The Piracies of John Fowke
Merchant adventure on the high seas of London finance
There are few solid facts about John Fowke before 1627. We know he was born at Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire some time around 1598 to William Fowkes and Alice Carr. We are sure that he was a merchant in the Haberdashers livery company, and that he was married to Catherine Briggs, daughter of Richard Briggs. The rest of what we know about Fowke before this time is characterization. When capital-H History found him, Fowke was “a man of great trading” living on Mark Lane, already familiar with the men making huge fortunes in the West and East Indies, a master of ships and shipping with no political ambitions whatsoever.
Of course, 1627 was also the year that Charles I decided to collect “ship money.” This medieval form of taxation was among the few real financial prerogatives of the crown in a country where parliament traditionally held the purse strings. England needed a new navy, to be sure, as there were multiple European powers with which to contend, and pirates from the Barbary coast had gotten brave enough to prey in British seas. Nevertheless, what Charles saw as his divine right was received as an affront against the rights of Englishmen.
No one protested against all taxes, of course, or even a tax increase per se. It was the arbitrary imposition of taxes without the consent of the governed as expressed through his loyal Parliament, etc etc, that everyone cited as their reason for resistance. Resentment of royal taxation was nothing new, either, but in the reign of Charles tax protestation was a sublimated form of protest against his perceived Catholic leanings and Arminian love of bishops. While Fowke was not known for conspicuous piety, he was already associated with the Puritan shipping masters who were colonizing America. Sponsoring brethren into Puritan society, he reputedly “countenanced good ministers,” even if his convictions were understated.
More to the point, however, Fowke had made quite a success of himself as a still-young man. He had leveraged his advantages well and elevated his station in the world. Fervent Protestant businessman have not changed that much in the last four centuries; Fowke would have seen his success as a divine right, one every bit as deserving as the royal tradition, and the new levy upon that success would have rankled his Puritan pride because it supported such an unacceptable court. This was a culture war expressed as political disagreement. Citing the law and his convictions, John Fowke refused to pay the “tonnage and poundage” rates demanded by the crown.
As a result, Fowke was arrested and “sent to the Fleet,” meaning the infamous jail on Fleet Street in London, while his wares — chiefly raisins and textiles from the Levant trade — were “seized to his prejudice of £5,827.” Charles punished him the same way again in August “for attempting to obtain legal redress” in the former matter. This kind of legal interference was all too common at the time and a typical example of the weak institutions that frustrated the merchant class. Arrested a third time in January 1628, Fowke petitioned the House of Commons, infuriating the young king, who published his displeasure with Fowke two months later so that the whole kingdom heard about it. If he had hoped that this exemplary punishment would discourage imitators, however, Charles was sorely mistaken.
In September, tension with Levant Company merchants boiled over into riots as they broke into the customs house to retrieve impounded currants. Among them was Morris Abbot, a key figure in colonial adventures and Governor-General of the East India Company at the time. Fowke, Abbot, and the rest of these men would form the core of London’s revolutionary movement in 1642. Although Abbot pulled back from an outright break with the royal court in 1628, Fowke was not finished. Sometime in the first week of the new year — it is not clear exactly what day — Fowke and another merchant named Bartholomew Gilman conspired to force their goods through the royal customs house without payment. The privy council noted this skullduggery on 5 January 1629, and then two days later another merchant did the same thing.
Unable to tolerate such disobedience, Charles had Fowke arrested and his goods seized again. Fowke was then charged with, quote, “‘pretended riot and seditious words’ used by him to the officers sent to execute the” seizure of goods, a picturesque 17th Century charge of resisting arrest. His stunt at the customs house may have been timed to force Charles to let Parliament meet on schedule, 20 January, in order to resolve the issue of tonnage and poundage. If so, Fowke was more successful than he planned, for on the third day of the session, the House of Commons took up the cause of Fowke and four other men arrested for refusing to pay the impost. During February, Fowke and his fellow defendants were tried in Star-chamber, meaning the king’s private court, and petitioned Parliament for relief. Rather than highlighting the issues, they became the issue, setting back Charles in his efforts to wrangle money from parliament.
Details are of course fuzzy at this distance. For facts, we only have a paper trail with names and dates that leaves much to be desired. We do not know exactly how much time Fowke spent locked up. Yet the larger portrait of a man willing to forcefully hustle his goods past royal officials, perhaps even putting a pistol to some hapless bureaucratic face while denouncing them as the robbers, appeals to us across the ages as a variation on the Robin Hood myth. Though, to be clear, Fowke was not robbing form the rich to give to the poor. Rather, he stood accused of robbing his own riches from the king in order to keep them for himself.
Parliament ended the session with an offer to let Charles collect tonnage and poundage at the rates he wanted…for just one year. This affronted the royal personage, whose ancestors had never been limited in such a way. The politics of 1629 ended in acrimony, with the commons forbidding anyone to cooperate with the king’s tax assessors and the king vowing to rule without parliament. The command of parliament had no force in law, of course, but Fowke made obedience to it the cornerstone of his continued resistance. He would pay for it, literally and figuratively.
In October of 1629, “great endeavors were used to take away his life and estate upon false pretenses of clipping of money and of piracies,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Emphasis “piracies:”
After witnesses had been examined he was committed to the Fleet, ‘without any cause expressed,’ and his ship and cargo, with a prize of sugar, seized. All his endeavors to regain his liberty proved ineffectual, and, after spending a large sum on law costs, he was forced ‘to give £40,000 bail in the admiralty about the said prize.’
Inflation is difficult to calculate that far back, but we can safely think of this as $30 million or more in today’s money. Clearly, Fowke was not a small operator. The sugar cargo would have been part of his regular business with West Indies planters. This was still early in the English slave trade, but Guinea was already a source of gold and ivory to trade in the East Indies, so the circulating currents of global commerce were beginning their treadmill motion across the Atlantic, and Fowke was swimming in them. For everyone involved in this burgeoning economic engine, the difference between privateer and pirate was a matter of whether one had the king’s pleasure. Fowke did not have the pleasure of Charles, and so he became a pirate.
Indeed, Fowke’s financial woes may explain why he found a new enemy in the East India Company. Reading the Calendar of State Papers, we find that the following April, a business partner named Daniel Boneall has petitioned the Honourable Company
concerning his debt to the Company for saltpetre, which he was utterly unable to pay and desired the Company would, like his other creditors, accept his estate and divide it amongst them, but the Court saw no reason to waive their suit, conceiving they had a good man (Mr. Fowkes) obliged with him to satisfy it.
The saltpeter came from the Gangetic plain of India, where it rises to the top of the soil with the monsoon rains and forms a crust that can be scooped up by peasants. Shipped in bags and crates and barrels, but usually just shoveled into the holds of ships, these natural nitrates are so pure that in 1636, the company instructed a secretary “to send samples of refined and unrefined saltpetre to the Indies for the factors to see the difference, one being found here as good as the other.” Whereas the British Isles had no natural deposits of saltpeter, this plentiful supply stream of the primary ingredient in gunpowder, with such high quality, was to become the key to success for the British Empire, not just in India but everywhere else it would ever touch.
Exactly when and why Fowke reneged on his obligation remains unclear, although the costs of royal prosecution would seem the most likely explanation. His new problem with the East India Company went to Chancery Court, where Fowke lost in a process not wholly dissimilar from the Star-chamber. These experiences would turn him into an ardent advocate of English legal reform. Appointed to the Hale Commission in 1651, his crusading agenda failed in parliament, yet the effort is seen as the beginning of a partial reform process that did happen over the following decades.
The Court Minutes of the East India Company for November 1631 report the judge has put Fowke’s “adventures in their hands, alleged to be sixteen hundred pounds in their second joint stock, and twenty-one hundred pounds more in three of their voyages.” (In this context, the word “adventures” should be read as investments.) Yet Fowke was stubborn, refusing to turn them over. This battle over financial instruments continued for at least four years. Court Minutes show that Fowke continued to resist, demanding to see various records and bothering the General Court with his “impertinent discourse.” His brother-in-law, another investor in the saltpeter shipment, tried to intervene for Fowke and “Mr. Boneale.”
Despite all this, in February of 1636 the company agreed to let Fowke invest in its Third Voyage. India was suffering famine and plague that year, and the company was having a very hard time finding investors, so they may have been desperate for cash, yet this is not a sufficient explanation on its own. There was also a new problem for the East India Company. Cash-hungry as ever, Charles was on the make. His friend William Courteen, the man who had financed the creation of the Bermuda colony and thus created the English sugar market, told him there was good money to be made interloping the company’s charter. That is, although Charles had solemnly vowed to give the East India Company a royal monopoly on all English trade in the East Indies, he could appoint others to seek opportunities that the company was not pursuing. In addition to big investors, Courteen gathered many independent London merchants to this cause. Some had dreams of colonizing Madagascar and the Indies, which the company refused to do, citing the expense. Others saw arbitrage potential in the weaknesses of the company overseas. Fowke was one of these.
During 1635, a pair of ships set sail for the Indian Ocean. The Samaritan and the Roebuck were small, just 250 and 100 tons displacement respectively, but they were armed with powerful cannon. It appears that the Samaritan wrecked off the Comoros Islands, while the pinnace Roebuck cast away the Samaritan’s captain on an island before reaching the Red Sea in September. There, the crew sighted a fat junk sailing up to Mecca and fell on the passengers savagely. The captain had a pass from the East India Company in Surat — indeed, the company did brisk business in these guarantees of free movement through waters they dominated — but the men of the Roebuck were unconcerned with such legalities, for they had come a long way, and risked everything to get so far.
When word of the piracy reached Surat, the Sultan did not discriminate between Englishmen. He simply imprisoned the company’s governor and forced him to make restitution. Although not by design(?), the Courteen expedition had blown up in the East India Company’s face in humiliating fashion. An East India Company ship, the Swan, later encountered the Roebuck and conveyed such threats as made the pinnace scarper back to London. However, the damage was done.
When news of the piracy reached London “about Christmas, 1636,” Courteen had already died. His son and heir plausibly denied responsibility for the ships, as his father had merely been part owner of one. Charles backed him up in this denial with royal affidavits — and then tussled with the Honourable Company on his behalf over the silver and gold brought home by the Roebuck. Coincidentally, this prize was equal to what John Fowke claims he paid out as bail money in 1629. Charles wanted Courteen’s son to have it; the company wanted recompense for its losses in Surat. For anyone who despised both parties, as John Fowke did, the sight of king and company at odds must have been delicious. One might almost suspect it was their design.
The East India Company had been fully aware of the ships before they left, and again they were quite aware of the second fleet that Courteen was preparing for India as 1636 began. Along with a partner, the colonizer William Cloberry, we can confirm that Fowke fitted out a ship for this expedition, the Dragon. During the same February that the company’s frosty relationship with Fowke suddenly seemed to thaw, the Court Minutes show keen interest in the preparations of this fleet, including Fowke’s “adventure” in it, and what time it would set sail. Although I cannot prove that the two trends were linked, or that the General Court of the Honourable Company was terrified into respecting Fowke’s confederated merchants as a peer competitor, it is the story that makes the most sense. And while I cannot prove that Fowke was involved in the Roebuck affair, he was not the kind of man to shy away from profitable ventures in a perfectly respectable trade like privateering, and he was an enemy of the East India Company.
With royal monopoly rendered meaningless by royal caprice, the specter of competition so dismayed the Honourable Company’s stockholders that they very nearly voted to give up the trade in October of 1636, even though Courteen’s son was trying to sell them his father’s entire India adventure at the time. John Fowke was a prime mover behind this effort, instigating and agitating to break up the monopoly. Although he did not succeed in that design, he had damaged both company and king by setting them against one another, and in future years he would oppose the company’s monopoly charter in parliament.
Embracing the role of pirate, Fowke had also forged connections that bear on our understanding of later events, when Charles was forced to recall parliament after the 11-year personal rule. These matters remain understudied. For while historians of the English Civil War period point to the issue of monopolies as an example of the political divisions that went unresolved in the crucial years before the bloodletting began, historiography has not appreciated the fulsome meaning of a saltpeter supply stream. John Fowke did, and it made a crucial difference to the outcome of the war between Charles and parliament.