Apr 19, 2007

Book Review: Bombay in the Days of Queen Anne

Bombay in the Days of Queen Anne, John BurnellBurnell, John

Nendeln, Lichtenstein: Hakluyt Society/Kraus Reprint, Ltd., 1933, 192 pages

Bombay in the Days of Queen Anne is a travel narrative that is part of the Hakluyt Society's Second Series. Little is known about Burnell beyond what the author discloses in his narrative, which was composed in the early eighteenth century. He was an ensign in the service of the British East India Company who arrived in Bombay perhaps as early as 1709, and who traveled on a Company ship to Madras in 1711. The Madras Consultation Book provided a brief biography of Burnell:
Having never an ensign fit to do duty in this garrison, we have entertained Mr. John Burnell, late ending at Bombay, who came hither on account of his health, a person well skill’d in drawing and who has some knowledge in fortification.
Burnell fell afoul of the authorities in Madras, according to the following summary of a disciplinary proceeding at Fort St. George 27 May 1712:
Ensign John Burnell having been guilty of several disorders, such as intemperate drinking, abusing the freemen and Company’s servants, and disobedience to his superior officers, and the President acquainting the Board that he had severall times pardoned him in hopes of amendment, but in vain: Ordered that he be dismissed from the Service and rendered uncapable for the future.
The miscreant Burnell then traveled to Bengal before disappearing from official records.

Jan Van Ryne, 1754,Fort St George, Madras, on the Coromandel Coast1754 painting by of Fort St George, Madras, on the Coromandel Coast

Burnell composed Bombay in the Days of Queen Anne between 1710 and 1713, approximately four decades after the East India Company first leased Bombay from the Crown. The author wrote to an unknown reader – perhaps his father - he only noted as “Sir,” concluding passages with the phrase “Your obedient son, J.” The text records Burnell’s observations about the geography, trade, inhabitants, and flora and fauna of the regions surrounding Bombay and Bengal.

The author observed that the life expectancy for Europeans was poor, and one gets a sense of his wry sense of humor in the following passage describing medical care in Bombay:
The Hospital… is seldom empty, occasioned from the unhealthiness of the place. It is enough to make a man die with the thoughts of going into it, for it stands hardly fifty yards off of a high grave… Few enter it above the degrees of soldiers and sailors, especially of the former; so many have gone in ill and come out so well that they never ailed of anything after. Tho’ yearly supplied with chests of fresh doses, yet I am too sensible that many of my fraternity going under their hands, never lived to tell of the excellency of their medicines.
Burnell documented the presence of Jesuit and Franciscan priests and missionaries in Bombay in the early eighteenth century. In the description of a procession of the Cross, Burnell’s disdain for Catholicism appears, as he is dismayed to find that the demonstrative “crying and shewing such contrition” of the participants at the iconography caused the author to wonder “if they really took the image for the glorious body it represented.” Burnell excoriated the brand of Christianity being promulgated by the Portuguese Catholics:
In such a blind faith do these fathers train their disciples that their devotion is nothing but downright idolatry, having nothing but the name of Christians to distinguish them from the heathens.

Burning of A Hindoo Widow, by James Peggs1832 drawing of "Burning of A Hindoo Widow," by James Peggs

Burnell found that the practice of sati was still in existence in the early eighteenth century, despite efforts by the Portuguese to exterminate the ritual. Hindus continued the custom despite the fact that, according to Burnell, “those barbarous actions are detested by the Moors under whose government they mostly live.” The author provided a description of a typical sati ritual, although it is unclear whether Burnell actually witnessed such an event, or if he simply recounted his account from something he heard or read:
There you shall see… a beautiful young creature earnestly supplicating and imploring to be burned with her husband which, if her request is granted, she goeth attended with all signs of mirth and gladness, being richly adorned and attended with all her consorts, who follow her with songs and praise… When she hath mounted the pile and embraceth her dead husband, they fasten her down with a cord lest she repent her bargain and leap out of the fire and so leave the husband to burn by himself. When she is fast, they set fire to the wood, the smoke of which presently suffocates her, where they consume together… she that refuseth to burn hath immediately her head shaved, which to a woman is the greatest reproach, and she is turned out from among her relations and becomes ever after a despicable object.
Bombay in the Days of Queen Anne provides readers with an eyewitness view of Bombay and the Indian subcontinent in the decades before the East India Company became such a dominant force in the region. Burnell’s place names, often spelled phonetically, sometimes pose difficulty for modern readers, but the editors provided modern spellings and alternate names for most of the places described by the author. Finally, as often the case in a travel account, one learns as much about the biases and beliefs of the author as the people and places being described, and the personage of John Burnell provides insight into the formation of the British imperial mindset.

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