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An 18th century whistle-blower

  • Published at 06:20 pm February 12th, 2016
An 18th century whistle-blower

Defined from the vernacular as either just a “good man” or “a true hero,” William Bolts, rather appropriately fits either description.

Born in Amsterdam in 1739, probably to an English mother, and Palatinate German father -- he would appear to have been, in many ways, a very modern man. Educated, probably with all the appearance of self-confidence, as would be necessary for a young man hired into what the world now knows was by way of being a “human jungle” -- the cadre of East India Company in Bengal in the immediate aftermath of Plassey.

Germany, Netherlands, and England were still in the throes of a great deal of Puritanism of religion, and no doubt, Bolts brought to his work, some semblance of high idealism.

All of which probably made him a somewhat prickly colleague -- but also made him, certainly, the first of a legion over ensuing centuries of Corporate whistle blowers. And his history describes the same sad result that has dogged many, since.

In his late teens, he spent time working in Lisbon, in the diamond trade. At the age of 20, in 1759,  he was recruited to join the East India Company in Calcutta, where it was his experience with the locally mined gems that appealed to the Company. Their 1757 victory at the battle of Plassey, over the independent, young Nawab of Bengal, certainly established their domination of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. The subsequent victory in 1764 at Buxar secured it. And amongst the many local resources over which they took control were the diamond fields of Orissa.

Adept at languages, adding Bengali to his fluency in English, Dutch, German, Portuguese, and French, he may have worked for company employees in their private trades, of which diamonds rapidly became a favoured commodity, small in weight and size, considerable in value, and easily hidden and transported home.

Appointed to the company’s Benares factory, where he  developed the saltpetre and gunpowder factory, established an opium works, and “promoted the trade in diamonds” -- there can be little doubt that his integrity must have been one of his virtues for both the company and its employees; and being posted to Benares removed him from the flourishing social life of Calcutta, to which he was probably not well suited.

However, it may well be that integrity became more of a liability to his associates than the personal trust they had in him.

In particular, his familiarity with the custom and practice of trade and dues made him rapidly familiar with the widespread abuse by the company and its employees, and even its associates, of the privileges accorded by the Farrukh Siyar’s agreement of 1717. Based on that agreement the company was able to issue authorisations, also, to their agents for such customs-free trade within Bengal. It is not hard to imagine how such a privilege could be profitably abused!

The abuse for both private trades, and those of their supplier merchants was widespread, to the great loss of the Mughal exchequer and its local representatives. This was an abuse that was not the least of the causes of quarrel with the company of the headstrong young Nawab Siraj ud Daulah.

Although, unsurprisingly, himself amassing a considerable personal fortune, to which his knowledge of diamonds, we may assume, contributed handsomely. 

In 1768, he fell foul of the company by quitting his employment with them and announcing his intention to start a newspaper in Calcutta, which would have been the first such publication in India.

In his announcement, he observed that he had documentary evidence of things, “that most intimately concerned every individual.”

He was instructed to go to Madras, and thence take passage to England.

We cannot, of course, be sure that that was not exactly what he wanted. However, whilst in modern vernacular, he would, perhaps, be described as a “whistle blower,” it seems that he suffered the usual fate of today’s whistle blowers, eventually dying in poverty in 1808 in a Paris poorhouse.

It is hard not to see in Bolts, a highly intelligent, well educated young man, scarcely conforming to the pattern of the company employees of his period.

Probably he was not an easy young man. At only 30 years of age, he had to suffer his voyage home with those who would regard his “whistle blowing” as something that would have marked him out, within the small confines of a ship heading to England -- as a man to be avoided and treated as a pariah.

The company in India had stripped him of his fortune, as they were easily able to do with fines -- and declared him bankrupt. On his return to London, a company already coming under rather close scrutiny by Edmund Burke for its practices and misdemeanour, was not ready to even attempt to assist in his rehabilitation.

It is not hard to suspect that Burke and his associates would certainly have entertained him for his evidence of wrong-doings in Bengal, but it is clear that there was no longer any future for him in England.

In 1772, he published a work, “Considerations on Indian Affairs,” in which he attacked the whole system of the company governance in Bengal, and particularly complained of the arbitrary powers exercised by company governors in India, with reference to his own situation. But there were too many vested interests, even in London, especially as the American colonies flexed their muscles, for anyone to support him. This, as we now know, was ever the lot of whistle blowers!

For the ensuing decade or so, the Austro-Hungarian Empire supported his initiative to open the burgeoning opportunities in India, and although both the Portuguese and British took every opportunity to obstruct his progress on their behalf, the imperial neutrality in the American war of independence resulted in a clear instruction from the company court in London, to its people in India, to avoid obstructing such a vital asset.

These adventures, too, ended unluckily, and Bolts turned his attention to North America, and the potentially profitable fur trade with China and Japan. That, too, failed, as did an attempt to capitalise on Cook’s adventures in the Pacific and Australia, again on behalf of Austro-Hungary.

Russia and the Kingdom of Naples were the next to be approached, but then, an approach to the French monarch, the ill fated King Louis XVI, appeared more promising.

Sadly, despite an international reputation for expertise in trade, especially trade with the orient, Bolts' luck seems to have run out early in his life. Even his last venture, a plan made with the King of Sweden to establish a colony in Australia in the late 1780s, was thwarted by Sweden becoming embroiled in a war with Russia.

A true and honest man, he may well have been with the qualities, perhaps, from which heroes are made, but, from his early attempts to reform, what his book described as “as prosperous Bengal” which “had been despoiled and bled white by the East India Company,” to the undoubtedly bitter end -- luck never seemed to have come his way.

Today, we may regard many of the practices that “despoiled” Bengal as having been, even more effectively, instituted under the Mughals. However, Bolts was to live long enough to see the British parliament legislate to control many of the malpractices of the company.

No doubt, the 1857 uprising would not have surprised him. However, like most corporate and governmental whistle blowers, he lived out his life with little, apparently, to show for it. Had he ignored what he saw, and revealed, or threatened to reveal, and “joined the party,” he would probably have died with, at least, a grand mansion and estate anywhere in the world to which he cared to retire.

“Sic simper erat, et sic simper erit!” (So it has always been, so it always will be!)