I’m researching the East India Company for my latest book (The Marquess Who Loved Me, coming soon, I swear), and I’m stumbling across all sorts of fascinating anecdotes and snippets of travel letters. Consider this gem, from a biography of John Palmer of Calcutta. Before John Palmer became the wealthiest English merchant in Calcutta, he was a 15-year-old boy in the Navy. Here’s a snippet from a letter he wrote to his mother after seeing action:
I was in the third action, which I assure you was remarkably severe, I was stationed on the quarter deck, which place was one continued scene of slaughter, not having less than ten men killed or wounded; I fortunately escaped unhurt. I say fortunately for I was of some service that day.
Way to make your mum feel better, John Palmer!
By the way, Palmer’s rise to greatness was swift, but he had a penchant for fathering children (his wife, rumored to be an Anglo-Indian, was five months pregnant when they married and went on to have more than a dozen kids), a dangerous combo of innate generosity and bad character judgment, and an extreme willingness to take in houseguests (for example, a penniless orphan was sent to him from England, looking for a husband, and she lived with them at least four years with no success even in the sausage fest that was British society in Calcutta – there must be a story there). In 1830, his bad decisions and horde of mooching children caught up with him, and his downfall caused a Lehman Brothers-esque domino collapse of the Calcutta financial houses. If only he had been nicer to his mother…karma’s a b*tch.
[source: THE RICHEST EAST INDIA MERCHANT: JOHN PALMER OF CALCUTTA, 1767-1836, by Anthony Webster. I checked my copy out from Stanford Library, but you can find it on Amazon here. It's probably not worth $80 unless you're hardcore into the East India Company, but if you can find it in a library, it makes for some interesting insight into the financial companies and private traders that operated despite the EIC's 'monopoly' even before 1813]