Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

05 July 2022

Ibrāhīm al-Najjār al-Dayrānī: Doctor of Lebanon

In late 1837, an eager fifteen-year-old named Ibrāhīm ibn Khalīl ibn Yūsuf al-Najjār al-Dayrānī travelled from his home in a mountainside town outside Beirut in order to study medicine in Cairo.Principal square in Grand Cairo  with Murad Bey's palace'Principal square in Grand Cairo, with Murad Bey's palace' by Luigi Mayer, from Thomas Milton, Views in Egypt, Palestine, and other parts of the Ottoman Empire (London,1840) British Library shelfmark 762.h.2.(1), Images OnlinePublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

His journey took place against the backdrop of rapid modernisation in the Middle East, with local rulers increasingly bringing in technical, military, administrative and scientific practices and expertise from Europe.  In medicine, Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769-1849), the Ottoman governor of Egypt, imported from 1825 European doctors, particularly French, to administer to the health of Muhammad Ali’s growing army, develop medical institutions along Western lines, and train locals in Western medicine.

Dr Antoine Bertélémy Clot (1793-1868) or ‘Clot Bey’, as he was nicknamed, accompanied Muhammad Ali’s occupation of Greater Syria (1832-40).  Clot Bey was instrumental in the selection of Ibrāhīm as one of the five first Lebanese students to embark on a Western medical education at the school in Cairo that he had founded in 1827.

Ibrāhīm was a product of European expansionism in the Middle East: his grandfather was reportedly a Corsican carpenter who had arrived in the Levant with Napoleon’s invading forces in 1799.  Unusually, we know about his personal experiences thanks to his memoir Miṣbāḥ al-Sārī wa-Nuzhat al-Qārīʾ (Lamp for the Traveller and Diversion for the Reader), which he self-published 20 years later.

Title page  Miṣbāḥ al-Sārī wa-Nuzhat al-Qārīʾ  printed Beirut  1272 hijrī (1855-56)Title page, Miṣbāḥ al-Sārī wa-Nuzhat al-Qārīʾ, printed Beirut, 1272 hijrī (1855-56) 

Without detailing his education, Ibrāhīm mentions his yearning for medical knowledge from a young age, which could not be satisfied locally.  Clearly, the extraordinary wealth of medical, pharmaceutical, and surgical learning previously compiled by Arabic-speaking physicians was not what he had in mind.

The memoir discusses Ibrāhīm’s arrival in Cairo, the medical school at Qasr al-ʿAynī, and the content of the four-year medical course.  Beginning with chemistry, general anatomy, and pharmacology, the 500 students – mostly from rural Egypt and destined for careers with the army – progressed to minor surgery, botany, pathology, pharmacology, major surgery and specialist anatomy.  Students accompanied their teachers on hospital ward rounds and observed autopsies, which Ibrāhīm confesses that he loathed.  This emphasis on human dissection was one major difference between a traditional Arabic medical training and the education Ibrahim was receiving; to alleviate Muslim concerns, the school claimed that the cadavers used were those of Jews and Christians.

A view of Constantinople'Panorama of Constantinople' from A Series of Eight Views, forming a Panorama of the City of Constantinople and its Environs, taken from the Town of Galata (1813) British Library shelfmark Maps K.Top.113.75.f  Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

After graduating in 1842, Ibrāhīm travelled to Constantinople (Istanbul).  Having cured – he claims – a patient whom his host’s personal physician could not, he was introduced to the chief doctor of Istanbul and enrolled at the Royal Medical School.  For four years, he attended lectures, saw patients, and learnt Turkish and French in order to access modern textbooks.  This culminated in a gruelling public examination presided over by the young Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecit I (r. 1839-61).

Portrait of Sultan Abdülmecit I by David WilkiePortrait of Sultan Abdülmecit I by David Wilkie (1785-1841), 1840. Image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust

After qualifying fully aged 22, Ibrāhīm spent three years travelling in Europe, before returning to Lebanon as chief medical officer at the Ottoman army barracks in Beirut.  Straddling the manuscript and print eras in the Levant, Ibrāhīm authored books, including one manuscript recently made available on the Qatar Digital Library (British Library Or. 12152).  This pharmaceutical inventory, apparently in his hand, expresses an intellectual position encompassing both traditional Arabic pharmacological and botanical knowledge, and use of Latin- and Greek-derived terminology and chemical compounds discovered by Western physicians.

Page from Kitāb anīs al-jalīs fī kull ḥadīth nafīs  by  Ibrāhīm ibn Khalīl al-Najjār  ca 1845-64Page from Kitāb anīs al-jalīs fī kull ḥadīth nafīs, by Ibrāhīm ibn Khalīl al-Najjār, ca 1845-64 (f. 8v)

Title page from Kitāb anīs al-jalīs fī kull ḥadīth nafīs  by Ibrāhīm ibn Khalīl al-Najjār  ca 1845-64Title page from Kitāb anīs al-jalīs fī kull ḥadīth nafīs, by Ibrāhīm ibn Khalīl al-Najjār, ca 1845-64 (f. 1r). The author is described as ‘One of the doctors of the Royal [Medical] School in Asitane [Istanbul], and the foremost doctor to the Sultanic [Ottoman] armies in Beirut’.

Embodying the modernising efforts of 19th-century Ottoman rule, Ibrāhīm al-Dayrani was one of the first doctors to be trained in the Western medical methods and concepts that have become universal.  He died in 1864, aged just 42.

Jenny Norton-Wright
Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership

 

29 June 2022

The new India Office

In the autumn of 1860 the staff of the India Office moved from East India House in Leadenhall Street in the City of London to temporary accommodation in Victoria Street whilst new premises in Whitehall were being purpose-built.  The India Office was the department of state which had taken over from the East India Company in 1858.  East India House was sold in June 1861 and demolished soon afterwards.

The new Foreign and India Offices – the St James’s Park front 1866The new Foreign and India Offices – the St James’s Park front – Illustrated London News 6 October 1866 Image © Illustrated London News Group via British Newspaper Archive

In the second half of 1867, the move from Victoria Street to Whitehall gradually took place.  Decisions were made about the arrangements for maintaining and staffing the new India Office building, which was described by the Homeward Mail as ‘a grand new palace of administration’.

The contract for cleaning the windows, skylights and bookcases was awarded in February 1868 to Alfred Henry of Vauxhall Bridge Road who submitted a tender for £250 per annum.  This was considered a very low rate given the vast quantity of glass to be cleaned.  Henry had previously been employed for plumber’s work at Victoria Street and he had given satisfaction.

Architect and surveyor Matthew Digby Wyatt, wrote a memorandum stating that the numbers sanctioned in 1861 for male indoor and outdoor messengers, and for female servants were not sufficient in Whitehall.  Nineteen additional men were needed to service the messengers’ boxes situated at fixed points throughout the building, using bells and speaking tubes to communicate.  The ‘great extent’ of the new premises meant that nine extra housemaids would be required to keep clean the rooms, passages, staircases, and furniture.  Wyatt also recommended the appointment of an assistant to the housekeeper.  Eight women and the housekeeper should live in the India Office.

The duties of the female servants were:
• Cleaning and dusting thoroughly each room every day.
• Keeping all the linen in order.
• Scrubbing every set of stairs once a week.
• Lighting all fires.
• Keeping the stoves, fenders, coal scuttles and fire irons clean.
• Scrubbing all the uncarpeted wood flooring once a week, and wiping over the Kamptulicon floor covering with a wet cloth and drying it immediately.
This list was expected to occupy the women fully, but Wyatt said that there was plenty of ‘easy’ dusting and cleaning if they had spare time.

Plan of first floor of India Office showing the position of rooms and the messenger stations with which they communicatedPlan of first floor of India Office showing the position of rooms and the messenger stations with which they communicated IOR/L/AG/9/8/3 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A list of all the rooms in the new India Office was drawn up in December 1867 with accompanying plans – offices, book rooms, strong rooms, kitchens, luncheon room, refreshment room, stores, closets, washing closets, bedrooms, lumber rooms, coal cellars.   These showed who occupied each room and the messenger post with which the room communicated.  Staff spoke through metal speaking tubes fitted with bone whistles and mouthpieces.

Plan of third floor of India Office showing the position of rooms and the messenger stations with which they communicatedPlan of third floor of India Office showing the position of rooms and the messenger stations with which they communicated IOR/L/AG/9/8/3 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The female servants’ bedrooms were on the third floor.  Mrs Sally Moore, the housekeeper who supervised them, had rooms in the basement near the women’s kitchen and workroom.

At the time of the 1871 census, Sally Moore and eighteen others were living at the India Office.  As well as female domestic servants, there were four resident male employees with their wives and families: Head Office Keeper William Badrick, Office Keeper Joseph John Hope, Office Porter Henry Vincent, and Private Secretary Horace George Walpole.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/AG/9/8/3 Papers on the administration of the India Office.
IOR/L/L/2/1461-1463 Papers for the India Office temporary accommodation in Victoria Street 1860-1866 – the premises became the Westminster Palace Hotel.
IOR/L/SUR Surveyor’s Department papers
Victorian office moves
British Newspaper Archive e.g. Homeward Mail from India, China, and the East 5 September 1867.

 

27 June 2022

Dining with style: the East India Company’s communal table at Mocha

In August 1720, the East India Company’s Council in Bombay received a letter from their factors and merchants based in the city of Mocha.  They had expected this letter for some time.  It was the practice for the factory’s staff to report on their activities regularly as Mocha was the entrepôt for the coffee markets of Yemen, in which the Company had invested heavily.  The letter contained the expected business news of the factory and the shifting political situation in Yemen, which had been growing more and more fraught in the preceding few years.  Despite all this, the Company’s investment in coffee was yielding good results and the Council could feel comfortable in the knowledge that their men in Mocha were managing their affairs well. 

View from the factory at MochaView from the factory at Mocha by Henry Salt from Voyages and Travels to India, Ceylon, the Red Sea, Abyssinia, and Egypt (London, 1809) British Library Digital Store 10058.l.13 BL flickr Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

With this letter came a list of the factory’s expenses, the salaries of guards and domestic servants, the pay given to the Company’s four merchants, and the costs of running the factory itself.  One of the largest of these was the expenses incurred in maintaining the factory’s ‘Table’ which amounted per month to nearly 300 Spanish dollars (the famous piece of eight).  This was a considerable sum to feed the factory’s 22 residents, including the Eurasian ‘topas’ and ‘peon’ guards.  Access to the table was also open to visiting English merchants and ships’ officers when they were present in the port, making it a space for social interactions in addition to eating and drinking.

The records kept by the Mocha factors tell us a great deal about what the table would have been laden with.  For the most part it seems like fairly standard fare for an early modern English kitchen: greens, salt, beef, onions, limes, beef, mutton and fresh fish appear regularly, as do fowls, chickens, pigeons and eggs.  To this menu was added some local flavours, with limes, ‘spice’ and ‘temper’.  This latter is particularly interesting, as a temper, Tadka or Tarka, is a distinctive feature of South Asian cuisine, where spices are mixed with oil or ghee then strained, leaving a flavoured medium.  So, while some of the factory’s inhabitants may have been happy to stick to familiar flavours, others were regularly sampling local ones.  Additionally, the factory regularly received shipments of Persian wine, along with beer produced on the Cape.  Wine was so important to the factory that the letter received from Mocha protests that it had been two years since they had received any from the Company.  Instead, they had been forced to buy their own, rather than face doing without it.

The contents and habits around the Company’s table can tell historians a lot about the merchants’ attitudes to sociability.  The table was a forum for maintaining relationships with the factory’s staff, while also inviting travellers and visitors to make new connections.  Company pay may have been poor, but service in Mocha, as in other factories, came with significant benefits.  Studying the details of conditions in the factories beyond India can provide a great deal of texture and depth to our understanding of the lived experience of Company service, while giving an impression of the daily routines of the merchants themselves.  The factory was a place of commerce, but also a domestic space.

Peter Good
Lecturer in Early Modern Europe and the Islamic World, University of Kent

Further reading:
British Library IOR/G/17/1-2 Egypt and Red Sea Factory Records

This blog post is  part of a collaborative series with Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs).  On the last Monday of every month, both Untold Lives and MEMOs' own blog will feature a post written by a member of the MEMOs team, showcasing their research in the British Library collections.  Follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #BLMEMOS.

 

23 June 2022

Dr Sarah Hosmon and the Missionary Hospital in Sharjah

Kentucky born Sarah Hosmon devoted nearly her entire adult life to missionary and medical work in Arabia.  In 1909 Dr Hosmon arrived in Bahrain, and in 1913, under the auspices of the Dutch Reformed Church of America’s Arabian Mission, she opened a clinic for women and children in Muscat.  For the next 28 years she treated, medicated and evangelized under often arduous conditions, unperturbed by having a wooden leg as the result of a childhood accident.

Photograph of Dr Sarah HosmonSarah Longworth Hosmon (1883-1964) who graduated from the University of Illinois College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1909. Source of image: How superpower rivalry and fears of a pandemic brought the first doctor to the UAE in 1939 | The National (thenationalnews.com)

Dr Hosmon was accepted by the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions in 1939, and by 1941 she had set up a clinic at the Omani seaport of Saham. The clinic was extremely isolated, with medical supplies often having to be dropped by air plane.

In January 1944 Hosmon approached the British authorities , who virtually controlled the region, for permission to set up a medical practice in Kalba, then an independent emirate on the Gulf of Oman coast.

Extract from letter of Sarah Hosmon writing on 7 January 1944  to Captain Patrick  Tandy stating that she intended to accept the offer to set up a medical practice in KalbaSarah Hosmon writing on 7 January 1944 from Kalba to Captain Patrick Tandy, Political Officer for the Trucial Coast, stating that she intended to accept the offer to set up a medical practice in Kalba and to move there after April, subject to Tandy’s permission: IOR/R/15/2/853, f 88r.  'File 36/1 (1 A/7) American Mission in Bahrain' [‎88r] (175/262) | Qatar Digital Library (qdl.qa)


The British inquired into Hosman’s credentials and received a glowing testimonial from Dr Paul Harrison of the American Mission Hospital, Bahrain.

Testimonial for Sarah Hosmon from Dr Paul Harrison of the American Mission Hospital  Bahrain.Letter from Dr Paul W. Harrison (1883-1962) to Major Tom Hickenbotham, Political Agent in Bahrain, January 1944, describing Hosmon’s medical abilities, character, religious opinions and relationship with Arab rulers she had worked under.  'File 36/1 (1 A/7) American Mission in Bahrain' [‎90r] (179/262) | Qatar Digital Library (qdl.qa)

Following confirmation that the Regent of Kalba [Shaikh Khālid Bin Aḥmad al-Qāsimi] was happy for Hosmon to move her practice there, the British authorities decided they had no objection once the War had ended and if Hosmon guaranteed that her co-workers would ‘not become destitute and a charge upon the Government of India’s revenues’.

Letter from Major Tom Hickenbotham to Major Patrick Tandy 26 March 1944Letter from Major Tom Hickenbotham, Political Agent Bahrain, to Major Patrick Tandy, Political Officer, Trucial Coast, 26 March 1944.  'File 36/1 (1 A/7) American Mission in Bahrain' [‎96r] (191/262) | Qatar Digital Library (qdl.qa)

In fact Hosmon remained in Saham for another six years.  The British authorities did not like the ‘nebulous’ nature of the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions and were reluctant to have too many American missionaries in the Gulf, whose backgrounds they could not check and whose movements they could not control.  Privately, they disliked Hosmon’s strong-headedness and considered she had used ‘underhand’ methods to obtain travel permits for herself and an American nurse.

Memorandum  dated 16 December 1945  by Geoffrey Prior  Political Resident in the Persian Gulf  setting forth British hostility towards HosmonMemorandum, dated 16 December 1945, by Geoffrey Prior, Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, setting forth British hostility towards Hosmon - 'File 6/1 Foreign Interests: American Mission at Muscat' [‎5r] (9/52) | Qatar Digital Library (qdl.qa)

British obstructionism was not the sole cause of delay.  The terms offered by the ruling authorities in Kalba appear to have been unacceptable to Hosmon, and she wanted to be able to share freely the Gospel with her patients.

Intelligence Summary of the Political Agency in Bahrain  February 1945  indicating that the terms offered by the ruling authorities in Kalba may not have been acceptable to HosmonIntelligence Summary of the Political Agency in Bahrain, February 1945, indicating that the terms offered by the ruling authorities in Kalba may not have been acceptable to Hosmon - Ext 1488/44 'Dr Hosmon: American Medical Missionary' [‎5r] (9/28) | Qatar Digital Library (qdl.qa)

Hosmon finally made the move in 1951, by which time Kalba had been reincorporated as an enclave of the Sheikhdom of Sharjah.  The clinic opened in 1952 and became known as the Dr Sarah Hosmon Hospital (closing in 1994).  The hospital was the only one in Sharjah, primarily for women and children but later also expanded to men, and its services were in heavy demand and frequently over-stretched.  Evangelism was an integral feature of treatment, with Bible readings for patients.

Map indicating the position of Kalba on the so-called Trucial Coast  1935.Map indicating the position of Kalba on the so-called Trucial Coast, 1935

Journalist John Sack described an encounter with Hosmon in the late 1950s, perhaps revealing the physical toll her work had taken: ‘I was met by Dr Sarah L Hosmon, the director, a slight woman of seventy or eighty whose face is taut, severe, and American Gothic, and who, after inviting me in for tea in her living room, said that she’s been on the Arabian peninsula since 1911, in Sharja since 1952….’.

Hosmon worked tirelessly in Sharjah until a few years before her death in 1964, bringing medical relief, saving lives, and contributing to the introduction of new medicines and empirical techniques to Arabia.  Towards the end, her time was spent advising nursing staff and midwives and preaching the Word of God to patients.

Amanda Engineer
Content Specialist, Archivist
British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further Reading:
Saving Sinners, even Moslems: the Arabian mission 1889-1973 and its intellectual roots by Jerzy Zdanowski (2018)
Global View of Christian Missions from Pentecost to the present by J Herbert Kane (1971)
The Sultanate of Oman: A Twentieth Century History by Miriam Joyce (1995)
The Arabian Peninsula by Richard H Sanger (1954)
One Way The Only Way, A Christian Library website, blogpost on Sarah Longworth Hosmon by Tyson Paul
‘Missionary-Statesmen of the Bible Presbyterian Church’ by Keith Coleman, Western Reformed Seminary Journal 11/1 (Feb 2004) 15-19
Report from PRACTICALLY NOWHERE by John Sack (1959)

21 June 2022

The Cost of Living Crisis, Part 3: The Price of Whale Oil

For hundreds of years the British hunted whales for their oil, blubber and bone.  Whales provided lubricant for machinery during the industrial revolution, fuel for lamps, and their baleen could be used as parts for everyday items such as corsets and umbrellas.  Traditionally the British whaling grounds lay to the north where Northern Right whales and Bowhead whale were hunted, but the prized sperm whale oil called ‘spermaceti’ would see the expansion of the trade into the southern seas.

Ink drawing of a sperm whaleInk drawing of a sperm whale from ‘A Voyage for Whaling and Discovery’ by James Colnett, f.141, Add MS 30369

The expansion of British whaling grounds is intimately tied up with the history of Empire and oil prices were often impacted by the gains and losses of colonies.  The eruption of the American Revolutionary War had a massive effect on the British whale oil trade, depleting output and raising prices.  Much of the whale oil trade had come out of the British colonies in North America, but with the advent of the war this was almost completely shut down.  At the end of the war the British wanted to create more self-sufficiency in terms of oil supply.  The American trade bounced back and the British wanted to compete in a buoyant market, so Britain imposed import duties on US oil and created the Southern Fisheries trade, focusing British whaling on the mid and south Atlantic, the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Accounts of Imports and Exports of Whale Oil showing a heavy trade deficit at the beginning of the Southern Fisheries TradeAccounts of Imports and Exports of Whale Oil showing a heavy trade deficit at the beginning of the Southern Fisheries Trade, Add MS 38352, f.123.

Notes on Acts of Parliament passed to encourage the expansion of whaling in the South SeasNotes on Acts of Parliament passed to encourage the expansion of whaling in the South Seas, 1791. Add MS 38350, f.262.

British Guiana, Madras, South Africa and Australia in the early 1800s further contributed to the whale oil trade.  They introduced landing points for ships working along the tropical latitudes pursuing the more lucrative sperm whale with its more valuable oil.  British whaling became a global enterprise and those staffing whaling ships were multinational and multi-ethnic.  Crews encompassed employed and indentured sailors, as well as enslaved and free African men.  Given the arduousness of the work, employers could not afford to refuse whalers whatever their background, therefore whaling ships were a popular destination from those escaping or freed from slavery during the 18th century.

However the War of 1812 interrupted the trade and temporarily sent the price of whale oil upwards again.  It was not until the end of the war that whaling returned without obstacles.  Production sky-rocketed to the point of over-supply, causing a glut and a fall in its value in the late 1830s.  The home-grown British whaling trade started to decline as more and more colonial oil was bought in from Australia and the government decided against further propping up the London-based trade.

Newpaper clipping describing the sale of whale oil at its highest price ever  4 September 1813Newspaper clipping describing the sale of whale oil at its highest price ever, 4 September 1813, Leeds Mercury, British Newspaper Archive, Image © The British Library Board.

A combination of free-trade policy with the Americans and the colonies decreased investors' interest in British-based whaling, and, as well as this, whale stocks were failing after hundreds of years of hunting.  The British began to import the majority of oil and so were liable to market shocks in America, such as that caused by the American Civil War.

Extract from letter from Charles Enderby to Robert Peel lamenting the decline of the Southern Whale Fisheries and the dominance of the American industry  1846Extract from letter from Charles Enderby to Robert Peel lamenting the decline of the Southern Whale Fisheries and the dominance of the American industry, 1846, Add MS 40458, f.307.

British whaling would return in the 20th century and a global, mass-commercialised whaling would cause far more devastation to whale stocks than the London and Nantucket-based industries of previous centuries.

A second ink drawing of a sperm whale Ink Drawing of a Sperm Whale from ‘A Voyage for Whaling and Discovery’ by James Colnett, f.142, Add MS 30369

Jessica Gregory
Project Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

This blog post follows on from -
The cost of living crisis - part 1: Bread in 1795
The Cost of Living Crisis, Part 2: Inflation in 1800

Further Reading:
‘An Overview of the British Southern Whale Fishery’, Bruce Chatwin, 2016, British Southern Whale Fishery
IOR/G/32/163 East India Company papers on the Southern Whale Fishery
IOR/F/4/1373/54697 Establishment of a whale fishery by the inhabitants of St Helena, 1833

 

16 June 2022

Birds, Landscapes, and Letters: Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds in Madras

In 1802, Mary Symonds wrote to her sister Hester James from Madras (now Chennai), 'I hope now we are settled that I shall be able to send something for the curious by every opportunity'.

Painting of the coast near Madras showing the beach with small wooden boatsMary Symonds, Coast Near Madras, The South Asia Collection, Norwich, Madras and Environs Album PIC106.78

Mary had accompanied her sister, the talented ornithologist and painter Elizabeth Gwillim, and Elizabeth's husband Henry Gwillim, a judge in the new Supreme Court of Madras.   The materials the sisters sent home provide a uniquely detailed picture of their work and lives between 1801 and 1808.  In the British Library, four thick volumes contain the sisters' 77 long letters; at McGill University, 164 zoological and botanical paintings represent their scientific work; at the South Asia Collection in Norwich, 78 landscapes and portraits depict their surroundings.

Ink sketch of Elizabeth Gwillim at her writing deskElizabeth Gwillim at her writing desk, sketch in a letter to Hester James, 7 February 1802 Mss.Eur.C.240/1, ff. 33r-38v, f. 36v.

Elizabeth Gwillim was the first to record the avian life of Madras in detail.  Decades before John James Audubon, she painted birds from life and to scale, even the large birds of prey and waterbirds which dominate her collection.  Mary's descriptions and paintings document Elizabeth's artistic process and reveal the crucial role of the Indian bird-catchers who secured the living birds.  Elizabeth's paintings pay unusual attention to the placement of the bird's features and reveal a taxonomical rather than purely artistic interest.  A similar attention to detail is evident in the watercolours of fish, most by Mary Symonds.  The fish paintings reveal a collaborative process of information gathering and several are inscribed with the fishes’ local names.

Two Indian birdcatchersMary Symonds, Birdcatchers, The South Asia Collection, Norwich, Madras and Environs Album, PIC 106.66

Black StorkElizabeth Gwillim, Black Stork Ciconia nigra (Linnaeus 1758) McGill University Library, CA RBD Gwillim-1-010

Painting of Moon wrasse fishMary Symonds, Thalassoma lunare (Moon wrasse, labelled Julis lunaris), McGill University Library, CA RBD Gwillim-2-5

In 1805, Elizabeth wrote 'without some little knowledge of Botany it is impossible to read the Hindoo languages'.  Like her contemporary, William Jones, Elizabeth regarded linguistic and botanical studies as intertwined.  Elizabeth studied Telugu, translating a local temple legend.  She was part of the circle of missionary and medical botanists who linked Madras and the Danish settlement of Tranquebar and she sent plants and seeds back to a nursery garden in Brompton where several grew and were depicted in Curtis' Botanical Magazine.  One of her most detailed botanical images, of the Magnolia coco, remains in the Linnean Society herbarium. 

Magnolia coco'Gwillimia Indica' (Magnolia coco) by Elizabeth Gwillim, Linnean Society Herbarium (LINN-HS 981.10. Magnolia indet. (Herb Smith)), by permission of the Linnean Society of London

Apart from their scientific pursuits, the sisters' letters and paintings provide a wealth of details about food, clothing, and the lives of Madras' inhabitants, from Governor Edward Clive to Elizabeth's maidservant, whose biography she relates in detail.

A Lady’s Maid - an Indian woman dressed in white carrying a basketMary Symonds, A Lady’s Maid, A Pariah Woman, The South Asia Collection, Norwich, Madras and Environs Album, PIC106.75


The early 19th century was a turning point in the East India Company's regime in India.  The Company was completing its conquest of Mysore, the Carnatic, and the Thanjavur Maratha kingdom.  However, the tenuous nature of British rule was dramatically highlighted by the uprising at Vellore in July 1807, in which Indian soldiers killed their British commanders and took over the fort, raising the flag of Mysore before the uprising was brutally repressed.  Elizabeth and Mary collected first-hand accounts of the event, for which they blamed Company policy.  By the time of Elizabeth's death in 1807, the Gwillim household had been drawn into conflict with the Company regime in Madras, which Henry Gwillim denounced as 'despotic'.  This prompted Henry's recall to Britain, where he and Mary made new lives.  The story of their time in Madras has remained largely untold until now.

Anna Winterbottom
McGill University

To learn more:

• See the exhibition 'A Different Idea of India: Two Sisters Painting Southern India, 1801-1808', opening on 15 June at the South Asia Collection.  
• Visit the Gwillim Project website for transcriptions, case studies, webinars, and more.
• Read the original letters in the British Library manuscript India Office Private Papers Mss Eur C240/1-4.
• Read more about Elizabeth's botanical work on Kew's blog.
• Look out for the forthcoming book, Anna Winterbottom, Victoria Dickenson, Ben Cartwright, and Lauren Williams eds., Women, Environment and Networks of Empire: Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds in Madras (McGill Queen's University Press, 2023).

 

14 June 2022

Mary Day: Pardoning of a Poisoner

In April 1777 Mary Day was indicted, arraigned and convicted of petty treason and murder at Madras.  She was found guilty of administering a poisoned drink to her husband Thomas Day, a sergeant with the East India Company, who had subsequently become ill and died.  Two accomplices - John Pybus, a cooper in the Company’s employ and Sheik Mucktoom - were also found guilty of murder as they were said to have both procured the poison or caused it to be procured.  This was a capital crime, and all three were sentenced to death by hanging.  For Mary Day, worse could have befallen her – the sentence on the statute book for a woman convicted of killing her husband was to be burned at the stake.

Government House Madras 1795Government House, Fort St George, Madras by Thomas Daniell, 1795 (shelfmark P944) - Plate nine from the second set of Thomas and William Daniell's Oriental Scenery.

However, records show that the Justices weren’t convinced of the trio’s guilt.  The execution was postponed while the Madras Government wrote to the Directors of the East India Company giving the facts in the case, in the hope that they would petition the King for a pardon.  The copy of the petition to His Majesty is full of the details.  It wasn’t clear that Thomas Day had actually been poisoned at all.  The surgeon who attended him during his illness stated that Day's symptoms could have been caused by ‘acrid bile’.  He also tasted a white powder which had been given to the deceased but could not be certain that it was ‘mineral poison'.  The main evidence against Mary Day was apparently her own confession, obtained 'under an implied promise that if she confessed she should be most favourably dealt with'.  Sheik Mucktoom (sometimes given as Muktoon) was convicted after having allegedly confessed to an unnamed person that he had procured the poison - a confession which he vehemently denied in Court.  There was even less evidence again John Pybus: it was said that there was 'no legal Evidence given upon the said Tryal to charge him'.

Extract from the minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors, 16 September 1778 approving the draft of a petition to the King about the three found guilty of murder.Extract from the minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors, 16 September 1778 IOR/B/94 p.227 

The wheels of justice certainly moved slowly for the convicted.  A letter was not sent to the Directors until 5 February 1778, the delay no doubt influenced by the various political and administrative machinations in Madras in 1776-77, which included the Governor Lord Pigot being deposed and his successor and colleagues accused of murder.  The letter urged haste, as 'the unhappy Convicts… have already been several Months lingering in Confinement'.  It took six months for the letter to arrive in London; it was finally received on 6 August 1778.   The East India Company Court of Directors approved a draft of a petition on 16 September 1778, which was sent to the King on 23 September 1778.  Finally, a free pardon was approved at the Court of St James’s on 24 October 1778.  Almost two years after being found guilty by a jury in Madras, the pardon was finally dispatched from London on 18 February 1779.  It can only be assumed that during that time Mary Day, John Pybus and Sheik Mucktoom remained in prison.

And there the story ends. I have not yet been able to trace any further reference to the three convicted ‘poisoners’ in the records.  Perhaps evidence will emerge that proves that they were freed and went on to live long and happy lives.  If anyone knows more, we would love you to get in touch.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further reading
IOR/E/4/308, f.7: Letters Received from Madras. 7 December 1777-21 January 1780: Letter to Court of Directors, 5 February 1778, requesting pardon.
IOR/B/94, p.227: Court Minutes. 8 April 1778-14 April 1779: Minutes of 16 September 1778. 'The Draught of a Petition to his Majesty for the Pardon of Mary Day, John Pybus and Shief Mucktoom who were capitally convicted at Fort St George in April 1777 was read and approved'.
IOR/H/141, ff.407-409: East Indies Series 49 (Home papers): Copy of the Company’s petition to the King, 23 September 1778.
India Office Private Papers Mack Gen 67/13, pp.267-268: Book of Abstract Letters from England No. 2 Public Department: 'The King’s free pardon to Mary Day, widow of Sergeant Thomas Day, John Pybus and Sheikh Muktoon, a native of India, from the sentence of death passed on them for poisoning Thomas Day'. Court of St James’s, 24 October 1778.
IOR/E/4/868, p.348: Despatches to Madras (Original Drafts). 1778-1779: Letter from Court of Directors to Madras dated 18 February 1779, answering letter of 5 February 1778 above and enclosing pardon.

09 June 2022

Five Indian indentured labourers picked up at sea

In 1830, a new system for providing workers for British and French colonies was introduced following the abolition of slavery in Britain.  Known as the indentured labour system, workers could be recruited for a specified time, during which the employer was obliged to provide wages, medical facilities and other amenities.  The system provided an opportunity for large numbers of Indians to work and send wages back home to their families.  However it was criticised for being too similar to slavery, with little scope for protecting those who signed up from abuses.

Statement by the Indian workers Statement by the Indian workers IOR/L/PJ/2/151 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The vulnerable situation in which Indian workers could find themselves was demonstrated by the case of five indentured workers from India who were picked up at sea on 30 March 1878 by the schooner G W Pousland about 80 miles west of Martinique.  The master of the ship took the men to George Stevens, British Consul at the Danish West Indies colony of Saint Thomas.  The five men were named Sahib Boo (27 years), Rupen (20 years), Samhiin (22 years), Narainne (23 years) and Monishanee (26 years), all originally from Madras.  They stated that they were under a five year contract to work on the estate of Monsieur Du Nay of Le Diamant in Martinique.  They had served seven years there, but having been badly treated and detained beyond the period of their contract, they took a boat and left.  After three days at sea their food and water had run short, it had been on the sixth day that they had been rescued.

Consul Steven's letter to the Foreign Office  3 April 1878 Consul Steven's letter to the Foreign Office 3 April 1878 IOR/L/PJ/2/151 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Consul Stevens asked Captain Boxer of the British corvette HMS Tourmaline, which happened to be at St Thomas, to return them for further investigation to Martinique, which he would pass on his way to Barbados.  The men expressed their 'great unwillingness' to return to Martinique, and after consulting with the French authorities it became clear that although no official claim would be made for the men, if they were landed in Martinique they would be liable for the theft of the canoe and for violation of contract.  In summarising these events, an India Office official noted that the treatment of the men by their employer 'whether shown in the withholding of return passage, as has been alleged, and as has been so often a grievance in the French colonies, - or whether of any other kind, - must have been very bad to induce them to trust their lives in a canoe in the open sea, where they might not have been picked up'.

India Office Minute Paper May 1878  India Office Minute Paper May 1878 IOR/L/PJ/3/1055 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Captain Boxer decided not to land the men at Martinique but to take them on to Barbados where further advice could be sought.   Denied permission by the Governor in Chief of the Windward Islands to land the men at Barbados, he carried on to the Island of Antigua, where the Colonial Government gave permission for the men to be landed and new employment found for them.  It was arranged for them to be offered a new contract for three years by Mr G W Bennett, a landed proprietor of the island.  Under the contract they were to be paid one shilling per day, with a house and a plot of land to be allowed each man.  The five men agreed to this, and Captain Boxer reported on 25 April 1878 that they had been landed on Antigua and placed in charge of Mr Bennett.

Captain Boxer's letter 25 April 1878Captain Boxer's letter 25 April 1878 IOR/L/PJ/2/151 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Five indentured Indian labourers picked up at sea, 1878, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/2/151, File 19/110.

Draft Despatch to India, Public No.66, 27 June 1878, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/3/1055, pages 218-231.

Ship’s log for H.M.S. Tourmaline, The National Archives, reference: ADM 53/1130.

Indians Overseas: A guide to source materials in the India Office Records for the study of Indian emigration 1830-1950.

‘Becoming Coolies’, Re-thinking the Origins of the Indian Ocean Labour Diaspora, 1772-1920

The National Archives guide to Indian Indentured Labourers.