Untold lives blog

10 June 2021

Sobriety and decorum - Passengers on East India Company ships

The movement of people on board East India Company ships to and from Asia was subject to strict rules in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The ships carried civilian employees, maritime and military personnel, non-official inhabitants, women, children, and Indian servants.  Large contingents of troops took their passage, both for the Company and Royal armies, and in 1708 the Company ordered that ship surgeons would be allowed 10 shillings for each soldier delivered alive in India.

 East Indiaman Essex at anchor in in Bombay HarbourEast Indiaman Essex at anchor in in Bombay Harbour by Francis Jukes (1785) British Library P493 Images Online

East India Company commanders were required to keep ‘true and exact diaries and journals of the ship’s daily proceedings’, including the names of passengers with the places where they entered and left the ship.  All passengers were issued with printed regulations established to preserve good order in Company ships, outward and homeward bound.  Commanders were to pay attention to comfortable accommodation and ‘liberal treatment’ of their passengers, setting an example of sobriety and decorum.  Diversity of characters and dispositions on board ship made some restraint necessary for all.  Good manners and known customs should prevail.  Commanders were to mediate in disputes between officers and passengers.

In 1819, the Company stated that the ‘wholesome practices’ formerly observed had been laid aside.  Late hours and the ‘consequent mischiefs’ had been introduced, endangering the ships and destroying propriety.  No fire was to be kept beyond 8pm unless in a stove for the use of the sick.  Candles were to be extinguished by 9pm between decks and by 10pm at the latest in cabins.  Lights must not be visible to any vessel passing in the night.  Passengers and officers were to leave the meal table at the same time as the commander.  One puncheon (84 gallons) of rum marked ‘Captain’s Table’ was sent on board for the commander and his servants, officers, and cabin passengers.  No other spirits were to be drawn from the ship’s stores by these groups.

Any commander carrying out or bringing home a passenger without the permission of the Company’s Court of Directors was fined: £500 for a European or for a native of India who was the child of a European; £20 for a male or female ‘black servant’, native of India or elsewhere.  The Company said it had incurred great expense returning to India servants who had been discharged by their masters and mistresses after being in England for some time.  Commanders must have a certificate of a deposit of £50 made for each ‘black servant’ or refuse to accept them.  Care was to be taken not to take on board European deserters from the Company armies.

Commanders charged those proceeding to India at their own expense for passage and a place at their table.  Rates were on a sliding scale according to rank, from £200 for an Army general to £80 for writers, lieutenants, ensigns, and single women, and £60 for cadets.

Baggage allowances were also given according to rank.  The return baggage from India, exclusive of bedding and a few pieces of cabin furniture, ranged from five tons for gentlemen of the Company Councils and generals, to one ton for writers, lieutenants, ensigns, single women, and other cabin passengers.  Additional tonnage was allocated for wives and families.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


Further reading:
Charles Cartwright, An Abstract of the Orders and Regulations of the Honourable Court of Directors of the East-India Company, and of Other Documents (London, 1788).
Instructions from the commanders of the East India Company's own ships to their officers, &c. (London, 1819)
IOR/L/MAR/B East India Company marine records 

 

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