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Sources from the British Library, London

Part 3: Fort St George (Madras)

Fort St George (Madras) Factory Records, 1655-1704

The East India Company arrived first at Surat, India in 1608 in the ship Hector commanded by William Hawkins and within a few years had established a permanent factory there. Surat was the port used by the textile manufacturers of Gujerat and was the most important centre for the overseas trade of the Mughal Empire. However the Portuguese already had trading arrangements with the Mughal authorities and supremacy on the seas and it would take several years for the English to gain control. A factory was eventually established at Surat in 1612 when the Portuguese fleet was defeated by the English.

On the other side of India the East India Company had since 1611 been based at Masulipatam on the Coromandel coast of India. By 1626 it had extended its activities further south and established a settlement at Armagon taking advantage of the cheapness of cloth there. However the new site had disadvantages and the Company accepted an invitation from the ruler of the district around Madraspatam to establish a factory there in 1640. The factory was called Fort St George and rapidly grew in importance as a centre for the Company’s trading activity in the east, replacing Bantam in 1682 as the headquarters of the eastern trade.

The textile industry in the main production areas of Coromandel, Gujarat and Bengal employed hundreds of thousands of skilled weavers, dyers and washers producing enormous quantities of muslins, chintzes, cotton and quilts which found a ready market in England. As early as 1620 50,000 pieces of chintz were imported and even as late as the 1750s Indian textiles accounted for sixty per cent of the total value of the Company’s sales in London.

In 1746 Madras was captured by the French and East India Company operations were transferred to Fort St David. Madras was eventually restored to the British in 1748.

The Factory Records for Madras (Fort St George), 1655-1704 are divided into two groups, Consultations of the Governing Council of the Factory and Copies of Letters despatched by the Factory.

Consultations of the Governing Council of the Fort St George (Madras) Factory, 1655-1704

Early records for 1676 cover topics such as the Council’s problems with possible attacks by the Rajah Sevagee including details of plans to reinforce the fort; details of the cost of calico; lists of ships sold with their sale price; lists and sale prices of “Europe goods” including bales of cloth and plates of copper. Also included is an interesting catalogue of books belonging to Sir William Langhorn, the Governor.

The following are just some of the subjects covered in the records for 1702:

• notes of letters dispatched to the Councils of other factories such as Fort St David
• letters received from other factories including Surat, York Fort
• details of the arrivals of Company ships from Bengal including the names of the Masters of the ships
• details of the departure of Company ships and their destination with the name of the Master
• details of customs paid on goods and bills of exchange
• accounts of money paid to the Paymaster, Thomas Marshall for work carried out on fortifications of the Fort
• accounts of the Paymaster, Thomas Marshall showing money owed to him for the purchase of items such as cattle
• notes on money paid to washers for curing cloth
• orders from the Council to the warehouse keeper to sell goods for the highest price possible
• details of money paid by Thomas Wright, warehouse keeper for goods sold
• much detail on troubles with the local Nabob at St Thomas, gifts sent him by the factory and discussions with his Mulla
• orders from the council to sell all surplus naval stores held in the Company’s “shorehouses”
• details of goods unloaded at the factory – on one day in April 1702 150
bags of salt petre from Bengal were received
• notes on the appointment of Company staff in the warehouses
• notes on plans to build a grainery
• details on the disposal of raw silk and tea brought from China

Copies of Letters despatched, 1661-1704

Letters, some short and to the point and some consisting of many pages, were sent by the Council to a wide range of persons including the Council of other factories, the French and local Nabobs and Duans. Many of the letters give instructions to the Masters of the EIC ships on their destination and goods to be carried.

Included are letters concerning:

• the activities of the French in the Fort St George and Surat areas
• the transport of goods such as cotton from the factory to other locations
• requests to the local Duan for help recovering goods from EIC ships run aground
• instructions to ships’ Masters on what goods to purchase and how much they should pay for them
• the arrival of new factors at Gooduloor
• the safe arrival of EIC ships at Fort St George
• panic and alarm concerning the forces of the Rajah Sevagee threatening the fort, followed by thanks to the General of the Mogul’s forces, Mahomet Sedick Braug for sending his army to help
• thanks to Sir John Child, General of the English forces in the East Indies for the use of his troops
• the ill treatment of Europeans at Surat
• bills of lading and ships’ invoices
• an imminent attack on the Royal Danish Council at Trincombarr by the King of Tanjore
• ammunition and provisions sent by the Council to Trincombarr
• pirate attacks at Surat
• contracts with merchants
• the Council’s displeasure at the carriage of pepper and elephant teeth on EIC ships
• the shipping of salt petre to the West Coast

The extracts below will give an idea of the richness of the material. The first is taken from the Consultations for February 1702 and concerns the difficulties the Council encountered with the Nabob of St Thomas. Shortly after this letter was written the Council sent the Nabob two hundred Chinese oranges as a gift!:

“This day the Governor summoned a General Council to acquaint ‘em with what messages the mulla had brought from the Nabob at St Thomas…if we were merchants what need had we of such fortification and so many Guns…. It was agreed that no answer be returned to this message as not being worth our taking notice of, but tacitly to defie their Threats….”

The following two extracts are taken from the Copies of Letters despatched concerning problems with the local Duan and the French.

The first is from the Council to the Duan, Mahmood Shaffee, April 1696:

“I recently rec’d a letter from you and answered it by yr Servant with whom I sent two pair of crystal glasses and plates yesterday the same brought me your letter wherein you desire me to assist him in procuring what he wants for your service he tells me that whenever he has occasion he will come to me…. Seven days ago the Great Storme drove six ships from our Road to the Shoar... and they were all broken and destroyed, so that many will never be fit for service again some are broken all to pieces. However what remains belonging to the ship, will be of use for other ships and there are also Goods to the value of 20,000 Pagodas….”

The second is from the Council at Fort St George to Charles Eyre, the Agent in Bengal:

“We have heard nothing concerning the French since our last itt hath been thought probable by some that they are gone directly home from Surat but it is Generally supposed that they are still in India & that they will visit Bengall before they leave India. Pray faile not to send us all necessary advices as they come to your knowledge concerning their arrival in Bengall and their designs….”

The Factory Records of the East India Company for Fort St George (Madras) are an indispensable tool for researchers interested in the history of early trading networks in South East Asia. Further records for Fort St George will be covered in Part 4 of this publication. Parts 5 and 6 covering Calcutta and Bombay will be published in due course.

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