Colonial passengers went to ‘Bengal for pleasure’

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: Feb 24, 2015 22:46 IST

A ship captain’s diary that has survived over 240 years meticulously describes its journey from London to Madeira, Madras and China from 1769 to 1771, enthusing maritime enthusists and historians.

The diary, which was discovered in the east Midlands town of Derby by a resident just in time before it was about to be thrown out along with a collection of books, has been auctioned for £4,900. Covered in pig skin, Captain Skottowes recounts each day of the raucous journey abroad the East India Company ship, ‘Bridgewater’ from December 1769 to July 1771. The ship was responsible for carrying ‘exotic’ goods from India and China for sale in Europe, such as tea and porcelain.

On Monday, June 10 1771, Captain Skottowe wrote:”Bengal, nothing more remarkable but people going ashore for pleasure”, reinforcing accounts by several historians that Calcutta at the time was also a major centre of entertainment in Asia.

Charles Hanson of Derby-based Hansons Auctioneers said the book was ‘incredibly special’, and added: “I knew when I first saw the book it was important, since it was covered in pig skin and was well worn…It was like going back in time”.

He added: “We discovered the book amongst a collection of books which our client was going to throw out”.

The diary records that the ship reached Madras on June 30, 1770, with trade on board mentioned as five bales of cotton and 540 slabs of tin. The captain or a member of his crew sketched a drawing of the ship in April 1770. Life on board was clearly not plain sailing. On December 20, 1769, one William Fisher was ‘in irons for being riotous’. Many died en route.

An entry from February 23: ‘Departed this life Elizabeth knew, wife of honourable John kew who left a young child behind her . . At ten we committed the body of the deceased to the deep’.

On March 24, Captain Skottowes wrote: “Thomas Hitchcock received 150 lashes with a cat of nine tails upon his bare back”.

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