The early 18th century English novelist, Daniel Defoe in his best known work Robinson Crusoe, sets his eponymous hero’s last great adventure in Bengal.
After a life that had taken him from Yorkshire, and his first shipwreck in the North Sea, en route to London, Crusoe adventured in the famous, original novel via North Africa to South America. In a work that -- much like Ian Fleming’s creation James Bond -- reflected that lifetime’s experience, Defoe created Crusoe. Having set up a ranch in South America, Crusoe sets off to Africa to acquire slaves to work in the ranch. Shipwrecked on his voyage to Africa, he is stranded on a desert island; which is the point at which the abridged, children’s version of the book, opens. And the rest, as childhood readers, we all think we know, Man Friday and all! Rescued, bored, his last voyage he made to the newly opened opportunities in the east.
Abandoned because of his unfashionably high principles by a villainous nephew, he commenced as perhaps, anyone would, at that time, on an adventure in international trade.
In fact, the very last of his adventures, in what, even today, is a very absorbing read, was his final journey back to England. However, the evidently well-informed travels of Crusoe give a fascinating glimpse of the world, for an adventurous traveller, in the early decades of the 18th century.
Published in 1717, the book tells us not only quite a bit about popular perceptions, and special knowledge of the lands around the Ganges, knowledge which surely informed the writer’s narrative, but also offers his contemporary readers something of a layman’s insight into their wider world.
The East India Company had, by those early years of the 18th century, already been trading conspicuously in the British public eye, in those lands of the east, for almost a century. And it is quite evident that the popular opinion encompassed a vision of lands as places of great opportunity to create personal wealth.
We do not know what Defoe’s personal connections were with the Company, and its employees, but clearly, whatever his sources of information were, they aroused in him, and, presumably, in the British public minds of the time, envy and admiration of a way of life that, having despite hardships, deprivation and adventure, could offer a crescendo of affluence and achievement in the lands, much of which are now those of Bangladesh.
Indeed, the Calcutta of the day, which is probably the base for Crusoe’s trading business, was scarcely more than a gleam in Job Charnock’s eye at the time of Defoe’s publication. The development of the embryonic city, 35km from the protective shield of Fort William, was located in three small fishing and weaving communities. From which this operating base of the East India Company and its employees grew from the closing years of the 17th century, and flourished for 200 years.
Given an age in which communications between India and Britain could take a year, or more, Defoe certainly seems to have been very conversant with both the location, and the opportunities.
A simple paragraph of his great work suggests, not only some considerable familiarity with this newly emerging Company trading centre, but also of many of its works.
“I took a good lodging in the house of an Englishwoman,” (we may doubt how many English-owned boarding houses there were in Calcutta at the time!) where several merchants lodge, some French, two Italians, or rather Jews, and one Englishman. “Here I stayed above nine months, considering what course to take. I had some English goods with me of value, and a considerable sum of money; my nephew furnishing me with a thousand pieces of eight (Spanish Dollars), and a letter of credit for more, if I had occasion, that I might not be straightened, whatever might happen. I quickly disposed of my goods to advantage; and, as I originally intended, I bought here (Calcutta) some very good diamonds, which, of all other things, were the most proper for me in my circumstances.”
In fact, Crusoe goes on to acquire a ship, in which he traded in opium and diamonds, amongst other commodities, between India and the East India Islands. “Very satisfied,” he was with his trade, because of all the open ports where it was free to trade. Not, in fact, how history relates the tight control exercised by both the East India Company, and its Dutch equivalent, the VOC, but perhaps closer to the reality?
The fact that we know Company ships were more focussed on Gunpowder and saltpetre, silks, precious metals, and spices at the time, Defoe’s evident knowledge may well reflect something of his understanding of private trades that were permitted to Company employees.
Defoe was, himself, a trader, as well as being a noted pamphleteer, novelist, political and religious activist, intelligence agent, and spy. And, no doubt, some of these activities, or all, may well have given him access to a great deal of knowledge about the work of the East India Company in India.
Recruited by King William III, following the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, he would almost certainly have had access to plenty of available inside information. He would probably also have been closely involved in the aftermath of the 1685 attempt by England to seize the Port of Chittagong; a shambolic, failed, coup de main that led to the infamous and potentially disastrous, Child’s War.
Sir Joshua Child was, at the time, Governor of the East India Company. He had been for years an experienced trader and supplier to the navy, which supplies certainly included gunpowder.
The 17th century, as it ended, had seen much conflict, in both the British Civil war, and international conflicts. The English attempt on Chittagong was almost certainly an attempt to improve, and reduce the cost, of the gunpowder supplies from which Aurangzeb’s deputies, as well as the Emperor himself, reaped a great harvest of revenues.
It is, then, very probable that his imprisonment for debt, and other alleged offences, revealed that, even in the early 18th century the lot of those engaged in the intelligence gathering business could change rapidly with any change of regime. It appears that Defoe found this the hard way, at the death of William.
When William’s sister-in-law, Anne, succeeded to the throne, her circle of influence certainly differed from that of William, and it seems safe to assume that Defoe was one of the losers. No doubt, incarcerated in prison for debt as much as to keep him out of the way of the incomers, he sought, like a latter-day Ian Fleming, to turn his intelligence knowledge and experience into income, with Robinson Crusoe the result, as a latter-day James Bond!
But we might do well, also, to remember that the lives of British residents in Bengal, of which, for the previous half century, Dhaka had been capital, together with the administration centre of the neighbouring states of Bihar and Orissa as well, were about to change. Following the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, and the rapid succession of heirs, many in their youth or childhood, the Mughal regime began its decline. And that opened the door to the opportunities, sought by many Europeans, but, finally, won by the British.
The diamonds that Defoe revelled in were sourced from nearby Orissa. The Mahanadi River, which flows into the Bay of Bengal through the Bhadra Plain, is believed by many to be the world’s earliest source of these most precious of gem stones. Indeed, until, in the 17th century, when another source was identified in Borneo, it may well have been the only such source, although the claims for the Penner, Krisha and Godovan rivers, further south on east coast India are also advanced.
It may be no coincidence, in fact, that the East India Company were amongst many European trading organisations whose earliest bases in east coast India were set up at Balasore, adjoining the estuary of the Mahanadi.
Gem stones were certainly on the European “shopping list,” and diamonds were probably close to the top of that list.
Ptolemy, the Roman geographer and cartographer, writing of the Ganges delta he so assiduously mapped in the second century CE/AD, makes much of the diamonds, and it is the source he mentions that is widely identified as today’s Mahanadi.
The mid-17th century French traveller, Tavernier, himself a jeweller, in his journal of his travels, a journal that may well, in its wide circulation, have served to inspire Defoe, makes a special mention of the many diamond mines around Sambalpur, on the banks of the Mahanadi, and describes there being 8,000 workers in the mines in 1676.
It may well have been Defoe’s habitual discretion as a former intelligence man that avoided his mention of the gunpowder supply, which, by then, accounted for a significant proportion of East India Company cargoes, and almost all the supplies for the British Navy. On the other hand, of course, saltpetre was not likely to be a major component of local trading cargoes, with the prospect of native rulers, and European foes, turning the ensuing arms on them.
Nevertheless, Defoe’s Crusoe, and his diamonds offer a fairly revealing insight into the world, quite literally, of the early 18th century. Especially, in the Indian adventure, omitted from the abbreviated edition so loved by generations of children, an insight into what were to prove the lands at the foundation of the greatest empire the world has ever known. Very suitable for one of the world’s earliest, greatest, and most popular adventure tales.