In February 1745, the British ship Hardwicke lay anchored off Batavia (now Jakarta), and mariner Joseph Bonner fell ill. After eighteen months at sea, Bonner and his shipmates aboard the 498-ton Hardwicke had traveled across the world from England to China and now to the Java Sea on a trading voyage for the British East India Company. The journey had been harrowing, which had convinced the Hardwicke’s commander, John Hallett, to stay at Batavia until the start of the next season. Known as a graveyard for Europeans in this period, Batavia provided little respite for Bonner, who may have fallen victim to one of the city’s regular outbreaks of malaria. “Being sensible of the uncertainties of this present life,” Bonner began drafting his last will and testament.
Bonner’s estate was simple. To his shipmate John Whittridge, Bonner left all of his ship-board belongings: “my Cloathes, Bedding and wearing apparell which I am or shall be possessed of at the time of my Decease.” To his parents, Joseph and Elizabeth, Bonner left all of his Hardwicke wages. In the presence of John Hatfield and the Hardwicke’s Chief Mate Carteret Le Geyt, Bonner signed his one-page will. Compared to the strong and smooth signatures of his witnesses, Bonner’s signature scratches across the page, the trailing “r” at the end perhaps indicative of one weakened by illness.
This single manuscript, donated in 1992 to the University of Virginia Law Library, was recently digitized by the Law Library’s Special Collections staff. When we came across it in our collection, we wondered about the history behind this unassuming document. Using textual clues and a variety of online research tools, including the Social Networks and Archival Context prototype created by U.Va.’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, we quickly learned that Joseph Bonner’s will was written in the waters off modern-day Indonesia, 10,000 miles away from its current home at the U.Va. Law Library. Despite its simplicity, this document offers a window into the hazards of eighteenth-century seafaring and the vast maritime geography in which mariners like Bonner lived and worked.
A Ship’s Troubled Voyage
The Ship Hardwicke entered into the service of the British East India Company in December 1742 and departed Portsmouth, England six months later for India and China. Britain was at war with Spain at the time, which heightened the risks of trade in the sea lanes on which Bonner and the Hardwicke planned to travel. The EIC had directed the ship first to Bombay or Surat, where it would pick up items appropriate for the China trade, namely cotton, pepper, sandalwood, olibanum (frankincense), and the remainder in silver. The Hardwicke indeed sailed to India by the usual route, stopping at the Cape of Good Hope in October 1743 and then the Maldives. In March 1744 it reached Bombay before continuing its journey east.
Trouble began in July 1744 during a stop at the Ladrone Islands south of modern-day Hong Kong when the Hardwicke heard news of armed Spanish ships from Manila patrolling the passage to Canton, China (now Guangzhou). Consequently, Hallett sailed the ship to Amoy (now Xiamen), a port to the north of Canton that specialized in the tea trade. The Hardwicke’s supercargoes went ashore to request Amoy protection from the Spanish and permission to trade, but Amoy officials refused the Hardwicke entry into the inner harbor unless the ship relinquished its guns and ammunition. Feeling ill-treated, Hallett sailed to Malacca in modern-day Malaysia and then to Batavia. This was monsoon season, and Hallett reported that the passage had been “very hazardous.” Here the ship remained until calmer winds and waters returned, and here Bonner grew more and more infirm.
The Hardwicke did venture back to China from Batavia and trade in the Pearl River beginning in the summer of 1745. On its voyage home, filled with a lucrative return cargo, the Hardwicke sailed in convoy with other EIC vessels. England had declared war on France in 1744, adding to the peril on the high seas. News of French ships in the same area of the Malacca straights put this EIC convoy at risk, and they sailed home under the protection of two British naval vessels. In May 1746 the Hardwicke was at St. Helena, and in August 1746 she was safely back in England.
The Fate of Joseph Bonner
Did Joseph Bonner survive his illness to carry on with the voyage? Further research beyond digitized, open access materials — at the British Library or elsewhere — will have to solve the puzzle. For now, as we await an answer to this history mystery, we will preserve Bonner’s (last?) will and testament for further research and welcome the diversity of time, space, and subject it brings to our legal history archive.
For Further Research:
Journals, Ledgers, Pay Books, and Receipt Book of the Hardwicke, L/MAR/B/568, British Library: Asian and African Studies Room.
Orders and Instructions to Lascoe Hide, Henry Hadley and Richard Pinnell, Supercargoes of the Hardwicke, E/3/109 ff 5-9, British Library: Asian and African Studies Room.
List of Goods to be provided for the Hardwicke at Canton, E/3/109 f 10, British Library: Asian and African Studies Room.
List of the packet sent with the Supercargoes of the Hardwicke, E/3/109 f 11, British Library: Asian and African Studies Room