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In the times of Thomas Bowrey

  • Published at 07:58 pm March 11th, 2016
In the times of Thomas Bowrey

Recorded by the historian and biographer, Richard Davenport-Hines, as the first westerner to write about his experience of smoking cannabis during his travels around the Bay of Bengal between 1669 and 1679,

Thomas Bowrey’s fascinating journal gives us a visitor’s dramatic description of the lands around the Ganges delta -- amongst them, the lands that are now Bangladesh -- in the early years of the reign of the sixth Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb.

A prolific diaryist, his travels provide considerable source note treasures for historians of many locations.

The much editorialised version of his journal, “A Geographical Account of Countries Around the Bay of Bengal: 1669-1679,” provides accounts of Europeans visiting and working in the region. In the process, affording an intriguing insight, not only to those European lives, but also to the lives of contemporary rulers and the subjects of the lands.

Sadly, since those rulers were conquerors of the lands and were served to a large extent by administrators, perhaps the journals offer more of an insight into political and economic life, than social life of more indigenous peoples.

However, from such writing, it is not hard to deduce some of the social and environmental realities of the lives of the ordinary people, as well as their rulers.

A lifelong merchant and sailor -- he appears to have commenced travelling at the youthful age of 19 in 1669. His youthful experience with cannabis may well qualify him as a rather modern young man.

His family background is obscure, but there is evidence that he spent his childhood close to London docks, at Stepney, and with considerable family connections in both mercantile and Royal navies -- so, in all probability, one of the rising artisan classes.

It is certainly true that his descriptions of life with the lands of “Bengala” do dwell rather more on lives and lands, less extraordinary than those he encountered in what he describes as one of the largest and most potent kingdoms of “Hindostan.” Bengal and its surrounds, unsurprisingly, mesmerised him.

Editorially, this description of Bowrey’s is compared with that of the near contemporary, Willem Schouten -- a Dutch navigator of the Dutch East India Company, who writes of it in about 1618 as “Bengale is a great and powerful country, which was formerly an independent kingdom. At present it is under the rule of the Mogol.”

It is, perhaps, the curious omission of two of the most valuable indigenous resources from all these journals that might raise eyebrows.

The list of trading commodities described by them all is considerable, and, in some cases, perhaps a little surprising -- sugar, beeswax, cotton and cotton cloth, silks, butter and ghee, ginger, cheese, civet musk, and opium. But diamonds and saltpetre are most evident in journals of trading operatives, like Streynsham Master, only when mentioned in the context of such as, “stopped the saltpetre boats and hampered trade in every way, to exact offerings.”

A reference to the activities of Shaista Khan, the governor of Bengal, with oversight of all three provinces. Could it be, not that these two, most precious of indigenous commodities, were not something any wise traveller wrote about?

The evident greed of Shaista Khan, the maternal uncle of Aurangzeb, is underlined by references, all from origins far beyond India, for the most part, who successfully taxed such basics as “grass for beasts, canes, firewood, and even thatch, etc.”

The subsequent English rulers may well have been judged somewhat rapacious, but it seems that the people of these lands, including those of today’s Bangladesh, had already been accustomed to the depredations of foreign rulers of their fertile lands, so rich, also, in such as the most basic munition of war, and gemstones.

Whilst most of the European writers of the 17th century in the lands that are now Bangladesh, and neighbouring lands, associated with taking something of a “bird’s eye” view of all they saw and experienced.

The Journal of Thomas Bowrey, however, takes us closer to local experience. A very telling passage in that journal illustrates a great deal of the realities of experience of both local inhabitants and traders from these territories.

“I remember, in the year 1674, when I lived in the town of Balasore, (described by Bowrey as ‘the only sea port in the Bay of Bengala’) a new nabob was sent from Dacca to settle in Cattack, the old one being first sent to avoid contention.

“The new nabob in his journey took all opportunities to get moneys, so much that he let slip none whereby he might enrich himself either by legal or Illegal means.

“He came near to Balasore, Vizt. Within one mile and ½ of it, where he sent for most rich merchants of Gentues and Bhajans, commanding their estates, or considerable portions of them, at his pleasure. His demands off some were 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 thousand rupees.

“And for no other law or reason, but that he told them he wanted a great sum of moneys to welcome him into the place, and he would have it by one means or other.”

Illustrating this observation by telling how he found himself close by his (the Nawab’s) tent in company with an acquaintance, a Dutch doctor -- this brief passage speaks volumes for the oppression of traders, and, obviously, of their employees, associates, suppliers, and neighbours, by the Mughal rulers.

And describes the highly individualised rapacity of those rulers. It also, incidentally, confirms, in passing, the absolute power of the Dhaka rulers, who, at the time, was personified by Shaista Khan, who is famous (infamous) for the wealth he accumulated in Dhaka, a level of riches that probably inspired the greed of so many subsequent rulers.

It also serves to illustrate the fraternisation of Europeans in the region, in common interests.

No student of the history of Bangladesh, and its surrounding lands can fail to find revelation in the remarkable bequest of this sailor, of essentially working class origins, in its wide eyed observation, evidently unaffected by political or economic considerations.

We have no reason to suppose that Bowrey, unlike most such journalists, ended his time in the east especially enriched; which makes him, perhaps, the most interesting of all such sources. 

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