“Jeopardy of Every Wind: The biography of Captain Thomas Bowrey” by Sue Paul

Fort St George

Thomas Bowrey left London for India as a child in 1668; his father had died of the plague in 1665, a tragedy compounded by the Great Fire the next year. Shipping him off to India was not the worst thing a mother could do in such circumstances. Bowrey arrived in Fort St George, Madras after the New Year, by then the ripe old age of nine.

Bowrey stayed in Asia for the next two decades, gradually becoming a successful, albeit not hugely successful, independent trader, running goods between India and various parts of Southeast Asia. He returned to London, married, and promptly set himself up in business. Bowrey’s main claim to fame is not, however, his business ventures but rather the English-Malay dictionary he published in 1701, that and the fact he apparently made the first English-language reference to the recreational use of cannabis.

 

Jeopardy of Every Wind: The biography of Captain Thomas Bowrey, Sue Paul (Dollarbird, August 2020)
Jeopardy of Every Wind: The biography of Captain Thomas Bowrey, Sue Paul (Dollarbird, August 2020)

Sue Paul’s Jeopardy of Every Wind is the “first full biography” of Captain Thomas Bowrey and nothing if not an attempt at completeness. Paul has made use of all the sources she could come across, particularly Bowrey’s manuscript of his travels, published in 1905 as A Geographical Account of Countries Round the Bay of Bengal 1669-1679 as well as such other letters and documents she could track down. Paul’s background as an amateur genealogist (she and her subject apparently share a name) is evident in both the sleuthing for documents and the detailed discussion of who might or might not have been related to whom.

The result is a granular overview of, particularly, English intra-Asian trade in what was still a relatively early period. It contains details on places, goods, costs and modi operandi. It is also a case-study on how businessmen and entrepreneurs integrated Asian and domestic English business: Bowrey got involved in all sorts of projects, from real-estate to slave-trading, once back in England.

Paul has structured the account literally year-by-year, resulting in something more akin to a chronicle than a narrative. Conspicuously lacking is Bowrey’s voice: she quotes hardly any of the material he left behind. The Bay of Bengal, available on-line, is largely descriptive, but the author comes across as observant, tolerant but judgemental: of the native residents of Fort St George, he says, “they are a Sorte of harmlesse Idolatrous people” and who “are Very precise in their idolatrous ways of devotion.” Paul flavors her account instead with passages that, while not unreasonable if supposition, are nonetheless unreferenced:

 

One wave carried the flimsy boat crashing onto the sandbar. It sat there a short while until the next wave carried it up and over the bar, into smoother water. More paddling by the ten men brought the boat up onto the beach. With a bump, nine-year-old Thomas had arrived at Fort St George.

 

There are several hints that Bowrey was an interesting man: he couldn’t have had much proper schooling, but he had both good ideas—including a proposal to amend Britain’s coinage by re-introducing copper coins to ameliorate the problem of silver flowing out of the country, something he would have known about and perhaps catalysed as a trader in India—and considerable intellectual rigor. The English-Malay dictionary, also online, includes a well-thought-out pronunciation guide and a brief grammar. While it is not entirely clear exactly how the book came about, it shows someone who cared about the quality of work appearing under his name. It also gives some other insights into the man, for Bowrey added some dialogues for language practice; amid various discussions of commerce, one goes:

 

I received a letter which advertizes that our friend Joseph after a long melancholy jumpt into a well and drowned himself.

 

Paul, not a formal historian, has allowed some errors to creep in. She writes for example that

 

The traditional rigging of Indo-Arab vessels was based on the lateen sail, a triangular sail that permitted sailing only before the wind, unlike the square-rigged ship on which most Europeans were trained…

 

which is backwards: it is this lateen sail that allows tacking into the wind. She also writes that the pirate Henry Every took a granddaughter of Aurangzeb as his wife, something which a recent book on the subject found little concrete evidence for.

How did a merchant ship’s captain produce a 500-page Malay dictionary?

Other than the dictionary, Bowrey’s time in England is less exotic than his travels in Asia, but has its moments. He was due to return to India with a shipload of trade goods, but apparently chickened out in Portsmouth. One of his vessels was seized by the Scots, causing something of an intra-national, if not quite international, incident. And Bowrey advised Daniel Defoe in the venture that came to be known as the South Sea Bubble. Even less salubriously, he got involved in the slave trade.

Bowrey’s is not the first name that would come to mind when thinking of Britain’s presence in Asia—he was no Clive—and unless one were something of a specialist, his name might not come to mind at all. He remains, even at the end of what is to date the most authoritative account of his life, something of a puzzle: how did a merchant ship’s captain produce a 500-page Malay dictionary? Paul indicates that he had help from an Oxford academic and may have taken work done by others, but even the final compilation was a significant intellectual effort. Raffles reportedly made use of it. There are worse ways to leave one’s mark upon the world.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.