Benjamin Godfrey… John Company man.

Continuing the stories from my friend Heidi Mellings’ family history… this time it’s a nautical tale.

Benjamin Godfrey (Jr.) was Heidi’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (phew, that’s a lot of greats) and was born in Exeter on 12th July 1720, the eldest son of Benjamin Godfrey, the owner of a cooper’s business in the city.

But Benjamin Junior had no intention of following his father in the barrel-making business. Instead, he left home to follow a career at sea and joined the HEIC – The Honourable East India Company – the most powerful commercial organisation in the world which, in the mid-18th century, accounted for over half of the entire world’s trade! They focused on basic commodities and dominated the trade in cotton, silk, indigo dye, sugar, salt, spices, saltpetre, tea, and opium!

When Benjamin served “John Company” as it was known, it was at the height of its power, to all intents and purposes ruling vast tracts of land in the east – setting and administering laws, levying taxes and it had its own army. It was General Clive, leading Company forces, that defeated the French at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to secure British rule in India that would last for 200 years. That was how powerful the Company was.

That power extended to its ships. Although East Indiamen were intended to carry goods, they were also well armed to defend themselves against pirates and could be fitted out during time of war to carry as much firepower as Royal Navy ships of equivalent size.

We know nothing of Benjamin’s early life, but in 1757 he married Mary Elizabeth Race, daughter of the Head Cashier of the Bank of England. Together they would have three sons.

However, we know a considerable amount about Benjamin’s later career as, by 1759, he had risen through the ranks to become one of the HEIC’s captains. He took command of the 3-deck East Indiaman “The Duke of Richmond” on 29th November 1759 at Blackwall Yard on the Thames where the ship had just been launched. The Duke of Richmond had a gun-deck length just shy of 138 feet and a burthen of 767 tons. (Note: Burthen was a traditional measure of the carrying capacity of a ship with an imperial ton being the equivalent of a “tun of wine”, a tun being the largest size of barrel.)

The East Indiaman, “Asia”, the same size as the Duke of Richmond built by the same shipbuilder in the same yard.

The Duke of Richmond took on cargo in The Downs, a safe anchorage between North and South Foreland, near Dover and set sail from there on 21st February 1760. She sailed south, round the Cape of Good Hope and then east across the Indian Ocean. First stop was Benkulen, a 300-mile long strip of land on the south-west coast of what is now Sumatra in the possession of The Company which she reached on 24th July 1760. A month later, on 27th August 1760, the ship arrived at Kedah in what is now the north-west part of the Malay peninsula. From there she sailed south to Malacca further down the Malay peninsula, arriving there on 16th September 1760.

From there Benjamin took his ship north-east across the pirate infested South China Sea, past Hong Kong to Whampoa, (now Huangpu, a suburb of Guangzhu) in China, arriving there on 19th April 1761 and remaining there for two months.

The harbour at Whampoa

After that I would guess the ship went on a three-month anti-pirate cruise in the South China Sea because on the 15th December 1761, the ship was back in the Pearl River estuary at Second Bar, a safe anchorage 20 miles from Whampoa, presumably to take on cargo in preparation for her return trip to England. The ship stopped off at Malacca, arriving there on 14th January 1762 then re-crossed the Indian Ocean, rounding the Cape of Good Hope but this time continuing west out into the middle of the south Atlantic to stop off at St Helena on the 24th April 1762. Then she began the final slog north-east back to England, arriving in Plymouth on 14th July 1762 and finally returning to Woolwich on the Thames on the 3rd August having been away for two and a half years. Benjamin would remain at home for the next eighteen months but on 20th February 1764 he took the Duke of Richmond south again, calling at St Helena on 27th March then set off eastwards, back round the Cape of Good Hope and across once more to Benkulen, arriving there on 7th July 1764. From there he sailed to Batavia (now Jakarta in Indonesia) arriving there on 9th December.

Batavia in the mid 1700s.

Sadly, while still in Batavia, Benjamin was taken ill and died in the town on 1st February 1765. The following day, he was buried in the graveyard of the Dutch Church there. He was 44 years old.

Months later, his death was reported in the London press.

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