch, Prince Alfred strolled through the crowds in conversation with Sir William Manning, one of the sponsors of the event, when an Irishman by the name of James O’Farrell stepped out of the crowd, walked towards the Prince, and shot him in the back. The Prince cried out, “Good God! I am shot; my back is broken.”

Illustrarion from The Story of the Attempted Murder of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh at Clontarf

 From The Story of the Attempted Murder of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh at Clontarf

Pandemonium ensued, as a bystander, Mr Vial, grappled with O’Farrell, and was himself shot in the foot, before the crowd bundled the Irishman to the ground kicking and punching him. A badly beaten O’Farrell was eventually rescued from the enraged mob by the Police amid cries of “Hang him, lynch him.” The Prince was carried to the nearby marquee where he was examined by doctors. This revealed that the bullet had been deflected away from his spine by his leather braces, and had lodged in his abdomen. He was taken to Government House, where two days later the bullet was successfully removed. Prince Alfred made a full recovery, and was well enough to resume command of the Galatea and sail for England on 4 April 1868.

As for O’Farrell, there were attempts by politicians and journalists to ascribe his actions to an Irish conspiracy to assassinate the Duke, with O’Farrell first confirming then denying the existence of a Fenian plot. The truth seems more to be that O’Farrell had lived a difficult and disappointed life. His father, a prosperous Irish immigrant butcher, provided a good education, sending him to Vienna and Rome to study for the priesthood. However he began showing signs of instability, at times being silent and withdrawn, and at other times being excitable almost to the point of violence. He abandoned the priesthood and returned to Australia, where his father set him up in business in the city of Ballarat. Despite initial success his business career failed, and his mental condition seems to have worsened, possibly exacerbated by bouts of heavy drinking.

James O’Farrell pleaded guilty to the charge of assault with intent to murder, a charge which carried the death penalty in New South Wales. He was hanged in Sydney on 21 April 1868.

John O’Brien
Curator, Post 1858 India Office Records


Address from the Taluqdars of Oudh and Native residents of Lucknow to Queen Victoria [IOR/L/PJ/3/1105 No.161]

The Story of the Attempted Murder of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh at Clontarf, Thursday, March 12, 1868 (Sydney, 1868) [10806.c.19.(4)]

Fenian Revelations. The Confessions of O’Farrell who attempted to assassinate the Duke of Edinburgh [Extracted from the “Press and St. James’s Chronicle”] (London, [1868]) [8145.bbb.3.(7)]

Brian McKinlay, The First Royal Tour 1867-1868 (London, 1971) [X.809/9424]


04 June 2012

Prisoners released for Diamond Jubilee

On 22 June 1897, 19,972 criminal and 102 civil prisoners were released in British India to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  Special consideration was shown to prisoners whose offence was attributable to famine and to Burmese convicted during disturbances following the annexation of Upper Burma.


Diamond Jubilee souvenir
‘Holloway's souvenir’ from A Collection of pamphlets, cards and verses referring to the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria BL: 1855.f.4.(47a)

© The British Library Board   Images Online


There was a precedent for this ‘act of clemency’. Thousands of prisoners had also been freed when the Queen assumed the title of Empress of India in January 1877 and again on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee in 1887. The Viceroy of India authorised the release of 23,007 criminal and 298 civil prisoners in February 1887, a ‘measure most acceptable to Native Sentiment’. The great majority were serving sentences which would have expired between 16 February and 20 June, the 50th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession.  Their conduct in jail had been good and their release was deemed unlikely to give rise to blood feuds or other public disturbances.  All professional and habitual criminals were excluded as well as prisoners with more than one conviction. Releases were made from jails scattered across British India in order to spread the numbers as evenly as possible.


Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/PJ/6/450 File 1219