THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

18 January 2013

Forbes & Company - one of the oldest businesses in the world

The booming economy of India has brought to our attention one of the oldest companies in the world which is still in business. Forbes & Company Ltd was established by a Scot in Bombay in 1767.  It was taken over in the recent years by the Tata Group and is now part of the Shapoorji Pallonji Group.

Forbes D40013-12Forbes & Company's office, Bombay. 1810.BL/WD 315 no.10. Images Online        Noc

In 1764, John Forbes (1743-1821), descendant of an ancient family of Lord Forbes of Pitsligo, set sail on board the ship Asia as a purser on the East India Company’s service.  After three years in India as a ‘free mariner’ and later as ‘free merchant’, independent of the East India Company, he started his own business by trading Indian cotton.  Forbes’ company quickly widened its interests into ship brokerage, ship building and eventually into banking. Within a few years, his company was appointed banker to the Government of Bombay.


John Forbes never married.  His business passed to his nephew Charles Forbes, who was sent to India aged 16 to learn the trade and became head of their Indian business in 1821.  Charles was made a Baronet in 1823.


F380-2 letter
Letter from James Forbes to his sister describing his journey from Port Victoria to Bombay, 1771. (IOPP/Mss Eur F380/2)Noc

Searching the archives of the Forbes family in the India Office Private Papers, several interesting items emerged.  Among their family papers, IOPP/Mss Eur F380/1 is a volume of family history.  IOPP/Mss Eur F380/2 is a volume of fine manuscript copies of letters adorned with exquisite watercolours, in which James Forbes, a cousin of John Forbes, described his six voyages made between 1765-1773 to the East Indies, with remarks on the people, animals and vegetable products of Asia, Africa and America.

F380-2aA view of Anjengo (IOPP/Mss Eur F380/2)       Noc

Apart from family papers, there are several volumes of other papers relating to their business affairs and social life, including a group of commissioned miniatures depicting the dwelling house of Charles Forbes, the office of Forbes & Company, and their social life in Bombay in the 1810s.

Xiao Wei Bond
Curator, India Office Private Papers   Cc-by

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