William Gamul Farmer Case Study: Fortune


Figure 8. Letter from William Gamul Farmer regarding conduct in Malabar province. Image courtesy of Penelope Farmer.

William Gamul Farmer’s fortune

And so, at last, to William’s possible acquisition of the fortune he had sought for so long. It was the climax of his career and followed his at first reluctant departure to the Coromandel Coast after the first defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1792, charged as a joint commissioner with investigating potential revenue from the pepper trade.  In 1793, a year later, he was made Supervisor of the Malabar province.

Pamela Nightingale’s study details the suspicions against him following these appointments.[1]  Firstly there was his close collaboration with a disreputable Mahé trader, Murdock Brown, whom he claimed not to have known beforehand, a claim Nightingale disputes.[2]  Walter Ewer, an EIC Director who sent to report on the province later wrote of Brown ‘I am firmly of opinion that if he had his deserts he ought to be hanged as a traitor to his Country or sent Prisoner of War to Bombay.’[3] Evidently William did not share Ewer’s distrust; protesting Brown’s virtues many times over, he took Brown with him in his tour round the durbars of the Northern Province Indian rajahs, as translator for the finer points for which he claimed his own command of the local language was not sufficient. He also took Brown’s advice on what he claimed to his superiors in Bombay were the only viable arrangements for the pepper tax.

In William’s extensive official diary he recounts in detail his travels in the Malabar and of his difficult dealings with the rajahs.[4] But just how much he – and Murdock Brown – profited from the fiscal arrangements they made is not clear. Though Nightingale acknowledges his relatively astute understanding of local rivalries and the way they could be exploited, she is sure he did profit and not only from the pepper tax, for, as superintendent, William was also in charge of the mint at Mahé that produced the local coinage, the fanam, in reference to which the critical Walter Ewer noted: ‘that [Mr Farmer] had a great advantage from it few people doubt.’[5]

The advantage in either case led almost certainly to the letter written to Sam on 14 June 1794. ‘Not to trust too much to the man who copies for me it is necessary to inform you separately that the reason why I have avoid the appearance of your name or mine in any shape in the bills of exchange to be sent to Europe from China is that it may not be known at the India House to whose accounts these remittances are made. There are certain malicious reports I find prevail here as to the great increase of my fortune by going down the coast. Though not wholly true it would be more expedient to avoid giving weight to them by my combusting circumstances. If it was observed at the India House that such large remittances were making for my account it might give rise to suspicion and perhaps to enquiries which at best are always troublesome.’  He adds – William Gamul Farmer even here was not going to forego any monies he thought the company owed him: ‘You may say this – from my long service and loss of health in the Malabar business I should be entitled to petition the company for some annuity should I be obliged to relinquish Surat which the extent of my fortune if known would prevent me from attaining and I shall therefore find it convenient to say I am only worth £25 to 30 000 which at 4% cash is but a poor remittance after 30 years service.’

The following year, facing questions in Bombay about the tax arrangements that he had made, William wrote a very lengthy defence of his action[6] – a defence not accepted by other observers such as James Stevens, his successor in Malabar. Apart from appealing to Murdock Brown to back him up (in several letters in the letter book between 1794-5) he also sent a copy of his defence to Sam, the one piece of his writing to be found both among the family letters and in the EIC records. This was not merely to justify himself to his brother; according to the letter book it was also so that Sam could use its contents in William’s defence if the Council in London showed signs of depriving him of the Surat chiefship, following suspicions of his activities down on the coast.

Though his arrival in Surat was much delayed, he did at last attain the Chiefship.  But William’s stay lasted barely nine months and was far from peaceable. He wrote to Sam on 4September 1795, ‘by way of amusement this month we have had an insurrection of the Mahometon mob who rose, plundered and abused the Hindoos and it has occasioned a great deal of writing and a great deal of trouble to me.’ Yet he sounds contented enough, even claiming, of the appointment of his friend Jonathan Duncan to the Bombay governorship, ‘I am very glad the governorship did not fall on my shoulders as I wish for nothing so much as a quiet retirement somewhere.’  (This latter possibility was due to his old schoolfriend Francis Baring’s actions on his behalf, though, given the suspicions against him it seems unlikely that he would have been considered.) He continues in his final letter from Surat in November 1795:The truth really is that by the setting in of the cold weather together with an abstinence of wine my stomach and my general health are so much mended that I feel quite comfortable and if it was not for the pleasure of rejoining the family I should feel totally indifferent abut England nor do I think that any part of my life I either have been so comfortable or shall be so comfortable as I am at present with my body in a tolerable state and my mind occupied and gratified … I think at least that your next in answer to this will find me still here, and therefore I must remember for you about the garden seeds that occupation being my principal delight here.’

Amid discussions of EIC politics and, Indian politics, of the profits he was proposing to send home, he gives orders for the seeds to be obtained from a Mr Swinton of Brentford, near Isleworth, instructing that they should be packed in a very particular way. He even asks for some fruit trees – nectarines.  In a letter book missive of 1 July 1795 to his Portuguese agent and friend, Miguel de Lima de Souza he also asks for orange trees from China, here again giving precise instructions as to how they were to be packed. In the letter to his sister in law on 19 November, he makes clear that his interest was hands-on in every sense. ‘I am frequently up to the elbows in dirt,’ he tells her.

This mixture of contentment in his Indian life and nostalgia for home is interesting: William seems as ever in the imperial bind, caught between two worlds.  One analysis of his management in Surat suggest it was the start of a greater separation between Indian and white colonial life which became the nineteenth-century norm.[7]   If so, maybe his Englishness was reasserting itself, and he wanted to live more as if ‘at home’, despite having been so close to Indian society and its mores for so long, un-cushioned by family and domestic life. Yet after spending two thirds of his life in the sub-continent, he did not feel sufficiently English either to engage totally with life in family preferring to recreate this one small part of it in a world by now so much more familiar to him: life by family rather. He could also, in some respects have seen it as his way of creating a family. In a letter to John Forbes in July 1795, referring to his orange trees, he adds that ‘planting a tree and getting a child are amongst the cardinal virtues and as I make no attempt at the latter I must compensate in the tree way’.  Yet in some respects William’s English garden seems as much a myth of family and England as an actuality. I doubt if many peas and cabbages grew behind the family dye works above which William grew up, let alone orange trees.

But he was never to see his peas and cabbages, his orange trees, grow.  It was Malabar he always claimed had finally ruined his health. In his official journal there he had reported that illness sometimes prevented his working: elsewhere and this same illness lead to his departure from the province. Complaints of ill-health recur throughout the letter book he kept thereafter. His renewed optimism in early December 1795 turned out premature. Due to an injudiciously cold bath after riding- he claimed – he fell ill again. Despite wishing to stay in India till the situation in Europe improved, he was forced to plan his departure. In January 1796, he boarded the Bombay ship, The Princess Amelia, hoping the voyage would mend his health. As ambivalent as ever, William did not resign immediately, despite arranging for his local possessions to be auctioned: if he proceeded no further than the Cape, his position at Surat would remain open.  He did indeed proceed further; the Amelia failed to stop at the Cape, something William claims to have regretted in a shipboard letter to Sam, his health having improved. The ship’s log shows him disembarking at Southampton in July 1796.[8]  In an ironic, not to say galling coda, it also showed him being accompanied as far as St Helena by his erstwhile junior, John Griffiths. John Griffiths was piped on and off the ship with a nineteen gun salute: William’s was just seventeen.

William Gamul Farmer survived less than eighteen months in England. His will was proved in February1798, a month after his death.[9] It is very brief, unlike that of Sam nearly 40 years later,[10] and contains no details of property, making Sam the sole residuary legatee—of how much exactly, I cannot be sure.  Letters in the letter book to Dady, Sam and others shift from claiming that he was sending enough to be able to live comfortably to claiming he was only bringing back a pittance, not enough, he said, to help out Sam who was having business difficulties of his own. (Sam’s venture into the slave trade appears not to have been successful; among the family papers is a copy of request dated 1 December 1790 for information about one slave ship, indicating almost certain wreck.) It is of course true that getting money back from India via Bills of Exchange was an uncertain business at the best of time and particularly in the mid nineties because of the war with the French and the dangers of attack besides shipwreck: either process could destroy not only the copies of the bills but also the profits on which depended those on whom the bills were drawn.


Figure 9. Nonsuch Park, Surrey. Image courtesy of Penelope Farmer.

William sent multiple copies of the Bills on different ships to avert the first danger and tried to use particularly stable houses like Forbes or Scott to pre-empt the second of these perils – his second set of bills, for instance, was drawn on Scott, and sent to a different bank. One tranche of his money, the 150,000 rupees – approximately £15,000 – sent to China by his Portuguese colleague, Miguel de Lima e Souza in 1795 he claimed reduced to only £2000 because of the loss of the ship in which the money was invested. On the other hand he also claimed to have insured himself against this possibility, so who knows what the sum did actually come to. Still, adding together the sums of his theoretical assets, £27,000 from the first batch of bills, plus the £28,000 odd from the second and adding to these the £1000 he had in hand in Bombay, the full amount he could have remitted to England was something between £60,000 and £70,000. Even taking away the 15,000 from de Souza would still have left him with a comfortable £55,000 odd—on which, of course, as it turned out, he did not have to live. On William’sdeath, most of the money would have gone intact to Sam, who did not (unlike his brother) invest it in ‘manufactory’ but put it straight into that much safer asset landed property. It thusmight be fair to suggest that William’s fortune from India was one means by which Sam Farmer, the successful but maybe not quite so successful, dye merchant – and slave trader – raised his family to the landed gentry and an entry in Burke’s Landed Gentry.

Sam had been prosperous enough before his brother died to have acquired one Surrey estate and sent his one son to Harrow and Cambridge. Yet only in 1799 after William’s will was proved did he truly spread himself, buying the estates in Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Surrey that he mentions in an 1810 letter to his son. Above all Sam acquired the Nonsuch estate, along with its Mansion House, which he immediately had remodelled in the Tudor-Gothic style by the future re-modeller of Windsor Castle, Sir Jeffrey Wyatt [later known as Wyattville] (see above).  In 1802 he opened an account at Hoare’s Bank with £1100 – ‘a very large and interesting account’ according to a letter from the bank to my father. In 1804, for £4000, he also bought himself the rotten borough of Huntingdon from Lord Sandwich, first putting his son in the seat, then sitting as an MP himself between 1810-18. A nineteenth century account of MPs listed some as contemporary Dick Whittingtons: men who had made their fortunes in London. Among these figured Samuel Farmer.[11]

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[1] Nightingale, Trade in Western India, pp.73-110. Nightingale gives a detailed description and critique of the arrangements WGF made for the collection of the pepper tax in the Malabar and for the organization of the mint at Mahé.

[2] Nightingale, Trade in Western India, p. 79.

[3] Home Miscellany CDXXXVIII Walter Ewer to Henry Dundas 17 July 1797, British Library.

[4]IOR P/E/6 1793 pp. 58-66, British Library.

[5] Quoted in Nightingale, Trade in Western India, p.  99.

[6] IOR/P/366/16, 11 January 1795  letter to Sam enclosing copy of the defence of his tax arrangements.

[6] IOR/P/366/17, pp. 28-9, James Stevens to Bombay 20 December 1794.

5017 June 1795, 2 letters to Jonathan Duncan defending himself (Letter Book in family possession.)

[7] Lakshmi Subramanian, ‘Trapped inside the Colonial Order: The Hindu Bankers of Surat and their Business World during the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century’, Modern Asian Studies, 21, 4 (1987).

[8] Princess Amelia: Journal, IOR/L/MAR/B/36J : 23 February 1795-10 September 1796.

[9]PROB 11/1301/252, The National Archives (Kew), 28 February 1798. 

[10]PROB 11/1912/56, The National Archives (Kew), 9 June 1839.


55The House of Commons, 1790-1820, Volume 1, R.G Thorne, p. 291.

56Nonsuch Sale Catalogue in the collection of Bourne Hall Museum. Ewell Surrey.