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Mr Upjohn's Debts: Money and friendship in early colonial Calcutta

  • PETER ROBB (a1)


The paper discusses the effective operation of money and credit among Europeans in Calcutta around 1800, arguing for the importance of informal processes and ties of friendship that facilitated, regulated, and enforced agreements, helping both to tide over individuals in times of economic stress and to underwrite the provision and transfer of capital. The argument is advanced by a detailed case-study of debts owed by one resident—Aaron Upjohn—to another, the diarist, Richard Blechynden, amid a web of acquaintance, officialdom, and law that variously ensured that the debts were honoured. It is defined as a support system among acquaintances, necessitated in part by shortage of money and abundance of risk.



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1 A version of this paper was presented at a School of Oriental and African Studies/Jawaharlal Nehru University workshop, ‘Money and Wealth in South Asian History’, London, 9 October 2009. I am grateful for comments and information then, as also from the Modern Asian Studies readers. I introduced these themes briefly in Robb, Peter (2000), ‘Credit, work and race in 1790s Calcutta: Early colonialism through a contemporary European view’, Indian Economic and Social History Review 37 (1), pp. 125. Some similar arrangements are briefly described in Webster, Anthony (2007), The Richest East India Merchant: The Life and Business of John Palmer of Calcutta, 1767–1836, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, especially Chapter 4. See also Bowen, H.V. (2006), The Business of Empire: The East India Company and Imperial Britain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; and Tripathi, A. (1979), Trade and Finance in the Bengal Presidency 1793–1833, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, Calcutta.

2 Finn, Margot C. (2003), The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture, 1740–1914, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 64. The Blechynden papers (Add.Mss.45578–663, British Library) include a diary in 73 volumes (Add.Mss.45581–653), cited here as ‘RB’, by date of entry only.

3 Poovey, Mary (2008), Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 16: ‘imaginative writing helped people understand the new credit economy and the market model of value that it promoted’, assisted by the ‘professional organization’ of economic writers and fiction's naturalization of money, except in moments of fiscal crisis. Poovey links the distinguishing of fact from fiction and of valid from fraudulent money or credit, but in Chapters 1 and 2 shows both as work-in-progress in 1800. Reducing ambiguity over money amounts to increasing trust in it, regarded (obviously enough) as necessary to credit. I differentiate between such objective or normative ‘trust’ and reliance on individual honour when money was ambiguous.

4 This refers to conditions specific to Calcutta, despite analogies wherever money and credit were evolving. So Calcutta had patronage but entrepreneurs relied on their wits and contacts. Inventors tried to interest the Company, but had no state-backed privilèges or, after 1791, brevets, to encourage scientific investment, not even privately funded patents; see Hilaire-Pérez, Lillian (2000), ‘Technical invention and institutional credit in France and Britain in the 18th century’, History and Technology 16 (3), pp. 285306. Calcutta's European shopkeepers and artisans provided clients with credit, had difficulty recovering debts, and relied on personal trust and contacts, but, as far as I know, had nothing like the ‘trade cards’ for advertising, receipts, and debts described in Philippa Hubbard, ‘The Economic Function of the Trade Card in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, <>, [accessible via subscription only].

5 The first Company rupees date from 1677. From 1769 to 1818, when significant changes were made, the mohur, with 190 grams of pure gold, was worth 16 sicca rupees. The Company-minted sicca rupee of Bengal weighed 192 grams, about 176 of them pure silver, or 4 to 5 per cent more than in the Farukhabad rupee that was also circulating. The sicca was worth 3.5 per cent more than the bhari rupee (also coined in Calcutta), whereas the chalani rupee was worth more than the sicca (116:100, or 14 per cent of the chalani's value). Sicca was officially abolished in 1833–36, and replaced by a standardized, all-India Company rupee with 165 grams of silver, marking a stage on the way to a purely token currency. See entries in Yule, Henry and Burnell, A.C. (1886; 1902), Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary, Wordsworth Editions, Ware (hereafter Hobson-Jobson).

6 For a short but authoritative account of transfers, see Marshall, P.J. (1976), East Indian Fortunes. The British in Bengal in the Eighteenth Century, Oxford University Press, London, Chapter IX.

7 On trust and reputation among merchants, see Smail, John (2005), ‘Credit, risk and honor in eighteenth-century commerce’, Journal of British Studies 44, pp. 439–56. Muldrew, Craig (1998), The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England, Palgrave, Houndsmill, drawing particularly on evidence from litigation, discusses the equation of reputation and creditworthiness (p. 2), markets being not just a means of exchange but ‘a way social trust was communicated’ (p. 5): household wealth, ‘entangled in intrapersonal economic obligations’, ‘came to be interpreted in terms of sociability’, though trust was problematic as the complexity and imperfections of the system grew (p. 123). In Calcutta, imperfections may be said to have necessitated trust.

8 Sargent, Thomas and Velde, Francois (2002), The Big Problem of Small Change, Princeton University Press, Princeton, explain the frequent shortages of small change, hampering economic growth, by profit-related consumer choices and other mechanisms governing the conversion of real-value coins in precious metals to small base-metal coins; principles for securing token coins (limiting their number and making them convertible) were not applied in England until 1816. Calcutta's main problem was different: a shortage of gold and silver coins, mainly for want of precious metal. The Company almost always ran a deficit in the 1790s and 1800s.

9 Colley, Compare Linda (1992), Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, p. 66: ‘Because of the Mint's incapacity to produce enough silver and copper coin, credit played a more important part in Britain's [eighteenth-century] economy than in that of almost any of its competitors’—referring inter alia to the work of Julian Hoppit, ‘The use and abuse of credit in eighteenth-century England’, in McKendrick, Neil and Outhwaite, R.B. (1986), Business Life and Public Policy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

10 Agency houses, as well as being commercial partnerships, originated as a ‘natural outgrowth of the long-standing practice of a European's leaving money with a friend on returning to Europe’, a practice reinforced by the danger of sudden death, and depending, despite betrayals, on trust. The house of Harrop and Stevenson in Tranquebar, for example, may be traced back to friendships among European country traders on the Coromandel coast and Bengal; Furber, Holden (1976; 1990), Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient, 1600–1800, Indian edition, Oxford University Press, Delhi, pp. 290–95.

11 On one hand, expectations from the Company provided security for private borrowing, including the capital contractors needed for Company works, and the Company's own borrowing sustained the financial system. A ‘great run’ on the banks was caused by a report in the Mirror, edited by Blechynden's friend C.K. Bruce, that the Company would soon suspend its borrowing at 12 per cent; RB, 7 October 1796. On the other hand, all payments from the Company were irregular and months in arrears even once approved, while Treasury Bills were negotiated privately, at a discount, even when near maturity. Supposedly paid on application, within nine months, those ready for payment were announced (in sequence of their numbers) in the official Gazette well after their due date. Blechynden lost out by waiting for announcements and not presenting Bills as they fell due; RB, 29, 30 October 1801.

12 For example, a bond of Upjohn's to Blechynden for Rs. 150 was one of a host of papers destroyed by mice; it was replaced through the attorney Ledlie after he had been sent the remnants of the original. RB, 16–17 October 1794.

13 See Finn, Credit, pp. 2–17. The later quotations relate to her use of Marcel Mauss, The Gift (1922).

14 Richard Blechynden also worked as an architect and builder. I have described the Calcutta financial and administrative system, with other examples, in Robb, Peter (2011), Sentiment and Self: Richard Blechynden's Calcutta Diary 1791–1822, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, also drawing on a shorter diary by one of Richard's sons. Richard's diary also forms the basis of Robb, Peter (2011), Sex and Sensibility. Richard Blechynden's Calcutta Diary 1791–1822, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

15 I use the term ‘social capital’ and imply the terms ‘cultural’ and ‘symbolic’ capital while drawing only loosely on Bourdieu's Equisse d'une théorie de la pratique (1972) and subsequent literature. Calcutta practices, such as trust, goodwill, privilege, and mutual support among networks of friends and allies, imply systems (not structures), including a specific ‘sense of limits’ within the ‘practical kinship’ of groups whose members thought about their unity, and hence an informal cultural code that disposed the members to certain motives and actions. One might even say that there were gifts by complex, delayed reciprocity; habitus as a standardized mode and validation of action; and doxa in a range of self-evident beliefs. Mainly, however, I describe continual adjustments and exchanges that were pragmatic but not crudely self-interested or utilitarian. Bourdieu, Pierre (1977), Outline of a Theory of Practice, tr. Nice, Richard, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; quotations from pp. 40 and 164. See also Adler, Paul S. and Kwon, Soek-Woo (2002), ‘Social capital: Prospects for a new concept’, Academy of Management Review 27, pp. 1740; Portes, Alejandro (1998), ‘Social capital: Its origins and applications’, Modern Sociology 24, pp. 120; and Acciaioli, Gregory L. (1981), ‘Knowing what you're doing’, Canberra Anthropology IV (1), pp. 2351. My arguments, though not concerned with the ‘social life’ of money (the impact of its ‘normalization’ on status or individualism), also relate obliquely to the ideas that charity redeemed money and mutuality qualified self-interest; see Valenze, Deborah (2006), The Social Life of Money in the English Past, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, especially Chapter 8.

16 This was not (but may have been a relation of) the celebrated Joseph Price, free merchant and shipowner, who had made and lost a fortune in earlier decades; see Marshall, East Indian Fortunes.

17 RB, 21 November, 7, 9 December 1791; 13 August 1792; 25–27 July, 4, 13, 15, 19–21, 23 August, 27 September, 7, 9, 15–17, 22 October 1793; 14 March 1794; 1, 5–6, 18–19, 30 August, 1, 10 September 1795; 24 March, 28 July, 16 August 1797; 4, 5, 8, 10–11 April 1806. Cooper was dismissed as printer in 1795. The Chronicle ceased publication on 28 March 1797. Holmes has not been precisely identified; he may have been the son, then resident in Calcutta, of a senior merchant who died in 1779. Rothman, though a partner with Burgh and Barber in the late 1780s, does not seem to have remained with the firm when it evolved to include the young John Palmer, in the midst of Chronicle refinancing, in which Rothman was the key player. His connections may be inferred not only from his appointment as justice of the peace and access to high Company officers, but by the naming of his second son, Richard Wellesley Rothman (b. 21 July 1800). Rothman died in Calcutta in 1805, aged 48. He managed the Chronicle until its collapse, professing to give up in 1794 as a ruse to seek payment; when this was agreed, at Rs. 250, Blechynden resigned as (unpaid) editor and Rothman took over; RB, 29 September, 1 October 1794. On Baillie, see Eaton, N. (2003), ‘Excess in the city? The consumption of imported prints in colonial Calcutta, c.1780–c.1795’, Journal of Material Culture 8 (1), pp. 4574.

18 The story was told that, after Tiretta made an outlandish estimate for a proper map, the Company commissioned Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel) Mark Wood. Blechynden said this was ‘absolutely false’. There was no official request to Tiretta; in private conversation he estimated that a proper survey would take at least three years and cost about Rs. 20,000, and Wood was commissioned at a cost of Rs. 28,000! At the same time (1784), Blechynden replied to a similar inquiry from senior Company servants: it would take two years at least; he could not say exactly what it would cost; there would need to be two capable assistants; and ‘something handsome’ for the surveyor; RB, 9 May 1794. Wood's plan (1784–85), presumably the ‘old one at the Fort’, was published by William Baillie, Upjohn's one-time associate, in 1792. Upjohn produced a plan of post roads from Calcutta to Delhi, and was publisher (not the anonymous author) of Extensive Vocabulary. . . (Chronicle Press, 1793), the first printed Bengali dictionary; see Siddiq Khan, M. (1962), ‘The early history of Bengali printing’, Library Quarterly 32 (1), p. 60.

19 RB, 9 May 1791; 17 July 1792; 8–19, 24–25 March, 22–23, 27 April, 4, 9, 13 May, 9, 27 October 1794; 3 January, 13 February, 3 March, 31 July, 1 August 1795; 22 July 1797; 4 June 1798; Blechynden, Kathleen (1905), Calcutta Past and Present, Thacker & Co., London. From 1793–99, Hubert Cornish (1757–1823) was private secretary to Sir John Shore, while married to his sister, Charlotte. Perhaps he regarded Upjohn as a fellow artist; he himself was a musician and celebrated watercolourist. Apparently under Cornish's influence, Upjohn was invited to dine with Shore; Tiretta was offended at receiving no invitation, overlooked for the first time by a governor-general since Clive. He was even denied an audience to discuss surveying department charges; RB, 19, 25 May 1794. Later Upjohn was so often at the governor-general's levee that Kyd, with Blechynden's interests in mind, feared he had been promised employment; RB, 24 June 1796. For Blechynden's appointment as deputy to Tiretta; RB, 19 July 1796.

20 RB, 17 July, 3 August 1792; 21 October, 2 November 1793; 30 April, 2, 5, 10 May 1794.

21 Hobson-Jobson defines ‘sircar’ as (inter alia) a household servant with responsibility for accounts. Blechynden used the term for staff who managed, supervised, and invested in his work, including house-building and road or canal construction. He employed several sircars for public and private business; they served as his buyers, accountants, and confidential servants, but lived separately.

22 RB, 3, 8, 31 January 1795; 24 April 1796. John Bebb was a senior merchant with the Board of Trade and sometime commercial resident in Dacca. The unidentified Sonnerat translation was probably of his Voyage aux Indes orientales et à la Chine, fait depuis 1774 jusqu’à 1781 (1782), or perhaps its first volume, on India.

23 His then servant, Cassinaut Ganguly (Kashinath Ganguli), later claimed to have pawned his own wife's jewellery to buy Upjohn's dinner, so great was Upjohn's distress; RB, 4–5, 8, 10–11 April 1806.

24 RB, 3 April 1796; 30 July 1797. Blechynden calculated that, with the map costing Rs. 60 per copy, Upjohn would have had to sell 250 to make the amount claimed, or at least 500 if you allowed for costs.

25 RB, 30 June, 11, 13, 18–19, 21–22, 28, 30 July, 1, 4 August 1797.

26 Blechynden calculated on the revised valuation agreed by Upjohn. As said, Upjohn had first ‘paid’ Rs. 25,000, by means of a bond; that is, borrowing.

27 As later explained to Rothman, Blechynden calculated that he needed a minimum of Rs. 3,000 because he intended to pay T.P. Doncaster Rs. 2,000, and just under Rs. 760 off a debt to Price held by Barber and Palmer dated 1 October 1793, leaving Rs. 3,000 in a bond that Blechynden hoped they would renew at 8 per cent; the small balance he would send to England for the support of his children. Doncaster was an unscrupulous, speculative businessman, neighbour and sometime house guest of Blechynden's at his garden house. The two men had recently fallen out and Blechynden was anxious to be rid of earlier obligations.

28 RB, 5, 8, 11, 15–16, 18, 22, 27 August, 1, 4–6, 8 September 1797. Blechynden still personally owed Rothman over Rs. 600 and the proprietors over Rs. 680 on the Chronicle account. He said he must consider his acquaintance with Louis a misfortune, given his ill-will on this matter, but he ‘absolutely inflicts his patronage’. Rothman, laughing, said he must repeat that to Shore as it would divert him. Blechynden begged him not to. Rothman said Louis was notorious for promising official appointments willy-nilly and then pestering Sir John to give effect to his promises. On 25 August 1797 he reported Louis engaging in a ‘paper war’ with Shore; ‘he must be non compos mentis,’ said Blechynden.

29 RB, 24–25, 27 August, 1, 3–6, 30 September 1797. There is an incomplete reading of Blechynden's debt to Price (and his relations with Palmer) in Webster, The Richest East India Merchant, pp. 37–38. Blechynden saw Tolfrey look at him hard, after he and Tiretta employed Boileau in another matter, and then reassured him that he would be instructed if Upjohn forced his hand; RB, 8 August 1797.

30 Henry Crucifix, Company servant, is recorded as ‘out of employ’ in Fort St George (Madras) in 1803.

31 RB, 9, 11–13, 14–15, 18, 20, 22, 25–26 September, 1–2, 5, 6–7, 13, 16–17, 20–21, 23–24, 26–27 October, 4, 6–8, 17, 21, 23, 30 November, 1, 2, 4–5, 6–8, 12–13 December 1797. Upjohn also sent two theatre tickets he was unable to dispose of (yet another form of money!), putting Blechynden two gold mohurs out of pocket. He got his fresh bond from Barber, after some further payments; RB, 24, 26 October 1797. There was some doubt fines were needed, or indeed valid, as Alipore was outside the limits of Calcutta, and hence of the Supreme Court and English law. Dr Bruce inspected the land and thought it could yield 800 to 1,000 rupees from cochineal (also Upjohn's project); Blechynden agreed Bruce might conduct the business there, sharing the profits, provided the house was unaffected. Bruce offered to rent it too. The final arrangements on the Alipore house were not completed until late 1798, when Upjohn, having unsuccessfully sought a commission to make a plan of Madras, returned to Calcutta, where he received some government support, including Rs. 200 a month on condition he gave up Mrs Crucifix. He did, and she left India. RB, 22–23, 26, 29 December 1798.

32 This paper assesses the role of friendship and shared ethics among Europeans. Some of the same terminology was used between Indians and Europeans, and, when most pressed, Blechynden had offers of support from Indian associates, without security, on a basis of trust and long friendship. However, ‘Europeanness’ and exile were crucial to the system. See Peter Robb, ‘Friendship or its impossibility: Europeans and Indians in Calcutta around 1800’, Unpublished paper read (abridged) at the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, May 2011.

33 His testimony may be judged against other models of economic and moral colonial behaviour. The literary antitheses have been said to be either reliance on work, property, and self-interest, not virtue, passion, and generosity, but with everyone capable of rationality and productiveness (Robinson Crusoe) or belief in the ingrained strangeness and unpredictability of distant peoples, with such vices in Europe that it had little to offer them (Gulliver); Crawford D. Goodwin, ‘The First Globalisation Debate’, Working Paper No.2010–03, <http:/>, [accessed 1 November 2012]. I suggest those living within the empire experienced all of the above, and therefore professed a hope for ‘virtue’; see note 14 above.

34 Cain, P.J. and Hopkins, A.G. (1993), British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion, 1688–1914 Longman, London. However, in Calcutta, this meant not class collaboration but cooperation based on honesty and reputation among exiles. Perhaps this had consequences. Alborn, Timothy L. (1998), Conceiving Companies: Joint Stock Politics in Victorian England, Routledge, London and New York, suggests Victorian corporations originated in political and social practice, as when joint-stock banks, from the 1820s, ‘shared many of the assumptions and practices of the voluntary association’ (p. 5). Challenging Cain and Hopkins, he argues that, though multiple motives lay behind the state's increasing regulation of the East India Company, its later meritocratic administrative reform was directed against ‘plunder’ and the ‘Old Corruption’, not to produce jobs for Oxbridge boys (p. 14 and Chapter 2).

Mr Upjohn's Debts: Money and friendship in early colonial Calcutta

  • PETER ROBB (a1)


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