British merchants in the Mughal Empire

Some British individuals did make their fortune in India as early as the 17th Century, independent of the East India Company (EIC). British merchants traded in many commodities, one of which was diamonds. India was perhaps the first, and the possibly, the only source of diamonds first known to Europeans. The East India Company did not trade in diamonds, so merchants were permitted to import them as long as customs duty was paid. The diamonds from the mines were shipped to England on EIC ships, even diamond merchants, independent of the EIC company, could not avoid dealing with the EIC due to their domination of global trade. The diamond trade was a lucrative one, the amount of money sent to India by merchants in London was substantial.

John Cholmley, attributed to Jacob Huysmans, c.1680. © National Portrait Gallery, London [NPG 2105] CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

John Cholmley was a diamond merchant dealing in diamonds as well as other commodities not regulated by the EIC such as rubies, sapphires and opals. His brother was his commissioner in India, who arrived in India representing of his brother at age 26 around 1663. The money Nathaniel earned in commission was invested in diamonds and sent home to John, who on his brother’s behalf either kept or sold them. John Cholmley was averse to investments in shipping but Nathaniel had become involved in the risky business. He invested heavily in ships, some of which were still trading at the time of his death. The below record shows the ships he owned part shares in; the ship Annum Purna, the Pink Saphire, the Rialto, the Mocha Merchant, the Sloop Speedwell and the Ketch Mary.  The commodities these ships carried included copper, coffee, china, sugar, pepper, silk, spices, oil, jewels, Japan wood and carpets. Nathaniel was one of the few to make large fortunes in India in the 1670s-80s and lived to enjoy his spoils in England.

  • L: Account of Nathaniel Cholmley’s stock in India showing coastal ships,
  • R: Account of Nathaniel Cholmley’s commodities on ships, 8 February 1682 in Nathaniel’s letter book [ZCG V 2/2]

John Cholmley was based back in England and acted as a broker for English customers who used him as an intermediary to buy diamonds from India. He handled business transactions for those who worked in India; sold their jewels, sent them accounts, banked their money, arranged credit for them and sent back detailed accounts of his transactions. This can be seen from the detailed balance sheet he returned to Nathaniel in December 1679. It shows the business transactions carried out by John Cholmley on behalf of Nathaniel.

John Cholmley’s letter book [ZCG V 3/1]

The money the Cholmley’s invested in the diamonds originated from London and belonged mostly to Jewish merchants, goldsmiths and influential individuals like Sir John Banks and Nathaniel Herne, both directors to the EIC and advisors to the monarch. Despite, John and Nathaniel Cholmley being independent from the EIC, they were inevitably intertwined with East India Company activities. John worked to ensure connections within the EIC to facilitate their business concerns and in the end, he became a stockholder. They were not averse to sharing their profits with the Company.

The Cholmley brothers letter books provide information of their business transactions, activities of the EIC and accounts of their experiences. Examination of the letter books demonstrate that they attempted to work within guidelines and rules laid down by the company. John’s letter books contain advice to his brother about how to treat the diamond merchants, not to become too involved in Asian shipping and personal advice on addressing the local Indian girls. They are a fantastic insight into independent trade in India during the late 1600’s.


  • NYCRO Miscellany 1993: Nathaniel Cholmley: An English Diamond Merchant in India, 1663–1682
  • John and Nathaniel Cholmley, Diamond Merchants, 1664-1693 by Rosalind Bowden [CRONT 1791]
  • Ishrat Alam, ‘Diamond mining and trade in South India in the 17th Century’

Records in the spotlight

A Persian letter

Many British families had links to India and the East India Company. At the Record Office, we hold a collection of records which relate to the Frankland-Payne-Galwey family [ZPE], who used to own Thirkleby Hall in North Yorkshire. They had connections with India and the East India Company, like many wealthier families in North Yorkshire.

William Frankland, a London Merchant, bought the Manor of Thirkleby in 1576. His grandson, Henry Frankland, became President of Bengal between 1726 and 1732. The Bengal Presidency was a significant post within the British Empire, as for many years the Governor of Bengal was concurrently the Viceroy of India. John Russell who was also president between 1670 -1735 was related to the family through the marriage of his sister; Elizabeth Russell who married Thomas Frankland, father of Henry Frankland. The family connections to India and the East India Company (EIC) may explain why we have the following stunning records, that up until recently have posed a bit of a mystery.

This is an undated letter written in Persian found in the ZPE collection. The unique design on the front side comprises of simple, black-outlined gold rulings defining a cartouche above the main text panel, and an outer border on a plain sheet of ‘Oriental’ burnished paper. Considering the contents of the letter, it can be concluded the document’s stationary appears to have been intended for use by rich elites.

Letter written in Persian (front and back) [ZPE]

The document reveals itself to be an informal maktūb (personal letter) addressed to an élite by an élite author, writing in his own hand, without the mediation of a pīshdast (amanuensis) or munshīʾ (secretary). This is reinforced by the poor quality of the hand which is a blend of Shikastah and Naskh. The writer repeats orthographic errors, haplographies, and other idiosyncrasies whilst writing hastily in a laconic style. Some sections are characterised by an incoherent or repetitive stream of consciousness, resulting in incomplete sentences and strained syntax. The flow of the text on the document indicates the stationary was not selected in accordance with the text’s expected length and without due planning. In the absence of seals and the original addressed envelope, such peculiarities serve to validate the document’s authenticity even if they complicate its interpretation.

It is addressed to an unnamed Ḥājī Ṣāḥib by a man called Muhammad Rafīʿ. Muḥammad Rafīʿ acknowledges the arrival of Ḥājī Ṣāḥib’s messenger sent to collect a quantity of gold (amounting to a thousand rupees). The remainder of the letter addresses reasons for delays in making the payment. The writer and addressee are on intimate terms, knowing members of each other’s families and even concludes the letter by sending his regards to his uncles, ʿAlī Taqī and Ḥājī ʿAlī. Despite this, the letter is dominated by the subject of business transactions, arrangements for the transfer of cash to cover long and short-term debts, the preparation of commodities such as opium, cotton, and salt, and a ship’s cargo for imminent departure. As an example of the correspondence between two merchants, the maktūb records the context for these transactions as the provincial governorate of Bengal and Bihar, with operations in Gorakhpur, Rajmahal, and Hughli. The English are mentioned tangentially in the limited context of the transportation of goods.

Letter from Lolmund of Dacca

The second record in the spotlight is this beautifully presented record signed ‘Your most obedient and Faithful servant Lolmund’ in Dacca on the 16th January 1699/1700. Lolmund was a vacqueel/vakeel for the East India Company Dacca factory, that is, an agent or representative for the company. The gold leaf on the letter is a common embellishment used in Mughal South Asia to give greater importance and status to the letter. If you look closely the little specks across the record are glitter.

Letter from Lolmund of Dacca [ZPE]

The letter is beautifully written with only glowing sentiments regarding the recipient, who unfortunately remains a mystery. Lolmund refers to them as ‘the best friend I ever had’ and that the kindness they showed to him will never be forgotten. They seemed to have returned to England, possibly quite recently at the time of writing, as Lolmund hopes they arrive safe in good health and wishes ‘all things these to your hearts content’. Lolmund refers to them as ‘Your Worship’ and signs off the letter as ‘Your most obedient and Faithful servant’.

To buy Asian goods, several trading stations called factories were established along India’s coastline and manned with Englishman (See map below). One of these factories was the Dacca factory. In the mid-1600s, the EIC extended its activities to the Bay of Bengal and Dacca was one of the factories it established around 1666 and closed between 1696-1699.

[World History Encyclopaedia]

A page from the Dacca Diary, dated February 1690/1, which details expenditure clearly shows a charge to Lolmund, our mystery author of the letter, for his services ‘when not our servant’. It is signed by Charles Eyre, founder and president of Fort William, which may explain why the letter is amongst our records. He is the brother to Mary Eyre, wife of John Russell, whose sister married into the Frankland family.

Dacca Diary, 1690/1. courtesy of The British Library [IOR/G/15/1 f.96]

Charles Eyre was the individual who signed the document legalizing the British occupation of three small villages that formed the basis of the Fort William settlement. His father-in-law, Job Charnock, first sailed to these three villages which later became Calcutta and he is commonly referred to, possibly quite wrongly, as the founder Calcutta now the city of Kolkata. Within the letter written by Lolmund, he mentions about writing to the agent and council at Chutanutee, also known as Sutanuti, which is one of the three villages which formed Calcutta. While it is not truly clear what Lolmund’s intentions are, there is a possibility he may be hoping to stay with the Company and move to a recently established factory in the newly-formed Calcutta as the Dacca factory has closed in 1699.

Investigatiion of these records in the Frankland-Payne-Galwey family collection [ZPE], exemplifies the extent to which many families within Yorkshire were intertwined with the East India Company trade and India. However, we cannot say for certain how they have ended up in the collection, the full context of these records may remain a mystery.

Special thanks to:

  • Dr Sâqib Bâburî, Content Specialist Archivist, The British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership for interpreting the Persian letter.
  • Dr Guido van Meersbergen, Assistant Professor in Early Modern Global History, University of Warwick
  • Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator, Persian, The British Library
  • Dr Margaret Makepeace, Lead Curator, East India Company Records, The British Library

We are most grateful for their help and expertise in interpreting the documents found in the ZPE collection, and assisting us in furthering our understanding of these records.



  • Amanuensis:  A literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.
  • Munshī: A secretary or language teacher in South Asia
  • Haplography: The inadvertent omission of a repeated letter or letters in writing.
  • Laconic: Style of speaking or writing that uses only a few words, often to express complex thoughts and ideas.
  • Naskh: Smaller round script of Islamic calligraphy. Commonly used in writing administrative documents and for transcribing books.
  • Shikastah: Another form of script