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.