Daniel Seton – Magistrate of Surat
A volume listing court cases from Surat, India, in 1796, reveals a lot about the legal process in a British trading post and a little about a Scottish administrator.
As part of the India Office Records team’s ongoing efforts to identify historically overlooked individuals in our collections, I recently compiled a summary of the cases held in a judicial diary (IOR/G/36/81). The summary has been added to the catalogue description on the British Library website. The diary was compiled by Daniel Seton, Chief of Surat, while completing his duties in 1796. It lists 242 cases and includes the names of the petitioners and defendants, the crimes or subject of dispute, and the decisions made by Seton.
The Surat factory or trading post, in Gujarat, was established by the East India Company in 1612. A history of the area can be found in the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency: Surat and Broach. At first the chief seat of the Company’s trade, Surat declined in importance when the British took possession of Bombay in 1661 and made it their centre of administration in 1687. By the time Seton was writing, Surat was run-down, having borne the brunt of warring European powers, a vicious storm in 1782, and a famine in 1790.
The History of the family of Seton during eight centuries lists Daniel Seton as the second son from the second marriage of Daniel Seton of Powderhall, Edinburgh, but we know little else about him. Daniel’s role as Chief seems to fit between the Governor of the city and its administrators. According to the Gazetteer of Bombay, a Dutch visitor to Surat in 1774 saw the native Governor as a puppet ruler under the Chief. He claimed they had to obey British commands like ‘the lowest inhabitant’, although the Company men would ‘show him externally some honour’.
However this doesn’t seem to match with how Seton saw his role. He wrote in this volume that he held ‘all the duties of magistrate prescribed by law to subjects living under the Anglish protection’ and hoped ‘to act up to a true sense [of] humanity.’ And in a letter from Seton to the Governor, or Nabob, of Surat, he claimed friendship and a desire ‘to co-operate with you to the honor of your Government and the Protection of the Subjects’.
Seton also favoured local advice, such as ‘a punchat or arbitration’ for property cases, or using ‘the patells or heads of the caste’ to solve social disputes ‘conformally to the laws of their sects’; thus demonstrating consideration of an unfamiliar culture.
Seton also imposed rules on the treatment of the accused. Following reports about violent treatment and internment before trial, Seton ‘established as a rule never to be deviated from, that he should not himself or any other of the officers of Government attempt to p[un]ish before conviction any individual whatever’.
Of course we cannot know truthfully how fair Seton was, or how true to his word, but we can be thankful he has left us a valuable record of individuals and their crimes under his jurisdiction in 1796.
India Office Records
Surat Factory Records (IOR/G/36/81 : 1796)
Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency: Surat and Broach, Sir James MacNabb Campbell, Reginald Edward Enthoven (Bombay, 1894)
National Library of Scotland – History of the family of Seton during eight centuries – Volume 1