In the 1770s, Bartholomew Burges travelled to India aboard the East India Company owned ship, The Northington. Burges, born in 1740, was a native of Ipswich, a town in Essex County, in north-eastern Massachusetts. Thirty miles north lay Salem, a seaport by the Atlantic Ocean that by the mid-18th century was a major trading centre, its ships sailing as far as China and East Asia.

Little is known of Burges’ early life. What is known is that he was a man of varied interests: he was a navigator, surveyor and astronomer. At the time of his journey, there was considerable informal cooperation on the high seas between merchants of different nationalities, including the British, the colonists and privateers who changed loyalties often. Young men from sea towns were travelling to make a fortune, or to recover one, and it is possible that Burges’ motivation was not very different.

Burges spent seven years in India, one of the earliest American merchants to do so. He does not provide exact chronological details, but from his account of the Bengal famine in 1770 and the siege of Pondicherry in 1778, it can be presumed that these events bookended his time in the country. In 1790, he published a book about his trip. Titled A Series of Indostan Letters, it takes the form of chapter-length missives to Burges’ acquaintances and is the first book by an American on India.

Burges intended this book to help American merchants explore trade opportunities in India, a country that, he wrote, was “as remarkable for its opulence as for the singularity of the manners and customs of its inhabitants, and richness of its manufactures”. A connection with India was “courted by the whole commercial world,” and with America’s independence in 1776, this had become a matter of “general conversation and national attention”.

The frontispiece of Burges’ book.

The book begins with detailed descriptions of the decline of the Mughal empire, beginning from Aurangzeb’s time. It then moves on to the East India Company’s activities in India, the greed of its private traders, local customs, and the people Burges met (merchants, officials, women in purdah, nautch dancers). India was in a ferment at the time of his visit. In the east, the Company had already secured the revenue of Bengal. And in the south, it was locked in a battle for primacy with the French. Burges witnessed first-hand the gradual appropriation of power by the Company.

Calcutta to Madras

Burges encountered dangers early in his travels. At the mouth of the river Hooghly, his ship ran aground in the treacherous sandbanks, compelling him and others to move to smaller barges to make their way up to Calcutta.

When he travelled deeper in Bengal, to Burdwan and Midnapore, to survey land, he was told about Company agents or “factors” who had kidnapped the entourage at the wedding of a “wealthy brahman’s” daughter. The abductees were threatened to fork out money. If they didn’t, either their religion would be desecrated (by slaughtering a calf) or the bride and her attendants would be dishonoured.

A perspective view of Fort William in the Kingdom of Bengal, belonging to the East India Company; by Jan Van Ryne, 1754. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Burges is forthright in his book about the greed and corruption of Company officials, including Robert Clive, whom he considered a mentor. The Company dominated trade, which had led to complaints from private traders like William Bolts. In 1773, despite many Parliamentary attempts like the passage of the Regulating Act, enforcing the British Parliament’s authority over the Company, the Company’s traders continued their secret liaisons with foreign ships. The ships transported the traders’ stock of tea and fine cotton, and brought back silver from South America.

During his journey inland, Burges had a small army of attendants. There was a “Huvledar and fifteen Seapoys”, a “Mangy” and 16 “Dandees” to row the “Budgero” (boat), and five men for the kitchens. There was Ramramboss, his a “banyan”; Syedillykan, his “munsee” (Persian schoolmaster); Mamadkan, his butler, and under the butler a cook, a market man, a boy to carry his umbrella, a fan-man, two flambeaux men (torchbearers), and a female room sweeper. There were nine men to carry his deocrated palanquin. The remaining staff included a man hired to arrange his pipe, a barber, a washerman and a porter. A “chubdar” announced the arrival of visitors. The “peuns”, armed with daggers and swords, acted as bodyguards, while the “harcarars” delivered messages.

In one missive, Burges writes about the sartorial choices of different sections of the population. Both the “Moors” (Muslims) and “Gentoos” (Hindus), he says, wore long robes, with sleeves that stretched beyond the wrist. Women of the upper class observed purdah in general. And the manner of wearing a deputah, or veil, indicated a woman’s moods.

“When exasperated by the perfidy or frowns of a lover, the veil, by the irritated dame who wears it, will be distended, then twisted first one way and then another, and the ends converted into tassels to beat time to the sighs and sobs. When overjoyed at the unexpected sight of a long absented friend, parent, husband or lover, (contracted to in marriage perhaps, and given over for lost) the veil then, like wings, will be expanded at the full extent of the hands and arms, whilst the enraptured female with rapidity and obvious solicitude, will fly to the embraces of the welcome and unexpected guest; and if a parent or husband, fall down at their feet and wipe them therewith.”  

In 1778, Burges sailed to southern India. In his book, he describes a meeting with the ruler of Mysore, Hyder Ali, who had successfully held off the East India Company in the First Anglo-Mysore War of 1769. Hyder Ali, Burges writes, “received me with his son, in his tent, then a handsome tall youth, of an olive coloured complexion, his father being considerably darker, about five feet ten inches high, corpulent and lusty. Hyder Ali gifted Burges “a pair of super fine shawls, as a mark of his esteem.”

Gazing at stars

After Burges returned to the US, he settled down in Massachusetts. In 1782, he married Sarah Sweet. Not long after, in a letter to a merchant in Rhode Island, Christopher Champlain, he expressed the desire to return to India, offering his services as a supercargo (lead merchant on ship) on trading ships eastward.

In the letter, Burges referred to his travels in India, from the river Sindh, down the Malabar coast towards Telicherry (now Thalassery), to Bengal in the east. He made a fortune of 70,000 pounds, much of which he lost during the 1778 Siege of Pondicherry. Burges insisted in the missive that he had “acquired a local and competent knowledge of India” during this stay: “[I can] speak the Indostan language as well as English and work a ship in the Lascar tongue.”

The appeal did not find favour with Champlain and Burges moved to more abiding interests: astronomy and cartography. Historian David Bosse writes that Burges taught navigation, surveying and geography at Newburyport in Massachusetts, Portsmouth in Connecticut, and New York. He knew this knowledge was needed by merchants and American statesmen, both of whom wanted a more reliable picture of the world than British and Dutch cartographers provided.

Burges’ advertisements in 1788-’89 forecasting the appearance of a comet in April 1789 caught the eye of John Adams, one of America’s “founding fathers” and a member of the Continental Congress. Since 1776, the Continental Congress had waged wars with Britain, made pacts with the original 13 colonies that fought for independence, and drafted the constitution. A comet’s putative appearance in the month of the new government’s swearing-in – with George Washington as president and Adams as his deputy – appeared to Adams as auspicious.

Adams invited Burges to his home in Braintree, Massachusetts, and expressed interest in Burges’ other area of expertise – Asia. Adams introduced him to Washington and the two financed, with the help of donations, Burges’ works that appeared over the next few months. A Short Account of the Solar System, and of Comets in General (1789) was followed by A Series of Indostan Letters, “a lively first-person narrative” in 1790.

His good fortunes did not last, though. The comet never appeared, despite Burges’ calculations matching those of Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. Burges’ business partners pocketed the money from his book sales, leading him to borrow heavily to publish a series of coastal charts showing the topography and navigational routes from Newfoundland in Canada to the Caribbean islands. Burges presumed that the Boston Marine Society would validated the coastal charts. But it repudiated his claims, adding that it didn’t have enough evidence of his abilities as a scientist.

Burges died at sea in 1807, while travelling from Boston to Trinidad. American trade with India did receive a push when, in 1792, Benjamin Joy, who had made voyages to India in the 1770s, was appointed consul by George Washington. According to science historians such as Gordon Fraser and Sarah Schechner-Genuth, astronomers theorise that Burges’ comet – a mass of ice and rock, whose presence had been recorded in 1532 and 1661 – broke apart before entering the solar system. A remnant can still be found orbiting elliptically around the sun, but locating it would have been difficult for any 18th century astronomer, even Burges.

This article is part of a series on notable Americans who visited India before mid-20th century. Read the rest of the series here.