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12 posts from December 2013

11 December 2013

Midshipman Marriott and the Indian Navy spirit allowance

In December 1843, the Bombay Government wrote to the Court of Directors of the East India Company stating that it had come to their attention that it was common practice in the Indian Navy to give the midshipmen a daily ration of spirits.  This routine had come to the attention of Government because of the conduct of Henry R Marriott, Midshipman of the East India Company's receiving ship Hastings.

Bombay harbour Bombay Harbour from James Wales, Bombay views: twelve views of the island of Bombay and its vicinity (London, 1800)  Images Online Noc

On 13 September 1843, while the Hastings was at Bombay, Midshipman Marriott was left as the officer in charge.  The Commanding Officer Lieutenant Montriou had left the ship on an errand at about 2pm.  It was later reported to the Commission of Enquiry, that at 3pm Marriott ordered the Pursers’ Steward and the Master at Arms to issue him with one week’s allowance of spirits.  By 3.30pm Marriott was discovered passed out in the Captain’s bed, and could not be roused.  Joseph Johnston, the acting Quartermaster, carried the unfortunate Marriott down below to the Midshipmen’s berth.  Midshipman Bode reported to the Enquiry that when he came on board the ship in the late afternoon, he was told what had happened and found Marriott 'Lying down on a chest in the Gunroom, quite unable to move'.  On being pressed for a description of Marriott’s condition, Bode stated 'He was in a dead sleep, half naked and had been vomiting'.

In his defence, Marriott submitted a written statement.   He stated that finding himself in charge of the ship he felt free of the normal regulations which constituted the ordinary duties of a Midshipman, and that '…under the impression that I was free from control, and labouring at the time under the influence of depressed spirits…I was in a unlucky moment induced to take advantage of liberty which I conceived my temporary authority imparted, the result of which has been the unfortunate and degraded position in which I now find myself placed'.

The Bombay Government seems to have taken Marriott’s depression into account.  A stern warning was be issued to him regarding his conduct, along with such admonition as the Superintendent of the Indian Navy deemed most suitable and effectual.  However '…as the general character of Mr Marriott is not reported upon very unfavourably, the Governor in Council is not desirous of proceeding any further'.

Perhaps more ominously for the Indian Navy’s Midshipmen was the Bombay Government’s proposal that the allowance of spirits be altogether abolished, and replaced with some other form of compensation.  In reply, the Court of Directors stated that they thought Marriott had been treated too leniently, and that Lieutenant Montriou had been wrong to leave so young an officer in charge. They also agreed that it would be right to abolish the allowance of spirits for Midshipmen of the Indian Navy, and authorised the Bombay Government in all cases to substitute for their spirit ration an equivalent in money.

John O’Brien
Post 1858 India Office Records  Cc-by

Further Reading:

Proceedings connected with a proposition to abolish the allowance of spirits to the midshipmen of the Indian Navy, September to December 1843 [IOR/F/4/2053/93811]

Despatches to Bombay, August to November 1844 [IOR/E/4/1076 pp.108-110]

The story of another drunken sailor


09 December 2013

'Cornelia Calling' - A Voyage of Discovery in the British Library

Today we have a story from guest blogger Jocelyn Watson about how the British Library collections have helped her to write a play based on the life of Cornelia Sorabji.

For Christmas 2011 my brother gave me a present of a book.  I unwrapped it to discover An Indian Portia by Kusoom Vadgama.  I had never heard of the book before and I looked at my brother quizzically; his response was:  ‘Believe me, you’ll find it fascinating’.  Sure enough, I was gripped.  The book was the diligent compilation of the letters, diaries and articles of Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman in history to read law at Somerville College and one of India’s first female barristers.

Photograph of Cornelia SorabjiFrom Cornelia Sorabji, India Calling (1934)    Noc

Before becoming a writer, I was a lawyer and had studied law at Somerville’s sister college in Cambridge, Girton.  As my interest grew I began trawling the British Library archives.  The staff were so helpful and supportive and I was delighted to discover a wealth of material about this extraordinary woman.  I came across the law paper that she sat in 1889 and looked through it wondering how I would have managed.  The Master of Balliol College had obtained congregational consent for Cornelia to be able to sit the examination; the sole woman in a hall full of male students many of whom disapproved.

Certificate of qualification to the High Court of Judicature of the North Western Provinces for Cornelia Sorabji
NocIOPP/MSS Eur F165/118

My Mother is Indian and my father English and when I asked family and friends in India, none of them had heard of Cornelia.  Similarly in England when I asked friends, former law students, they too knew nothing about her.  The more I delved into the rich resources that the British Library holds, the more I learnt and understood how invisible women’s histories can become, and how important it is that we acknowledge the women who have gone before us.  I was so grateful that the British Library had so carefully preserved all this valuable material.  

Poster for Cornelia Calling
As a result I wrote Cornelia Calling and with the help and support of Kali Theatre Company, a charity that supports and encourages South Asian women to write, I was able to bring Cornelia Sorabji, a lawyer, a social reformer, an author, an extraordinary woman, to life.   The play is to be performed in London at the Tristam Bates Theatre on Friday 13 December at 7.30pm as part of the Kali Talkback 2013.

Jocelyn Watson


06 December 2013

Cultivator or inventor?

The cinchona plant was introduced from South America to India in 1860: a response to urgent need.  The Government of India was in search of a cheap drug for malaria, a disease that killed millions of people in India every year.  The most effective treatment was quinine, a chemical compound found in cinchona bark.

Cinchona plant“Chinchona plants at Ootacamund”: frontispiece to Clements R Markham, Travels in Peru and India (London, 1862) Noc

Cinchona plantations were established across the Nilgiri Hills in southern India, where they quickly flourished.  By the end of 1866 the superintendent of plantations, William McIvor, was able to report a total of 1,785,303 plants under cultivation.

But McIvor came into conflict with his employers.  He had devised a technique to increase the quinine yield, known as ‘mossing’.  Under this system, strips of bark were carefully removed and the exposed trunk was swaddled in moss (see illustration).  When the bark grew back again, it produced more quinine because it was thicker than before.

Cinchona mossing'Mossing’ from Parliamentary Papers 1866: 53 (“Papers relating to the introduction of the Chinchona Plant into India”, p. 500) Noc

McIvor tried to patent the technique.  Aggrieved by his appointment as a mere cultivator rather than as a scientist, he argued that Government had no claim over his scientific expertise. It was this, he insisted, that had enabled him after many long experiments to ‘render this great natural process entirely subservient to my will’. With quinine increasingly in demand on the London markets, he had a clear incentive to make the claim.

Government officials disagreed. They argued that what McIvor was trying to patent was a process of nature. In summing up the case, they raised the wider and ever-pertinent question: was drug research being conducted for private profit or the public good?  Their answer was emphatic:
Prejudice to the public would be caused by enabling a public servant, employed for the special purpose of increasing and cheapening the supply to the public of a rare and costly drug, to use the information and experience which he had acquired in the public service and at the public cost for his individual benefit and to the public detriment, by making his charge for the use of his patent an element in the market price of the medicine, and tending to restrict the use of the medicine by adding to its cost.

The India Office Records holds several files on the Nilgiri cinchona experiment, as it was known.  These are on-line (search under ‘cinchona’).

Antonia Moon
Curator, post-1858 India Office Records  Cc-by

Further reading:
Clements R Markham, Peruvian Bark: a popular account of the introduction of chinchona cultivation into British India, 1860-1880 (London, 1880)

03 December 2013

Dressing like a Queen

The author and actress Mary Robinson (1758-1800) became known as ‘Perdita’ following her appearances in that role in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale at Drury Lane in 1779.  She was briefly the mistress of George, Prince of Wales (later George IV), a liaison which gave her lasting notoriety. ‘The Perdita’ (as newspapers routinely styled her) was one of London’s leading celebrities during the 1780s.  She was also a fashion icon, as newspaper reports of the time attest.

Mary RobinsonFrontispiece from Mary Robinson. Poems. London, 1791.   Noc

The Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser of 11 June 1781 recorded her ‘in a most becoming military attire (scarlet faced with apple green)’.  In the autumn of 1781, ‘Perdita’ went to Paris (the centre of the fashionable world) for the first time.  On 15 October 1782, the Morning Herald reported ‘The Perdita has received a dress from Paris, which was introduced this Autumn by the Queen of France’.  The same paper on 21 November 1782 identified it as the ‘Chemise de la Reine’, worn by Perdita to the opera.  The chemise de la reine was a flowing muslin gown without hoops, fastened with a silk sash, suitable for private and country wear – Marie Antoinette was portrayed wearing it by the painter Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun in 1783.  Was this indeed the fashion in which Mrs Robinson appeared at the opera? Or was it, perhaps, closer to the ‘morning dress’ worn by the Queen of France at Versailles, as described in some detail in the Lady’s Magazine for April 1782:

The robe is made of plain sattin, chiefly white, worn without a hoop, round, and a long train.  It is drawn up in front, on one side, and fastened with tassels of silver, gold, or silk, … this discloses a puckered petticoat of gauze or sarsenet, of a different colour. …

Such a gown was surely more suitable for an appearance at one of London’s most elite entertainment venues.  The use of satin and the elaborate trimmings of this gown distinguish it from the chemise de la reine, except that the Lady’s Magazine also tells readers that ‘the dress, … it is said, will be worn throughout the summer, made of lighter material’ suggesting that it might have been an earlier version of Marie Antoinette’s informal dress.

Moira Goff
Curator Printed Historical Sources 1501-1800  Cc-by

Further reading:
Claire Brock. “Then smile and know thyself supremely great”: Mary Robinson and the “splendour of a name”. Women’s Writing, 9.1 (2002), pp. 107-124
Paula Byrne. Perdita: the life of Mary Robinson. London, 2004
Aileen Ribeiro. The art of dress: fashion in England and France 1750-1820. New Haven & London, 1995

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