Posted by: Christine | May 5, 2014

East India Company Records

This week I watched Dan Snow’s programme about the East India Company. One of the main points made was how the EIC was not interested in anything except the business of making money.

A couple of years ago I visited the British Library to look at some of the Company records. To start with, I discovered that the British Library is much more difficult use than the TNA, which I am more used to. At the TNA you search the catalogue, find a document you want and click to order it; at the BL, it seems you have to know what you are looking for and where it is – once you have the reference you have to go to the online ordering section, enter the reference and then hope you did the right thing! No photography was allowed and if you wanted a copy of anything, it wasn’t available until the next day (or by post at extra cost). That’s if it was allowed to be copied – some kind of weight limit? After two tortuous visits I haven’t been back.

The reason for my visit was, as usual, to do with Captain John Madder (see previous posts). Of course his death was caused by the East India Company; the conflict between the English and Scottish Companies, although I won’t go into that again. The ship that he sailed on, the Worcester, was not an EIC ship but an independent trader – something which had only recently been allowed. As such it would have been of great interest to the EIC factories in India and if, as accused, it had been involved in piracy, the company would have known. I went through the letter books for 1702-1704 and found nothing. This proves that the crew of the Worcester were innocent.

On another visit I looked at the books for another event. After the trial and conviction of the Worcester crew, an affidavit was sent to the court alleging that the signatories had been in India at the same time and knew that there had been no piracy. One of these witnesses was George Madder, John’s brother. I had already found a lot of information about this particular voyage from a later Chancery case (TNA C 6/354/10 Law V Dennett). The ship had sunk and for various reasons the seamen had not received part of their wages.

I will write more about this another time, but the basic facts are that this ship, the Rebow, was hired by the EIC to deliver a cargo from London to India. This was completed and the ship then headed to Persia to trade on their own account. En route the ship sank. Most of the crew, including 2nd Mate George Madder,  survived  and found their way (with the treasure chest) to the Maldive islands. They eventually got back to England, in time for George and the purser, Salathiel Rolfe (wonderful name!) to make their unsuccessful affidavit.

In the EIC records is a copy of a letter from Captain Thomas Dennet of the Rebow, reporting his arrival at Surrat on the Malabar coast. He ends by saying that they are “at this time almost laded and ready to Sayle for Persia“. This is dated 30th April 1702.

A later report in the letter book, dated 11th June, states:

“23. Loss of ship Norris wth a cargo of £110,000 – whether the silver or any part of it will be saved are as yet uncertain. There is also a Report by the same ship as if the Rebow Frigatt should have been lost upon the Rocks called the Chawgoes but having no letter thereof wee hope it will prove a mistake or if not wee suppose our loss will be little or nothing there, being lett out on freight as you advise.”
IOR/E/3/94  f. 236  (Letter Book 11 (New Company) 1699-1709)

No concern about whether anybody had survived. Just relief that the company hadn’t lost anything. It was reported later that the wreak of the Norris had not been found (bet that made a dent in the finances!), but no further mention of the Rebow.


  1. I wholeheartedly second your comments about the British Library. Unfortunately, I have to go there a lot, and it’s as though the staff take a perverse pleasure in devising the most bureaucratic and least user-friendly systems that they can think of. These days, too, it’s always packed out with people who shouldn’t really be there, thanks to their decision to broaden their admissions policy to include undergraduates, so getting a seat after about 1030 in the morning is sometimes well-nigh impossible. (Hear endeth today’s grumpy rant!)

  2. I was totally appalled by the staff at the British Library who are I am sad to say part of my profession – librarians! Given that I live in Australia I have limited time to research when in London. I have tried emailing in advance to see if the “reference staff” can provide some assistance in relevant records (I am trying to find more on the British takeover of Malacca in 1795 and the prize agents involved) with little success. I usually get there at opening time so do get a seat but find that the few staff rostered to the desk means I spend a fair bit of valuable time queuing!

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