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The English clerk

  • Published at 07:41 pm November 27th, 2015
The English clerk

 “If peradventure, reader, it has been thy lot to waste the golden years of thy life -- thy shining youth -- in the irksome confinement of an office; to have thy prison days prolonged through middle life down to decrepitude and silver hairs, without hope of release or respite; to have lived to forget that there are such things as holidays, or remember them but as the prerogatives of childhood; then, and then only, will you be able to appreciate my deliverance.

It is now six and 30 years since I took my seat at the desk in Mincing Lane. Melancholy was the transition at 14 from the abundant play-time, and the frequently -- intervening vacations of school days, to the eight, nine and sometimes 10 hours a-day attendance at a counting-house, but time partially reconciles us to anything. I gradually became content -- doggedly contented, as wild animals in cages.”

When we examine the history of these lands of Bangladesh, from the early 17th century to the mid-20th century, the first of those one-and-a-half centuries in which European nations exercised increasing influence, and the later, near century, of British commercial domination by the East India Company, images of people, places, and activities, are bound to fill the mind’s eye of any student.

The quotation above comes from an essay, written, early in the 19th century, by an accounting clerk in India House, the London headquarters and operating base of the East India Company.

There can, surely, be few modern, functionaries in great corporations, who could read this master-work, such an improbable, literary effusion to reach light of publication at the time, without, over two centuries later, identifying it with some of the emotion reflected in it.

Somehow, the sheer improbability of such a functionary, also one of England’s and the early 19th century’s, greatest littérateurs, pictured in a contemporary oil painting by EV Rippingille called “The Stage Coach Breakfast,” neatly clad in periwig and warm coat, with such literary luminaries as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, CA Elton, Dorothy Wordsworth, and John Clare (a man on my own family tree), almost defies imagination. Fortunately, the reality has been immortalised in the work!

Charles Lamb, widely recognised as one of Britain’s greatest essayists, in fact, entered service with the Company at the age of 17, in 1792. He is recorded as labouring in the Counting Office, probably the Paying Office, for 34 years.

His time there commenced, of course, at a time when parliament, in 1793, was passing the highly contentious Act of Permanent Settlement, designed to circumscribe such outrages as the “Exclusive Company,” set up in 1765. This private initiative was created by Robert Clive, omnipotent within the Company following his success at Plassey and the confirmation of the work at Buxar, to reward Company personnel in Bengal.

It gave them, as individuals, the benefits of the very valuable salt taxes, amongst other perquisites. The foundation, no doubt, of at least some of the personal fortunes were acquired, in office, by those fortunate enough to be based “in country,” in 1765, when the Diwani Rights were acquired from the Delhi, Mughal administration.

Not unnaturally -- he was a writer, not so much a rebel -- his writings, which were considerable, make little direct reference to Company business, but it is impossible not to wonder what he made of the kind of “head office” administration of activities that, for the previous 28 years would, perhaps, have made even some of today’s bankers blush.

But, in re-reading his many, classical essays, it is impossible not to wonder at this, amongst the influences in his life that must, surely, manifest themselves in the writing.

And, in doing so, reflect some of the activities of which no “head office wallah” could be unaware.

The British Library holds a fascinating, if very small, clue to his work attitudes, in the form of a book Tables of Simple Interest. A useful work tool, that, even when, personally, I commenced my career as a Unilever Companies Management Development Trainee with Lever Brothers in the 1960s, in a location not so far removed from that at which Lamb worked, around a century and a half earlier, was still available at the Lever Brothers’ Port Sunlight office!

The book includes a comment penned in it by Lamb, and the irony is evident: “The interest of this book, unlike the generality which we are doomed to peruse, rises to the end.” Like many of us, he obviously found humour to alleviate, certainly boredom, and, possibly, horror?

Quite how he found time for his writing, coping with his family, including his sister’s horrific murder of their mother, and serious injury to their father, and his evidently considerable social life, it is hard to imagine; hours of office ennui, perhaps, with a high writing desk, for privacy?

It is, probably, also not unreasonable to wonder what a man of his evident intellect made of two great allegorical works of art to be found in India House during his time. “Britannia receiving the riches of the east,” and, “The east offering its riches to Britannia!”

From its foundation in 1600 to 1621, the East India Company was administered from rooms in the home of the first governor, Sir Thomas Smythe, in Philpot Lane, Fenchurch Street, in the heart of London. Those included the years of the first voyages to the East Indies islands, as we now know as the “Spice Islands,” and the first voyages to India, first to the north west, and then to the east coast.

It then moved around the City of London for the next two decades, years in which the Company established its first base close to the lands that are now Bangladesh.

In 1648, a lease was taken on a mansion in Leadenhall Street, and by 1661, the building became the first to be known as East India House.

It is worth remembering that the City of London, from 1642 to 1651, was an epicentre of civil war that raged around the country, between King and Parliament, that must, surely, have been difficult times -- if profitable for a business already known to have been shipping cargoes of gunpowder from Balasore.

From 1653 to 1658, London was under the administration of the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, followed by the Restoration of the monarchy, with King Charles II in 1660.

Whilst we know that, from at least the middle of that century, the Company, who had opened a base of operations at Balasore in Orissa, were already shipping cargoes of gunpowder/saltpetre to England, probably used in battles of the civil war. It was not until 1672 that the Company itself was permitted to ship, by contract with the King, negotiated by Sir John Banks, 250 tons of saltpetre. The following year, the contract admitted 700 tons.

This was a business that simply grew, and by Lamb’s time, the Company monopoly on such Bengal-sourced cargoes and, as contracted suppliers, to the ever active navy, through the American War of Independence and European wars as well as an emerging conflict with the French, certainly comprised a considerable proportion of revenues.

Of course, trade also included vast tonnages of silk and cotton fabrics, increasing proportions of which became finished fabrics of Company founded factories and mills, amongst much other locally sourced merchandise; and, equally, the finished product of Britain, for sale in the region.

Considerably altered, and containing already, the first of the infamous allegorical works of art, by 1726, the Company moved its quarters to a site in Fenchurch Street whilst a new building, facing onto Leadenhall Street, was under construction.

In June 1729, the Company returned to its new offices, which also included considerable space for storage of trading cargoes; though it is doubtful, perhaps, if the gunpowder and saltpetre were included.

It was then that, in the Directors Court Room, together with the first of the allegorical paintings, six canvasses by George Lambert, illustrating the Company’s six factories of the time, were unveiled. The six were St Helena, Cape Town, Fort William and Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, and Tellicherry on the Malabar coast in Kerala; East India Company ships were added to the foreground of the paintings by the marine artist, Samuel Scott, known as “the English Canaletto.”

The second allegorical work, “The east offering its riches,” by Spiridone Roma, a Greek artist, was added to the dome of the Revenue Committee Room in 1778.

Throughout the period, until 1799, additions to the premises were made all around, a sure measure of the rapidly growing fortunes, of even the Company, despite widespread looting of saltpetre by its people in India for personal gain, like the salt taxes, amongst many others.

It was in this magnificent new “Corporate” premises, from 1799 until his retirement in 1825, that Lamb pursued his humble work. Retiring, at the age of 50, we may believe that even this humble member of the Company had accumulated sufficient wealth to live out his days.

As did, we know, many others, both British and Indian, though many in more lavish style -- although most, certainly, in less.

The almost compellingly egregious works of art can be easily viewed online, by searching the titles given.