Untold lives blog

19 posts categorized "Slavery"

15 September 2015

‘A Severe Master’ - the murder of William Cordeux

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On 20 April 1732 William Cordeux, the East India Company’s factor in Kerman, was brutally murdered. He was reported to have been strangled to death by his own servants, the rationale for which seems to have been his own harshness towards his men. Of the four men blamed for the act, two fled and the other two ended up being captured by the Persian authorities not long afterward. Nathaniel Whitwell, the Company servant sent from Bandar Abbas to take over at Kerman, discovered that the situation was not nearly so simple as it would first appear.

Whitwell was first informed that Manna, Cordeux’s 'girl', was being pursued by the Persian authorities, who hoped to gain a portion of Cordeux’s wealth by seizing her. Manna seems to have started at as Cordeux’s slave, but was manumitted by him and stayed with her former master. After outflanking the Khan of Kerman in his plans to seize Manna, Whitwell was faced with two further problems.  Firstly, what was to be done with the two men already captured by the Persians?  Secondly, what to do with Manna? It transpired she had goaded Cordeux’s servants into killing him, no doubt helped by his own heavy-handedness.

  Persian woman
From Samuel Green Wheeler Benjamin, Persia and the Persians (London, 1887), p.199 BL flickr  Noc

After sending for instructions, Whitwell was told in no uncertain terms that he should lobby for the execution of the murderers, which he believed would be possible with a well-placed and suitably large “gift” to the Khan. As for Manna, she was to be brought down from Kerman to Bandar Abbas and from there transported to Bombay to stand trial for her part in Cordeux’s death. It is interesting that the fates of the servants and Manna should be so different, presumably divided by sex, rather than culpability in the murder itself.

In the end, the servants captured by the Persians had the last laugh. Whitwell, having had to wait for instruction from his superiors in Bandar Abbas, had delayed the servants’ executions. The Khan, now demanding a bribe, was refused by the Agent in Bandar Abbas. The executions never seem to have taken place and it is unclear what happened to the murderers after this. Sadly, it is also not recorded what became of Manna, though it seems safe to say that she never saw any of Cordeux’s significant wealth after her trial in Bombay.

Peter Good
PhD candidate Essex University/British Library Cc-by

Further reading:
IOR/G/29/5 Consultation books for the factories in Persia   
IOR/P/341/7a Correspondence received at Bombay

12 February 2015

The plunderers’ cunning plan

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Plundered a ship of all its cargo, but want to look innocent? You could try what members of the Dashti tribe came up with when they seized a vessel laden with British goods that ran aground on the coast of Persia in 1826.

The vessel, an Arab merchant craft known as a buggalow, was bringing a cargo of linens, pepper, glass-ware and other goods from Bombay, and had almost reached her destination of Bushire in Persia, when she ran into a strong north-west wind. The captain, or nakhoda, began hugging the coast, when the buggalow struck a rock and started to take in water. Afraid that the vessel would sink, the nakhoda decided to run her aground at a place called Bordekhan in the territory of the Dashti tribe.

 The crew of 38 Arabs and eight Indian passengers proceeded to go ashore in a boat, but were immediately surrounded by a party of about 300 men, who stripped them of every article of clothing and left them ‘entirely naked’. They then threatened to behead the nakhoda on the spot, unless - and this is the ingenious part - he gave them ‘a paper to the effect that his vessel by the power of the Almighty had been wrecked off that coast, and that every article on board had been lost; that he had not sustained the slightest inconvenience from the hands of the inhabitants, and that neither he nor his men had been plundered of a single article of dress’.

Using a similar threat they compelled the ‘crany’ (the ship’s writer) to put the required statement in writing, obtained the signature of the nakhoda, and forced five of his crew to witness it. The Dashtis then told them that ‘they might go about their business’ (although how, exactly, they were supposed to go about their business stark naked on the Persian coast is not clear), and immediately commenced plundering the vessel.

Five black crew members were not so lucky. The Bordekhan people seized them and retained them as slaves.

However, the Dashtis’ cunning plan failed to work, as the nakhoda went straight to the East India Company Resident at Bushire and made a full statement of what had happened. A transcript of the statement is contained in the India Office Records letter book cited below.

Dashti IOR_R_15_1_36_0189
Statement regarding the wreck and plunder of the bugla [buggalow] lately lost off Dashtee [Dashti], Bushire, 18 June 1826: IOR/R/15/1/36, f 89v Noc

The Resident recruited the services of the British Envoy to the Court of Persia, Colonel John Macdonald, to make representations to the Persian authorities and demand the restoration of the vessel’s goods.

In reply, the Persian minister Zaki Khan was inclined to defend the actions of the Dashtis: within the preceding 22 years, over 20 vessels had been wrecked on the coast in question, in which cases it had been an ‘established custom’ for the inhabitants of the neighbourhood to take possession of all the goods contained in the ship. Rather like Cornish wreckers, the minister clearly thought that the locals were entitled to a bit of plunder. However, to preserve good relations with the British he was prepared to order the return of the goods - in exchange for a full receipt, ‘in order to prevent any further discussion’.

Dashti IOR_R_15_1_36_0238
Translation of a letter from His Excellency Zekee Khan [Zaki Khan] to Colonel Macdonald, Envoy to the Court of Persia [June 1826]: IOR/R/15/1/36, f 106r  Noc

Martin Woodward
Archival Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership  Cc-by

Further reading:
IOR/R/15/1/36  ‘Outward Letters Book No 42, 1st January 1826 to 31 July 1826’


20 November 2014

The Slave Trade at Aden, Part 2

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We continue our story of the young man named Nusseeb, who was alleged to have been purchased as a slave by Ali Abdullah, supercargo of the ship Aden Merchant, and of the enquiry ordered into Nusseeb’s case by the Government of Bombay.

When the Aden Merchant, renamed Seaton, arrived back in Aden from Calcutta, Nusseeb was not on board. Captain S B Haines, Political Agent at Aden, denied the ship permission to leave Aden, and questioned relevant witnesses about their knowledge of Ali Abdullah and Nusseeb. Ali Abdullah himself refused to answer Captain Haines' questions, simply saying “… you are a father to all and I am your son, and you know I was tried in Calcutta. I have therefore nothing more to say”.

Aden B20052-68
Aden, 1 January 1871 WD 2574 Images Online     Noc

In his report to Government, Captain Haines gave a description of Ali Abdullah which is worth quoting in full: “Ali Abdullah is about 40 years of age, tall for an Arab, and muscular; and evinced great bravery during various skirmishes with the Arabs, prior to the capture of Aden by the English, being then Governor of the Town, and afterwards appointed Arab Custom Master by Government, an Office he held with credit for three years”.

Although none of the witnesses could give the whereabouts of Nusseeb, Captain Haines discovered that Nusseeb and the other alleged slaves had been sent from Calcutta to Jeddah on board another ship sailing under Arab colours.

The Bombay Government accepted that the evidence taken by Captain Haines bore much against Ali Abdullah, and they saw the absence of Nusseeb from the ship on its return to Aden as strong proof in favour of the testimony of those who claimed to have witnessed his purchase. However, the Government was very unhappy with Captain Haines' examination of the witnesses, describing it as not only very loosely but carelessly taken, and describing his investigation as having “…been conducted in a manner which would reflect but little credit on any court of justice”. Captain Haines was admonished that he should have tried Ali Abdullah on a charge of slave-dealing, and was ordered to do so.

Just over three months later, on 24 August 1844, Captain Haines sent a report of his attempts to bring Ali Abdullah to trial. Unfortunately, the witnesses previously interviewed by Chief Magistrate Patton at Calcutta had since travelled to Jeddah, where they had dispersed, and they were not expected to return to Aden. Worse still, the boy Nusseeb could not be located in Jeddah by the British Consul residing there, and his whereabouts could not be discovered. With an absence of witnesses and conflicting testimony from the investigations in Calcutta and Aden, Captain Haines felt he had little choice but to come to a verdict of not proven and recommended that the case be dismissed. The Government of Bombay agreed with that decision.

John O’Brien
India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:

Slave Trade, Vol 3: Proceedings regarding the charge of slave dealing against Ali Abdulla, the supercargo of the barque called the Aden Merchant, in the case of a boy named Nusseeb, who Ali Abdulla allegedly purchased from Ali Ibn Hamed of Aden [IOR/F/4/2066/94848 pp.1-28].

Slave Trade, Vol 6: correspondence relating to the slave trade in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf [IOR/F/4/2066/94851].

Slave Trade in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf [IOR/F/4/2087/96921].

Read our story about slavery in Muscat.


18 November 2014

The Slave Trade at Aden, Part 1

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The records of the Board of Control, the Government body set up in the late 18th century to supervise the activities of the East India Company, contain collections of correspondence relating to kidnapped Indians, often children, who were sold as slaves along the coasts of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The Government of India was keen to close down this disturbing trade and the correspondence which flowed between Calcutta, Bombay and British officials in Aden and the Gulf show the different measures taken to protect children from slavers, and to reunite those rescued from slavery with their families in India.

However, this could be a difficult undertaking, as the case of a boy named Nusseeb illustrates. The case was initially investigated in November 1843 by J H Patton, Chief Magistrate of Calcutta, who acting on information received from Captain S B Haines, Political Agent at Aden, found Nusseeb on board the ship Aden Merchant which was in the port of Calcutta at the time. In a statement, Nusseeb gave his age as 16 or 17, and denied that he was a slave. He claimed that two years previously he had been the slave of a man name Ali Ibn Hamid in Aden, but that he was badly treated and so ran away. He then freely offered his services as a khalasi (a dockyard worker or sailor). He stated that he shipped aboard the Aden Merchant at Aden in the summer of 1843 on wages of 6 rupees per month, and that he was happy on board the ship, had plenty to eat and drink, and was never ill-treated. Several of his shipmates, including Ali Abdullah, the supercargo of the ship, also gave statements that Nusseeb was a free member of the crew.

Calcutta c13380-20
Banks of the Hooghly at Calcutta, with the court house in the distance c1872 Photo 179/(4) Images Online     Noc

This information was relayed back to Captain Haines in Aden, who was clearly angered by the lack of success of Chief Magistrate Patton in prosecuting Ali Abdullah for slave-dealing. Writing to the Secretary to the Government of Bombay, Captain Haines stated that it was “an incontrovertible fact known now to all Aden” that Ali Abdullah had purchased Nusseeb from Ali Ibn Hamid for 35 German Crowns. Captain Haines claimed also to have discovered that Ali Abdullah had purchased other slaves, whom he had then mixed with the crew, unknown to the principal owner of the ship, and further that he had charged the owner for them as lascars. He pointed out that the evidence gathered by Chief Magistrate Patton was “…from parties more or less likely to be involved in difficulties if any facts were revealed”.

Unhappy with this outcome, the Government of Bombay gave instructions to Captain Haines to begin a full and careful enquiry into the charge against Ali Abdullah on his return to Aden, and also into the circumstances under which he had become possessed of other slaves. The results of that enquiry will be the subject of the next Untold Lives posting.

John O’Brien
India Office Records  Cc-by

Further Reading:

Slave Trade, Vol 3: Proceedings regarding the charge of slave dealing against Ali Abdulla, the supercargo of the barque called the Aden Merchant, in the case of a boy named Nusseeb, who Ali Abdulla allegedly purchased from Ali Ibn Hamed of Aden, reference IOR/F/4/2066/94848 pp.1-28.

Slave Trade, Vol 6: correspondence relating to the slave trade in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, reference IOR/F/4/2066/94851.

Read our story about slavery in Muscat


24 September 2014

The Endangered Archives Programme - your chance to apply!

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The Endangered Archives Programme is now accepting grant applications for the next round of funding. Since it was established ten years ago, the Programme has so far funded 244 projects in 77 countries worldwide, with grants totalling over £6 million.

The Programme is funded by Arcadia, in pursuit of one of its charitable aims to preserve and disseminate cultural knowledge and to promote education and research. The aim of the Programme is to contribute to the preservation of archival material worldwide that is in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration. The endangered archival material will normally be located in countries where resources and opportunities to preserve such material are lacking or limited.

EAP img_016Noc

EAP643 Manuscript collection at Santipur Bangiya Puran Parishad, West Bengal, India

The Programme’s objectives are achieved principally by awarding grants to applicants to locate relevant endangered archival collections, where possible to arrange their transfer to a suitable local archival home, and to deposit digital copies with local institutions and the British Library. The digital collections received by the British Library are made available on the Programme’s website  for all to access, with currently over 3 million images from 106 projects online. Pilot projects are particularly welcomed, to investigate the survival of archival collections on a particular subject, in a discrete region, or in a specific format, and the feasibility of their recovery.

EAP443/1/3/2: Births; District Freetown [13 Apr 1857-12 Apr 1860] 19thC documents in Sierra Leone Public Archives relating to Liberated Africans & the slave tradeNoc

To be considered for funding under the Programme, the archival material should relate to a ‘pre-modern' period of a society's history. There is no prescriptive definition of this, but it may typically mean, for instance, any period before industrialisation. The relevant time period will therefore vary according to the society.  The term ‘archival material’ is interpreted widely to include rare printed books, newspapers and periodicals, audio and audio-visual materials, photographs and manuscripts.

EAP001/1/1: Photographs from Esfahan taken by Minas Patkerhanian Machertich [1900-1970s]Noc


It is essential that all projects include local archival partners in the country where the project is based as the Programme is keen to enhance local capabilities to manage and preserve archival collections in the future. Professional training for local staff is one of the criteria for grant application assessment, whether it is in the area of archival collection management or technical training in digitisation. At the end of the project, equipment funded through the Programme remains with the local archival partner for future use.


EAP117/2/1/1: Horn Manuscript TK 37 (Manuscripts from the highlands of Sumatra, Indonesia) Noc


The Programme is administered by the British Library and applications are considered in an annual competition by an international panel of historians and archivists. Detailed information on the timetable, criteria, eligibility and application procedure is available on the Programme’s website. Applications will be accepted in English or in French. The deadline for receipt of preliminary grant applications is 7 November 2014.

How many Untold Lives could you help to preserve and share?



15 April 2014

Zanzibar brawl

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31 March 1860, a sultry afternoon in the beautiful beach town of Zanzibar. Monsieur Frédérick Rochiez, a French grocer, was having a quiet siesta and enjoying his peaceful life in this quasi-paradise.  His tranquillity was broken by the intrusion of a group of rowdy English sailors who barged in asking for brandy.  When they were told there was none, the drunken seamen went on a rampage, vandalizing the shop and helping themselves with any booze they could lay their hands on.  After the shop was wrecked, they ran away with crates of wines as well as cash stolen from the till.

Drunken sailors c13568-56
   ‘Lall Bazaar, Calcutta.’ [WD 4336]  1860s.   Images Online

M. Rochiez incurred a substantial financial loss by this wilful looting and pillaging.   He lodged a complaint via French Consul M. Derché to Lt-Col Christopher Palmer Rigby, British Consul at Zanzibar, demanding an apology and compensation.

The British authorities felt this was French ‘extortion’, a deliberate put-up job to frame the English.  Rigby immediately launched a personal attack on the character and conduct of the French diplomats in Zanzibar.  In his letter dated 1 June 1861 to the Secretary of State for India he wrote: “I beg to state that the present French Consul (Monsieur Derché) was born and bred in the Levant…  he is now about to leave by the first opportunity, and the present Chancellier who is appointed to succeed him, is a Pole, who is stated to have deserted from the ranks of the Russian Army in the Crimea by feigning death during an action.  He lives in a most disreputable manner, and bears a very indifferent character…”.

The complaint about the drunken English sailors was not unprecedented.  The English and French had been bickering with each other for several years since both nations established their consular offices on the island.  

The wine shop brawl quickly escalated to a serious accusation of slave trafficking.  The British on Zanzibar, charged with the duty of the abolition of slave trade, captured and confiscated the Famosa Estrella, a ship under Spanish colours.  The ship was consigned to a notorious slave agent named Buona Ventura Mas, who had long carried on an extensive traffic in slaves with both Cuba and La Réunion.   The British claimed that “Buona Ventura Mas was the Agent here for the two slave dealing houses of Vidal Frères, and Regis & Co” both supported by the French Consul which proclaimed to provide French protection to the ships and subjects of any Roman Catholic State, including Spanish and Portuguese.

Just next to the French territory of La Réunion sits Mauritius, a British possession in 1861. Hundreds of thousands of indentured labourers were shipped across the Indian Ocean to work in the British plantations on Mauritius under the conditions hardly any better than those of slaves under French protection.

Xiao Wei Bond
Curator, India Office Private Papers


Further reading:
India Office Records/ L/PS/9/37-38 Zanzibar correspondence



28 March 2014

Somewhere between freedom and slavery: runaway slaves in Britain’s Indian Navy

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On 28 March 1854 the Persian Gulf Resident, Captain Arnold Kemball, wrote to the Government of Bombay, reporting that a coal shoveller on the East India Company’s steam frigate Akbar, moored at the Persian port of Bushire, had deserted his post. Kemball explained that the man was a runaway slave who had formerly lived in Bushire. Initially assumed to have been re-enslaved by his master, later reports confirmed that the man had in fact returned to his wife and child, who he had been compelled to leave behind in his search for freedom. Kemball requested guidance from the Government. Could he allow the man to be re-enslaved by his old master in Bushire? Or did the man remain under British protection?

  Bushire large
From Travels in Assyria, Media, and Persia (British Library T 8304)  NocSee on flickr

The case of the coal trimmer on the Akbar was not unique to Indian naval vessels. Slaves and manumitted slaves frequently made up the bulk of the crews employed on these ships. In his reply to Kemball’s query, the Governor at Bombay said that, according to the Akbar’s own commander, Lieutenant Balfour, European sailors in his crew numbered no more than twenty-two men, while ‘Seedees’ [Sidis: the name frequently used to describe the Africans in the Navy’s service] – most of whom were runaway slaves – numbered fifty. “I am assured,” the Governor wrote “ that the majority of our seamen on board our steamers are at this very time Africans and that the greater of their numbers are fugitive slaves.”  

  Bushire letter
Extract of a letter, dated 5 March 1855, from Henry Anderson, Secretary to the Government of Bombay, to George Edmonstone, Secretary to the Government of India (IOR/R/15/1/149) Noc

These statistics underline one aspect of the legacy of the Indian Ocean slave trade which was, arguably, at its peak during the mid-nineteenth century: itinerant African men, who had been taken from the place of their ancestral roots and frequently shorn of their familial ties, and who subsequently used Indian naval vessels as a means of absconding from their masters in order to obtain their freedom. This helped make the ports of the Gulf and north western shores of the Indian Ocean important tarrying points populated by a diverse mix peoples:  including Africans, Indians, Arabs, and Persians.

The case of the coal trimmer on the Akbar set a precedent for future, similar cases. The Governor ruled that, if the man had deserted his vessel, as the coal trimmer on the Akbar had, then the British had no influence over the man’s fate at the hands of local authorities.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project  Cc-by

Qatar Digital Library

24 March 2014

Meet the Benthams: an extraordinary Georgian family

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The British Library has joined the Transcribe Bentham initiative, and needs your help to uncover the secret life of Jeremy Bentham, philosopher, reformer, and Georgian gentleman.  Transcribe Bentham, an online scholarly crowdsourcing project, invites members of the public to explore and transcribe the manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham.  Since its launch in 2010, Transcribe Bentham’s online volunteers have made important discoveries in UCL’s collection of digitised Bentham manuscripts, for instance in relation to his most famous invention—the Panopticon prison.

The British Library is digitising its own collection of Bentham papers and these are now being made available on Transcribe Bentham to complement UCL’s own on-going digitisation programme, virtually reuniting the two Bentham collections for the first time since Bentham’s death.  Volunteers do not need any specialist equipment or expert knowledge to begin participating—just a willingness to get to grips with 18th and 19th century handwriting and to type what they read into a text box using a specially-adapted transcription toolbar.  

  Bentham 33537_294_001
NocPseudo-Voltaire (John Lind) to Jeremy Bentham, sent in 1774 (British Library Add MS 33537 f.294r)

Whilst the UCL collection contains mainly philosophical writings, in the British Library collection there is potential to uncover Bentham’s more personal side, as it contains thousands of letters.  Bentham was described by Jose del Valle, the Guatemalan politician, as the ‘Legislator of the world’ and such a title is certainly justified by the sheer number of nationally and internationally important figures with whom he corresponded.  Within the British Library’s collection are letters from the French general Lafayette, the English abolitionist William Wilberforce, and Alexander I, Emperor of Russia.  But the collection also contains a great deal of personal correspondence, and volunteers will encounter Jeremy’s extended family: his mother, Alicia; his step-mother, Sarah; his brother, Samuel, the renowned naval architect; his step-brother Charles Abbot, later 1st Baron Colchester, Speaker of the House of Commons; his nephew George, the famous botanist; and the patriarch of the family, Jeremiah Bentham.  There is even a letter from Jeremiah to Jeremy’s headmaster at Westminster School, complaining about the alleged plundering of his son’s book case by some older ‘lads’.  

   Bentham 33537_037_001

Jeremiah Bentham’s letter to Mr Cooper, complaining about the theft of little Jeremy’s school books (British Library Add MS 33537 f. 37r)  Noc

Because some of this correspondence has not been read since its original composition, discoveries made by volunteers have the potential to fundamentally shape and illuminate our understanding of Bentham’s life and relationships (the definitive biography of Bentham still remains unwritten).  Once completed, transcripts are presented alongside the original manuscript image in a digital repository, freely accessible to anyone interested in researching Bentham.  In addition, any volunteers who produce transcripts that are subsequently used in the new edition of Bentham’s Collected Works, currently being prepared by the Bentham Project at UCL and published by Oxford University Press, will receive full credit for their contribution in the particular volume’s acknowledgements.

Kris Grint
Research Associate, Bentham Project, Faculty of Laws, UCL   Cc-by

Visit the Transcribe Bentham  Transcription Desk today

Follow Transcribe Bentham on Twitter @TranscriBentham

Further reading:

Jeremy Bentham, Selected Writings, ed. by Stephen Engelmann (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011)

Philip Schofield, Bentham: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2009)