Captain Peter Gordon

In this old article, Dr Bulloch describes the great difficulty he had in finding the only copy of a book written by Captain Peter Gordon:

Captain Peter Gordon  features in this old film made by me. A film that sought to explore identity:


AN OLD MAN OF THE SEA
By Dr John M. Bulloch

Captain Peter Gordon, mariner, missionary, and militant reformer, spent his later years at No. 8, Barnesbury Street, Islington, but I can hardly think that such a desert of smug streets could ever have bred a soul so adventurous. True, there had been Gordons in Islington before his day, but the fate of Mr. Gordon, the milk-seller of Park Street, near the church, who was gored to death when putting a halter on a cow in 1 798, was much more in keeping with the environment of the neighbourhood. Barnesbury Street, however, had been once known as Cutthroat Lane, and the dash of romanticism involved in the name was very much more in the line of Peter s progress.

I do not know when he was born or when he died, but between the years 1809, when he was captured by the French, and 1841, when one of his many grievances was presented to the House of Lords, he had packed many adventures into his life, and exhibited in a high degree the true Gordon spirit.

Almost the only reference to his early career occurs in an entry in his diary of March 15, 1823, when he says that on landing at Madras he met quite unexpectedly an old school-fellow, who took him to his house. “This was not an accident,” he says, “for some days I had been regretting being cut off from my New South Wales friends.” A little later he recalls Daniel Wilson and St. John’s Chapel in Bedford Row.

Certain it is he had been cradled in adventure, for in a petition he once presented to Parliament he stated that his father was “domiciliated” in Calcutta as an owner and commander of the merchantman Wellesley, serving the Government for a time as Commodore of the expedition to Egypt. He afterwards fell in with a French frigate La Franchise, off the coast of Brazil, while on a voyage with Government stores for the Cape. He beat the La Franchise off, and for this action received a service of plate, which became a family heirloom. It may be that the gallant mariner was the Captain Peter Gordon of Islington who had died before December 5, 1806, when his daughter married Ebenezer Alexander Whyte, Esquire, of St. Swithin’s Lane. The captain was much more lucky than his son, Peter, whose first adventure was to fall into the hands of the French, as the second mate of the barque Joseph of Limerick. He tells the story of his escapade in a volume published in 1 816 on behalf of the Patriotic Fund.

The Joseph left Oporto on August 10, 1809, with two mates, six men, and two boys. It was one of a fleet of twenty-six merchantmen, and sailed under the convoy of a gun-brig. On August 20 it was chased by a large French frigate. La Virgine, but managed to escape, only, however, to fall into the hands of a much less romantic captor, namely, a French lugger, which was run as a privateer under the command of a Dutchman. Gordon and his comrades were landed at Dieppe on August 25, and for the next six months he was a close prisoner. The prisoners were marched by slow and distressing stages in a northeasterly direction to Eu, Abbeville, Doullens, Arras, and Douai, and then south to Cambrai, which they reached in a miserable plight on September 24. Here they stayed until February 4th 1810, when Gordon could stand it no longer, and made a bolt of it. He could speak a little Dutch and a little French, and he masqueraded as ”John Keith,” declaring that he was under American protection. The main thing that he had to do was to get out of France, so on the first day he covered eighteen miles, landing on the night of February 5th at Mons. He managed to reach Rotterdam on February 18th, having travelled at least two hundred miles in the fourteen days, his course lying along the valley of the Meuse, by way of Charleroi, Huy, Liege, Maestricht, and then in a northerly direction by Weert and Heusden to Rotterdam. He reached Yarmouth on May 15th. He seems to have gone immediately to India, where he entered the “country” service in 1810, and he was “occasionally” in the service of the East India Company during the next fourteen years. The intervals he spent to some purpose. The most extraordinary of all was the voyage that he made in 181 7 to Siberia. This and a subsequent voyage he described in a pamphlet entitled: Fragment of the Journal of a Tour through Persia in 1820.

We have not got the whole of the story, because, according to the preface, the journals of the two voyages from Calcutta to Okhotsk, while in the hands of a printer at Bristol, named Fuller, were destroyed by a fire. The journal of the journey from Okhostk to Astrakhan was seized upon by the mayor of a small place near Astrakhan; while some of the pages of the remaining manuscript were lost. One of the most extraordinary things about the voyage was that Gordon sailed from Calcutta to Okhotsk in a little 65-ton schooner, called The Brothers, along with six men. He sailed in May, and he reached Okhotsk, on the coast of Siberia, on September 27th 1817, being “the first navigator to carry the British flag” to that sea. The tiny vessel carried a cargo of merchandise, which he had some difficulty in disposing of owing to the fact that the merchants had left the town. The cargo was therefore housed under the care of Mr. Eddis, a partner in the speculation, and the vessel returned to Calcutta, which it reached in January, 1818.

Perhaps he was familiar with the Rev. Patrick Gordon’s once famous text-book. Geography Anatomised: or a Compleat Geographical Grammer which made its first appearance in 1693, and ran through scores of editions, being very popular throughout the first half of the eighteenth century.

Peter would have read in it this characteristic observation about Russia— The Muscovites are generally looked upon as a rude, deceitful and ignorant sort of people. They are much addicted to excessive drinking, and to unlawful and beastly pleasures. They are said to be great abhorrers of tobacco.

There was much in common between Patrick and Peter, for the parson as chaplain of H.M.S. Salisbury, which, as I have noted, was recaptured from the French by Admiral Thomas Gordon, was a man of the sea, and the missionary spirit was so strong upon him that he was one of the founders of the S.P.C.K., and went out to convert the North-American Indians.

Peter Gordon made a second voyage, and then he set out from Okhotsk on September 19th, 1819, on a remarkable journey across the Steppes. He reached Yakutsk on October 10th, and Irkutsk on November 4th. He took six days to cross Lake Baikal, which has figured so largely in the outlook of the world during the last few years. He had gone out of his way to visit a missionary of the London Missionary Society, Mr. Stallybras, who was living at Selingsk. He recrossed Lake Baikal on a sledge, and arrived again at Irkutsk on December 29th. He reached Tomsk on January 14th 1820, and on March 10 we find him as far west as Astrakhan.

It would be tedious to follow him through Persia, all the more so as his journal is very fragmentary. Suffice it to say that he visited many important places and encountered many adventures. “I am sadly robbed,” he says on May 6th, “and can scarcely get bread enough to eat.” On May 20th he was at Teheran, and on July 16th he found his way to Bushire. He made a point of visiting Shiraz to see the tombs of the Persian poets, Hafiz and Sadi; and he picked up all sorts of information, and in return seems to have distributed Bibles and tracts, which held out until July 10th, when he gave the last of them to a mullah.

His observations on the political state of the country are extremely interesting in view of Russia’s scarcely concealed desire today to become the preponderating influence in Persia, a desire which we have attempted to check by our recent agreement with her. He tells us that the Persians were frightened lest Russia should annex them. ”Was Russia,” he says, ”to occupy Persia, besides accelerating the dismemberment of Russia (which I look upon to be certain at no very remote period), it would inevitably drain Russia of money as well as of men who ought to be at home making it.” His strange olla podrida ends with:

  1. ”a Memorandum concerning the Propagation of Christianity in Persia”;
  2. ”a very rough estimate of Armenians in some places in Asia “
  3. ”Geographical Memoirs to accompany a chart of the most eastern parts of Asia (1818).”

His work on Persia, rough and fragmentary as it was, was recognized by those who knew as a real contribution to geographical knowledge, for the Eclectic Review of December 1833 presented his readers with the following comment—

An ill-printed tract on coarse paper containing the rough notes of a trader’s journal drawn up without any regard to the usual laws of good writing and full of all sorts of inaccuracies ! It may be asked why notice such a publication, which would scarcely fetch a penny at a bookstall? For this good reason, that we happen to have ground for the assurance that it is an authentic narrative of certainly an extraordinary journey, undertaken by a very enterprising and worthy man.

It was probably during these years of voyaging that Gordon “attempted,” as he says,”to open up commercial enterprise with Japan and become acquainted with China.” The result of his journey or journeys there was his contribution on commerce to Hugh Murray’s Historical and Descriptive Account of China, first published in 1836.

Gordon seems to have settled down and given up his wandering life in 1823. At any rate in 1824 he says he entered into a contract with the East India Company, which conveyed to him ‘‘an authority almost absolute and similar to that of Zemindar over more than 3000 families.” Gordon was engaged in the pearl fisheries, but amid all his wanderings he had always kept an eye on the religious side of India, and on every occasion he stood up for the rights of the natives, pillorying John Company in such a relentless way that at last he got into trouble, although he declared that his sole desire was “that India might become truly British-and Christian.” His religious tastes were of the widest, for he declares that” it cannot be a duty to stay away from the Catholic churches on account of the candles or the rude cross. I cannot understand a word of the service, but it is the house of my God.”

In 1824 he visited Ceylon, and in the following year he came into serious collision with the Company’s authorities in Madura, where he carried on his pearl fishings, presumably in the Gulf of Manar, which gave its name to the Aberdeenshire estate of Badifurrow, when it was bought by Hugh Gordon, who made a fortune as a jeweller in India.

In 1826 he sent four letters to the Governor in Council, containing charges against the municipal collector at Madura, Mr. Rous Peter, of ”various misdemeanours in the execution of his duties to the great pecuniary detriment of the East India Company, and the great vexation of the inhabitants of the district”; practically charging him with authorizing the frequent infliction of torture contrary to the law. At first Peter seems to have been content with bullying Gordon, who lived “in hourly dread of being ordered to quit India, which would have made it impossible even to have wound up my accounts; and this would have involved me in a most unpleasant manner concerning very large sums of money.” Finally he was summoned by the Government to Madras, where he was allowed to reside unmolested and at perfect liberty, although in a constant state of extreme anxiety as to his fisheries, while his other concerns were quite ruined by the powerful opposition he encountered.

In 1827 he set out again to his fisheries, returning to Ramnad, but on December 28th, 1827, he was suddenly arrested by Peter’s assistant, Jonathan Duncan Gleig, and imprisoned as an “improper person” to be in the country. That arrest gave the authorities a great deal of trouble, for Gordon was not a man to take it lying down, and during the next thirteen years he petitioned everybody who was anybody, including Parliament itself, to redress his wrongs. In the first place, he complained that the Company had no jurisdiction over him, and that he had been arrested by a native. He was imprisoned for two months in a room (the prison being uninhabitable for Europeans), where for the first fortnight he was closely confined between four men with drawn swords and a party of Sepoys with fixed bayonets at the door. At the end of a fortnight he was allowed greater liberty by the order of the Governor in Council in Madras, who seems to have begun to feel that he had caught a tartar.

Gordon also complained that he was never informed of the cause of the arrest; and last of all that during his imprisonment James Scott and Company, with whom he was associated, became bankrupt. Gordon applied constantly during two years to the Government in Calcutta, and was then referred to the Directors at home. He reached London in 1830, but the Directors declined to see him. He attended the Privy Council in 1832, and as he got no redress he promptly pilloried the Company in the columns of the Times, where on March 13th, 1833, he published a sensational letter, in which he said he had seen the wives of the god Rama in the temple threatened by Europeans with flogging, and bought and maintained for the vilest purposes by the Company, by which they were, when sick and old, neglected, forsaken, and abandoned. “And yet,” he says, “these crimes form a part of the dividend in Indian stock of which a great many English clergymen are holders.” General Montague Burgoyne had called upon him to substantiate his charges against the Company before the Christian Knowledge Society, and he accordingly met the General in the Society’s great room, the Bishop of London presiding. In 1834 he returned to his ”solemn protest” against the British Government in India, declaring it to be ”wholly unconstitutional, utterly anti-Christian, and totally abominable.” He then presented a petition to the House of Commons, in which he declared—

Although your petitioner has been in other circumstances, as a prisoner of war, chained and thumb-screwed by the gendarmes of France for disliking their dungeons; and although he has also been driven along the frontier posts of Russia by Cossacks, in spite of the utmost regularity in his passport ; your petitioner can truly aver that neither on these, or on any other occasion of his life, has he ever been treated with anything approaching the cruelty, brutality, and insult with which he was treated during the period of his imprisonment by the authorities of Madura.

On October 4th, 1841, a petition from him was presented by Lord Clifford, whose statement, together with Lord Ellenboroughs reply, was printed in pamphlet form, apparently for Gordon, by William Davy, London.

It is not quite clear how far Gordon was recompensed, but his quarrel with the Company did not end with his own troubles. He made a fierce attack on the organization of the Company at home, especially as regards its treatment of its Chinese MSS. in its Library and Museum, which he had been permitted to use, May 2nd 1835. His criticisms were published in a twelve-page pamphlet, entitled The Oriental Repository at the India House which the Company so keenly resented, that they withdrew the permission in the following July. Besides the pamphlets I have mentioned—he clamoured for a little recognition from posterity by presenting a fairly complete set to the British Museum—he wrote one giving “instructions for preserving the health of the Lascars.” His reforming zeal made him produce some Notes on the Administration of the Establishment in India for Piety and Commerce under the East India Company, while his Christian Researches in Northern India, 1823-28, reflect his religious bias.