(Or The Free Traders.)
This is the story of Samuel White and the men who tried to oppose the EIC’s monopoly on trade in the East during the 17th century.
By Josh Provan.
Servant of the Company.
Samuel White came to Siam by way of Madras as a pilot working for the East India Company (EIC) in 1676. He had left the West Country (where he was likely to have been born in 1650), to chance his fortune. Six years before, his elder brother ,George had traveled east with his business partner a Greek named Constantine Phaulkon and had become “Free Traders” in the Kingdom of Siam.
The Whites were a family deeply rooted in the Protestant Reformation. They disagreed with the EIC’s royally endorsed monopoly over trade in the east. Private enterprise was what they believed in and they weren’t afraid to challenge the Honourable Company to achieve their ends.
To that end Phaulkon and George somehow managed to insinuate themselves into King Narai’s court at Ayudhya in Siam, largely due to Phaulkon’s previous experience in the EIC.
Here they could be covered from illegally poaching EIC trade routes by working under the flag of Siam, however for his part Phaulkon had other ideas. At that time Siam was the link between Japan and India, a vital mercantile clearing house for luxury goods and firearms. George White and Phaulkon saw “The Siam Trade” as a perfect opportunity to make good.
The only problem was that the commercial interests of Siam were largely controlled by certain Islamic merchants, most of whom had ties to the Kingdom of Golconda, which controlled the spice island of Masulipatam in south eastern India and the port of Mergui in modern Myanmar.
It was a strategic spot that had become a commercial hub for moving goods east of Bengal. At the same time Siam was being courted by the French, yet Phaulkon promised to deliver the “Siam Trade” and it’s valuable ports to the monopoly of the EIC and Samuel White would be vital in his plan to oust the Golconda merchants from the area.
By 1679, despite a pessimistic outlook from the EIC, things were looking hopeful. Phaulkon had manoeuvred his way into a position of influence in Siam, while had Samuel worked hard to increase the EIC’s interest in the area. Then things turned foul.
Unsurprisingly Golconda’s governor in Tenesserim, the province where Mergui was situated, objected to the intrusion and actively tried to thwart and sabotage Samuel’s efforts. The hostility between White and Golconda now grew and would cause unforeseen results in the future.
After several mishaps and a fire that burned down a warehouse (possibly to cover up mismanagement) the EIC began to distance themselves from the project. They were already expanding in India and were becoming dangerously overextended.
This potential crisis was anticipated by Phaulkon, who in 1683 promptly sold out the EIC by successfully getting the King of Siam to oust Golconda’s Muslim traders from Siam and replacing them with mostly European agents loyal to him.
Phaulkon was made a mandarin and put in control of foreign trade. George White had since left for England and therefore did not reap the benefits of this shrewd move but Samuel White was made Customs Official (Shahbunder) of the port of Mergui, and the EIC’s ex factor in Siam, Richard Burnaby was made governor of the town.
This was a change that surprised many Siamese, unused as they were to seeing foreigners in power. White dutifully resigned his post with the EIC, automatically forfeiting his stake in the company by doing so, but he wasn’t too worried as he had a profitable post now with Phaulkon and was making even bigger plans.
The EIC now looked with even more suspicion on Phaulkon and his associates. Despite their cordial congratulations to White, the deliberate posting of ex EIC workers to high commercial posts in Siam started ringing alarm bells in Madras.
Yet they were not inclined to write off Mr. White just yet and hoped to cultivate him in the future. Unfortunately for the EIC and Phaulkon Samuel White was about to show his true colours.
The Pirate King.
Fast forward to 1685 and a dramatic transformation has occurred. Showing extreme ruthlessness, guile and no little vengefulness, Samuel White had first gained permission to force stubborn Golconda to trade with Siam. To that end he “enlisted” two of the many freelance captains hanging around the Indian Ocean hoping to make their fortune into the Siamese navy. Yes, he hired some pirates.
The plan to get revenge on the governor of Masulipatam, Ali Beague, turned sour after White’s permission to interfere was revoked. White nevertheless set out on a convoluted scheme to fraudulently order and then steal some ships from Beague anyway.
White’s hired guns, Captain Coates and Captain Cropley, with a third addition named captain Leslie blockaded the port and pillaged at will.
However this reckless gang did not just rob rice boats, they also looted two ships, one of which belonged to an Armenian merchant from Madras under EIC protection.
Though Coates was forced to give back the stolen goods (less £4,000 of rubies that he conveniently couldn’t find) and Samuel having to palm off Phaulkon with some excuses, his pirates seized a rich cargo lying off Mergui when they returned.
Undeterred, White now embarked on a campaign of organised piracy to extort the merchants of the Indian Ocean. By March 1686 White’s flotilla, which had grown to 4 ships, had taken 7 prizes and their cargos.
The routine was simple; seize a wealthy ship and if necessary imprison its officers in a warehouse in the town without food or water until they promised to sign a paper that cleared “The Shahbunder” of any wrongdoing.
This plan was effective, though it can only be proven that he resorted to it once, extorting £3,063 in total, but it is likely he used it a few times.
Reckless he might have been but Samuel seemed to know he couldn’t keep up these activities forever and in doing this he was putting a defence together for a rainy day. It was wise that he did so, as his latest swindle was against yet more merchants from Madras.
The Great Escape.
Before he founded the College, Elihu Yale was EIC Governor of Fort St George at Madras. It was he who received the emissaries who reported on Samuel White’s latest deprivation.
An angry letter was sent off to Mergui demanding restitution, but it went unanswered and as it was, despite his anger Yale could do little more than stamp his foot. But he could take comfort that events were already proceeding that would resolve the issue one way or the other.
In a preposterous attempt to coerce the Mughal Emperor Aurungzeb, the head of the board of the EIC, Josiah Childs sent the largest military expedition yet to the east.
Its target was Chittagong, Bengal, and 10 ships and 6,000 men duly went off on a disastrous campaign that ended in 1690 in utter failure with EIC peace commissioners begging Aurangzeb on their knees for peace.
Had this expedition been successful its next goal was to punish Siam for her supposed crimes against the company. White heard about this as he was on his way to Ayudhya to explain his piracy to Phaulkon.
He misread the intention of the company and feared that a recent descent upon the nearby island of Negrais was proof that an attack on Mergui was inevitable.
A small force was sent to Negrais to claim it officially for Siam, and was just as hurriedly recalled by a perplexed Phaulkon early in 1687. The Greek was increasingly losing his grip on political power in Ayudhya and couldn’t shield Samuel’s activities anymore.
A recent revolt by the exiled Makassar’s, sheltering in the kingdom had destabilised things, White’s privateer, Captain Coates had even been killed putting the rebellion down and the Islamic merchants were putting pressure on the king to remove Phaulkon and his cronies.
White saw the writing o the wall and began shrewdly consolidating his holdings and distributing them in places of safety. Further to this he obtained a letter from the provincial council that he was working under orders, backdated 1685.
Before Child’s war ended in disaster, the EIC had saw fit to make preparations for what seemed like the coming war against Siam. Their list of demands would surely lead to conflict.
They had procured a writ from King James II that ordered all English subjects to leave Siamese territory and demanded £65,000 in damages be paid by Phaulkon. In June 1687 two frigates arrived at Mergui to see that it was carried out.
To say the least, things had been going bad for White recently, he had lost one of his ships in the Bay of Bengal and he had been drinking heavily.
He had told his reluctant American Secretary, James Davenport that he intended to cut everyone loose and escape as soon as possible. This option was now removed as EIC Captain Weltden’s ships arrived and blockaded the port.
Luckily for him, Weltden would prove a gullible and indeed rather crooked sort, and a man that tended to press too hard. He apparently so offended the Siamese officials that they opened fire on him and sank one of his frigates.
On a tip from Davenport he then sized White’s largest ship to prevent his escape which prompted White to overreact and try to destroy his house.
The situation was resolved by the Siamese. The people of Mergui became terrified that the Europeans would bombard the port and rioted with the intention of killing all the English.
Captain Weltden only just escaped with his life, Mr. Burnaby was killed along with over 50 other English people and White fled to the Company ship for protection.
White’s run of luck then resumed. Mysteriously he was able to trick or get Weltden to let him sail off in his ship, and surprise surprise he sailed right home to England, with a fortune perhaps in excess of £30-40,000.
It then turned out that his large cache of coerced affidavits effectively blocked the EIC’s levelled charges when he challenged the Company’s hegemony in the east.
Samuel died on 7 April 1689, the case was taken up by his brother in the name of Samuel’s nieces, and due to the great unpopularity of all things associated with the Stuart’s after the Glorious Revolution, it was won in 1694. Ironically in the year of the revolution, 1688, another upheaval rocked Siam which cost the plotting Phaulkon his life.
Though without a doubt Samuel’s activities in Mergui were deeply questionable. When it comes down to it he acted no worse than the EIC did in its own dealings in India, which begs the question was Samuel White, the Free Trading Pirate, really the villain? You decide.
See you again for another adventure in Historyland.
The English Gentleman Merchant at Work, Madras and London 1660-1740, Søren Mentz.
The Cambridge History of India, vol III.
Early English Intercourse with Burma, 1587-1743, David George and Edward Hall.
English Intercourse with Siam in the 17th Century, John Anderson.
Accounts of the Makassar Revolt, 1686, Michael Smithies.
A History of British India vols I-II Sir William Wilson
NOTE. This article fist appeared in 2016 on the Britannia Magazine Facebook Page