East India Company merchant John Pybus compiled notes about the practicalities of trade in various ports and settlements of the Indian Ocean in the 18th century. Among lists of prices, exchange rates, and goods are advice and instructions for enterprising traders looking to maximise their profits through bribery and tax dodging.
Gift-giving is mentioned in the description of many ports. At Atcheen (Aceh, Indonesia), Pybus bluntly states that a visiting merchant must “visit the King and make him a Present”. For the Spanish colonial port of Manila, he helpfully includes a list of individuals “whom it is proper to get acquainted with” and whose goodwill was required to conduct business successfully at the port.
The propriety of these “gifts” seems questionable, at least in the case of the authorities at Manila. While a trader was instructed to prioritise visiting the Governor of Manila to present him with a token of gratitude, this “must be done… without any witness, for should any body be by, he will not accept it”.
Payments could also be used to avoid paying dues on merchandise when the Spanish authorities came to measure a ship and assess its cargo. First, it was important to greet the inspectors warmly – “you must have a very handsome entertainment for them which is very acceptable to them…I would advise to have at least, a dozen dishes of victuals, with what variety you can of Europe pickles and likewise of wines.”
If this did not make a sufficiently good impression, the money-conscious captain was to emphasise that “you are no stranger to the customs of the port, and that you intend to be gratefull for all favours”. Finally, a direct approach was taken to secure favourable treatment from the man tasked with measuring the ship. When a Spanish official was sent below decks to take measurements, “send a man down with 10 or 12 dollars, to slip into the officer’s hand (unseen)… it will turn to good account”.
Even the constraints of European politics could be avoided through bribery. Restrictions put in place by an imperial power half a world away could be ignored for the sake of mutual profit. When describing Malacca, a Dutch colony at the time, Pybus mentions that “All trade is prohibited the English in all Dutch ports”, but the Dutch colonial administrators were not particularly attentive to this restriction.
At Malacca, an English merchant simply had to “land all goods in the night, by the Government’s permission, for which you pay 30 Rix Dollars for each chest of opium and 15 dollars for each bale”. Pybus also advised the illicit trader to pay “four or five dollars each” to the servants of the Governor who came to supervise the unloading of cargo.
Ignoring rules and buying influential friends seem to have been essential business skills in this period.
This article first appeared on the Untold Lives blog of the British Library.