John Millward’s Beard Brush: a Global Tale from 1623

Deep in the papers of the English East India Company, kept in the British Library in London, lies one of the most astonishing lists I’ve ever seen.

It’s a particular kind of list, which will be familiar to many. It’s a list of goods held by someone at their death, just like the probate inventories used all the time by English social historians and genealogists. It dates from 1623, and is for a man called John Millward. In fact, at first it looks pretty mundane.

And yet, on closer inspection, the inventory is truly extraordinary.

Millward was one of a very small number of English men (and some women) who lived completely globalized lives. His age, the early seventeenth century, was the first one of truly wide-ranging global interaction and exchange. True, earlier times had seen some remarkably cosmopolitan people. Ibn Battuta, for example, or Zheng He, or Marco Polo. Commerce and ideas spread across continents and oceans. Romans traded in India and heard of the existence of China. Spices found their way from Indonesia to Europe. The Silk Road linked east and west, as did Islam and – to a much lesser extend – Christianity.

But the seventeenth century was different. Not, perhaps qualitatively, but quantitatively. The European maritime voyages of the fifteenth century had opened up the world to that hitherto obscure peninsular. The silver mined in the Americas suddenly allowed them to trade effectively in Asia. The number of truly global commodities exploded: the pattern usually being that a luxury item that had enjoyed extensive Asian markets suddenly expanded its reach across to West Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Goods like Indian cottons, coffee from Yemen, saltpetre from Bihar, porcelain and tea from China.

Drinking Coffee and Tea in Early Modern Europe
Drinking Coffee and Tea in Early Modern Europe

John Millward was at the heart of this world. He worked for one of the great European trading companies, the English East India Company, that was making these exchanges happen, basically by shipping European money out to Asia, buying goods and trading there, and bringing back luxury products that would be sold at home, for vast profits.

I’ve been able to find nothing about John’s early life (yet), though his name suggests he was a Midlander. In April 1621, John and his colleague Thomas Mills were sent from Jakarta to the town of Pulicat, on a ship called the Globe. Here they would act as the Company’s ‘factors’, buying up goods at local prices and awaiting the annual arrival of one of the Company’s ships.

Pulicat sat on the Coromandel Coast (in modern-day Tamil Nadu). It had a long history as a major trading point, but since 1608 it had been under the effective control of the Dutch. From here they traded ‘pintadoes’ – a kind of painted cotton textile – to Java, but also a number of other commodities, including slaves.

Pulicat in 1744
Pulicat in 1744

For a brief period, from 1619 to 1626, the Dutch East India Company (the ‘VOC’) permitted their English rivals to maintain a house there. It was here that Mills and Millward took up residence in June 1621. They wrote regular letters up the Company’s hierarchy, to their superiors at Masulipatnam, the Coast’s major entrepot, at which the English Company had set up a ‘factory’ (effectively a trading office) a few years ago. They show the men trading in textiles, squabbling with the Dutch, and passing on news of local wars and naval battles from as far away as Persia.

By late 1622, Thomas had fallen ill – not unusual for Europeans living in tropical climes – and he asked to be moved from Pulicat for the sake of his health, though his colleague Mills noted in November that he was starting to recover.

In fact, in the Spring he was given what he probably considered a promotion.

The English factors at Masulipatnam had been granted a request to go home, and Mills, John Dod, and Millward were reassigned there. Although Millward was only to be third in command, it was a move to a far more important posting, and probably brought even greater opportunities for trading on his own account, something which – though against Company rules – could bring colossal wealth for its servants. So long as they kept it quiet.

But it was not to be, for just a couple of weeks later Millward fell sick again, and after a brief illness, he died. This was when his colleagues made the inventory.

17th Century Indian Portrait of a European
17th Century Indian Portrait of a European

It shows an incredibly globalized life.

His clothes included suits of red damask and black taffeta and gingham – as well as ‘1 sute English: ould’. He had hose from Bengal, a satin gown, and caps from Portugal and England. He had lace from Bantam, sowing silk (probably from India), eleven calico shirts (calico was pure Indian cotton), two pairs of calico breeches, and an English hand-towel.

His drinks cabinet included vinegar, oil, cinnamon water (from either Bantam or the Malabar Coast), and arrack – the punchy South Asian liquor that proved so concerningly popular with the Company’s servants in Asia.

Drinking Arrack in 19th Century South Asia
Drinking Arrack in 19th Century South Asia

Amongst various other odds and ends he had tailors’ equipment, two ostrich eggs (presumably from Africa), some Chinese crockery including a painted wooden dish, an ‘ould sun dial’, a sponge and – brilliantly – two brushes, one for hats and one for his beard.

One of the most intriguing items is a weapon. It is recorded as ‘1 cuttan of Japan’. This, almost certainly, is an Anglicization of the Japanese word katana – a Samurai sword.

He owed five people money, one was his colleague Thomas Mills, the other four have Indian names. Like many Company servants his life was one that crossed cultural boundaries. Indeed, when they weren’t borrowing money from local people, Company servants were sleeping with them. The Persian factory at Isfahan seems to have been the most debauched: in 1639 employees there were found to be ‘keeping whores abroade and in the Company house’. One employee was reported back to Company HQ in 1637 for ‘drinkeinge, whoreinge, & gameinge’, as well as for encouraging his colleagues to do the same. Another, Robert Manley, was described in a despatch as ‘fitt for any villanye’, but principally ‘drinkeinge, whoreinge, diceinge’. He ended up sick of the ‘French Ague’, a point noted with knowing disapproval in an official Company letter.

Some, though, got married to local girls. Nicholas Gove of the Isfahan factory, ‘an auncient man’, kept an Armenian woman as his wife despite having a family in England. In 1643, a despatch noted – intriguingly – that Humphrey Weston had left the Company’s estate at Jepara in Indonesia and ‘ranne away for feare of death, having the Company of a Javaes wife, the which hee excuseth’. A little local difficulty, perhaps? In the 1680s, when the Company signed a peace treaty with the ‘King of Burma and Pegu’, they even felt the need for a clause allowing children of English-Burmese marriages the right to leave the country.

We don’t know if Millward enjoyed similarly close local contact, but we can probably guess, for he died of syphilis.

In fact, even his death was a cross-cultural affair. As he became sick, from a disease that originated in the Americas but even in Asia was known to Englishmen as the ‘Mal-Francais’, he called on the services of a local Brahman, who administered ‘pau-de-China’, a medicinal plant found across tropical Asia. As he worsened, and as he lost his speech, his colleagues offered him their ‘hartiest praies to God for his mercye which wee continewed with our bended keneees and hearts’. His funeral was attended by his Company colleagues and a guard of soldiers – presumably Dutch.

So in death, as in life, John Millward lived an astonishingly globalized life. He was one of a growing number of people in the seventeenth century who lived at the meeting points of continents, cultures, economies, and religions.

But perhaps he never quite left behind his home. He kept an old English coat, remember. Perhaps it had sentimental value – a reminder of home and family perhaps? His books were universally European: a couple of French books, a French history, a ‘Portingall book’, an old almanac, a ‘dixonary’ and several religious texts including ‘1 Byble’, perhaps a the King James.

Perhaps that’s also the story behind the beard brush.

King James I and his beard
King James I and his beard

Images of south Indian people from this period suggest they usually went about clean-shaven, or sported moustaches. Beards were more of a European thing. And what was more Jacobean than a cleanly brushed goatee, like that of the King himself.

So perhaps John Millward’s beard brush was another reminder of home – a link to back to the refined gentry culture of England, where deportment was critical and beards were neat.


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