Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

17 October 2019

The Portuguese Militia in Bombay

An almost certainly little-used publication on the shelves of the Asian & African Studies Reading Room sheds intriguing light on the existence and composition of a non-British military force in Bombay in the first decade of the 19th century.
 
In the Bombay Kalendar and Register for the year 1806 can be found a ‘List of officers of Portuguese militia’, their Commandante being identified as Sir Miguel de Lima e Souza.  There follows the names of three Sub-Commandantes, eleven Capitaens, and forty Tenentes (Lieutenants), all bearing recognizably Portuguese names such as Antonio Nunes, Matheus da Silva, Aleixo Gonsalves and Manoel Pereira.  That they were wholly loyal to the East India Company can be deduced from the fact that the Colonel of the force was none other than the Honourable Jonathan Duncan, the Governor of Bombay, alongside Regulating Officer Captain William Green, Adjutant Lieutenant D. Stewart and Assistant Surgeon R.B. Perrin.
 
A volume of Bombay Military Statements contains a ‘Separate statement for the Regiment of Native Portuguese Militia’.   It reads: ‘This Corps is composed of the native Portuguese inhabitants on the Island of Bombay and consisted of 10 companies [on 30 April 1800]. They were there learning to Exercise and received no pay'.

Portuguese tailors D40013-62Portuguese tailors in Bombay - from WD 315 no.62  Bombay Views and Costume (1810-1811) Images Online


This is not to say that no expenses were involved.  A force of just over 1,000 men could not possibly have been called into existence without funding – 1 Commandant, 3 Sub-Commandants, 10 Captains, 20 Lieutenants, 40 Serjeants, 40 Corporals, 20 Drummers and Fifers, no fewer than 960 Privates and 2 Puckallies (water carriers).  The training of the troops was overseen by fifteen professional soldiers drawn presumably from the ranks of the Company’s Bombay Army, assisted by two carpenters, two smiths, a ‘hammerman’, a bellows boy, a polisher and a shoemaker.  The pay of these staff, together with other incidentals such as ‘tobacco money’, meant that the Company had to stump up almost 1,100 rupees.

Portugal had gifted Bombay to the British Crown as part of the dowry of Queen Catherine of Braganza in 1661.  The Bombay Portuguese Militia was first raised in 1672 and existed until 1827.  There was a similar, presumably smaller, Portuguese militia at Tellicherry further down the coast in the Madras Presidency.  However the archives yield tantalisingly little additional information about the Bombay force and it is not mentioned in the Military Statements after 1811.  Sir Miguel was awarded an annuity of 7,000 rupees by the Company, and this continued to be paid to his family after his death in 1808.
 
Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Services Team Leader

Further reading:
Bombay Kalendar and Register, shelfmark OIR954.792
Bombay Military Statement for 1799/1800, shelfmark IOR/L/MIL/8/158
Annuity to Sir Miguel de Lima e Souza, shelfmarks IOR/F/4/289/6513 & IOR/F/4/415/10281
Surender Singh, Territorial army: history of India's part-time soldiers (2013), shelfmark YP.2013.a.6875

 

14 October 2019

400 Years of India and Britain: The Memoirs of Sir Thomas Roe

2019 marks 400 years since the return of Sir Thomas Roe, merchant diplomat with the East India Company and England’s first official ambassador to India. Roe arrived at the port of Surat in September 1615 with a letter from King James I to the then reigning Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, seeking a trade agreement. The ambassador would go on to spend four years of negotiations at the Mughal court, eventually returning to England in 1619 without the trade agreement he sought. Nonetheless, it would be a first formal introduction that would mark the beginning of a relationship spanning centuries, the significance of which cannot be overstated.

So important was the embassy that a mural depicting Roe’s audience with Emperor Jahangir is featured in St Stephen’s Hall at the Palace of Westminster. The political and economic fallout following the break with Catholic Rome would see Queen Elizabeth I seek trade with the Islamic empires of the early modern world, establishing the Levant Company to trade with the Ottoman Empire and the East India Company to trade with Mughal India.

One of the many joys of delving into the archives at the British Library is in being able to tangibly experience such crucial and influential moments in history. Throughout his travels, Ambassador Roe maintained a fascinating record of his exploits in his memoirs. A manuscript of his memoirs and letters is held at the British Library, Add MS 6115. Presented to the library in 1817 by Rev. J Coltman, the work is beautifully preserved along with Rev Coltman’s original letter.

Letter from Rev Coltman accompanying the manuscript

Back of Coltman's letter, showing the seal and postage stamps

Coltman's letter of deposit, Add MS 6115, ff 1-2

The neat writing of Roe’s engrossing hand shapes a tale of struggles and successes. The early entries focus on details of navigation during the lengthy and treacherous voyage to India.

Table of observations made during the voyage

Paragraph commenting on the table of observations

Table of observations, plus Roe's comments on the voyage. 

Upon arrival we see Roe’s struggles with port officials, who repeatedly attempt to search the English while Roe insists on diplomatic immunity. More interestingly, we find this entry:

Manuscript passage describing the refusal of food and drink during Ramadan fasting hours

Row relates his discussions with officials at Surat. Add MS 6115, f 23r

Here Roe relates his discussions with Surat officials who came to call on him a few days after his arrival. At one point Roe states, “I offered them drincke which they refused beeing Ramdam, but sayd after it was finished they would come daylie and sitt and eate with me”.

This reveals that Roe arrived during the Islamic month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from food and drink from sunrise until sunset. What is notable is that Roe does not elaborate further on the point. The implication appears to be that Ramadan is understood, both by Roe as well as his expected readers. English diplomatic and mercantile circles were then seemingly versed in the religious traditions of the nations they travelled to; at the very least they understood the Islamic traditions of Ramadan practiced by the Muslim Mughal empire. 

While Roe would not achieve what he set out to do in India, he nonetheless formally began an engagement that would go on to herald a lengthy, and indeed controversial, history. As we mark 400 years since the conclusion of his embassy, a look back at his experiences is timely and eye-opening. And what better place to start than his original memoirs at the British Library.

Lubaaba Al-Azami is a doctoral researcher at the University of Liverpool. Her AHRC funded research explores early modern English encounters with Mughal Indian imperial femininity. She tweets @Lubaabanama.

10 October 2019

Dr Johann Helfer and the curious case of an unexplained footnote

There is a reference to Dr Johann Wilhelm Helfer in C R Low's three-volume A History of the Indian Navy 1613-1863. The reference itself relates to Helfer's role as naturalist to Francis Rawdon Chesney's Euphrates Expedition in 1836; however it is a footnote next to his name which is most intriguing:

“Dr. Helfer, while on a scientific expedition for the Indian Government, was murdered at the Andaman Islands on the 31st January 1840, when his heroic wife shot the assassin dead with her pistol, an act worthy the niece of Field-Marshall Von Bulow.”

Page from C R Low, History of the Indian NavyC R Low, History of the Indian Navy, 1613-1863, Volume 2, p. 36, via the Qatar Digital Library

Being intrigued by the notion of his wife Pauline des Granges, later Countess von Nostitz, (who was apparently a niece of Field-Marshall Baron von Bülow) having avenged her husband’s death I decided to look in more detail at this story.

In 1878 The Countess published an account of her life and travels with her husband Dr. Helfer, which included a chapter on his death in the Andaman Islands in January 1840.

This account however revealed that not only had the Countess not shot and killed her husband’s assassin, she had not even accompanied him on his expedition, having chosen to remain at their estates in Mergui, Burma.

Pauline, Countess von NostitzCountess von Nostitz

Where this strange reference to such a tall tale came from is unfortunately a mystery.

Dr. Johann Wilhelm Helfer (1810-1840) was a naturalist employed by the East India Company who was also an avid collector of ornithological and botanical specimens which he donated to various institutions across the world.

The Helfers were avid travellers and were passing through Syria when they were asked to assist Colonel Chesney and accompany the Euphrates Expedition to Bussora. Helfer was subsequently appointed in 1837 as a Naturalist in Mergui and Tenasserim and was instructed to undertake surveys and reports on the natural resources there. His reports being approved of his employ was extended in March 1838, and by January 1840 he had written four lengthy reports on the resources he had discovered. Official letters following his death, describe his work as follows:

“These documents are equal in interest and value to the former reports of this intelligent and enterprising naturalist whose melancholy fate in prosecution of his researches we greatly lament.” [IOR/F/4/1852/78316]

Extract from Mathilde Pauline Nostitz's bookMathilde Pauline Nostitz, Travels of a Doctor and Madame Helfer in Syria, Mesopotamia, Burmah and other lands, (London: 1878)

According to Mrs Helfer, her husband’s expedition to the Andaman Islands had been to try and learn more of the resources and items for trade with some of the occupants of the smaller islands and it was in the pursuit of this that he was killed. Her account states that he had encountered a small number of locals and was keen to see their wares so had followed them across the beach towards the treeline where his party were ambushed. They fled back to their boat, attempting to dodge arrows laced with poison, but Dr. Helfer was struck in the back of the head whilst in the water and was reported to have sunk beneath the waves, with his colleagues and servants unable to recover his body. His was the only casualty. According to one obituary he was the first scientist to have reached these smaller parts of the Andaman Islands.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:

Travels of Doctor and Madame Helfer in Syria, Mesopotamia, Burmah and other lands, narrated by Pauline, Countess Nostitz (formerly Madame Helfer), and rendered into English by Mrs George Sturge, in two volumes. London (1878)

IOR/F/4/1735/70256 - Employment on a survey of the natural resources of Tenasserim, including his printed account of Amherst District

IOR/F/4/1608/64733 - Appointment as Naturalist at Tenasserim for 6 months, includes account of his journey from India -

IOR/F/4/1593/64583 - Appointed as Naturalist in Mergui, 1837.

IOR/F/4/1852/78316 - Letters regarding Dr Helfer’s 4th reports on resources of Tenasserim and his murder on 30 Jan 1840 

IOR/F/4/1896/80506 - Employment of Dr. Helfer, and news of his death

IOR/F/4/1926/86249 - Transmission of a Report by the late Dr. Helfer on the Islands of the Mergui Archipelago (includes diary kept Jan 1838-Jan 1839).