Letters From Bencoolen – Stokeham Donston

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One of the oldest marked graves in the  British Cemetery in Bengkulu, Indonesia belongs to a Stokeham Donston  (SD) who died in 1775.

Since it is quite a distinctive name I thought I would Google it and see if anything is known of this individual. The search results revealed a bundle of letters and other documents held by Nottinghamshire Archives pertaining to SD. (Incidentally there is a hamlet called Stokeham about 14 miles from Worksop, Nottinghamshire which might be the origin of the unusual Christian name.)

I contacted Nottinghamshire Archives and they kindly forwarded me copies of two of the more interesting letters. These shed some light on the type of life SD would have endured in Bencoolen in the mid 1700s.

The letters were sent to George Donston (GD) of Worksop who was seemingly a relation, a business partner and well connected with the higher echelons of the English East India Company (EIC), for whom SD worked as a ‘factor’ (someone who received and sold goods on commission).

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SD’s handwriting in these letters was immaculate and you can imagine him sitting in the sweltering heat of Fort Marlborough, dipping his quill into the ink pot and wiping his brow so that his sweat would not blot his penmanship. This copperplate script with ornate flourishes and unfamiliar abbreviations is not so easy to read for modern eyes but I have tried to quote his letters as accurately as I can, including his archaic grammar and spelling.

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The final page of Stokeham Donston’s letter dated 28th January 1758.

The first letter dated 28th January 1758 was taken up mostly with matters of business. For example, he mentioned a shipment of pepper to England and having drawn bills of exchange on GD. He also described how he arrived in Bencoolen on the 29th September 1757, after a very good passage of ten weeks.

East Indiaman sailing from Madras Painted and engraved by R. Dodd. Published in London, 1797
East Indiaman sailing from Madras Painted and engraved by R. Dodd.

His first impressions of the place seemed favourable as far as business potential was concerned:

I cannot avoid acquainting you with the fine situation of this place of trade and if the Europeans here had money sufficient to carry on the trade which might be had here they might make as good fortunes as at Madras or Bengal.

He reminds GD that he had earlier indicated he would give SD £500 to invest in trade on GD’s account or as a loan repayable with interest at the rate of 10% a year.

As a factor with the EIC, he was allowed space in EIC ships to import and export goods for his own account and in this high risk, high reward business many factors became fabulously wealthy. Goods mentioned in his correspondence included opium from India to China, tea from China to England, silver and pepper from Sumatra to India and England, and arrack and sugar from Batavia to Sumatra and India.

He was less impressed with some of his colleagues at Fort Marlborough:

Mr Carter our Governor is not yet arrived and we are in daily expectations of seeing him; he is very much wanted here, for the Governor that now supplies his place is no more fit for it than any of us who came out in the last Ship, he is a very indolent man, a man who has seen nothing of the world, but been brought up in this place from the 14th year of his, in short he is a person who troubles himself little about business and if he continues long in the chair, I dare say this place will go to ruin, instead of improving which would be the case twas Mr. Carter or any other clever person at the head of affairs.

He concludes by complaining about the need to avoid office tittle tattle and asks George to put in a good word for him with Mr. Carter. He signs off very formally:

I am Dear Sir with great respect your obliged & very humble servant Stokeham Donston, Fort Marlbro’

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Part of Stokeham Donston’s letter dated 1st March 1759.

A subsequent letter to GD dated March 1st 1759 starts off by saying that he had not received replies to his earlier letters (perhaps George was having cold feet about investing the £500 with his relation)?

Stokeham continues with some happy news:

I fancy you will be surprised when I tell you I am married to a young lady whose name is Braham, her father is surgeon of this place, who having acquired a pretty competency is now making up his affairs in order to return home, which he intends to do next year. I esteem myself especially happy in every respect in the marriage state. She is a good natured, agreeable & sensible girl and very well qualified to make my happiness compleat.

He goes on to reveal a somewhat calculating and mercenary streak to his character:

I have sold my house and live with her Grandmama, a very discreet & housewifely old Lady, who takes a great deal of pains to make her Granddaughter  a good and an obliging wife. Her fortune will be about £1600 which will be the least. I have no money with her at present but have secured that her father has a large family to provide for and cannot put down anything for the present. Her Grandmama is worth about £3000.

I have wrote to my Aunt Donston but have made no mention of my marriage to her the reason is my want of time which I hope will plead my excuse. I shall be oblige to you if you will communicate the contents of this to her.

It seems his early optimism and enthusiasm for Bencoolen as a place to make money had faded by now:

This place is not so advantageous as other parts of India, nor will it ever be so.

He then asks for GD’s assistance and connections in getting him transferred to more a lucrative posting (the first of many such requests):

I should be happy if I could be removed to Bengal or Madras for these are the places where anything is to be had. I don’t know what your interest with my Lord Scarborough may be but I’m certain were some of the great ones to give the hint to the Court of Directors all might be accomplished. If not, I hope you will not be unmindful of me in getting promoted in other respects.

Nottinghamshire Archives also provided me with a summary of the contents of other letters in their possession although I have not obtained copies of the actual letters. One of these, sent to GD on 12th December 1759, just nine months after the marriage letter, announced the death of his wife. I do not know whether it indicated the cause of death – malaria most likely but possibly during childbirth? The letter also complained about the Governor’s intention for the opium trade to China to be taken out of the private hands of factors like SD and assumed by the Company instead. Without seeing the letter it is not possible to gauge which was the bigger blow to SD, the death of his wife or the loss of the lucrative trade.

Fort St George on the Coromandel Coast.  Belonging to the East India Company of England
Fort St George on the Coromandel Coast. Belonging to the East India Company of England. Fort St George By Jan Van Ryne (1712–60); Publisher: Robert Sayer

By October 1760, SD was in Fort St. George (Madras) following the loss of Bencoolen and other Sumatran outposts to the French (during the Seven Years War) which had caused SD a loss of £2500 (equivalent to £440,000 in today’s money).

A letter to GD sent in September 1762 described how Fort Marlborough had been re-established following the defeat of the French at Pondicherry and SD was back in Sumatra. An epidemic in Bencoolen caused the loss of 1/4 of the troops and 2/3 of the civilian population in the town.

By March 1765 he wrote how he was seen as the next in succession for appointment to Fort Marlborough’s Governors Council but he told GD that he would give up this chance to get to Bengal, both for more opportunities to make a fortune and for health reasons.

It seems though that GD was either unwilling or unable to pull strings on behalf of SD to have him transferred out of Bencoolen and he languished there in deteriorating health until his death on 2nd April 1775 at age 41.

There was one bright spot however before his death. In 1772 he informed GD that he had married for a second time, to a Miss Kirkpatrick.

The letters from the Archives were not quite as interesting as I’d hoped, being rather formal and business related, but it was good to unearth something about Bengkulu Cemetery’s oldest British resident.

Bencoolen’s British Relics & Other Attractions

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“This is without exception the most wretched place I ever beheld. I cannot convey to you an adequate idea of the state of ruin and dilapidation which surrounds me.”

So said Stamford Raffles when he arrived in Bencoolen to take up the post of Governor General in October 1817.

A bit harsh? Probably not at the time. Even today, after 200 years of progress, an air of torpor hangs over the old part of Bencoolen, the part that Raffles would recognise, though to be fair the town (now called Bengkulu) has grown enormously and the newer districts are more vibrant.

By the time Raffles arrived, Bencoolen had already been a British possession in Sumatra for 132 years, having been established as an East India Company (EIC) trading post in 1685, reporting to the Bengal Presidency.

A combination of rampant malaria, depressingly damp climate, lazy and corrupt officials, economic mismanagement, earthquakes and a local population unwilling to toil unnecessarily for foreign masters meant that Bencoolen was one of Britain’s least successful colonies.

Raffles had just arrived from a successful stint in Java and despite his negative first impression of Bencoolen he set about making a go of it with his customary talent and energy. He abolished slavery and gambling, he planted nutmeg and coffee, freed up the pepper trade and repaired strained relations with local chiefs.

Eventually however even Raffles was worn down by Bencoolen. The nutmeg and coffee crops were losing money and four of his children died here from fever, presumably malaria, which almost took his life too. Gradually his attention shifted towards a new settlement that he had established on a small island called Singapore which he saw as having greater potential.

Bencoolen was soon afterwards handed over to the Netherlands as part of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 in exchange for giving up any Dutch claim to Malacca and Singapore. The Dutch East India Company may have been master traders but they were less canny when it came to swapping territories. Not only did they swap Bencoolen for Singapore, the Dutch wanted the tiny nutmeg growing island of Run so badly that they exchanged it for New York! Of course I am over-simplifying.

On my recent trip to Bengkulu I looked for the remnants of British Bencoolen together with any other tourist sights. Here is what I found.

Fort Marlborough

Fort Marlborough Bengkulu in 2016

Bencoolen’s top British relic is undoubtedly Fort Marlborough which was built by the East India Company between 1714 and 1720. It replaced an earlier fort called Fort York which had been built in the wrong place and was later abandoned. Despite its age and its location in an earthquake prone area Fort Marlborough remains in remarkably good condition with thick, robust walls arranged in a star shape and surrounded by dry moats.

Tombstone of George Shaw at Bencoolen

Three large tombstones are propped up against a wall just inside the entrance. This one remembers George Shaw who served as a factor in Bencoolen from 1699 until he was ‘removed by death’ in 1704.  The other headstones are of Richard Watts and Henry Stirling.

ancient graffiti at Bencoolen

A piece of ancient graffiti has been carved into the wall of one of the former cells or barracks. Written in Dutch, presumably by a soldier or prisoner, it has been translated as “Whoever observes this compass, don’t get angry to the one who makes this scratching. Remember that the misery and time make me scratch here, and when I write this.”

View from Fort Marlborough

Nice views from the walls of the fort.

Parr Memorial

Parr Memorial, Bencoolen

A short distance from the fort is the Thomas Parr Memorial. Parr was the British Resident of Bencoolen, one of Raffles’ predecessors. He arrived in town in 1801 with instructions to cut costs, thereby alienating a lot of the locals who depended on EIC handouts, including his Bugis bodyguards. He was murdered and beheaded. The memorial looks rather shabby and serves as a skateboard park for the town’s youths but I suppose he is lucky to be remembered at all after all these years.

Hamilton Memorial

Hamilton Memorial

Another Brit has his own memorial, usefully serving as a traffic roundabout. The plaque on the memorial reads “Underneath this obelisk are interred the remains of Captain Robert Hamilton who died on the 15th December 1793 at the age of 38 years in Command of the Troops and Second Member of the Government.” Promotion in the EIC would have come fast In Bencoolen where disease was rife and long term survival prospects for the British inhabitants were bleak.

British Cemetery

British Cemetery, Bengkulu

Those Brits who succumbed to malaria, cholera, dysentery, small pox and the rest ended up here, the Makam Inggris tucked away in the back lanes next to a church. Hundreds would have been buried here over the centuries including Raffles’ four children but probably less than 50 graves are still visible. and many of these no longer have any inscription. After Bencoolen was handed over to the Dutch this became their cemetery in the same way as the Dutch Cemetery in Malacca became used by the British after the Dutch left.

Raffles’ Residence

Raffles’ Residence in Bengkulu?

This grand house in the heart of town is the Bengkulu Provincial Governor’s Residence.  Some say that this was Raffles’ Residence which I suppose is a possibility allowing for a few renovations over the years. It is certainly the sort of location he would have chosen – very close to the fort and facing a padang, now used partly as a deer park and partly as a public space with a rather stunted and tatty modern observation tower in the middle.

Bencoolen-Raffles-Country-House-Pematang-Balam-Bengkulu

Raffles built himself an idyllic country house called Permatang Balan at a place called Bukit Kabat (Hill of Mists) some 12 miles out of town. He retreated here with his wife and children and spent some of the happiest times of his whole life. Unfortunately I was unable to find out exactly where this house was and whether any traces still remain.

Bengulu mountain

There is a spectacularly shaped hill close to Bengkulu, like Rio’s Sugarloaf Mountain, as shown in this photo taken from the Fort. Perhaps Raffles’ country house was in that direction.

Rafflesia Arnoldii

Bencoolen-Rafflesia

While Raffles was stationed in Bengkulu the giant, stinky parasitic flower now known as Rafflesia arnoldii was discovered in tropical forests near Lubuk Tapi. An excursion to visit the flower is one of the top things to do in Bengkulu but they only bloom in November/December so my timing was wrong.

Kampoeng China

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In the shadow of the Fort is this gateway decorated with dragons marking the entrance to Kampoeng China.

Kampoeng China, Bengkulu

China Towns are often the most lively and bustling parts of any city in South East Asia but that does not appear to be the case here. Admittedly it was a hot Sunday afternoon but it seems in Bengkulu the centre of gravity has moved away from Kampoeng China to newer districts.

Bung Karno’s Residence

Bung Karno’s Residence, Bengkulu

Soekarno (Sukarno), affectionately known as Bung Karno, was Indonesia’s first President and he led the country’s struggle for independence from the Dutch from the 1930s onwards. He was a thorn in the side of the Dutch and they exiled him, first to Flores and then to Bengkulu where he stayed in this house from 1938-1942. It is now a small museum and contains his well-thumbed book collection, his bicycle, his furniture and various photos and portraits

Ibu Fatmawati Soekarno House

Ibu Fatmawati Soekarno House

In a nearby street is the house of Fatmawati who Sukarno met during his exile and later married.

Fatmawati Soekarno

It is said that he was unable to attend his wedding ceremony so he sent along his dagger to represent him and she married that. Perhaps that explains her somewhat sad look in this picture. She is accredited with sewing the first Indonesian flag from two strips of red and white cloth and her sewing machine is one of the exhibits in the house.

Bung Karno Mosque

Bung Karno Mosque, Bengkulu

This mosque, also called Masjid Jamik, was remodelled under the guidance of Sukarno who was an architect among his many talents.

The Beach

The Beach at Bengkulu

Bengkulu has a very pleasant beach called Pantai Panjang (Long Beach) stretching about 7km with a brick and concrete footpath running its entire length. Needless to say I walked from end to the other. I didn’t see anybody swimming. Dangerous currents perhaps?

On the horizon is Rat Island. It is the best place for snorkelling in this area.

Turtle on the beach at Bengkulu

I was excited to see a turtle on the beach but sadly, on closer inspection, it was dead.

Dead turtle in Bengkulu

Pantai Panjang beach at Bengkulu

The beach is pretty empty in the heat of the day but gets busy with the locals in the early evenings who come to sip a coconut, have a meal or just enjoy the sunset and cooling breezes.

Bengkulu's malaria problem

I hope I have not painted too negative a picture of Bengkulu. It has improved a lot since Raffles’ day. It is a nice place to visit and the people are super friendly. They need to do something about the malaria though. This newspaper headline while I was there says that Bengkulu tops the league table for malaria cases in Indonesia. Plenty of insect repellent required.