Untold lives blog

11 posts from April 2014

30 April 2014

The Birth of Empire: the East India Company

Tonight BBC2 broadcasts episode one of The Birth of Empire: the East India Company, a new series featuring the British Library’s extensive India Office collections. Historian Dan Snow traces the rise and fall of the English East India Company from its beginnings in 1600 as a small commercial enterprise run by a group of London merchants to its demise in 1858.

  Birth of Empire advert Noc

Using the letters and diaries of the men and women who were there, Snow tells the story of a company which revolutionised the British lifestyle, sparked a new age of speculation and profit, and by accident created one of the most powerful empires in history.

In the first few minutes of the programme, you can see shots of our archives held in the British Library’s basements in St Pancras. Spanning over 9 miles of shelving and encompassing over a million letters, documents and manuscripts, they tell the unique story of the Company and its employees.

Robert HutchinsonRobert Hutchinson

Robert Hutchinson, the historical consultant to the programme, has spent years exploring the enthralling India Office Records. Here are a few of the interesting facts he has discovered.

England's first 'tea lady'
The East India Company appointed England’s first ‘tea lady’. A Mr and Mrs Harris were paid to look after its first headquarters in 1661 and one of Mrs Harris’ duties was to brew tea for meetings of the directors.

Fortune hunters
Many of its merchants and employees amassed huge fortunes from commission, prize-money earned during military campaigns, and private trading. Thomas Pitt, governor of Madras, decided to send his fortune home in the form of a 410 carat (82 gram) diamond he had purchased from an Indian merchant called Jamchaud in 1701 for £20,400.   In 1717, the huge gem was sold for £135,000 (or £18•6 million in today’s money) to the French regent, Philippe II, duc d’Orléans. The diamond became part of the French crown jewels, apart from a brief spell when it adorned Napoleon’s sword, and is now in the Royal Treasury in the Louvre, Paris.

Uncivil servants
Haileybury College in Hertfordshire was established in 1806 to train the Company’s officials for overseas service. Mayhem sometimes lurked behind that august façade of learning. In the early years, the college was notorious for the drunken behaviour of its young scholars. Politician George Canning was summoned urgently to the college from London to subdue a riot. Thoroughly shaken by the experience, he reported:
I have faced bitter opposition in the House of Commons. I have encountered riots in Liverpool… but I was never floored and daunted till now – and that by a lot of Haileybury boys.


  Edward Augustus Prinsep promises to abstain from keeping dogs, shooting, and sporting in the neighbourhood of the College Noc
Edward Augustus Prinsep promises to abstain from keeping dogs, shooting, and sporting in the neighbourhood of the College [IOR/J/1/70 f.121]. See this and other digitised India Office Records on find my past.

Too stupid for Haileybury?
George Campbell was sent to Haileybury at the age of 16 in 1840. He discovered that the college qualifying examination ‘threw out not only a few of the worst but frightened a good many more….’  But all was not lost if you failed to come up to the mark:
Directors did not like to send up a boy likely to fail. It would be difficult to turn him adrift. The fashion was to send into the Company’s cavalry a young man too idle or too stupid to go through Haileybury.

We look forward to tuning in tonight on BBC2 at 9.00pm. In next week’s episode, you can see more of the British Library’s collections as Dan Snow continues to build the story of the East India Company and its immense empire.

See more about Birth of Empire here

29 April 2014

Comics Unmasked - Countdown to opening

Just a few days to go until the opening of the Comics Unmasked at the British Library, the UK’s largest ever exhibition of mainstream and underground comics. The gallery is almost finished, loans from museums and private lenders are starting to arrive, and exhibits from the Library’s own collection are being placed in their display cases.

  Comics Unmasked exhibition cases Noc

It is particularly exciting that we are going to be showing such a wide range of materials from across the Library’s vast collection. There are books, magazines and newspapers from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, plus even older publications that help explain the historical background to British comics. We’ve hardy every exhibited any of these before, and we’re sure that everyone will find something new to discover. And they all say something about people across time:  what makes us laugh, what makes us angry, what we find titillating, how we deal with inequality or personal tragedy, and because the show looks at material on the edge, we can start to see how social and moral values have changed with time.

There are 193 exhibits in all, including published works, scripts from writers such as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, and original comic artwork by the likes of Frank Quitely and Kate Charlesworth. Added to these are audio-visual points where you can listen to comics-related recordings from Library’s sound collections, explore web comics, and see clips from the world of film and video.

Comics Unmasked exhibition casesNoc

 It’s all presented in a gallery space designed by Dave McKean: a different look and feel for each of the six exhibition sections reflecting the content (e.g. corridors of power for ‘Politics’), a twisting and turning overhead ribbon that draws the sections together, and a few pieces of new artwork that he has created to enhance the overall experience.

Doors open Friday 2 May at 10.00

Adrian Edwards  Cc-by
Co-curator Comics Unmasked


24 April 2014

Street Fighting Men

On the night of Friday 30 June 1727, the East India Company factory and surrounding town of Gombroon (Bandar Abbas) bore witness to the spectacle of two English factors drawing their swords upon each other.  Both received wounds before being separated by a guard. The two men were William Draper, the Chief Factor, and John Fotheringham.

Two days earlier Fotheringham and William Cordeux, the Council Secretary, had refused to sign sailing orders for an English ship cruising around the Gulf.  They were concerned that the orders to this ship to “take, capture or burn” a Muscati ship suspected of piracy might cause undue offence to the Imam of Muscat. The Imam, being a major power in the region, was seen to be a useful person to be kept on the Company’s side, especially since the collapse of the Safavid dynasty in 1722.

This minor disagreement was resolved when the orders were slightly changed, but both Fotheringham and Cordeux publically remonstrated with Draper declaring that he was “no longer our Chief”.  Fotheringham left the Factory against Draper’s instructions and roundly insulted him.  Draper stopped Fotheringham, the two drew their swords on each other and fought in the public bazaar. Fotheringham was wounded in “the right breast, left shoulder and hip bone , Draper only “slightly on the right cheek”. The two men were parted by the Sergeant of the Guard of the factory. Both Fotheringham and Draper had ordered the Sergeant to restrain the other.

Roderigo attacks Cassio in the street
Roderigo attacks Cassio in the street [11765.k.9, page 33] Images Online

This raises interesting questions about authority in the factory itself.  Despite Draper being the chief factor, the guard did not follow his orders either to stop Fotheringham from leaving the factory, nor to restrain him once he had done so. At the same time, Cordeux was unable to persuade the guards to shut Draper out of the factory. It seems that no one was completely in charge of the armed men hired to protect them and the factory, nor did the guards consider themselves totally bound to follow orders with which they disagreed. Eventually, Draper regained control of the men, forcing them the next day to parade and make declarations of the events of the previous night. 

Most interestingly of all, perhaps, is that these events are all written down in the Company records amongst consultations and copies of letters concerning the day to day running of the factory; the comings and goings of goods and traders; and reports informing the factors of events in Persia during its decline into civil war that would last until 1796. The entries concerning these events are written impartially and are interspersed with statements from both parties and independent witnesses. This record would then have been returned to the Company’s officials first in Bombay and then London where opinions could be passed on their validity and the guilt of either party in the dispute.

Peter Good
PhD student University of Essex/British Library

Further reading:
IOR/G/29/4 ff.53-61


22 April 2014

India Office First World War Memorial

A common sight across the length and breadth of Britain are memorials to those who lost their lives in the First World War. In cities, towns and villages, churches and cathedrals, public squares and gardens, and in public buildings of all kinds, these memorials commemorate the sacrifice made by men and women from all walks of life during that terrible conflict. In 1919, the India Office commissioned its own memorial tablet to commemorate the members of the India Office and the India Store Depot who died for their King and country in the Great War.

Quotes for the cost of the work were sought from three companies, J W Singer & Sons Ltd, Farmer & Brindley Ltd, and Ashby & Horner Ltd, and designs were received from each. A file in the India Office Records contains the correspondence and other papers relating to the memorial, along with examples of the different designs. Proposed designs included a bronze centre panel with Sicilian marble frame (by Singer & Sons) for £250, and a white marble panel with an oak frame (by Ashby & Horner Ltd) for £425.

  Design for World War I memorial Pro Patria
IOR/L/SUR/6/20/49  Noc

The contract was subsequently awarded to Farmer & Brindley Ltd for a design in alabaster and statuary marble at a cost of £316. The contract, dated 24 December 1919, and signed by T Herbert Winney, India Office Surveyor, stipulated that the work was to be completed within 20 weeks of that date. However, a number of points remained to be settled. It was decided on chocolate brown for the colour of the lettering in the inscription, and the date of 1914-19 was chosen (although the Military Department insisted that the Great War had not yet officially ended). These issues, along with amendments to the inscription, caused delays, and by October 1920 the India Office was urging Farmer & Brindley to finish the work in time for Armistice Day. The memorial was officially unveiled by the Marquis of Crewe on the 26 February 1921. It lists the names of 30 members of the India Office who died during the war, and is in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office building in Westminster.


World War I memorial - final design
IOR/L/SUR/6/20/49   Noc

In the same file are copies of the India Office Roll of Honour, recording all those who served in the Great War in whatever capacity. Listed in alphabetical order, class distinctions were dissolved. Included equally in the list are messengers, such as C D A Simmons, Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy, and J Teague, Motor Machine Gun Corps, and a Member of the Council of India, Sir T Morison, K.C.I.E., 2nd Lieutenant in the Cambridgeshire Regiment. Also listed is Miss G F C Arnell, who served in the Voluntary Aid Detachment.

Lynn Osborne and John O’Brien
India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:

War memorial for members of India Office who died 1914-19 [IOR/L/SUR/6/20/49]

War Memorials Archive


17 April 2014

Making a little money on the side

Major William Joseph Mathews of the 9th Bengal Native Infantry had served in the East India Company’s Army for 25 years. Perhaps he thought that his official salary was not enough to maintain his lifestyle and so created a system of stealing from his subordinates and the Government of India.

On four separate occasions Major Mathews simply withheld pay from soldiers. Fifteen sepoys received only 4 pice a day for six months and he kept the rest, which gave him Rs.611. Other newly enlisted sepoys were not paid Rs.1709 between January and June 1818.  The bugle men were Rs.240 short for ten months, and the sircars of his company were not paid at all in June 1819.

Lord Moira's camp in Moradabad
Lord Moira's camp in Moradabad by Sita Ram c 1814-15  Online Gallery  Noc

The veteran of the Second Mahratta War and former aide-de-camp to Lord Moira also came up with the most sophisticated mechanism to make false muster rolls. In 1818 he inserted fifteen fictitious names for sepoys and claimed their salaries for eighteen months (Rs.1125). He also added 61 names to the muster roll of the non-existent hill sepoys, which brought him an income of Rs.4188. In the same year he discharged six classies (tent-pitchers) but kept their names on the muster roll and gathered Rs.619.  The Government lost Rs.459 as the numbers on the muster rolls were different to the payment books. When he faced a court martial on twelve charges in 1820, it was concluded that ‘from the confused manner in which the muster-rolls are drawn up, the court cannot find the precise number of names and sums embezzled’.

Major Mathews did not scorn embezzling even small amounts. He kept a part of the Bazar Chowdree’s salary (this was an agent supplying workmen and goods for public purposes) and once the man left the post, Mathews just paid himself the salary (Rs.60). In a similar manner the Bazar Mootsuddie (native accountant) was robbed of Rs.25. He also appointed three virtual Jhunda-Wallas and claimed Rs.117.

Mathews gathered about Rs.10,000 altogether.  He was found guilty on 26 January 1820 of eleven charges and dismissed from the service. On the insistence of the Commander-in-Chief the sentence was changed and Mathews was cashiered, which meant he was debarred from future employment with the Company. Interestingly the biographical note in Hodson’s Officers of the Bengal Army does not mention any of this and states that he was pensioned on 5 February 1820 and retired from the service the following year.

Dorota Walker
Reference Specialist, Asian and African Studies  Cc-by

Further reading:

Capt William Hough & George Long, The practice of courts-martial, also the legal exposition and military explanation of the Mutiny Act and Articles of War, together with the crimes and sentences of numerous courts-martial, and the remarks thereupon by His Majesty and the several Commanders-in-Chief in the East Indies and on foreign stations & c. (London, 2nd ed. 1825)

Major V. C. P. Hodson, List of the Officers of the Bengal Army, 1758-1834 (1927-47)

15 April 2014

Zanzibar brawl

31 March 1860, a sultry afternoon in the beautiful beach town of Zanzibar. Monsieur Frédérick Rochiez, a French grocer, was having a quiet siesta and enjoying his peaceful life in this quasi-paradise.  His tranquillity was broken by the intrusion of a group of rowdy English sailors who barged in asking for brandy.  When they were told there was none, the drunken seamen went on a rampage, vandalizing the shop and helping themselves with any booze they could lay their hands on.  After the shop was wrecked, they ran away with crates of wines as well as cash stolen from the till.

Two drunken sailors Calcutta
   ‘Lall Bazaar, Calcutta.’ [WD 4336]  1860s.   Images Online

M. Rochiez incurred a substantial financial loss by this wilful looting and pillaging.   He lodged a complaint via French Consul M. Derché to Lt-Col Christopher Palmer Rigby, British Consul at Zanzibar, demanding an apology and compensation.

The British authorities felt this was French ‘extortion’, a deliberate put-up job to frame the English.  Rigby immediately launched a personal attack on the character and conduct of the French diplomats in Zanzibar.  In his letter dated 1 June 1861 to the Secretary of State for India he wrote: “I beg to state that the present French Consul (Monsieur Derché) was born and bred in the Levant…  he is now about to leave by the first opportunity, and the present Chancellier who is appointed to succeed him, is a Pole, who is stated to have deserted from the ranks of the Russian Army in the Crimea by feigning death during an action.  He lives in a most disreputable manner, and bears a very indifferent character…”.

The complaint about the drunken English sailors was not unprecedented.  The English and French had been bickering with each other for several years since both nations established their consular offices on the island.  

The wine shop brawl quickly escalated to a serious accusation of slave trafficking.  The British on Zanzibar, charged with the duty of the abolition of slave trade, captured and confiscated the Famosa Estrella, a ship under Spanish colours.  The ship was consigned to a notorious slave agent named Buona Ventura Mas, who had long carried on an extensive traffic in slaves with both Cuba and La Réunion.   The British claimed that “Buona Ventura Mas was the Agent here for the two slave dealing houses of Vidal Frères, and Regis & Co” both supported by the French Consul which proclaimed to provide French protection to the ships and subjects of any Roman Catholic State, including Spanish and Portuguese.

Just next to the French territory of La Réunion sits Mauritius, a British possession in 1861. Hundreds of thousands of indentured labourers were shipped across the Indian Ocean to work in the British plantations on Mauritius under the conditions hardly any better than those of slaves under French protection.

Xiao Wei Bond
Curator, India Office Private Papers

Further reading:
India Office Records/ L/PS/9/37-38 Zanzibar correspondence


11 April 2014

RAF Tragedy in Oman

On 30 October 1937 a Vickers Vincent of 84 Squadron RAF crashed at Khor Gharim, a remote and desolate spot on the southern coast of Oman.  All three crew aboard, Wing Commander Aubrey Rickards, Pilot Officer Robert McClatchey, and Aircraftman Leslie O’Leary were killed.

Khor Gharim was described by the British Political Agent, Muscat, who reported the loss in the Administration Report of the Persian Gulf Political Residency for the year 1937, as ‘perhaps one of wildest and most lawless districts of the State where the authority of the Muscat Government is treated with scanty respect’.

From IOR/R/15/1/717 Administration Report of the Persian Gulf for the Year 1937  Noc

A general increase in air traffic was one aspect of the changing face of the Persian Gulf in the 1930s, stimulated by oil discoveries in the region and the need for improved communications.  Security was also becoming increasingly important to the British as the threat of war loomed, and 84 Squadron was involved in reconnaissance of landing grounds between its headquarters at Basra and the important British base at Aden.

Rickards’s death was a tragic loss.  In addition to intelligence and liaison work that helped preserve the security of Aden, he had done much to increase geographical knowledge of the little-known hinterland of the southern Arabian Peninsula, by means of air photographs and sketch maps made from his cockpit.  His efforts earned him the OBE for services to Aden.

Rickards’s plane was one of a squadron of three, and the crews of the other two reported their horror at seeing the lead plane, piloted by McClatchey, smash into the shore on the far side of a salt water lagoon while attempting to land.  The bodies of the three RAF men were buried at the site.

The location of the graves became lost in the upheaval of the war years that followed and it was not until 1997 that an expedition to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the crash went back to the area.  After making two sweeps the searchers discovered first a shard of metal from a Vincent and then human remains.  All three bodies were exhumed and transferred to Muscat. One year later they were interred in the Christian Cemetery there, while the sun set over the hills of Mina al Fahal and a lone piper played a lament.

The British Agent in Muscat remarked one other noteworthy feature of the tragedy in his 1937 report: the attitude of the local inhabitants.  Despite their fearsome reputation, and the ample opportunities for plunder afforded by the crash, the local Bedouin were ‘not unfriendly and their conduct certainly not as dangerous as their reputation would lead to suspect’.

Martin Woodward
Project Officer, Gulf History Project 

Qatar Digital LibraryCc-by

Further reading:

IOR/R/15/1/717 Administration Report of the Persian Gulf for the Year 1937


09 April 2014

Cityread London 2014 and the Experiences of Soldiers of Colour in World War One

Cityread London, which launched this week, will run throughout April with events in every London borough; aimed to promote reading for pleasure and also to encourage Londoners to contemplate their city’s history.  Each year Cityread London selects a book for the whole capital to read together and for 2014 this is My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young, selected to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One.  Louisa will be speaking about this at a Cityread London event at the British Library on 14 April.

Also as part of the Cityread London event programme, several public libraries are hosting a production by the District 6 Theatre Group, on the role and experience of soldiers of colour in World War One; exploring the contribution made by people of all colours, ethnicities, religious beliefs and nationalities to the British war effort in World War One, whether by serving in the armed forces or providing material and financial resources.  You can see this performance on these dates at the following libraries:

15 April - Richmond Lending Library

22 April - Barking Learning Centre 

24 April – Dagenham Library

28 April – Battersea Library

30 April - Wembley Library

An Indian Cavalry horse hospital in a French factory, 1915. 

Photo 24/(122) An Indian Cavalry horse hospital in a French factory, 1915.  Noc

It is encouraging to hear that Cityread London 2014 events are including these narratives; as non-white non-European experiences of World War One have traditionally been given less media coverage than other aspects of the war.  For researchers interested in this topic, there is a wealth of material in the British Library’s India Office Records with information about the stories of South Asian soldiers serving in the British Indian Army  during World War One; we blogged about some of these stories previously in posts Indian soldiers’ views of England during World War I, An Indian soldier in France during World War I, and The Indian Sepoy in the trenches.  Furthermore last month we wrote about the experiences of Indian Muslims travelling from India to Mecca as part of the Hajj during World War One  in the post Pilgrim traffic during the First World War.

Stella Wisdom
Digital Curator Cc-by

Further reading 

World War One sources on the British Library website