Untold lives blog

22 posts categorized "Slavery"

19 February 2013

Convicts and ploughs

Invited in 1835 to review the state of agriculture in South India, the Scottish botanist Robert Wight was not short of ideas for its improvement. One proposal, outlined in a letter to the Government of Madras, was to employ convicts as agricultural labourers. Both convict and State, Wight suggested, would benefit: the convict by acquiring a useful skill, the state from the likely increase in crop production. But the right tools for the job were essential. Recollecting the successful introduction of the wheel-barrow and the long hoe, Wight recommended ‘the most perfect implement of the plough kind that has hitherto been produced’. This was Wilkie’s plough, manufactured by the Wilkie family at Uddingston in Lanarkshire, and the winner in ploughing contests across lowland Scotland. This sketch shows the plough’s innovatory tilt: the blade cut the furrow at an angle, which allowed the wheel to roll through the furrow more steadily. 

AM Plough sketch close-up


Wight also sought to help skilled convicts. He recommended that prisoners keep up their trades and be given the latest equipment: hammers for blacksmiths, fly-shuttles for weavers. Such tools, he insisted, would ultimately produce ‘better men, and better Artists’. The Government of Madras was less convinced, but agreed to deploy a small number of prisoners to work on government farms.

Wight never forgot the value of proper implements. In later years, when setting up experimental cotton farms at Coimbatore, Madras, he rewarded Ram Sing, who had procured some Bourbon cotton seeds for him, with a complete set of ‘Ploughs, Harrows, Hoes, Yokes and Gear’ (IOR/F/4/1964/86089 folio 37r).

The file about convicts can be read at IOR/F/4/1815/74864.

Logo 507kb 787x393px 1st POSTThese files have been digitised as part of the “Botany in British India” project. A complete list of digitised material is available.


Antonia Moon

Lead Curator, Post-1858 India Office Records   Cc-by

Further reading
H. J. Noltie, The Life and Work of Robert Wight (Edinburgh, 2007)

12 October 2012

Black labourers in London

To celebrate Black History Month and the anniversary of Untold Lives, we return to two black East India Company London warehouse labourers who appeared in our very first story.

James Inglis is described in the Company records as a ‘Negro’.  He had worked as a servant for a ‘Mr D. Inglis’ before joining the cloth warehouse in April 1820 at the age of 33.  He was nominated for the job by director William Taylor Money. Money’s sister Martha was married to David Deas Inglis, so he seems a likely candidate for James’s previous employer.  David Deas Inglis was born in Charleston Carolina in 1777 and served the East India Company in Bombay. The Inglis family plantations in Charleston may explain how James came to be his servant.

In 1820 James was living at 3 Rose and Crown Court, Moorfields.  He served as a private soldier in the Royal East India Volunteers, a corps first formed in 1796 to protect East India House and the Company warehouses ‘against hazard from insurrections and tumults’ and to assist the City government in times of disorder.  James was discharged from the Volunteers in February 1828 but the reason is not given.  He then seems to disappear from the surviving Company records. 

REIV 006407 for blog
WD 2425 Consecration of the Colours of the Third Regiment of Royal East India Volunteers at Lord's Cricket Ground, London, 29 June 1799 © The British Library Board Images Online

Richard Lane, ‘a man of Colour’, entered the Company’s Bengal Warehouse in New Street in March 1820 aged 32. He had been a servant to Mr Wood before being nominated for a labourer post by director Robert Campbell.  His home address in 1820 was 101 Houndsditch. Richard also served in the Royal East India Volunteers, but for only a short period from August 1820 until February 1821 when he was discharged, again for unknown reasons.  We next hear of him in the 1830s when the warehouse labourers were being made redundant after the government forced the Company to wind up its commercial operations.  In March 1837 Richard submitted a petition to be allowed to retire and go to his native country of America where he wished to remain with his relations.  This was approved and he was allowed to commute his pension of £19 10s per annum to a one-off lump sum payment of £184.

I am keen to know more about these two men. Can any readers shed any further light on the lives of James Inglis and Richard Lane?

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:

IOR/L/AG/30/5 Admission register for East India Company warehouse labourers – data available on the India Office Family History Search

IOR/L/MIL/5/485 Register of soldiers in the Royal East India Volunteers

09 July 2012

Rescue of an Indian boy from slavery in Muscat

The Collections of the Board of Control, the body which oversaw the activities of the East India Company 1784-1858, contain many cases relating to slavery. One such tragic case is that of an Indian boy by the name of Hussain Bushkh bin Cutura Coombhar. In early 1842 it came to the attention of the Native Agent at Muscat that an Indian male had at some point in the past been brought to Muscat by an Indian named Meer Ameer Ally and sold to one Suliman Kinar. The Agent was able to secure the boy’s release and despatch him by boat to Bombay with a request that the authorities take charge of him.

 Muscat D40013-51 for blog

BL: WD 315 no.51 © The British Library Board Images Online

On 14 November 1842, P W LeGeyt, Senior Magistrate of Police at Bombay reported to the Secretary to the Bombay Government that his Department had taken charge of Hussain Bushkh. In a statement made to LeGeyt, Hussain Bushkh related that he was a native of Lucknow, that his father was a porter in the suburbs of the city, and that he was 12 or 13 years old. He said that one day many years previously he had been playing with some other boys near his home when a person named Meera Meer Ali enticed him away and took him to Calcutta. He told Hussain Bushkh that he was taking him on a pilgrimage to Karbala, but instead he took him to Muscat and sold him as a slave to Suliman, where he remained as a domestic servant until the Native Agent at Muscat secured his release. Hussain Bushkh expressed to LeGeyt his wish to return to Lucknow, though he feared he would be unable to recognise his parents.

A request was made by the Bombay Government to the Resident at Lucknow to make enquiries regarding the boy’s parents, and communications were also made to the Police authorities at Bombay and Surat to be vigilant in preventing kidnapped children being taken away, particularly during the season for the embarkation of pilgrims to the Red Sea.

Sadly the correspondence on this case ends with a letter from LeGeyt informing the Bombay Government that Hussain Bushkh had been sent to the Native General Hospital where he subsequently died from the prevailing epidemic of cholera.

F-4-2014_89999 f23

IOR/F/4/2014/89999 f.23


John O’Brien
Curator, Post 1858 India Office Records

Further reading:

IOR/F/4/2014/89999 ff.1-28

The Collections of the Board of Control are searchable online


09 January 2012

The East India Company slaving voyage of Nicholas Skottowe

Today we are pleased to share a story contributed by guest blogger Professor Huw Bowen.


It is well known that, alongside its trade in goods, the East India Company used its ships to transport large numbers of people around the world: merchants, administrators, soldiers, sailors, adventurers, women, children, convicts, and so on.   Less well known is that the Company also played a small but significant part in the slave trade.  In the mid-seventeenth century attempts were made to establish a plantation colony in Madagascar, but over a much longer period the slave populations of St Helena and Fort Marlborough (Bengkulu) were replenished with West African slaves.  Indeed in 1718 the population of St Helena consisted of 542 whites and 411 slaves.
The last dedicated slaving voyage organised by the Company appears to have been that of the Royal George, commanded by Nicholas Skottowe, in 1764-6.  Skottowe was ordered by the directors to procure slaves at Cabinda in Angola and then sail on to St Helena and Bengkulu before heading to Bombay.   He was given a consignment of commodities to exchange for slaves, including guns, gunpowder, cutlasses, and piece goods. 

Fort Marlborough

BL, P329 'A view of the Government House & Council House at Fort Marlborough' 1799.  Images Online.


Royal George was moored off Cabinda between 26 February and 29 April 1765 while 236 slaves were purchased: 125 men, 45 women, 38 boys, 25 girls, and 3 'children'.  The ship then sailed to St Helena (it was surely no coincidence that Skottowe's brother John was Governor of the island), where in late May the slaves were sent ashore and 'refreshed'.  Skottowe was paid a commission of 15 shillings for every slave (£177 in total) and his Chief Mate was paid 5 shillings per slave (£59 in total). 150 of the slaves were sent on from St Helena to Bengkulu.
Royal George slavesThe official journal of Royal George reveals very little about the slaves and the conditions they experienced. We know that all 236 slaves purchased at Cabinda were delivered to St Helena, and 149 of the 150 sent on to Bengkulu were landed at Fort Marlborough in early September: 60 men, 31 women, 31 boys and 27 girls.  This survival rate is very surprising, because Royal George was not a happy or healthy ship.  Of the 77 members of the crew, 21 died during the voyage, 10 were discharged, and 2 were recorded as having 'run' from the ship.  These losses were unusually high for a Company ship.

Further research will reveal what happened to the slaves. Skottowe went on to command the ship Bridgewater before becoming a Principal Managing Owner of some of the East Indiamen hired by the Company.  He died in 1792 aged 67 and is buried at Chesham in Buckinghamshire.
Skottowe’s voyage may only be a small footnote in the broader commercial history of the East India Company, but it opens up a window on a little known and very dark world, exposing as it does the part played by the Company in the transoceanic slave trade.


Huw Bowen, Professor of Modern History at Swansea University

Further reading: IOR/L/MAR/B/17/H Official journal of Royal George; IOR/G/32 and IOR/G/35 Administrative records for St Helena and Fort Marlborough.


07 November 2011

'Unfortunate' women

In my previous blog about Austrians and Germans repatriated from India during the First World War, I mentioned that some women had an ‘unfortunate’ profession.

Madam l-pj-6-1389_4434 photo croppedThere were six women from Calcutta with an ‘unfortunate’ profession, eleven  from Bombay described more bluntly as prostitutes, five female brothel-keepers, and two servants in a brothel. This was the first time we had seen a reference to European prostitutes in India – documents in the India Office Records focus mainly on local women and the health problems in the Indian Army.

Image and description of a Bombay brothel-keeper (IOR/L/PJ/6/1389)

L-pj-6-1389_4434 text cropped

However, Our Army in India and Regulation of Vice refers to the ‘White Slave Traffic which has provoked the indignation of the Western World, which exists also in the East’. Calcutta Vice, a tract against prostitution, refers to the longstanding import of girls from Germany and Eastern Europe. According to Philippa Levine in Venereal Disease, Prostitution, and the Politics of Empire: the Case of British India, British authorities were relieved to find that most white prostitutes were not from Britain, and therefore not such a challenge to social norms and the delicate balance of imperial power as they had feared.

The presence of European women in brothels in India raises all sorts of questions. Were they trafficked? Did they go to India expecting an entirely different life? Did they go there with the intention of pursuing this occupation? What were their circumstances in Germany and Austria? Were they born in India?

How did these women get on with their fellow passengers to Europe, the missionaries, nurses, clergymen’s wives and other pillars of society?

The Public and Judicial files (IOR/L/PJ/6/1386-1389) telling the story of their repatriation may be found in Search our Catalogues of Archives and Manuscripts
Further reading can be discovered in Explore the British Library

Penny Brook, Lead Curator India Office Records


24 October 2011

Slavery, Shipwreck, and Suicide

Here is another story for Black History Month.

Around the year 1716 Captain White sailed into Delagoa Bay (Maputo Bay in modern day Mozambique) to trade under licence of the East India Company. During his stay White entertained the King and his two brothers on board his ship. The two princes obtained permission from the King to visit England. Captain White promised to take good care of them and the King defrayed the expenses of the princes’ voyage by presenting White with valuable trading commodities. The ship stopped at Madagascar to purchase slaves before sailing to Jamaica where White sold the princes into slavery. However a Mr Bowles heard their story, bought them from their master and set sail with them for England.  Unfortunately a hurricane struck, causing the ship to sink off Cape Carriento on Cuba. Bowles drowned but the princes survived together with a few others including Colonel John Toogood who took them to England.

Jamaica c13321-20 
© The British Library Board 1786.c.9, plate IV William Clark Slaves cutting the sugar cane (1823)

See more images from the BL’s collections.

In September 1720, Toogood petitioned the Court of Directors of the East India Company to provide some financial support and assistance for returning the two princes to Delagoa Bay.  Patronage of the two princes in London provided a potential opportunity to further trade on the south east coast of Africa, and the East India Company entered into discussions with the Royal African Company over the right to trade at Delagoa which dragged on for over a year. 

E-1-11_326 blog
IOR/E/1/11 ff. 326-328v

Meanwhile the princes were maintained and educated at the expense of the Royal African Company. Thomas Bray instructed the princes in the Christian religion and they were baptised with the names James and John at Twickenham in June 1721.  Contemporary records give their full names as James Macquilan Mussoom and John Chaung Mussoom. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge wanted the princes to return to Delagoa accompanied by a missionary.  Marmaduke Penwell was appointed to sail with them, having received £500 from the East India Company according to a report in the London Journal

The princes sailed with Penwell from Gravesend, but the ship struck a rock and put into Exmouth for repairs in the spring of 1722.  James, the elder of the princes, hanged himself from a tree in the garden of a local house. Commentators said this sad turn of events was possibly the result of James being ‘in a phrenzy’ or perhaps because of a quarrel with his brother.  John and Penwell eventually reached Delagoa.  According to Penwell’s journal, John then went to his mother’s house and shut the door in the missionary’s face.  The prince emerged after six hours but gave Penwell ‘such frowns and looked so surly upon him’ that the missionary returned immediately to the ship and sailed for England.

Further reading:
Memorial of Colonel John Toogood to the Court of Directors of the East India Company concerning the two “princes of Delagoa”, September 1720: IOR/E/1/11 ff. 326-328v.
William Douglas Beattie Grant, The Fortunate slave. An illustration of African slavery in the early eighteenth century (London, 1968): BL/X.809/5367.
William Kemp Lowther Clarke, A History of the S.P.C.K. (London, 1959): BL/4708.dd.18.
Leonard W. Cowie, Henry Newman: an American in London, 1708-43 (London, 1956): BL/4987.ff.4.

Find out more about the India Office Records and search our catalogues for more documents.


Margaret Makepeace and Richard Morel
Curators, East India Company Records

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