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From the Archives: Duke of Grafton

April 10, 2020

Watzek Library

Watzek Library’s Special Collections contain a number of stories that seem to parallel aspects of life during quarantine. A ship’s log, detailing in manuscript the exciting voyage of an English ship, the Duke of Grafton, seems to offer a perspective on isolation, exhaustion, and the threat of illness, while meanwhile offering a lens on contemporary politics and British colonialism.

The log begins in the summer of 1779, as the American Revolution raged on the other side of the world. The account details the Grafton’s voyage from Portsmouth, past Madeira and on to Senegal, then down to Trinidad, before calling in at Cape Town. The ship then heads for Madras, up to Mumbai, before heading on to Calcutta. The anonymous author provides vibrant descriptions of some of the towns the Grafton calls at. He has a special dislike of Dutch Capetown, a distaste for segregation of Indian cities, and a fascination with Hinduism.

The sailors on the Duke of Grafton, though they saw many wonders of the world as they made their circuitous voyage, were troubled by loneliness and isolation, confined as they were to the East India Company ship. The first page of the log condemns the Navy’s practice of impressment: “Happy would it be for those Men, and for the Navy, and Kingdom in general, could some Expedient be hit on to man his Majesty’s Navy in a more respectable Manner, and explode a Practice disgraceful to the Service and Mocking to Humanity.” Throughout the narrative the author expresses his sorrow at his separation from his family, the smallness of his world on the ship, and his frustrations with the people and politics that surrounded him.

Alongside long confinement on the ship, illness was a major hardship faced by the sailors on the Duke of Grafton. During the course of the voyage, following an attack by a privateer, the ship was beset by a fever, followed by dysentery, and finally scurvy. Those still left alive were weakened enough that a number of them fell into the sea while on duty.

The Grafton’s second arrival into Madras came during the opening days of the Second Anglo-Mysore War, shortly before the Battle of Pollilur (1780). It gives an account of the battle, which was, until the Battle of Chillianwala, the worst defeat suffered by the British on the subcontinent. The author’s narrative of the war and the then-current state of the conflict reflects contemporary fears for the security of the British holdings in India, and the anger and frustration of the locals at the perceived incompetence of the British commanders, in particular Colonel Hector Munro. The log ends abruptly; we never see the author reunited with his family or the British Isles that he so desperately misses. However, his clear and critical commentary on his surroundings, the British colonial enterprise, and life in the East India Company offers a stark and fascinating access to an historical moment.

This volume has been used in various classes at Lewis & Clark, including The British Empire and Adventure Literature. It has been treated by several students in Historical Materials.

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