Thomas Davies at Hugli – Homosociality in EIC Factors

By Liam Haydon.

We have been left an enormous archive by the East India Company’s strict policy of frequent communication and information sharing, coupled with the copying and storing of letters in duplicate. So it is remarkable that one factor, Daniel Sheldon at Kasimbar felt that he had to go outside of this system, writing to Thomas Davies, a factor at Hugli, on 1st May 1659 that “I can thank my friends for their favours, but I cannot do it in Company lines”. Sheldon’s letter goes on to praise Davies effusively for his companionship: “in acknowledging how much you have obliged me with your last good company, I feared I would make you suspect a truth I intend to treat you in plain language, which is: that to make your friends happy you need only afford them your society, the very relish of which hath made me sad, ever since I was fortunate in it.” Both of these fragments suggest something transgressive; a communication beyond that mandated officially by the EIC, and one that Sheldon fears will be scarcely believable for Davies.

The same question of good faith animates the letter of John Ken, also at Kasimbar, and sent on the same day:

“The enjoyment of your good company at Ninda made me happy for since I have found a visible alteration in my joy; where can I be any where better contented than in its fruition. […] You know I have made a contract with you not to think of, much less to write a compliment, therefore realities and truths shall always fill my lines & subscription, of being so much as any man in the world, your affectionate loving friend.”

Here, the ‘contract’ is not one of official business, but a contract of friendship. Rather than the production of social capital (in the strict sense of relationships calculated to provide a return on investment via information or influence), the relationships of these men to Thomas Davies seem to be considered only in terms of ‘good company’, ‘joy’ and ‘friendship’. Another factor, Richard Chamberlain, also wrote to Davies (on 5th April 1659), on receipt of a letter from him: “Yesterday was blest by the receipt of yours; no mans finding more real welcome therefore pray let no opportunity slip of making me happy by them. […] and be posest that I love you & consequently will serve you, you have pitched upon a good Companion.”

Chamberlain’s letter hints at a relationship beyond that which we traditionally imagine being shared by company factors abroad; it is based on happiness and love, instead of institutional, national or economic interests. This is something akin to the idea of ‘homosociality’, as originally theorised by Alan Bray, Eve Sedgewick and Bruce Smith (as a social formation made evident through cultural production). These writers, and those that followed them, noted that relationships between men (sexual and non-sexual) in early modern England were widespread, tacitly or overtly accepted, and not necessarily opposed to male-female relationships such as marriage (indeed, in Sedgewick’s formulation, they were actually part of the way in which heterosexuality functioned).

Relational networks often take into account connectedness between men in terms of dominant social forms, especially family or marriage (which, as Eve Sedgwick showed in Between Men, tends to focus on male relationships via the ‘exchange’ of female family members). Conversely, much attention has been given to the failure of networks because of personal rivalry (often combined with economic or social impulses), such as Thomas Smythe of the Virginia Company, or Josiah Child in the EIC. However, these letters offer a glimpse of an understanding of networks which are strengthened or created by relations between men beyond institutional membership, religion or geography. Archival fragments such as these letters between otherwise unremarkable company servants afford us the opportunity to think deeper about the construction of social networks based on non-standard sociability. How might we better theorise the relationships between those in an institution such as a trading company? Do these letters suggest a different sort of bond which might influence individual behaviour, and consequently network-building or development? Might they help us understand why certain associations form within networks, or indeed fail to form? It may well be that the archive does not allow a deep reading of every, or even many, of the relationships contained with it, but perhaps proxies could be found  – such as frequency of association, personal recommendations to third parties, unusual travel or gifts in wills – which would allow us to reflect on this important social phenomenon as it was carried into the trading world of the seventeenth century.


Letters are found in the British Library, India Office Records, IOR/E/3/26

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