- Historic Sites
Protégé Of Cornwallis, Guest Of Washington
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
“1795.—The state of my health rendering a voyage to Europe necessary, I determined to proceed by way of America. Accordingly, towards the end of November, I left Santipore, taking with me a small Bengal cow, in addition to my doombah and other curiosities brought from Delhi. The natives would not have consented to sell me a cow if I had not assured them that it would be an object of particular interest and care in the countries I was taking it to.”
The author was Thomas Twining, nineteen, son of a prosperous family of tea and coffee merchants who in 1706 had opened a shop in Devereux Court in the Strand, near Temple Bar, in London (the family is still in business today with the same products and the same name at the same address). Twining did indeed come to America with his Bengal cow, his doombah (an Afghan mountain sheep), and an extraordinary collection of other animals and artifacts.
Twining, a graduate of Rugby, had gone to India at sixteen as a “writer”—that is, a clerk—in the Honorable East India Company’s Bengal Service, carrying with him a violin, a Persian grammar, and Dr. Johnson’s dictionary. On his arrival in Calcutta he was placed in the financial department and was soon promoted to the posts of head assistant, acting subaccountant-general, and commissioner of the Court of Requests. Lord Cornwallis, the governor general, became his friend and patron, and when Twining’s health, never strong, began to fail, Cornwallis moved him to higher, healthier, mosquito-free land by making Twining assistant to the Resident of Santipur. It was a position, Cornwallis said, that he would have given his own son under similar circumstances. Apparently it was also a post with some risks, however, for once, in order to escape bandits, Twining pulled down the curtains of his palanquin and instructed his bearers to say that he was a lady of the imperial seraglio, whom they wouldn’t dare rob.
The Great Mogul, emperor of the 250-year-old Moslem empire in India, graciously consented to receive Twining on his throne in Delhi and permitted him to commemorate the event with a silver tablet engraved in Persian characters. Twining resolved to match this distinction with another. He would travel to America and there be received by President George Washington, ruler of the New World.
He booked passage for himself and his servant on the India , a three-hundred-ton, three-masted vessel 357 days out of Philadelphia on her second voyage to the Far East. She was owned by William Bingham and Mordecai Lewis of Philadelphia and their partner, Robert Gilmore of Baltimore. Her captain was John Ashmead, a tall, slim, upright man whose “thin silvery locks curled round the collar of his old-fashioned singlebreasted coat.”
In the spirit of scientific inquiry, Twining had collected for the voyage a rich variety of examples of Indian life and culture. An ingenious workman in Santipur had made him small but exact models of the principal machines and instruments used in agriculture and industry. He bought at auction a number of oil paintings of Indian scenes done by a European artist. He acquired the bottom half of an oyster shell weighing more than a hundred pounds. To his doombah and cow he added a great Kabul sheep, a monkey from the north of India, and a specimen of the Tibetan goat, the source of cashmere, commonly but erroneously thought to derive from a species of sheep. For his comfort he bought a teakwood bedstead with built-in drawers and a hanging apparatus that could convert the bed into a swinging cot in rough weather. Since American captains had “the reputation of keeping rather an indifferent table—living, it was said, principally on salt beef and sour-crout,” Twining sent aboard ten fat sheep and “a considerable quantity of hay.”
The India sailed down the Ganges with her cargo of cloth and spices, set a course for the Cape of Good Hope, and began what was to be a voyage of almost four months and almost fourteen thousand miles. Twining read, exercised, played backgammon with Captain Ashmead, and talked with the surgeon, the chief mate, the supercargo, Mr. Pringle, and Mr. Gilmore, the son of one of the owners, who was learning the business of an eastern voyage. The crew, he found, was made up of twenty-two very young men, “sons of respectable families of Philadelphia and Baltimore, who had come to sea … preparatory to their being officers and captains themselves.” From time to time the India hailed passing ships in the open sea and stopped to throw a line for exchanging newspapers, letters, and longitudinal readings. Twining remarked that throughout the voyage he never heard the captain make a threat or any sailor utter an oath.
Off the coast of North America on April 2 the leadsman proclaimed bottom, and three days later the India took on a pilot and entered Delaware Bay. Having passed several ships, the India entered the line, and took her station along one of the wharfs, which extended nearly the whole length of the city, and in a few minutes I stepped ashore without even the aid of a plank, the ship’s side touching the wharf. It being evening, when many people were about, the quay was crowded with persons curious to witness an arrival from Bengal.