John Cree's trade under the Danish flag

Page 21 On this [the Bengal] market, the Asiatic market could not - as on the Coromandel Coast - sell the European cargoes en bloc. In 1771, the highest bid for the cargo of the Caroline Mathilde was at 10% plus, so it was sold by auction. Things grew slowly better, but the circle of buyers was small. It consisted of buyers from other European settlements, like Samuel Lewis from Calcutta and Lucas & Arreau from Chandernagore, and John Fenwick, who, with the chief of the Company at Serampore, J. L. Fix, constituted the firm of Fix & Fenwick..."

Page 25-26 In Bengal, the sircar occupied a central position in the Asiatic Company's trade in general and in cloth in particular. The Company's sircar was usually also the private sircar of the Chief, later the Head Factor, and it is therefore not surprising that generally there was unqualified satisfaction with the current occupant of the office, and that a change of Head Factor often meant a change of sircar, too. Head Factor and sircar had a common financial interest, and it was thus only natural that on the death of the old sircar, Cantu Kristnu Cattamar in 1774, he should be succeeded in office by his son, Kristna Cingor Cattamar. The wealthy Indian merchant who was the sircar, also acted as banker and lender both for the Company and for its servants privately, and the position gave such advantages that the Company's only expense was the provision of certain outward marks of distinction such as palanquin-bearers and peons for the sircar.

In the period from 1772 to 1778, most of the Asiatic Company's purchase of cloth was made through the sircar, who, as soon as the contract was agreed, was paid 7/8 of the price as an advance. Purchase from other Indian merchants, moreover, was normally made with the sircar as intermediary and guarantor - presumably not without his reward. Until 1776, when Ole Bie took over at Serampore as chief, all the Company's textiles were acquired through the sircar and other Indian merchants. Bie's first act as chief was to dismiss the sircar and appoint as the Company's and his own private sircar, Tilluck Ram Mullick, an Indian merchant from Calcutta. Even though most of the Company's cottons continued to be delivered by the sircar, a contract was also made - for the first time - with a European supplier. John Cree, of Dacca, undertook to deliver piece-goods at 30% over the aurung price, and this ushered in the European element which was later to play a predominant part in the Company's cotton trade. The next year, the Asiatic Company's cloth contracts were divided between the sircar and John Cree, and at the same time Bie made a contract with William Platted at Kasimbazar for a delivery of silk. In making this contract, William Platted was not really aiming at trade, but at an illicit remittance of part of his fortune to Europe in the form of bills on the Directors of the Asiatic Company, the form of payment agreed for the delivery of the silk."

Page 31 In the period 1772 to 1778, the Anglo-Indian remittance capital was received in ready money, which the Councils thereupon invested in the purchase of return goods. In Bengal, the sircar, Tilluck Ram Mullick, received this money at Calcutta and then invested it in cottons, mostly from John Cree and from himself - and most of these amounts remitted never got as far as the Danish factory.

Page 51-52 In Bengal, the Company's sircar, Tilluck Ram Mullick, continued his deliveries, but during the war, the Company's activity came to be marked by trade with the British and by the exclusion of France and later, Holland, from the India trade. The Factory at Serampore renewed in 1779 its contract for 50,000 rupees with John Cree, who had informed the Factors that he was willing to double his delivery to 100,000 rupees, and would accept only one quarter of the amount in cash and the rest in bills on Europe. At that moment, he regarded the outcome of the war with France as so threatening that he wanted to see himself and his fortune in safety in Europe. He took heart again, however, and renewed his contract for 1780 - likewise for 100,000 rupees in the form of bills on the Asiatic Company - and agreed, moreover, to an increase of only 20% on the aurung price, obviously because there were no other European buyers than the Company.

The Factory profited by the exclusion of its European competitors, but at the same time had to accept the condition that deliveries came through British servants and private persons. This was the only way to get piece goods of good quality, and the Anglo-Indian servants, to whom the buyers paid advances, did what they could to make the weavers dependent on themselves. Among these suppliers was the English company's Warehouse Keeper at Calcutta, Henry Guinand, who formerly traded with private French expeditions to India, and who now had to find other European buyers. Like John Cree, he undertook to make an annual delivery for 100,000 rupees to the Asiatic Company of the much sought-after piece goods of the British company's assortment.

Most of these transactions were arranged orally or by private correspondence, and both the British suppliers and the Danish Head Factor had private interests that were not for the eyes of either the British Court or the Danish Board. Head Factor J. L. Fix was in close contact with John Benn at Benares, and assured Benn that he need not fear too close an inspection of the piece goods he delivered: 'when it arrives here it is me who has charge of examining all the cloths for the Company and consequently you shall not have much trouble with it. I shall only inform your man what deficiency in the quality there may have been found.' The Head Factor - who later became a director of the Asiatic Company - was interested in everything in cloth that Benn could supply, both for the Company and for his own private trade, and the goods, which, as a precaution, were brought ashore at Serampore at dead of night, were paid for with bills on the Danish Board of Directors.

Page 55 It had been the factory at Serampore that had raised most of the Anglo-Indian remittance capital behind the Asiatic Company's India trade during the war, and therefore the Factors felt the loss of the right to issue bills independently in 1779 and 1780 to be unreasonable. They therefore pressed for this right again, but not until the Second Mysore War had interrupted postal connection with Tranquebar was permission given at last. The piece goods contracts with John Cree and Henry Guinard alone gave remittances of 200,000 cr. a year, and the Head Factor at Serampore emphasised the advantages of keeping in contact with the influential Henry Guinand, 'and I believe that these remittances that he makes are on behalf of a member of the Supreme Council.' This member of the Governor-General's Council, who by means of an intermediary remitted through the Danish Company, managed to preserve his anonymity, and the same is true of his colleague on the Council, Edward Wheler. His remittances, too, were made in deep secrecy, by bills in the name of the Head Factor and by him endorsed to Edward Wheler's attorneys in London, and J. L. Fix assured John Benn that 'nothing shall be mentioned of the remittance for Mr Wheler.'

Even during the war, anonymity began to spread, and of distinguished Anglo-Indians, only Sir Elijah Impey and Sir Philip Francis appeared openly with two modest bills of 2,000 each.

(Note: Edward Wheler (1732 - 1784) Chairman of the East India Company and administrator in India.)

Page 61. The supercargo, J.C. Metzendorff, had raised the capital himself in India against bills on Europe, and his Anglo-Indian connections in and outside the English company's service seem to have been John Fergusson, David Killican, and William Paxton at Calcutta, the brothers John and William Turing, William Saunders, George Proctor and Francis Jourdan at Madras, John Pringle and John Peter Boileau at Masulipatam, and finally William Hamilton at Ingeram. For cash or against bills, Metzendorff got his Bengalese cloths from John Cree at Dacca, William Justice at Luckipore and Henry Guinand at Calcutta, while the coast cloths came from William Hamilton and Matthew Yeates at Ingeram, among others. Under normal conditions, the buyer could not avoid paying out an advance of between 33 and 50% of the amount, but during the war, a Danish supercargo could exploit the eagerness of the Anglo-Indians to remit their fortunes to escape this risk. He not only managed to press the prices of the actual piece goods down, but even to make no advance at all e.g. to William Justice, John Cree, William Hamilton and Matthew Yeates.

Page 88: In Bengal also, the Asiatic Company was greatly dependent on the English Company's policy towards its servants and on the textile production of the provinces, but in the years between the wars, the factors did not usually find much difficulty in procuring the necessary cloths. Even during the first years after the war, the Company's purchase was dominated by John Cree's cloths from Patna, Benares, Luckipore and Dacca, while other European suppliers, such as Ambrose Lynch Gilbert, by comparison occupied a more modest position.

Page 96 - 97. The Private Trade. 1. 1784 -1787

As soon as the peace was reasonably certain, in the autumn of 1783, the Anglo-Indians began to fit out direct expeditions to Europe under foreign flags. Their aim was to combine remittance with the profit arising from supplying the European market before a European India trade could really begin. While some ships sailed for Lisbon, three large ships were sent to Copenhagen. These were the Fortitude, formerly belonging to the English Company and made a prize by Admiral Suffren, the Resolution, launched at Calcutta in 1783, and the Hornby, built at Bombay. Under the patriotic Danish names of Christiansborg, Christianus Septimus and Juliana Maria, they left Bengal in January 1784 with rich cargoes of a total value of 2,742,347 cr.

The Fortitude had originally been bought by Portuguese at Calcutta and they had vainly tried to raise capital for a direct expedition by offering respondentia at 2s 2d per cr. In the summer of 1783, the ship was bought by an Anglo-Indian consortium, whose pro forma shipowner was Ole Bie, the real owner being John Fergusson whom Henry Dundas described later as 'the greatest European merchant I suppose, who ever came from India.' The pro forma owner of the Hornby was Bie's great-nephew, the 21 year old Councillor at Serampore, C. W. Duntzfelt 'and others'. The two ships took in a part of their cargo at Calcutta, including their saltpetre from the English company's stocks, and got a dispensation from the saltpetre embargo, which was still in force. The ships then sailed down to Kedgeree, where Bie tried to avoid the British customs duty by sending cloths down from Serampore, on the excuse that they were destined for another expedition to the Coromandel Coast. The dispute with the Board of Customs at Calcutta lasted long after the ships had sailed, and as regards Ole Bie, gradually took on grotesque forms. At Calcutta, it was considered that 'Mr Bie has a principal concern in this commerce: it is not therefore to be wondered, that he is desirous of evading the duty on such valuable cargoes', and Bie had to persuade himself to guarantee the amount before the ships could leave the Hughli. The combination of his position as the Danish chief and that of private merchant, for that matter, was typical of the time, but Bie's clumsy effort to exploit the double position inevitably strained the hitherto easy relations with the government at Calcutta. On the other hand, the government - in spite of its knowledge of the Anglo-Indian interests behind what was formally a Danish expedition - decided to shut its eyes to this poorly camouflaged evasion of the English company's monopoly.

Not without a certain satisfaction did Bie emphasise that the Christiansborg sails 'with the richest cargo that any Danish ship has ever brought from India to Denmark.' The cargoes in the Christiansborg and the Juliana Maria, both consigned to de Coninck & Rejersen, were each worth over a million cr, and de Coninck & Rejersen did not attempt to conceal from the Kommercekollegium that the real owner of the Juliana Maria was the captain Robert Davidson. At the same time as the Christiansborg and the Juliana Maria, the Christianus Septimus, whose formal owner was the Head Factor at Serampore, J. L. Fix, also sailed for home. The real owner was the Anglo-Indian rice merchant Thomas Mercer and the supercargo was Fix's son-in-law and Asiatic Company's supplier of cloths, John Cree, who in the following years was to play such a prominent part in the illicit British India trade under the Danish and Genoese flags. Beyond the purchase of Danish passport, flag and owner, the Christianus Septimus had nothing to do with the Danish settlement in India, and the 'rekognition' on a cargo worth 707,535 cr. was paid in Copenhagen by Fabritius & Wever, to who the cargo was formally consigned.

At their departure from India, these three Anglo-Indian expeditions under the Danish flag had met with no difficulties from the English government. The Christiansborg was sold on arrival at Copenhagen, but the Juliana Maria was sent back to India again, and the new Governor-General, Lorn Cornwallis, turned out to be less liberal in his view of the illicit expeditions than his predecessors, Warren Hastings and John Macpherson.

Page 134: In this capacity, he sold her to Edward Campbell, whose expedition from Copenhagen with the Carnatic had ended with the wreck of the ship in the Hughli, and who now instead sent the Achilles back to Copenhagen with a modest return cargo.

Page 143 -144. Fabritus & Wever also lent their name to expeditions where the Danish veneer was even thinner, if that were possible. In May 1786, the firm applied for permission to send a ship from London on its own and others' account, and the case was handled by the Kommercekollegium as urgent. The ship was excused from calling at Tranquebar and Serampore merely for payment of 'rekognition', and the Danish Government's only condition - apart from the vital requirement of discharge and sale at Copenhagen - was that the captain should be a Danish citizen. Captain William Harway therefore came to Copenhagen where he was given his Danish citizenship and therewith the requisite legalisation of the illicit English India expedition.

One of the owners of the ship was John Cree of Dacca who from 1779 to 1783 had been the agent for considerable Anglo-Indian remittance via Copenhagen, and had also delivered large quantities of cloths to the Asiatic Company, which was represented at Serampore by his father-in-law, the Head Factor, J. L. Fix. John Cree returned to Europe as supercargo on the Christianus Septimus, a direct English expedition, in 1784, and in spite of his friends' suggestion that he should sail under the Tuscan or the Prussian flag, he had chosen to continue his illicit activities under Danish protection.

In June 1786, then, The Five Sisters, 1,000 tons, left Gravesend with a crew of 40, of whom 24 were English or Irish and the rest foreigners, who were signed on for 'Cadiz, the Canary Islands and elsewhere'. Captain William Harway and the first mate, William O'Brien had served in the Royal Navy, and the other officers were also English - Downing, Martin and Sands. Not until he was well out to sea did Captain Harway hoist the Danish colours and have the ship's new name - the Grevinde Reventlow - painted on the stern, and, without touching at the Cape, sailed direct from the Thames to Anjengo on the Malabar Coast. From here, the Grevinde Reventlow continued via Goa to Bombay, where the Governor and Council, after comparing the ship's papers with the divergent statements of the members of the crew, had to admit that 'the transactions of this ship appear mysterious'. For that matter, the Governor and Council at Bombay had not the least doubt that this was an obvious evasion of the English Company's monopoly. Like the Governor-General at Calcutta, however, they chose to close their eyes to it, on political grounds and because of the confused situation in London, so long as only a shadow of foreign property was maintained, and Captain Harway's naturalisation thus proved to have been a wise investment.

The Grevinde Reventlow had to wait seven months, which was used in local trips in freight, before a modest cargo of cotton in freight to Europe was obtained. The formal charterer was a Parsee, Dada Nasserwanjee, but the real owner was undoubtably an anonymous Anglo-Indian. On arriving in the Channel, the Grevinde Reventlow, on the plea of damage, put into Ostend, 'the captain not daring to go into an English port', and from here John Cree comforted his Danish agents, saying that this had not been done 'with the least view of defrauding you'. Fabritus & Wever had guaranteed the duties to the Danish state, but this was cold comfort to the Danish market, should the cargo be discharged and sold at Ostend. The Danish agents tried to help their English connections with the Kommercekollegium and emphasised that 'it is well known that the private Danish expeditions are mainly conducted on English money,' but this candour was both inadequate and unnecessary. The Kommercekollegium knew as well as the Danish merchants house the real nationality behind the expeditions under the Danish flag, but consideration for the Copenhagen market had more weight. The agents of the expedition had therefore to bite on the bullet and send the cargo on to Copenhagen.

The advantage of discharge and sale at Ostend were obvious, and the English owners of the Grevinde Reventlow's cargo pressed the case to the limit of direct defiance of the authority of the Danish Government. Only consideration for their Danish agents and the risk of ruining their relations with the Danish Government, which was otherwise so liberal, in view of this and other illicit expeditions later, at last made the English yield. This case accentuated, however, the conflict of interest between the Danish Government and the illicit English India trade under the Danish flag, which was to lead to an open break, even in the years between the wars.

Page 148. John Cree and his English colleagues, however, were bound to find the Danish Government's attitude in the Grevinde Reventlow case as unacceptable, and the fine to the Asiatic Company in connection with the Chinese cargo of the Elisabeth [Feldbaek here means the Eliza] only added to the dissatisfaction of the English. At the end of 1791, therefore, Cree decided to issue an ultimatum to the Danish Government in the hope of thus forcing through the Ostend point of view. From London, he painted a dark picture of the low estimation of Danish ship's papers on the illegal market: 'there are two ships lately sailed to India under Genoese colours, and when I recommended your flag, it was totally rejected, & some English captains in this town declared that they would rather sail with a Moorish than a Danish passport.' Cree himself, however, was still willing to trade under the Danish flag, if the government would accept a number of conditions. He wanted naturalisation papers back-dated to 1784; all Danish duties to be settled by once-only duty of 5% of the cost price of the Indian cargo plus 30%, and finally, that the ships should merely call at Copenhagen with their Indian cargoes on board - when the Danish authorities might check the correctness of the information given about them - after which ship and cargo should be free to seek another port. This, he emphasised to Fabritius & Wever, was an ultimatum: 'I made you an offer of the business now in agitation but I fear the discouragement of your government will oblige me to take either an Imperial or French passport, therefore if the conditions I require can not be obtained, there ends all further negotiations.'

John Cree's demand to be freed of the obligation to discharge and sell at Copenhagen was the most far-reaching, and an admission on this point would remove, in reality, the whole basis of the Danish Government's policy hitherto. The loss of enterprising people like Cree would certainly to be felt in Copenhagen, but the Kommercekollegium none the less flatly rejected his conditions, pointing out that 'the proposal is considered to be so completely in conflict with the Royal Ordinances on the East Indian trade that it must be rejected.' The Danish Government thus accepted the consequences of its policy, and John Cree carried out his threat, and in the following years sailed on Indiamen under the Genoese flag.

The disturbed political conditions in the Austrian Netherlands in 1792 and the generally uncertain political situation brought a renewed application from Ostend to the Danish Government in 1793. Trade under the Genoese, Tuscan and American flags was still lively, but nobody knew how long these flags would still be available and afford adequate security on the high seas.

While it was willing to go to great lengths to encourage this foreign trade under the Danish flag, discharge and sale at Copenhagen was and remained the condition sine qua non. John Cree and his English colleagues, however, were bound to find the Danish Government's attitude in the Grevinde Reventlow case as unacceptable....

Page 159. ... course, 'as silent as Freemasons'. In these ways the Factors could earn the private fortune for which they had risked life and health in India and while parts of these fortunes were remitted to Denmark either before or in connection with the Factors' departure for home, more than one Head Factor left the rest of his capital behind with Palmer & Co. at very lucrative...

This page contains extracts from India Trade under the Danish flag 1772 - 1808 by Ole Feldbaek (pub. Studentlitteratur, Copenhagen, 1969). Thanks are due to Trevor Cree for finding and extracting the quotations.