Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

19 January 2021

Richard Walpole and the East India Company at sea

Writer Horace Walpole had a cousin Richard who served as an East India Company maritime officer from 1744-1757.  Richard Walpole had at least two encounters with hostile French shipping whilst serving as a Company officer, exemplifying the dangers faced by merchant ships even when as heavily armed as East Indiamen.

During Walpole’s first voyage as 6th mate and purser in the Augusta, his ship captured the French vessel Baronette on 21 October 1747.

Whilst commanding the Houghton in March 1757, Walpole was involved in an action near the Cape of Good Hope.  His journal of the voyage records how on the afternoon of 9 March the East Indiamen Houghton, Suffolk and Godolphin were approached by two unidentified ships.  Walpole immediately began to clear his ship in readiness for battle.  The three East Indiamen steered away but were followed.  Walpole had everyone on board prepared for action all night.

At daybreak the Suffolk raised its flags and made the signal for line of battle.  Here is a splendid drawing of that line of battle from the journal of the Suffolk.

Drawing showing the three East India ships in the line of battleLine of battle for the three East Indiamen from the journal of the Suffolk IOR/L/MAR/B/397D  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

At 8 am the unknown ships hoisted French colours.   The larger of the two shot at the English ships and the Suffolk returned fire.   After a short exchange, the ‘warm engagement’ ceased as the ships found themselves positioned outside the bearings of each other’s guns.  The French made to sail westward but were pursued by the East Indiamen.  They then tacked and came in close to the English ships and ‘a very smart fire’ was maintained by both sides.  At noon the French sailed away, probably bound for Mauritius.  Walpole recorded: ‘Every Body behaved during the whole Engagement with great Courage & Resolution; several of the Shot from the large Ship reached us, & four of them have lodged…(thank God) no Body hurt’.

Letter from Captain William Wilson of the Suffolk reporting the action against the French published in the Newcastle Courant newspaperLetter from Captain William Wilson of the Suffolk reporting the action against the French published in Newcastle Courant 9 July 1757 British Newspaper Archive

The three ships reached the UK without further incident.  Captain William Wilson of the Suffolk reported that the officers and sailors ‘behaved with all the Bravery and Intrepidity peculiar to our English seamen’.  He and his fellow captains asked the Company to honour a promise to reward mariners for their response to enemy attack.

Some of the crew of the Houghton, Suffolk and Godolphin did not reach their homes at the end of this eventful voyage.  They were pressed by the Royal Navy and found themselves on board HMS Hussar.

The French did defeat Richard Walpole five years later.  The ship Walpole for which he was Principal Managing Owner was captured off Ceylon by two French men of war and a frigate on 20 September 1762 on its outward journey to Bengal, laden mainly with cloth.  Captain Parson Fenner and some of the crew ended up at the Cape of Good Hope, others at Mauritius.  The East India Company decided that the capture was not through any misconduct of Fenner or his officers, but entirely owing to the superior force of the enemy which they were ‘utterly unable to resist’.  Richard Walpole was given permission by the Company to build a new ship for Fenner on the bottom of the Walpole.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
East India Company Court Minutes IOR/B/74 and IOR/B/79
Ship journals: Houghton IOR/L/MAR/B/438H; Suffolk IOR/L/MAR/B/397D
British Newspaper Archive (also accessible through Findmypast) e.g. Newcastle Courant 9 July 1757

 

14 January 2021

Bibee Zuhoorun: Women’s Voices in the Indian Indenture Trade

Bibee Zuhoorun was one of 1.3 million Indian labourers recruited in Caribbean and Indian Ocean sugar plantations after slave-labour was abolished in the British Empire.  She migrated to Mauritius in the 1830s and on her return to India, testified in an official inquiry committee set up to investigate transgressions in the Indian indenture trade.  As the earliest voice of female indentured labourers, Zuhoorun’s testimony offers a rare insight into early migration—painting a story of deception, ill-treatment and injustice.

Title page of Report of the Calcutta Committee of Inquiry 1839 containing Zuhoorun’s testimonyReport of the Calcutta Committee of Inquiry, 1839, containing Zuhoorun’s testimony 

In Calcutta, she was persuaded by a labour-recruiter to travel to Mauritius and work as a servant.  After her departure, however, she realised she had been deceived: ‘I got no clothes given to me, nor blankets, nor brass pots’.   Nor did she receive the quality of wages, or the six-month wage advance that the recruiter had promised.

In Mauritius, she spoke of the injustice meted out to fellow labourers—a story of overworked men subjected to ill-treatment and corporal punishment.  Labourers were often confined within plantations, and denied wages if they refused to work.  She felt stuck in a foreign land with no means of returning to her homeland, urging ‘every one would leave if there was a land journey; not one would advise any of their friends to go there’.

View looking towards a ground of labourers' huts on a sugar plantation in the Plaines Wilhelms district of Mauritius, with a small group of labourers posed in the foreground and a mountain rising against the skyline in the background.‘Indian huts on a sugar plantation, Plain William near Port Louis’ c. 1853. Photographer: Frederick Fiebig. British Library Photo 250(25) Images Online

Zuhoorun’s testimony attested to the gendered experience of indentured migrants.  While men tended to cultivate and process sugar, women often worked in the households of plantation-owners.  Zuhoorun testified to ‘making salt, climbing tamarind trees to pick them, sweeping the house, and cutting grass for cattle’.  She even learnt French to communicate with her French ‘master’.

Her testimony also highlighted instances of sexual harassment and the expectation of sexual favours—a common occurrence in plantations.  Zuhoorun complained that her plantation-owner Dr. Boileau asked her to be his mistress.  She refused, saying ‘I have degraded myself by going on board ship; I would not further degrade myself’'.  Her attempts to complain to the police were met with a three-month stint at a house of correction, and then a return to Boileau’s house, where she was beaten and harassed further.  Eventually, she decided to return to India before the end of her five-year contract, even if it meant not receiving any wages for her 2.5 years of service.

Zuhoorun’s bitterness towards the indenture system is evident in her testimony.  She urged: ‘I would not return to Mauritius on any account; it is a country of slaves; […] I would rather beg my bread here’.  Overseas migration had also damaged her social position.  She implored, ‘even my mother will not drink water from my hand or eat with me’; a sign of social ostracization tied to a taboo on crossing the Indian Ocean.

Indian and Chinese Indentured Labourers in British GuianaIndian and Chinese Indentured Labourers in British Guiana. Image from Edward Jenkins, The Coolie, His Rights and Wrongs (1871) from Wikimedia commons

Zuhoorun’s story is not just one of tragedy, injustice and violence, but also strength and resilience.  She not only resisted Boileau’s advances and ended her contract early, but even complained to his wife, sacrificing her livelihood at the same time.  Although relegated to the footnotes of history, her testimony remains the earliest account of a female indentured migrant, characterised by its strength, detail and passionate criticism of the indenture system.

Purba Hossain
University of Leeds

Further reading:

Read the testimonies of Zuhoorun and other indentured migrants in Letter from Secretary to Government of India to Committee on Exportation of Hill Coolies: Report of Committee and Evidence. Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons) 1841, Vol. 16, No. 45

Discover the life stories of indentured labourers -
‘Becoming Coolies’ - Life Stories and From the Archive
The Indentured Archipelago 

Marina Carter, Voices from Indenture: Experiences of Indian Migrants in the British Empire (London; New York: Leicester University Press, 1996).
Marina Carter, Servants, Sirdars, and Settlers: Indians in Mauritius, 1834-1874 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995).
Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

 

12 January 2021

The hunt for Syed Mahamad Yusufuddin

A dip into the records of the India Office Legal Adviser reveals an exciting tale of espionage behind a Privy Council appeal against wrongful imprisonment.

The judgement of Privy Council appeal No. 19 of 1902, brought by Syed Mahamad Yusufuddin against the Secretary of State for India, is available to view on BAILII, but doesn’t tell the whole story of the case. 

Photograph of a street scene in Simla (Shimla) in the 1880s showing shops and people going about their daily business Photograph of a street scene in Simla (Shimla) taken by an unknown photographer in the 1880s British Library Photo 94/2(35) British Library Online Gallery

The background of the case can be found in the India Office Records held at the British Library in the Legal Adviser’s records (IOR/L/L/8/42).  The story begins in Simla, in the far north of India, in July 1895 with the conviction of Babu Gopal Chandar, a hotelier, for attempting to procure government documents from the Record Keeper, Mr Schorn, through bribery.  The record keeper reported that Chandar had visited him at his home and offered 600-700 rupees and an annual salary in return for information on Hyderabad, the largest princely state in British India.  Mr Schorn contacted the police and arranged a further meeting with Chandar so an inspector could eavesdrop and take notes as evidence.

Following his arrest, Mr Chandar claimed he was working on behalf of a 'Sardar of Hyderabad' , meaning a prince or nobleman, staying at his establishment, the Central Hotel.  As a result, in September a warrant was issued for the arrest of one Syed Mahamad Yusufuddin, who we assume was staying in the hotel when the crime was committed.  However, by then, Yusufuddin had left Simla, so a manhunt began.

A copy of the initial order for the arrest of YusufuddinA copy of the initial order for the arrest of Yusufuddin taken from case documents supplied by the Foreign Department at the time in a file marked 'SECRET – Internal'. IOR/L/L/8/42 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Magistrate issuing the warrant was aware that if Yusufuddin had returned to the princely state of Hyderabad, then, as a foreign territory, the warrant would not apply.  Therefore the British would have to rely on the Nizam of Hyderabad adhering to extradition law.

However, the fugutive was tracked down in Hyderabad on 28 November 1895 at Shankarpalli railway station.  Fortunately for the British, at this time “the Government of India ... exercise[d] jurisdiction upon the railway” and could arrest him.  However, this jurisdiction only applied to railway offences, which brought into question their right to hold Yusufuddin.

A copy of a telegram dated on behalf of the Nizam of Hyderabad calling for the release of YusufuddinA copy of a telegram dated on behalf of the Nizam of Hyderabad calling for the release of Yusufuddin IOR/L/L/8/42 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Reminiscent of the 'Great Game' of espionage made famous in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, this manhunt across different territories in British-controlled Asia reveals a kernel of truth behind the fantastic stories to be found in contemporary literature for boys.  And Chandar’s covert attempt to gather information on British plans also suggests the suspicion in which the British were held in princely states like Hyderabad.

Yusufuddin was released on bail two days later on 30 November and avoided conviction.  He went on to appeal against his arrest outside of a British territory and claim damages for false imprisonment.  The case eventually reached the Privy Council who dismissed it, as the claim was made too long after the imprisonment.

Matthew Waters
India Office Records

Further reading:
P.C. No. 19 of 1902 - 1896-1903 - British Library reference IOR/L/L/8/42
Syed Mahamad Yusuf-ud-din v The Secretary of State for India in Council (Hyderabad) [1903] UKPC 32 (15 May 1903)