Home Factor company An 18th century letter to Bombay shows what it was like to serve in the East India Company

An 18th century letter to Bombay shows what it was like to serve in the East India Company

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In August 1720, the East India Company council in Bombay received a letter from their factors and merchants based in the town of Mocha. They had been waiting for this letter for some time. It was the practice for the factory staff to report regularly on their activities as Moka was the warehouse for Yemen’s coffee markets, in which the company had invested heavily.

The letter contained expected business news from the factory and developments in the political situation in Yemen, which had become increasingly tense in recent years. Despite all this, the East India Company’s investment in coffee was paying off, and the Council could feel at ease knowing that their men in Moka were handling their affairs well.

This letter was accompanied by a list of the factory’s expenses, the salaries of the guards and servants, the salaries of the company’s four merchants, and the running costs of the factory itself. One of the most important of these was the expense incurred in maintaining the factory’s “Table” which amounted to almost 300 Spanish dollars per month (the famous piece of eight).

It was a considerable sum to feed the 22 residents of the factory, including the Eurasian “topas” and “peon” guards. Access to the table was also open to English merchants and visiting ship’s officers when present in port, making it a space for social interactions in addition to eating and drinking.

Social forum

The archives kept by the Mocha factors tell us a lot about what the table would have been loaded with. For the most part, this seems like a fairly standard dish for modern English cuisine: greens, salt, beef, onions, limes, mutton and fresh fish appear regularly, as do poultry, chickens, pigeons and eggs. To this menu were added some local flavors, with lime, “spiciness” and “temperament”.

The latter is particularly interesting, as a temper, Tadka or Tarka, is a distinctive feature of South Asian cuisine, where spices are mixed with oil or ghee and then strained, leaving a flavored medium.

So while some factory dwellers may have been happy to stick with familiar flavors, others regularly sampled local flavors. In addition, the factory received regular shipments of Persian wine, as well as beer produced in Cape Town. Wine was so important to the factory that the letter received from Mocha protests that it had been two years since they had received any from the East India Company. Instead, they had been forced to buy their own, rather than go without.

The content and habits around the table of the East India Company can tell historians a lot about merchants’ attitudes to sociability. The table was a forum for cultivating relationships with factory personnel, while inviting travelers and visitors to make new connections. The East India Company’s pay may have been poor, but service at Moka, as at other factories, came with significant benefits.

Studying the details of conditions in factories beyond India can provide much texture and depth to our understanding of the lived experience of East India Company service while giving a sense of the daily routines of merchants themselves. The factory was a place of commerce, but also a domestic space.

This article was first published on the British Library’s Untold Lives blog.