Untold lives blog

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11 June 2024

Coroner’s records from late 18th-century Bombay

In February 1772 Robert Kitson was appointed by the East India Company as a writer for Bombay.  He sailed to India in the Devonshire.  Kitson started his career in Bombay working in the Secretary’s office.  In October 1775, he was appointed Coroner for the southern half of the island of Bombay at a salary of Rs30 a month plus a fee of Rs4 for each inquest.  He held this post until March 1783, in tandem with his duties as Assistant to the Select or Secret Department.

There were about 40 inquests each year.  If Kitson needed to travel for an inquest, he hired a bullock hackney, or occasionally a palanquin.  The India Office Records holds Kitson’s incomplete list of inquests he conducted, with papers about some of the verdicts.  The cases include both Indians and Europeans and are a useful supplement to the Christian church burial records for those years.  There are 23 inquests for enslaved people: fourteen boys, seven girls, and two not described.

The most common cause of death in cases investigated by Robert Kitson was drowning -in water tanks, in wells and in the sea.  Others were natural causes, murder, suicide, and accidents.

Here are a few examples from Kitson’s coroner records.

Report of inquest held on AllyReport of inquest held on Ally 19 December 1776 - IOR/H/732

On the early evening of 18 December 1776, a man called Ally was sitting near the dock head pier in his boat from Rajapore.  He was accidentally hit in the chest by a musket shot from James Logan who was on sentry duty. Logan was aiming at another boat, but no reason is given for this.

Report of inquest held on FrancisReport of inquest held on Francis 3 September 1777 - IOR/H/732

An inquest was held on 3 September 1777 on ‘Coffree Slave’ Francis who drowned in a well on Old Woman’s Island near the house of his master Captain Charles William Boye, an East India Company military officer.  Boye’s will, made in 1784, shows that there were many enslaved people in his household.  Some he ‘freed’ on his death, urging them to live with members of his family, others he ’gave’ to his children.

Report of inquest held on MungalReport of inquest held on Mungal 26 September 1782 - IOR/H/732

Mungal was found dead on 25 September 1782 at the Bantun Dancing Girls’ House near the Portuguese Church.  He died from two head wounds sustained when trying to escape out of a window at the house on 23 September.

Nattoo, horse-keeper to John Morris, died in March 1783 inn a stable near Bunder from an accidental kick from a horse in his left side.

In August 1782 Toulsie, washerwoman to Colonel Bailey of the Bengal Army, died from a snake bite.

Kitson conducted inquests on a number of murders.  In May 1778 Antonio, servant to Charles Duff, was killed by a blow to the belly from Francis de Rozara, a sailor on the ship Nancy. Sergeant John Forsyth was murdered by Patrick Atkins on the ramparts between the church and bazaar gates in April 1779.

There were suicides.  Maubet Caun, a sepoy in the Marine Battalion, shot himself with a musket in the Esplanade near the powder house in November 1779.  Soldier Isaac Reid killed himself in the town jail in March 1783.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/H/732 Papers of Robert Kitson, Bombay Civil Service


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