Taking on a behemoth
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.
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:
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."