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Protégé Of Cornwallis, Guest Of Washington

May 2024
17min read

“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.

He made a few turns up and down the wharf, managed to get a porter, and started off with his trunk for the London Tavern. Mr. Pringle, the supercargo, came up and urged him to pay a call first on Mordecai Lewis. This worthy citizen received me very kindly, saying “How dost thou do, friend? I am glad to see thee”; for he was, in the phraseology of Philadelphia, one of the Society of Friends, that is to say, a Quaker. He introduced me to Mrs. Lewis and his daughters, who received me with the same salutation, “I am glad toseethee, friend; I hope thou art well. “I drank tea with these good people, in whom I found a kindness which the simplicity of their manners seemed to make the more cordial. The safe arrival of their ship at a favorable market put all the family in good spirits.

After tea Pringle took him to call on Lewis’partner, William Bingham. Mr. Bingham … was the principal person in Philadelphia and the wealthiest, probably, in the Union. His house [at Third and Spruce streets] stood alone and occupied, with the gardens attached to it, a spacious piece of ground. It was by far the handsomest residence in the city. I found here a large party. … Mr. Bingham, the President of the Pennsylvania State, not only gave me a general invitation to his house, but offered to take care of my great sheep during my stay in America.

Twining dined at the Binghams’ and returned to spend the night at Lewis’ house. His sleep and sense of propriety were disturbed after an hour when a stranger crawled into bed with him. I inferred … that in America, when a stranger was invited to pass the night with his host, it was never meant to give him the whole of a bed. When the light of the morning shown upon the features of my companion, whose face should I see but Mr. Pringle’s. … I felt that I could not reasonably complain, for as his attentions had procured me this bed, no one certainly had so fair a claim to half of it as himself.

Twining took a room the next morning at the London Tavern, but finding it “deficient in comfort,” he sallied forth in search of better quarters. Where, he asked a passer-by, did the members of Congress stay? Many of them, he was told, lived together in a house on Fourth Street kept by an old Frenchman named Francis. Mr. Francis rudely declined to take him in, but on learning that he was newly arrived from India “repeated, in a tone of diminished repugnance almost amounting to civil regret, that his house was full.” Mrs. Francis, his young American wife, intervened to offer Twining a small room at the top of the house, which he might change in a day or two for one next to that occupied by John Adams, the Vice President. The maidservant who showed him upstairs was a Negro woman, the property of Mr. Francis, “young, active, obliging, and spoke English.” It was Twining’s first encounter with slavery in America, and he was disturbed : “It caused me both pain and surprise to meet with it in the country which so boasted of the freedom of its institutions.”

At dinner that noon and at tea, both presided over by Mrs. Francis, he met several members of the two houses of Congress “and thought them most amiable, sensible men.” Twining congratulated himself on his good fortune at “being already established in the most respectable society of the United States. ” He breakfasted the next morning “at the public table, ” again with several congressmen and senators. Mrs. Francis helped me to some of the celebrated buckwheat cake, whose excellence had been the subject of much commendation during our voyage. … It is superior to the crumpet or muffin, having the peculiar taste of the buckwheat, which is extremely agreeable.…

After breakfast he called on Bingham, to inspect his animals. … I found my doombah grazing upon the garden lawn at the back of the house. While I was looking at it with Mr. Bingham, several inhabitants of the city came to gratify their curiosity, for Mr. Bingham, having observed this, had ordered that everybody should be admitted, and considerable numbers had already come to the garden in consequence. My Bengal cow, which I found in a stable not far off, also had numerous visitors.

Twining that day presented his oyster shell to Charles Willson Peale, the artist and naturalist, for his National Museum (“it was very graciously accepted”) and called on Mr. Bond, the British consul. “He asked me many questions about India and said he must introduce me to General Washington.” I dined with the Members of Congress. Mr. Adams took the chair always reserved for him at the head of the table, though himself superior to all sense of superiority. He appeared to be about sixty years of age. In person he was rather short and thick; in his manner somewhat cold and reserved, as the citizens of Massachusetts, his native state, are said generally to be. His presence caused a general feeling of respect, but the modesty of his demeanour and the tolerance of his opinions excluded all inconvenient restraint. He was generally dressed in a light or drab-coloured coat, and had the appearance rather of an English country gentleman who had seen little of the world, than of a statesman who had seen so much of public life.

The next day Dr. Ross, an English physician, called to take him to visit Dr. Joseph Priestley, “a celebrated man of whom I had heard a great deal when a boy at school.” A scientist and nonconformist minister, Fellow of the Royal Society and frequent lecturer at the American Philosophical Society, renowned for his discoveries in electricity and chemistry, Priestley had expressed such unorthodox political and religious views, and such sympathy for the French revolutionists, that an infuriated Birmingham mob broke into his house, pillaged his library, burned his notes and manuscripts, and destroyed his “philosophical apparatus.” He received compensation for the damage, but in 1794 he emigrated to the United States. Dr. Ross, in his friendly zeal, introduced me [to Priestley] somewhat in the style of a showman at a country fair: “Mr. Twining—just arrived from Bengal—a great traveller on the Ganges—has been received by the Great Mogol,” etc. The Doctor, his simplicity unchanged by this recital, received me with hearty kindness. He placed me near the fire and took a chair by my side. I soon found that he was as inquisitive as Dr. Ross had represented him to be. Fortunately his inquiries were directed to such subjects respecting India as were familiar to me, such as the castes, customs, and character of the ,inhabitants; climate, productions, etc. The Doctor related, in his turn, many anecdotes. … He had a way, when telling his stories, of asking you to guess how a thing happened, saying, “Now, sir, how do you think this was?” waiting a few moments for an answer. Among other things, he spoke of the great sheep in Mr. Bingham’s garden, expressing his intention of seeing it, and then alluded to the great improvement lately made by Mr. Bakewell of Leicestershire in the breed and management of animals. He said he once visited Mr. Bakewell, who showed him … his fine bulls, remarkable for their size and symmetry. He saw two of these animals grazing peaceably in the same pasture. “I can,” said Mr. Bakewell, “immediately make these bulls as furious as they are now quiet, and again make them friends.” “And how,” said the Doctor, addressing himself to me,”… do you think this was done? Why, sir, Mr. Bakewell ordered one of his men to drive a cow into the field, and the two bulls rushed at each other, and fought with great fierceness. Whilst they were thus engaged, the cow was driven out of the field, and the two champions grazed together quietly as before.”

The Tibetan goat had died shortly before the arrival in Philadelphia, but Twining had saved the skin, and Priestley expressed a desire to examine it. Accordingly, he appeared next day with his son Joseph and went with Twining to the India , which was still discharging its cargo. He studied the skin with much care, turning back the long hair and feeling the downy wool beneath, and finally allowed that cashmere was indeed the produce of a goat. “I thought I could not dispose of this curiosity better than by placing it in his possession,” Twining wrote, “and requested the Doctor to allow one of the sailors to carry it to his house. Although he yielded to this proposal with reluctance, I had the satisfaction of perceiving that it afforded him pleasure.” Upon separating from Dr. Ross, I went to the house where the Congress held its meetings, situated in Chestnut Street. It is a large and handsome building, occupying the area of an extensive court, by the side of the street. … … Mr. Gallatin was speaking. Mr. Gallatin is a native of France or Switzerland, but had long resided in America

Twining had occasion to meet with Gallatin when the latter appeared at breakfast at the Francis house on April 13 along with members of Congress, “with whom,” Twining wrote, “I was now upon easy terms.” Gallatin examined Twining’s muslin neckcloth and was surprised at what it had cost in India. That touched off a spirited discussion about both the quality and the prices of Indian fabrics, but mostly about the prices, which Twining noted “suggested the idea of a profitable speculation, the object of almost every American at this period.”

Three days later Twining began a “rough and fatiguing” four-week journey to Baltimore and on to Washington, the new Federal City then under construction. He rode in a long ten-passenger “waggon” with a light roof and side curtains made of leather that might be raised or lowered, but without backs to the unpadded wood benches. Despite the wretched roads and the intolerable jolting of the springless wagon, Twining observed approvingly that “everywhere the progress of improvement was visible; everything had advanced and was advancing. … It would be unreasonable to expect perfection in the arrangements of a new country. … I believe there is no nation that would have done more in so short a time, and most nations would assuredly have done infinitely less.” And : Every settler in a new country labors less for the present than for the future, for himself than for his posterity, and it is this honourable consciousness that invigorates his toil, cheers his solitude, and alleviates his privations. It was not [in America] as in India, where the surplus revenue of the country was sent out of it, without being counterbalanced by any return. Here, this surplus would be expended in the country, whose property indeed it was, in national improvements. America was a farm, in which the produce was spent upon the land; India, one in which even stubble was carried from it.

In Baltimore, Twining thanked the other passengers for “the polite attentions they had shown me; for though a total want of reserve amongst themselves almost degenerated sometimes into coarseness, their behaviour towards me was uniformly obliging.” In that city and later in Washington he spent some hours with Thomas Law, a former district governor in the Bengal civil service, who had come to America to invest a quarter of a million dollars in speculative enterprises. Law had put much of his money in the purchase of some 1,600,000 square feet of real estate in the Federal City between the waterfront and the Capitol. At the time of Twining’s visit Law, who was thirty-nine, was honeymooning with nineteen-year-old Llizabeth Parke Custis, granddaughter of Martha Washington. Twining confessed that he had expected “something rather more advanced” in Washington, and he doubted that the city would ever really become the national capital or that Law would recover his investment.

The Laws asked Twining to deliver a miniature portrait of President Washington and gave him a “very flattering “letter of introduction. One of the passengers on the return journey (the son of Governor John Hancock of Massachusetts) learned of the letter and the miniature and told the rest of the company, “upon whom it seemed to make an extraordinary impression, procuring me their congratulations on being honored with such a charge, and particular marks of their attention during the remainder of thejourney.”

In Baltimore again, Twining chanced to run into a distinguished foreign visitor whom he had first met when dining at the Binghams’. He was the Comte de Volney, French scholar and author, one of the first European savants to visit the Middle East beyond Greece. Volney had fled the French Revolution to take asylum in the United States. He was one of many thousands of French exiles and refugees who came in successive waves—royalists, republicans, colonials escaping from uprisings in the West Indian islands. Many came with unrealistic, even absurd, notions of life in the New World, expecting the new American man to be just, rational, and saintlike. When confronted with the realities of American conditions and character, some were disillusioned and bitter. It appeared to me that Monsieur Volney and others who had visited this country were disappointed because they had unreasonably expected too much; and that they were unjust in blaming a state of society that could hardly be otherwise than it was. I thought it not extraordinary, much less a ground of reprehension, that the roads of America should be bad; that the stages should be called waggons and be nearly such; that a republican shopkeeper should receive his customer without taking off his hat or saying more than yes or no; that the English language should be spoken more fluently than correctly. In a country abounding with genius, energy and enterprise; whose infant years have produced a Washington, a Franklin, and a Jefferson; whose improvement in the most important arts of life is advancing with an impulse unexampled in the history of any people; the imperfections inseparable from all human beginnings will gradually disappear, and often, it is not improbable, be replaced by models commanding imitation instead of sarcasm and reproach. …

Arriving in Philadelphia on May 11, though unwell “with a slight return of my Indian symptoms, ” Twining checked the condition of his animals, still grazing on Bingham’s lawn, and called on Dr. Ross and other friends. He then made his visit to President Washington. The product of the meeting was a remarkable close-up look at the hero of the age. He lived in a small red brick house on the left side of High Street, not much higher up than Fourth Street. There was nothing in the exterior of the house that denoted the rank of its possessor. Next door was a hairdresser. Having stated my object to a servant who came to the door, I was conducted up a neat but rather narrow staircase, carpeted in the middle, and was shown into a middling-sized, well-furnished drawing room on the left of the passage. … !here was nobody in the room, but in a minute Mrs. Washington came in, when I repeated the object of my calling, and put into her hands the letter for General Washington, and his miniature. She said she would deliver them to the President, and, inviting me to sit down, retired for that purpose. She soon returned, and said the President would come presently. Mrs. Washington was a middle sized lady, rather stout; her manner extremely kind and unaffected. She sat down on the sofa, and invited me to sit by her. I spoke of the pleasant days I had passed at Washington, and of the attentions I had received from her grand-daughter, Mrs. Law. While engaged in this conversation, but with my thoughts turned to the expected arrival of the General, the door opened, and Mrs. Washington and myself rising, she said, “The President,”and introduced me to him. Never did I feel more interest than at this moment, when I saw the tall, upright, venerable figure of this great man advancing towards me to take me by the hand. There was a seriousness in his manner which seemed to contribute to the impressive dignity of his person, without diminishing the confidence and ease which the benevolence of his countenance and the kindness of his address inspired. There are persons in whose appearance one looks in vain for the qualities they are known to possess, but the appearance of General Washington harmonized in a singular manner with the dignity and modesty of his public life. So completely did he look the great and good man he really was, that I felt rather respect than awe in his presence, and experienced neither the surprise nor disappointment with which a personal introduction to distinguished individuals is often accompanied. The General, having thanked me for the picture, requested me to sit down next the fire, Mrs. Washington being on the sofa on the other side, and himself taking a chair in the middle. He now inquired about my arrival in America, my voyage, my late journey, and his granddaughters, Mrs. Law and her sister, who had accompanied me to Alexandria. He asked me my opinion of that town, and seemed pleased with the account I gave of the extraordinary activity I had observed there. In the course of the conversation I mentioned the particular regard and respect with which Lord Cornwallis always spoke of him. He received this communication in the most courteous manner, inquired about his lordship, and expressed for him much esteem. … After sitting about three quarters of an hour, I rose to take my leave, when the General invited me to drink tea with him that evening. I regret to say that I declined this honor on account of some other engagement—a wrong and injudicious decision for which 1 have since reproached myself. No engagement should have prevented my accepting such an invitation. If forwardness on such occasions be displeasing, an excess of delicacy and reserve is scarcely less to be avoided. However, this private intercourse with one of the most unblemished characters that any country has produced had entirely satisfied me, and greatly exceeded my previous expectations, which had been limited to the usual transient introduction at a public levee. This, then, forms one of my most memorable days.

The main purpose of his visit was now realized, and Twining booked passage to England on an American ship, the Atlantic . Learning then that the sailing would be delayed for some days, he travelled to New York to visit a friend, Gabriel Shaw, with whom he had gone to school in England. Just beyond the Dutch town of Newark, “one of the neatest and prettiest towns I had seen,” the carriage went out of control on the steep road leading down to the wooden bridge over the Passaic River. Twining jumped to safety, suffering as a result a bad cut on his right leg.

He had his wound dressed by an apothecary in New York, rented a room in a boarding house near City Hall, and went out in search of his friend, whose address he did not know. When he found the house at last, he was dismayed to learn that Shaw had just left with friends on a “foot excursion” to West Point, there to pluck a blade of grass from the grave of Major John André, executed sixteen years earlier as a British spy.

Twining rested his leg briefly and then hobbled about with a stick, inspecting the sights of New York. He visited the quays at the entrance into the East River; the fish market; the Battery and its handsome promenade; and a museum, which displayed shells and fossils, the weapons and dress of Indian tribes, and a perpetual-motion machine. I was too lame to walk up the whole length of Broadway. I was told that it extended two miles, but as it was usual in America to reckon as streets such as were only contemplated and not yet begun, it was not easy to know how much of this great length was imaginary. Although the beauty of New York is, for the present, confined to its position, it possessing no very good street but Broadway and no pre-eminent building except the Federal Hall, it is, upon the whole, the most agreeable as well as the most flourishing city in the United States, combining the cheerfulness and commercial activity of Baltimore with the extent and population of Philadelphia.

Twining could wait no longer for his friend to return, for he feared to lose his passage on the Atlantic , and after a visit of four days he took the stagecoach to Philadelphia. His ship did not sail for another week, however, and in that time Shaw managed to get to Philadelphia for a visit. So ended my successful and agreeable visit to the United States of America, a great and fine country, destined henceforth to hold a conspicuous rank amongst nations, and to take an important part in the transactions of the world. I have ever considered my decision to return this way to England as a fortunate circumstance, producing much satisfaction at the time, and a store of matter for retrospective meditation.

Thomas Twining sailed for England on May 31, 1796, and returned to India in 1798. During his second tour of duty he rose to the post of officiating judge and magistrate of Behar, and he married Mary Cock of Benares, who died in India a few years later. He resigned the service in 1806, at age thirty, for reasons of health (“the usual liver complaint”) and returned to England to live a retired life. He married again and settled for a time near Northampton; begot children; rode with the famous Pytcherly hunt; bred horses, two of whom were noted jumpers; and again buried a young wife when she died of scarlet fever, caught while visiting the poor of the village. For some twenty years he lived with his children in apartments in Paris and Milan, spending his summers in Interlaken and travelling extensively about the Continent. He returned to England for good in 1837, settling in Twickenham in Perryn House, near the Thames Ferry. He became one of Her Majesty’s Justices of the Peace and (in the words of his son) “disposed of no less than 970 cases up to 1847, when advanced age induced him to resign amid tokens of the highest appreciation.” He died at Twickenham on Christmas Day in 1861, at age eighty-five. &

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