A short exchange of correspondence, digitised for the Qatar Digital Library, sheds a fascinating light on the impact of the Battle of Waterloo beyond Europe.
On 1 September 1815, a letter was addressed to the Governor of Bombay by Johanness Tergasper [Hovhannes Ter Gaspar], the Native Broker at Bussora [Basra]. The name of the letter writer identifies him as a member of the large Armenian trading community living in Basra at that time. And his job title, Native Broker, meant that he acted as a local partner of the East India Company in that city. It was a common practice at this time for the EIC, in its more peripheral outposts, to appoint a local merchant to handle its commercial business.
Close-up of an 1804 map showing Basra and the Persian Gulf, taken from ‘A New Map of Arabia, Including Egypt, Abyssinia, the Red Sea, from the Latest Authorities', Qatar National Library, 12886’
One of the duties of EIC personnel in Basra was to oversee the safe passage of mail that came into their hands. Basra was at an important point on the mail route between Britain and India. Here, letters arriving overland from Europe were transferred to ships, which transported them through the Persian Gulf and across the Arabian Sea to their final destinations in India.
Hovhannes had deemed it necessary to send the communications he had received as quickly as possible. However, as he explained to the Governor, his efforts to do so had been frustrated. As there was no Company ‘cruiser’ available for the task, Hovhannes approached a merchant ship, the Kusrovee. But the commander refused to leave without a promise of payment. Hovhannes was indignant at this, and asked that the commander be punished when he finally arrived in Bombay.
Excerpt of a letter from Hovhannes Ter Gaspar, 1 September 1815, IOR/F/4/479/11535, f. 282v
The Governor’s response to this suggestion is not recorded. Instead, the remaining correspondence is with Captain Williams of the Durable, the ship which ultimately conveyed the letters from Basra. Williams requests ‘remuneration for loss of what I should otherwise have received in freight’, a loss he claims he took on in order to bring the news contained in the dispatches from Basra.
And what was this news, which was so urgent? It was ‘good news for us and misfortune to Napoleon Bonaparte’: news of the victory of Britain and its allies at the Battle of Waterloo.
Excerpt of a letter from Hovhannes Ter Gaspar, 1 September 1815, IOR/F/4/479/11535, f. 281v
Though these events had happened thousands of miles away, they held great significance for India and the Middle East. Just a few years earlier, Napoleon had been laying plans for a French invasion of India and had even made an agreement with Persia [Iran] allowing French troops to pass through on their way. These plans had ultimately come to nothing, but with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, any remaining French threat to British supremacy in India was finally extinguished.
Perhaps understandably, the merchants entreated to convey this news were more concerned about the trade they might forego as a consequence. The Native Broker in Basra, however, had been unimpressed, declaring: ‘If he has got the English flag and is an English Captain, how can he stop the Honourable Company’s business’?
In contrast to the two merchants concerned only with that season’s profit, this comment of Hovhannes shows his awareness of the wider-reaching significance of the news he had received. With the French challenge removed, Britain would now be free to consolidate its control over India, including the maritime trade routes stretching out from India across the Arabian Sea and into the Gulf. The events in Waterloo, therefore, truly were of great significance for ‘the Honourable Company’s business’.
Gulf History Cataloguer
British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership
London, British Library, ‘Delay in the conveyance of certain intelligence from Bussorah to Bombay’ IOR/F/4/479/11535
John Casey, ‘The Impact of the Napoleonic Wars in the Gulf: The Franco-Persian Alliance and Napoleon’s Threat to India’
David Woodbridge, ‘The British Residency in Baghdad’