Taking on a behemoth
22 February 2016
The life story of Katharine Gerrard Cooke (1695-1745) evokes the struggles faced by the early English pioneers in India. (Part 2)
( Read the first part of Katharine Gerrard Cooke’s story here.)
There was no time for tears or farewells. The small trading ship was waiting in the harbour, its threadbare canopy no protection against the scorching tropical sun. The English women and children who had lost their husbands and fathers in the massacre at Angengo on the night of 14 April 1721 were hustled into a ship and sent to safety.
Of the three women on the ship, Sarah Cowse had four children, and Cesar Burton’s widow two. Records do not mention whether Katharine Gyfford had children with her at the time of their flight, even though she was mother of Thomas Chown and Anne Gyfford. Like most English parents of her time, she may have sent them to England for schooling, as the boy was eight years old and the girl six. The small vessel in which the women and children found themselves was carrying cowries from the Maldives, and took one month to pass Cape Comorin, at the southernmost tip of India. It reached Fort St. George, Madras, on 17 May 1721.
Katharine had tried to collect as much of her property and cash as possible, but there had been little time. She managed to take the account books and some official papers, as her husband’s private business was mixed up with the East India Company’s trade. Her actions provoked criticism from the Bombay Council, who accused her of misappropriating its documents. Historian John Biddulph, in his 1907 book The Pirates of Malabar, writes that she made an effort to persuade Lieutenant Peter Lapthorne, one of the few Englishmen who escaped the massacre, to go with her. However, Captain Robert Sewell, senior EIC servant at the Angengo Fort, stopped him. As the boat moved away from the harbour near the English fort on the Arabian Sea, she called out to Lapthorne to request that he take care of her remaining property, as her agent. Lapthorne and Sewell, however, had other ideas. A few weeks later, Lapthorne wrote to Katharine that the only property he could find belonging to her were “two wiggs and a bolster and some ophium” [sic] in the warehouse.
The Council had reasons to hesitate in their dealings with Katharine as they were pursuing an Englishwoman for her dead husband’s alleged debts for the second time
At the fort, where the survivors of the massacre camped, defence against the native soldiers was organised by gunner Samuel Ince. Sewell and Lapthorne got drunk and neglected their duties, and tried to plunder the warehouse. In desperation, Ince announced that he would explode the battery in case the native soldiers invaded the fort. Six months after the massacre, an officer from Bombay, Blackett Midford, took charge of the fort, leading a Company force. He arrested Sewell and Lapthorne for their irresponsible conduct and theft after the massacre, and sent them to Bombay for trial. Both, however, were let off with a scolding. By the time their trial took place, the Company had come to know that during the brief months that Midford was in charge, 140,260 gold coins had disappeared from its treasury. The directors found the charges against Midford to be “very grievous ones”, and the Bombay Council, who had sent him to Angengo, ascribed his misdeeds to “unaccountable stupidity”.
Midford was discharged from his duties at Angengo, where he died within a few months, and Alexander Orme was appointed chief factor. Orme’s reports to Bombay tell that most of the senior servants at the fort had been killed, and business was in disarray. Many of the fort’s treasures were missing, there were no proper accounts, Katharine Gyfford had taken the books, and inventories on the assets couldn’t be found. Sewell, the storekeeper, had not taken the trouble to keep records. Orme reported to the Bombay Council that William Gyfford owed huge sums to the Company, for which they held Katharine accountable.
The refugees, on their arrival in Madras, were offered a small pension by the Company council there. Mrs Cowse and Mrs Burton received the pensions. The Fort St. George consultations for May 1721 noted that the “unfortunate Widows of the gentlemen lately cutt off at Angengo” were in dire conditions. Therefore, the President proposed the board take some actions for their maintenance. The Council agreed that as Mrs Cowse had four children, she should be allowed 25 pagodas (Madras currency) per month. Mrs Burton, with two children, was to get 20 pagodas. The Council was not sure whether Katharine would accept such a small allowance, and when they offered her 25 pagodas, she refused to accept it.
The Council had reasons to hesitate in their dealings with Katharine. They were pursuing an Englishwoman for her dead husband’s alleged debts for the second time. They had already received communications from Bombay that she was in possession of the Company’s Angengo books holding most of its accounts. These were to be retrieved at any cost. Company historian H D Love, who published his four-volume history of the EIC in Madras in 1912, sidestepped her story in two sentences:
Mrs Katharine Gyfford…was held responsible for her last husband’s debts to the Company. She proceeded to Bengal to ‘live with her Relations,’ and there met Commodore Matthews, to whom she appealed for protection against the claims of the Bombay Government. Matthews carried her to Bombay in the Lyon, and afterwards to England, where cross suits were filed between her and the Company.
However, it was not that simple. The records reveal a much more complex story of a woman’s struggles against a powerful behemoth.
Immediately after the suppression of disturbances in Angengo, the Company tried to retrieve the money it claimed Gyfford owed it. In an urgent letter in 1722 to Madras, the Bombay Council referred to the money its slain servant owed the Company, and contained instructions for its recovery from his widow. In a letter addressed to Blackett Midford, chief of the Council of Angengo, the Council at Fort St. George noted that they had made “strictest Enquiry” about the books, papers and properties of its slain servant Gyfford, but could find nothing except a few books and documents Katharine had voluntarily surrendered to the Council in Madras. They had been persistently asked by their counterparts in Bombay to “seize on the effects of the said Gyfford”, in view of the losses they had incurred at Angengo. They repeatedly held Gyfford’s widow responsible for his alleged misconduct. Similar requests and instructions had been sent to the council in Bengal, too.
Searches and threats
As soon as Katharine reached Madras, the Council there had taken strict actions to search and seize the books, papers and effects of its late servant, in an attempt to recover its money. The Company believed that Katharine had taken away its properties without the authority to do so. Katharine, on the other hand, argued that she had to take the materials because an emergency had arisen, and because her late husband’s businesses were mixed up with the Company’s.
In Madras, Katharine engaged George Tullie, an attorney and old friend of her husband’s, to help her in the dispute. He took custody of the papers and books, and acknowledged this in a communication to the Madras Council. The February 1723 Fort St. George consultation records mention that Tullie had acknowledged having the files and books that the officials at Angengowere demanding. He was ordered by the Council in Madras to provide an account of all affairs under his management relating to William Gyfford and his widow, Katharine.
Tullie delivered the materials as ordered, and the matter was recorded in the diary of consultations the following month. It says that as per the Council’s order, George Tulliepaid the company 280 pagodas which, he claimed, was the Company’s funds that were with Gyfford at the time of his death. He also submitted a list of papers and books belonging to the estate of William Gyfford.
Historian Biddulph was unfair to Katharine, as he wrote that she had left for Calcutta to join her father’s family, leaving the Company’s Angengo factory books with her agent, who surrendered them to the Council only after repeated demands. However, the records show that the formal demand for the surrender of the papers and books was made by the Council on 5 March 1723. They were delivered to the Council on 19 March. It appears that Katharine was facing acute pressure from the Company authorities in Madras. By August, she had left the town and moved to Fort St. David, 100 miles south of Madras. The threats from the Madras Council, in its eagerness to make “strictest enquiries” for its missing books and money on behalf of its masters, were persistent.
On 21 April, the Bombay Council sent instructions to Fort St. George that the papers surrendered by Katharine should be sent to Angengo quickly, “in order to recover what they can” from Gyfford’s effects. Alexander Orme, in charge of the fort, sent an acknowledgement to Fort St. George, in which he mentioned that part of the list was written by Tullie, and that the original documents remained in his hands. These communications to and fro between the Council and Katharine continued for many months. Both parties stuck to their guns.
From Fort St. George, Katharine wrote to the governor and president of Madras Council, Nathaniel Elwick, on 5 August. She requested that he return to Tullie the money and papers that had belonged to her late husband. The Council did not oblige. They replied that these had been taken from her in compliance with letters received from Bombay, since her late husband had been greatly indebted to the Company. They would not return them to her without an account from the Bombay Council to saythat the debts were cleared.
This was a crisis point in Katharine’s relations with the Company. On 28 August, she wrote a sharply worded missive to governor Elwick. In a long letter, which shows her anguish and desperation, Katharine accuses the Council of highly inappropriate and illegal actions towards her and her minor daughter, and threatened them with legal action if their rights continued to be violated. The letter pointed out that the Council had demanded and compelled her attorney to surrender all of her and her daughter’s papers and properties upon a mere supposition that her late husband was indebted to the Company. She felt this action was “contrary to equity, Justice, and the known Laws of Great Brittain.”
She further pointed out that in a letter dated 5 August 1723, she had demanded the president and council return the papers and properties that had been “unjustly forced from my Attorney”. However, she was surprised that she only received a letter signed by the Secretary of the Council, refusing her request on the grounds that her husband’s “supposed debt” was not cleared. She said that the Company were acting illegally and in an unwarrantable manner towards her, and wrote a second letter on 17 August, which did not even elicit a reply. She was driven to lodging a formal protest.
Katharine claimed to be writing without any proper legal assistance, so was reserving the right to make amendments in her charges, to remove any “defects and imperfections in point of Law”. But her letter, which remained buried as an appendix to the Fort St George consultation papers for 1723 and was ignored by earlier historians like Biddulph, reads as a formal declaration of war against the Company that came to rule the whole of eastern hemisphere:
Know all men by these presents that I, Katharine Gyfford, Widow and relict of Mr. William Gyfford, late Chief of Angengo, and Guardian to my daughter Anne Gyfford, do on behalf of myself and said daughter protest against you Nathaniel Elwick, Esqr, President &c in Council of Fort St. George, to answer (in any Court of Judicature when lawfully call’d) for all Damages Losses Charges and Detriments which we already have or may sustain sueing and prosecuting you and every one of you for the recovering that part of mine and my Daughter’s estate and papers which you have so tyrannical and unwarrantable a manner forced out of the hands of my Attorney Mr George Tullie and still detain’d by you although by me several times demanded.
She signed her letter at Fort St. David on the 28 of August, 1723: “and the tenth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King George of Great Brittain France and Ireland & c”, thus putting her faith in the King and his law in far-away Britain.
The Madras Council, with Governor Elwick in chair, considered this letter at its session in September. It decided that no answer should be sent. They reviewed the allowance money paid to the daughters of the recently-deceased Mrs Cowse, reducing it to 8.15 pagodas. In the case of Mrs Burton and her two children, they reduced this to 8.25 pagodas.
After her open challenge to the Madras Council, Katharine moved to Calcutta to be with her parents and family. She was determined to continue her fight, but was faced with a considerable dilemma. The Company had a monopoly on trade, and no English person could travel or do any work in its domains without its permission. Even Englishmen outside of the Company’s rolls were considered interlopers. Katharine’s father was a Company servant, and her brother ran a vessel that carried the Company’s cargo. As a woman she was practically helpless. Her movements were controlled by the Company, and she had little hope of winning her case against them. She swore by the power of the King’s justice, but the British King was thousands of miles away, and the Company represented him in the realms she occupied.
A timely match
Commodore Thomas Matthews then entered Katharine’s life. He was a Welsh gentleman in charge of a squadron of the Royal Navy, and she first met him in Calcutta in 1723. He had appeared at the port in his flagship, Lyon, officially in pursuit of pirates in the eastern seas, but unofficially involved in private trade. She was in her late 20s, he in his late 40s.
Matthews was a rough, volatile and hot-tempered sailor, often picking fights. On 6 February 1721, he left Portsmouth for Bombay on board the Lyon, a 50-gun ship with 240 men. He was sent to India at the request of the Company directors in London, “to curb that insolent Pickaroon” (a reference to their rival, Kanhoji Angre). The decision to send a squadron of the Royal Navy under Matthews was taken following persistent requests from the Council in Bombay, led by Governor Charles Boone, who urged strong action against “Angria and other pyrates”. The Lyon came to Bombay in early September 1721, and even before he set foot on the shore, the Commodore had a dispute with the Governor over protocol. Clement Downing, who accompanied Matthews as a guide and interpreter (and who published a book about his Indian adventures in 1737) describes the incident:
At the Lyon’s arrival, the Commodore very much resented the President’s not saluting him. The President imagined that…he was something superior to a Commodore of a squadron; though the Directors of the Company had sent orders for him to salute the Commodore, at his arrival. After many messages to and fro’, disputing who should fire first, the President in Council complied to salute him, and then the Commodore thought proper to go on shore.
Preparations for an assault on Angre’s fortress, near Udayagiri, were made. The Council promised to invite the Portuguese into the fight, as they also had complaints against Angre. The assault turned out to be a complete rout for the English. Downing witnessed the incident, and wrote that: “Commodore came on shore in a violent Rage, flew at the General of the North, and thrust his Cane in his mouth, and treated the Viceroy not much better.”
Katherine eventually took refuge in Commodeore Matthews ship, for her escape from the Company’s pursuit
The Commodore had a running dispute with one of his deputies, Sir Robert Johnson, captain of the 50-gun Exeter. The feud led to serious consequences. It started over a complaint Sir Robert raised against his purser, Savage. He was accused of misappropriating government money as he failed to provide items like tobacco to officers (which was part of his duty), and was taken prisoner.
The matter came down to a court martial. As far as Sir Robert Johnson was concerned, he was the captain of the ship, while Savage was a nobody. But Matthews was not convinced by the accusations, and his sense of fairness and justice shone through in the course of this trial. Downing notes that during the hearing, “several times [he] desired Sir Robert not to insist on breaking a man that had a large family, and that it was his being poor, which was the cause of those neglects and being obliged to fail directly.” Savage declared that he was in dire straits, as he had only “brought but five farthings out of England” when he took up employment in the ship. There were very urgent requirements for the ship, and little money to take care of all of these commitments, hence his failure to provide certain items. Matthews was moved by the man’s plight, and he instructed his secretary to lend him £ 100. He told Sir Robert that he could not destroy the man.
This led to open warfare. Governor Charles Boone, who had arrived in Bombay in 1715, was leaving his charge after seven years. He had amassed a fortune of more than £ 100,000 from private trade. He was returning home on the London, commanded by Captain Upton, and scheduled to leave in January 1722. Sir Robert’s eldest son, who served in the squadron under Commodore Matthews, had proposed marriage to the Governor’s daughter. She and her parents had accepted. The Governor suggested that the young man might seek a discharge from his position and return to England on the Chandois. Matthews, however, would have none of it. He not only refused permission, but ordered Sir Robert to travel to Goa to purchase arrack for the squadron, and wait for him there until his arrival from Surat. He was instructed not to put in at Bombay, nor to discharge man or officer under any circumstances.
However, Sir Robert ignored the Commodore’s orders. He stopped at Bombay and discharged his elder son there, and made his younger son – who had been a midshipman under him – the third lieutenant. He then proceeded to Goa, where be bought arrack, but only for his own ship, not the entire squadron as he had been instructed to do. From there he moved to Tellicherry, where the Commodore caught up with him and threatened him with court martial for violating orders. Sir Robert resigned. Both father and younger son joined the elder son aboard the Chandois. However, Sir Robert quarrelled with the ship’s captain, and at the Cape of Good Hope, they moved to the Addison. This ran into bad weather, and Sir Robert and his sons were drowned.
All of these quarrels and tragic incidents had made Commodore Matthews a very unpopular figure in Bombay by the time the disastrous battle with Angre’s forces occurred. After the battle, Matthews left Bombay for Madagascar. He then returned to Bengal with a freight of sugar. En route, he stopped at Madras, where he was received with full honours and a 31-gun salute by the Governor and Council.
As Commodore Matthews arrived at the port in Calcutta, Katharine came to be in contact with him. She eventually took refuge in his ship, for her escape from the Company’s pursuit. There are conflicting reports about where she joined him. Downing writes that it was in Madras that Matthews took William Gyfford’s wife on board. Biddulph writes that she joined him in Calcutta. This is more likely, as she had received permission from Fort William to travel in the Lyon to Bombay.
For Katharine, the passage was not easy. The Company had decided to detain her until the accounts were settled, but Matthews informed the Council that she was under his protection, and that all disputes would be sorted out in Bombay. In the meantime, the Company attempted to confiscate a vessel her brother had commanded, which had previously carried Company cargo. Matthews foiled this attempt, informing the Company that he had purchased all of Mrs Gyfford’s interests in the ship, and that any effort to confiscate it would be dealt with seriously.
The Company filed a suit against Katharine for its claims over her late husband’s estates and Katharine filed a counter suit, asserting that the Company owed her late husband money, and claimed £ 10,000 for the presents Gyfford had taken to the queen on the night of his murder
The Company’s ire
Once Katharine reached Bombay, she took up residence in the fort. But things had taken a turn for the worse, as the Council raised a formal claim of £ 9000 on her, an astronomical figure considering the annual salary of William Gyfford, after two decades of service, was a mere £ 20. The Council forbade her from leaving Bombay without settling her accounts. In order to foil the Council’s move to arrest her, Matthews took her back to his ship, where she remained until he was ready to embark on the voyage home.
On the return voyage, the Lyon touched at Goa, Karwar and Tellicherry, and then at Angengo, where the Commodore made an unsuccessful attempt to recover the properties Katharine had claimed she’d left behind there. One of the final stops for the Lyon before she left Indian shores was Fort St. David, where Katharine had spent many days during her disputes with the Council in Madras.
In London, the Company turned its ire on Matthews, and filed a suit of unlawful trading against him. He was subjected to a court martial, found guilty of receiving “disallowed merchandise on board navy ships”, and deprived of four months’ pay as penalty. Following this, the East India Company won a suit against him for illegal trading in its domain. However, Matthews paid nothing, as the Admiralty interceded on his behalf in 1728, and got the proceedings dropped.
The Company filed a suit against Katharine at the Court of Chancery, for its claims over her late husband’s estates. The suit was preceded by efforts to settle through arbitration, but neither party was able to come to an agreement. Katharine filed a counter suit, asserting that the Company owed her late husband money, and claimed £ 10,000 for the presents Gyfford had taken to the queen on the night of his murder. A letter from the directors to the Bombay Council in 1728 mentions that Katharine, who had been in London for about three years, had made a demand of £ 13,041 on the Company. Apparently, in her claim she had included 280 pagodas, which she said was the cash seized by the Governor, and the cost of the goods that had belonged to Mr Gyfford, which she alleged had been seized by the Company at Angengo in June 1721.
There seems to be some basis for Katharine’s claims. It was normal for servants to loan funds to the Company in times of need. William Mildmay (Katharine’s first husband’s predecessor as chief factor at Karwar) had been paid large sums as interest for the money he had advanced for the Company’s needs. Gyfford, in his will signed at Angengo on 30 September 1719, wrote about his debts and mutual indebtedness between the Company and its servant. He bequeathed his personal estate to his daughter Anne Gyfford, son-in-law Thomas Chown, and to “beloved wife Catharine”, who inherited all the “household goods and moveables”.
A beggar’s end
Katharine’s disputes with the EIC at the Court of Chancery in London were drawn out and expensive. It is unknown how the dispute concluded, but records show that legal cases of the time commonly continued for decades without any final conclusion. It took a minimum of three years to file an initial complaint, and preliminary investigations by the court took a few years more. In an incident relating to Angengo, the Company had filed a claim over the estates of Cesar Burton, killed along with Gyfford, at the Court of Chancery in London. The original incident of dispute occurred at Angengo in 1720, and after Burton’s death, the case was revived against his executor. When the executor also died, the Company tried to revive its claims against his son, with litigation continuing some 20 years after the incident.
Katharine had lost almost everything when she returned to India two decades later. In 1743, she petitioned the Governor and Council at Fort St. George for a pension. The petition, taken up by the Council on 30 November, read that she had been reduced to such dire straits that she was seeking a subsistence allowance from the Company, for whom all three of her husbands had worked. She said that at a time when she was in most need of help, she was deprived of any relief from her family and relatives, owing to “unavoidable Accidents and Misfortunes.” It was in these melancholy circumstances that she was “coming before the Honourable Company with a begging bowl”, seeking some relief.
Governor Richard Benyon did not hide his pleasure of revenge against the woman who had caused much trouble as he complied with her request for alms. He commented in his order that “in 1721 when she was not in such indigent Circumstances, She avoided putting the Company to an Expence of 25 Pagodas a month which was offered her.”
Alone and destitute, Katharine lived on the Company’s charity at Fort St. George for two years. She died aged 50 at Madras, and was buried at St. Mary’s Church cemetery at Fort St. George on 2 October 1745. It is not known whether she ever had a gravestone. It is not likely, as the destitute did not receive such luxuries. Katharine was a woman who fought her way in a difficult and inhospitable world, and was ultimately defeated in an unequal battle. But she firmly resisted the bullying tactics of the world’s first global commercial empire.
(To read about the beginnings of Katherine and what happened to her husbands, read the first part here.)
~ N P Chekkutty, a senior journalist based in Calicut, is co-author of three books on South India’s European heritage, including the two-volume Malabar: Christian Memorials and Nilgiri Hills: Christian Memorials.