The mystery of the Roebuck
The records of the Marine Department of the India Office (IOR/L/MAR) include logs and journals from thousands of voyages made by East India Company ships. It also contains a mystery. Here is what the records tell us about the Roebuck, a ship that appears to have been in two places at once.
IOR/L/MAR/A/XXIX is a journal kept by Henry Crosby during journeys on three ships between 1619 and 1624. As appears to have been common practice at the time, the ship’s journal went with its writer when he changed vessels rather than remaining with the ship. Although Crosby departed England on the Charles in March 1619, having reached Achine [Banda Aceh, Indonesia] he wrote in July 1620 ‘We came awaye out to Sea the Charles the Rubye the Dymond and the Rauebucke… me in the Rauebucke’. A pencil annotation in the margin, probably added by someone within the India Office during the 20th century, comments ‘The Writer Henry Crosby now in the Raebuch’. The only East India Company ship that appears to match these two alternative spellings is the Roebuck, a ship built in 1619. Assuming that this the same ship as the ‘Rauebucke’ in the text (and the mentions of ‘Rubye’ and ‘Dymond’ in the same sentence show the inconsistencies of 17th century spelling), Crosby remained on board the Roebuck in the vicinity of Sumatra before disembarking at Jakatraye [Jakarta] in December 1620.
IOR/L/MAR/A/XXX is a journal kept by Richard Swan during journeys on two ships between 1620 and 1622. In July 1620, when Henry Crosby was departing Banda Aceh on the Roebuck, Richard Swan was at least 1500 miles away sailing between the Cape of Good Hope and Surat, India, also on the Roebuck. When Crosby was disembarking at Jakarta in December, Swan was arriving at Jasques [Bander-e Jask, Iran] over 4000 miles away. Both of them, apparently, still on board the Roebuck.
An extra complication is added by some date discrepancies within IOR/L/MAR/A/XXIX. The dates in the first half of the journal have been altered to a year earlier than originally written. Since the altered dates fit with the dates in the second half of the journal, they have been presumed to be correct. But if the dates as originally written are actually the correct ones, then perhaps the Roebuck was in Indonesia in 1621 instead of 1620. Unfortunately, this explanation does not solve the mystery. In July 1621 Richard Swan was with the Roebuck on the Island of Mazera [Masirah, Oman], 2800 miles from Banda Aceh.
The solution to this mystery can be found in IOR/E/3/7, a volume of East India Company correspondence from 1619-21. Two letters within the volume make mention of Crosby’s Roebuck, but refer to it as a pinnace, a type of small sailing vessel that attended larger vessels. While Swann was on one side of the Indian Ocean on the East India Company’s ship Roebuck, Crosby was on the other side aboard a pinnace that, with little regard for future historians, had been given the same name.
Content Specialist, Gulf History, British Library Qatar Foundation partnership
Full copies of the ship journals discussed in this post are available from the Qatar Digital Library: