Letters From Bencoolen – Stokeham Donston


One of the oldest marked graves in the  British Cemetery in Bengkulu, Indonesia belongs to a Stokeham Donston  (SD) who died in 1775.

Since it is quite a distinctive name I thought I would Google it and see if anything is known of this individual. The search results revealed a bundle of letters and other documents held by Nottinghamshire Archives pertaining to SD. (Incidentally there is a hamlet called Stokeham about 14 miles from Worksop, Nottinghamshire which might be the origin of the unusual Christian name.)

I contacted Nottinghamshire Archives and they kindly forwarded me copies of two of the more interesting letters. These shed some light on the type of life SD would have endured in Bencoolen in the mid 1700s.

The letters were sent to George Donston (GD) of Worksop who was seemingly a relation, a business partner and well connected with the higher echelons of the English East India Company (EIC), for whom SD worked as a ‘factor’ (someone who received and sold goods on commission).


SD’s handwriting in these letters was immaculate and you can imagine him sitting in the sweltering heat of Fort Marlborough, dipping his quill into the ink pot and wiping his brow so that his sweat would not blot his penmanship. This copperplate script with ornate flourishes and unfamiliar abbreviations is not so easy to read for modern eyes but I have tried to quote his letters as accurately as I can, including his archaic grammar and spelling.

The final page of Stokeham Donston’s letter dated 28th January 1758.

The first letter dated 28th January 1758 was taken up mostly with matters of business. For example, he mentioned a shipment of pepper to England and having drawn bills of exchange on GD. He also described how he arrived in Bencoolen on the 29th September 1757, after a very good passage of ten weeks.

East Indiaman sailing from Madras Painted and engraved by R. Dodd. Published in London, 1797
East Indiaman sailing from Madras Painted and engraved by R. Dodd.

His first impressions of the place seemed favourable as far as business potential was concerned:

I cannot avoid acquainting you with the fine situation of this place of trade and if the Europeans here had money sufficient to carry on the trade which might be had here they might make as good fortunes as at Madras or Bengal.

He reminds GD that he had earlier indicated he would give SD £500 to invest in trade on GD’s account or as a loan repayable with interest at the rate of 10% a year.

As a factor with the EIC, he was allowed space in EIC ships to import and export goods for his own account and in this high risk, high reward business many factors became fabulously wealthy. Goods mentioned in his correspondence included opium from India to China, tea from China to England, silver and pepper from Sumatra to India and England, and arrack and sugar from Batavia to Sumatra and India.

He was less impressed with some of his colleagues at Fort Marlborough:

Mr Carter our Governor is not yet arrived and we are in daily expectations of seeing him; he is very much wanted here, for the Governor that now supplies his place is no more fit for it than any of us who came out in the last Ship, he is a very indolent man, a man who has seen nothing of the world, but been brought up in this place from the 14th year of his, in short he is a person who troubles himself little about business and if he continues long in the chair, I dare say this place will go to ruin, instead of improving which would be the case twas Mr. Carter or any other clever person at the head of affairs.

He concludes by complaining about the need to avoid office tittle tattle and asks George to put in a good word for him with Mr. Carter. He signs off very formally:

I am Dear Sir with great respect your obliged & very humble servant Stokeham Donston, Fort Marlbro’

Part of Stokeham Donston’s letter dated 1st March 1759.

A subsequent letter to GD dated March 1st 1759 starts off by saying that he had not received replies to his earlier letters (perhaps George was having cold feet about investing the £500 with his relation)?

Stokeham continues with some happy news:

I fancy you will be surprised when I tell you I am married to a young lady whose name is Braham, her father is surgeon of this place, who having acquired a pretty competency is now making up his affairs in order to return home, which he intends to do next year. I esteem myself especially happy in every respect in the marriage state. She is a good natured, agreeable & sensible girl and very well qualified to make my happiness compleat.

He goes on to reveal a somewhat calculating and mercenary streak to his character:

I have sold my house and live with her Grandmama, a very discreet & housewifely old Lady, who takes a great deal of pains to make her Granddaughter  a good and an obliging wife. Her fortune will be about £1600 which will be the least. I have no money with her at present but have secured that her father has a large family to provide for and cannot put down anything for the present. Her Grandmama is worth about £3000.

I have wrote to my Aunt Donston but have made no mention of my marriage to her the reason is my want of time which I hope will plead my excuse. I shall be oblige to you if you will communicate the contents of this to her.

It seems his early optimism and enthusiasm for Bencoolen as a place to make money had faded by now:

This place is not so advantageous as other parts of India, nor will it ever be so.

He then asks for GD’s assistance and connections in getting him transferred to more a lucrative posting (the first of many such requests):

I should be happy if I could be removed to Bengal or Madras for these are the places where anything is to be had. I don’t know what your interest with my Lord Scarborough may be but I’m certain were some of the great ones to give the hint to the Court of Directors all might be accomplished. If not, I hope you will not be unmindful of me in getting promoted in other respects.

Nottinghamshire Archives also provided me with a summary of the contents of other letters in their possession although I have not obtained copies of the actual letters. One of these, sent to GD on 12th December 1759, just nine months after the marriage letter, announced the death of his wife. I do not know whether it indicated the cause of death – malaria most likely but possibly during childbirth? The letter also complained about the Governor’s intention for the opium trade to China to be taken out of the private hands of factors like SD and assumed by the Company instead. Without seeing the letter it is not possible to gauge which was the bigger blow to SD, the death of his wife or the loss of the lucrative trade.

Fort St George on the Coromandel Coast.  Belonging to the East India Company of England
Fort St George on the Coromandel Coast. Belonging to the East India Company of England. Fort St George By Jan Van Ryne (1712–60); Publisher: Robert Sayer

By October 1760, SD was in Fort St. George (Madras) following the loss of Bencoolen and other Sumatran outposts to the French (during the Seven Years War) which had caused SD a loss of £2500 (equivalent to £440,000 in today’s money).

A letter to GD sent in September 1762 described how Fort Marlborough had been re-established following the defeat of the French at Pondicherry and SD was back in Sumatra. An epidemic in Bencoolen caused the loss of 1/4 of the troops and 2/3 of the civilian population in the town.

By March 1765 he wrote how he was seen as the next in succession for appointment to Fort Marlborough’s Governors Council but he told GD that he would give up this chance to get to Bengal, both for more opportunities to make a fortune and for health reasons.

It seems though that GD was either unwilling or unable to pull strings on behalf of SD to have him transferred out of Bencoolen and he languished there in deteriorating health until his death on 2nd April 1775 at age 41.

There was one bright spot however before his death. In 1772 he informed GD that he had married for a second time, to a Miss Kirkpatrick.

The letters from the Archives were not quite as interesting as I’d hoped, being rather formal and business related, but it was good to unearth something about Bengkulu Cemetery’s oldest British resident.

7 thoughts on “Letters From Bencoolen – Stokeham Donston”

  1. Thanks for this wonderful post. I was just sitting here pondering the life of Stokeham Donston Esq. this morning, and I was a little startled – but not a little pleased – to find that someone out there had posted something about him little more than a week ago!

    I was thinking that I might pay a visit to the Nottinghamshire Archives myself when I’m in the Midlands in the autumn. In the meantime, here are a couple of other titbits:

    Here’s Stokeham writing to George in 1756, before he leaves England: “The salary allowed… is about £80 or £90 p. year, but that is nothing in comparison to the advantage made by care and diligence …: Some say the climate is unhealthful, and does not agree with the constitutions of the Europeans, but that I believe, is in some measure owing to the irregularity of their living… and I fancy it might be avoided by resolution…”

    And here he is in a brief moment of dreamy optimism, also to his cousin, a miserable decade later: “I want devilishly to make up about £500 p. annum. The lord knows when that will be, it will satisfy my ambition and then you and I will join and keep a Pack of Beagles for the diversion of ourselves and the Worksop Gentry, do you think we can do it?”

    1. That’s excellent, thank you for the additional snippets. Are you planning to write a book on Bencoolen? I must order myself a copy of your Hindu Kush book from the KL branch of Kinokuniya – Hopkirk’s Great Game book was one of my favourites so I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.

      1. Murder in the Hindu Kush is pretty hard to come by in SE Asia, but to my surprise they had a copy in Kino in Singapore last time I dropped by, so you should be able to order one in KL. Hopkirk was a real narrative history-writing hero of mine – along with Giles Milton, and John Keay (if you haven’t already read them, hunt out his own Great Game books, originally published as “The Gilgit Game” an “When Men and Mountains Meet”, then reissued together as “Explorers of the Western Himalayas”).

        I wrote a book on Raffles’ time in Java a few years back, and having been to Bengkulu during the research and having been thoroughly fascinated by the place I thought I might do a sort of sequel, focusing on his time there. I made a start on gathering materials, and quickly realised that it would be better as a book looking at the wider story of the British post there, with Raffles as just one character. Other projects meant it got pushed onto a back burner, where it still sits, bubbling quietly for attention on a rainy day. Stokeham Donston is one of the figures slowly stewing in there! I was working on an article about Bengkulu for Indonesia Expat magazine yesterday and fished him out for that purpose, hence subsequently stumbling upon your post. You have some really fascinating stuff on here, by the way.

  2. If you’ve never come across it before, you might also appreciate the following. Of all the things I turned up during my abortive bout of Bengkulu-focused research a few years back, it’s the piece that’s stuck with me most of all. It gives me a little shiver every time I read it. It’s from the very first official report, sent back to Fort St George by the first governors, Benjamin Bloome and Joshua Charlton, three months into their posting in 1685. They filled 18 pages with accounts of their failure to get the pepper trade off the ground, enclosed the 4,941 rupees they’d managed to raise, and then got to the crux of the matter:

    “Wee Shall now give Your Hnour an Account of our woefull State and Condition, which god grant better. Wee are by Sickness all become uncapable of helping one another & of ye great Number of people that came over not above thirty men well. Of them yt Mr Ord left here, being black and whites, abt taking abot 20 Souldiers & Severall black Servants along with him: of ye English souldiers are dead here 11; & of ye Portugueese not bove 4: of ye black workmen not above 15 yt is capable of working; of them are dead about 40 & dayly die, for he that falls is hard for him to rise. All our Servants are Sick & dead, & at this Minute not a Cooke to get victuals ready for those that Sett at the Comp.s table, and Such have been our straites yt wee many times have fasted. Ye Sick lyes Neglected, some cry for remedies but none to bee had: those that could eate have none to Cooke ym victuals, soe yt wee now have not liveing to bury ye dead, & and if one is sich ye other will not watch, for hee Sayes that better one then two dies, Soe that people dies & noe notice taken thereof….”

    The original’s in the British Library.

    1. Grim reading indeed. Must have been a very dismal place in those days. It seems Bengkulu still has a malaria problem even now. To be honest that’s why I thought I had better not linger there too long.

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