In 1669, fleeing a London decimated by the plague and the Great Fire, a 9-year-old English child arrived alone at Fort St. George, the first English fortress in Mughal India. The boy survived to become a maverick merchant-mariner, an ‘independent’ trading on the fringes of the East India Company.
Captain Thomas Bowrey gained renown in numerous fields. Operating throughout the East Indies and speaking Malay, he would publish the first ever Malay-English dictionary, a seminal work used a century later by Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore. He was involved in the African slave trade to India; he collaborated with Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, in the founding of the South Sea Company; and even penned the first account in English of the recreational use of cannabis.
Bowrey’s shipping interests were many but were plagued by pirates, privateers and mutiny and included the tragic Worcester, an incident that hastened the union of England and Scotland in 1707 and divides Scots and English to this day.
Despite everything, Bowrey amassed sufficient fortune for alms-houses to be built in his name following his death, but his true legacy is his papers that lay hidden in an attic for two centuries and which now shed light not only on the exploits of this remarkable man but also on life and commerce at the start of globalisation.
“This is the first full biography of Thomas Bowery and with its carefully chosen use of source material and interesting background details sheds new light on a largely forgotten life.” Family Tree magazine, UK
“This is a fascinating biography, a joy to read … Having read Sue Paul’s absorbing biography with much interest, perhaps there should be a memorial to Thomas Bowrey to celebrate his life and to acknowledge his contribution to our understanding of the Malay language.” Professor Victor T. King, Borneo Research Bulletin
“Bowrey stayed in Asia for the next two decades, gradually becoming a successful independent trader, running goods between India and various parts of Southeast Asia. He returned to London, married, and promptly set himself up in business. Bowrey’s main claim to fame is not, however, his business ventures but rather the English-Malay dictionary he published in 1701, that and the fact he apparently made the first English-language reference to the recreational use of cannabis.” Asian Review of Books, Hong Kong
About the author
Sue Paul has retired after many years as a senior project manager in the IT industry. She is an experienced amateur genealogist, who discovered Captain Thomas Bowrey whilst researching her one-name study. She lives in Cambridgeshire with her husband.