History revisited

The Irish slave trader and sea captain who founded the town of Bombay – in New York

Two Bombays played a dominant role in the life of Michael Hogan.

In 1804, when Michael Hogan appeared in New York with his wife, Frances Hogan nee Richardson, he was greeted with a warm reception. The Irish-born ship captain, merchant, land speculator and also, slave trader and privateer, had arrived with a big fortune that, he claimed, was due to his wife – an “Indian princess”.

For the newspapers of the time, the arrival was grist for the newsprint mill: they called Frances a “dark-skinned Indian princess”, and fell in with most of Hogan’s braggadocio, which included the claim that on his marriage, he had received a dowry of “400,000 English sovereigns, or about two million dollars”, or according to other sources, “40,000 pounds in gold”.

In no time, Hogan bought land in the city, and then some months later (in 1806) in northern New York, the region measuring several thousand acres that lay only a few miles to Canada’s south. The land Hogan acquired, he soon renamed Bombay, for his wife, a native of Bombay, which was then in the East India Company’s possession.

Today, the town of Bombay in north New York has, according to the US census, a population of around 1,300. Within it are two smaller hamlets – Hogansburg (Hogan named it after himself) and South Bombay. Its website proudly lists two country clubs and a casino among the town’s attractions. A history section briefly mentions the founder, but doesn’t really answer the question – who was Michael Hogan.

The well-networked merchant

Believed to have been born around 1765 (though this is not certain) in County Clare, in West Ireland, Hogan acquired his sea legs early. As a teenager, he served in the Royal Navy and then only a few years later, in his twenties, references in a book by Michael H Styles (his great-great-great grandson) have him operating as a trader on ships that plied on the lucrative Asian trade route of Calcutta-Canton and then in Macau. Hogan also sailed between western India and South Africa.

Hogan had a gift for striking up relationships with go-getters, those who had the ability to sniff out business opportunities. In another few months, he branched out into the rice trade that led to his first voyages to the United States. He had links with Robert Henshaw, the East India Company’s custom-master who would soon be indicted for his role in hoarding and stockpiling rice during the shortage and famine years of the late 1780s. Soon after, with the help of some Bombay financiers in the early 1780s, Hogan bought the ship Il Nettunno built at the Calcutta docks.

An enduring partnership

Several of Hogan’s early business partnerships were shaped by his fortuitous friendship with William Richardson, a merchant trader, a mentor to Hogan and later his father-in-law. When he was in his early twenties, Hogan married Frances, who was born to Richardson and his ethnically Indian housekeeper referred to as Anna Marie Lacy from Tirhut state in present-day Bihar.

Richardson acquired a charter enabling him to function as a privateer; the “letter of marque” displayed on Hogan’s ship was both a warning and statement of fact. This meant that while Richardson (and Hogan) weren’t employees of the East India Company, they could trade, and as privateers, attack and plunder ships belonging to other nations.

The years of the Napoleonic wars between Britain and France inspired Hogan to play the patriot’s card. Not only did he offer his services first in transporting convicts to Australia, his ship could help Britain by attacking French trading ships, based at Madagascar, the Reunion Islands and southern India, that sailed frequently in the southern Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

The convict ship

Portrait of Il Netunno, later Marquis Cornwallis. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Portrait of Il Netunno, later Marquis Cornwallis. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The ship Il Nettunno was renamed Marquis Cornwallis, and is commemorated in a well-known painting by Balthazar Solvyns. The Marquis Cornwallis made its first convict journey from Cork in Ireland on August 1796, with several convicts (nearly 160 men and 70 women) and soldiers who would form part of the New South Wales guards. At Cape Verde in mid-Atlantic, close to the Portuguese coast, Hogan, as the ship’s captain, received news of a mutiny – planned by one of the guards in liaison with several convicts.

The ship’s log, recently auctioned, records the force with which the mutiny was put down: several mutineers were flogged and the ringleaders, after being tonsured, were put in irons for the duration of the journey. The log also tells us that several of the convicts, women included, were young and were being deported for petty crimes such as stealing watches and gloves.

Ship's log that was auctioned recently. Photo credit: NSW Government
Ship's log that was auctioned recently. Photo credit: NSW Government

After the ship reached Port Jackson in Sydney in February 1796, an inquiry absolved Hogan. He also bought land at a nominal price in New South Wales and, as is believed, settled his servants/indentured slaves there for some years. His ventures after this involved him in shipping cattle to Australia.

In these years of Britain’s war with France, Hogan had his fair share of controversy. One related to his, or rather his ship’s captain, David Smart, claiming the seizure of French weaponry, and ships off the coast of Mozambique. To the British officials at the Cape of Good Hope, this was impressive, until it was revealed that bribes had been paid to the French authorities for them to give up their ships, albeit in a dishonourable way.

South Africa and the secret slave trade

Hogan made a conscious decision around the end of the 1790s to base himself and his activities in South Africa. The Cape was a location he found ideal, as he immersed himself privateering, slave trading secretly and trading other goods. He was a familiar figure to those engaged in the opium and tea trade with China. An old associate Alexander Tennant, based at the Cape, also cleverly persisted in slave trade, hoodwinking the British authorities by sailing under the Portuguese flag.

Through Richardson, Hogan was introduced to well-known traders who had worldwide links – they sold rice and slaves to the Americas and conducted silk, tea and opium trade in China and the east. Hogan became agent to Robert Charnock, the rich merchant financier based at Ostend (in Western Europe). Hogan also had links with the people who made up a veritable who’s who of international trade back then: David Scott, a friend of Henry Melville, Lord Dundas (the latter would later be impeached as War Secretary), John Parrish, the British merchant who had links with Robert Morris, who in turn came to be popularly labelled the financier of the American Revolution, and Robert Lenox and other merchants who engaged in the slave trade in the southern American states.

Bombay, New York

Bombay is located in New York. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0
Bombay is located in New York. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

He moved to New York in 1804, sensing more business opportunities, and because corruption and his hitherto covert operations had made him somewhat suspect in British eyes. For a decade, he thrived in land and trade deals. Despite losing considerably in his trade investments in the Caribbean and South America when the 1812 war with Britain broke out, forcing Hogan to sell some of his property in New York City, he continued to live among high society. He cultivated even more influential friends such as William Bayard, the merchant and close associate of one of the Founding Fathers and the first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton.

In 1820, he was appointed as US trade consul for Chile and moved to Valparaiso – furthering US political influence in the region and was even called upon to settle sea disputes. Hogan would remain in Valparaiso till 1833, the year he died, presumably in Washington DC. Michael Hogan’s son, William, who had spent his early years in South America, served for a term in the US Congress.

The rest of Hogan’s family – including an Indian-origin indentured servant called Vinissa – that had remained in South America, soon moved to New York. The ship they travelled in, called the Bristol, ran aground close to New York. Hogan’s son-in-law, Arthur Donnelly, who was on board the ship, gave his life up to ensure that women and children were rescued first – an act of heroism that would be commemorated by an impressive gravestone at his burial site in New York.

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