Writing the life of William Macintosh is, at least to my mind, a question of geometry. There is the vertical axis, which describes the chronological sequence of his life, and there is a horizontal axis, which contextualises that life by situating it in relation to places, people, and events. The vertical axis is what provides a sense of a connected narrative to the book I am writing, while the horizontal axis provides the book’s wider intellectual contribution. Both, when in the right balance, make the book worth reading. Finding that balance is, however, the tricky thing, and it is sometimes difficult to know how far it is sensible to go in the pursuit either of contextual or chronological detail. Sometimes, however, it is impossible to resist the allure of curiosity. This was the case, recently, when I found myself trying to make sense of a short but crucial phase of Macintosh’s convoluted journey to India.
In January 1779, whilst he was a prisoner of war aboard a French ship in waters to the south west of the Cape of Good Hope, Macintosh managed to transfer to a Danish vessel, that took him on to Cape Town. The neutrality of the Danish ship, and the fact that Macintosh was a prisoner of war, should have made such a transfer impossible and, indeed, the apparent sensitivity of the event is reflected in the way it is described in Macintosh’s book, Travels. Nowhere in Travels is the Danish ship named; the reader is told only that it was a snow, that its supercargo and co-proprietor was a “Mr. B—d”, that it had reached Cape Town by 22 January 1779, and that the supercargo and captain were British, possibly Scottish.
In the hope that I might be able to identify the vessel somehow, I performed various internet searches that led me to a paper in the Scandinavian Economic History Review that listed Danish Asiatic Company voyages to and from India and China for the period 1772–1792. The paper included a table with the dates of departure and return of various vessels from and to Copenhagen, together with details of where they had stopped en route. Based on its return date, and the fact it had stopped at the Cape of Good Hope, the Rigernes Ønske looked like a good bet.
A second table in the paper provided a more detailed breakdown of the various phases of each ship’s journey. Using those data, it was possible to determine that the Rigernes Ønske had arrived at the Cape (during its return journey) 395 days after leaving Copenhagen on 21 December 1779, putting its arrival there at 20 January 1779.
Despite a two-day discrepancy between the date of Macintosh’s arrival at the Cape and that of the Rigernes Ønske, I was fairly confident that this might be the right vessel, knowing that there remains some uncertainty over the precision of the dates recorded in Travels. Further internet searching led me to the logbook of the Rigernes Ønske, which is among a vast collection of digitised materials held by the Rigsarkivet—the Danish National Archives.
Although I was able to access the relevant sections of the logbook, I really needed someone able to read eighteenth-century Danish to help me make sense of what I was looking at. I posted a call for assistance on Twitter and was utterly floored by the number of suggestions and offers of assistance I received, one of which came from a scholar based in Norway, Thomas Gerhardsen Moine, who specialises in foreign warships and privateers in Norway in the period between 1793 and 1815.
Thomas was very quickly able to confirm that there was no mention of Macintosh in the Rigernes Ønske‘s logbook, but that the ship had sighted another Danish vessel at the Cape—a merchant snow that it identified as the Fransiskus, owned by a merchant named “Bøyte”. As this was the only Danish vessel the Rigernes Ønske saw at the Cape, this seemed to be a good contender for the ship that had taken Macintosh there and I was inclined to leave things there, having sufficient evidence for an adequate contextual footnote. Like me, however, Thomas was overtaken by curiosity and, by reading further back into the logbook, was able to gain more information about the Fransiskus. He was eventually able to discover that the supercargo was, in fact, a Scottish free merchant, David Boyd (the “Mr. B—d” from Travels) operating from the Danish fortified settlement at Tranquebar. Having identified Boyd, it was then possible, using digitised Danish Asiatic Company records and the registers from the Zion Church in Tranquebar, to learn all sorts of fascinating things about his life, family, and trading activities, and the ship (ordinarily the Francis or Franciscus, not Fransiskus) that Macintosh had joined in January 1779.
Thomas’s discoveries in the archives of the Danish Asiatic Company have allowed me to add empirical rigour to my discussion of Macintosh’s brief journey on the Francis, but their value lies more particularly in their contribution to the horizontal axis of my book. The story of Macintosh’s transfer at sea is an interesting one because it put international treaty in tension with maritime custom. In the end, Macintosh’s status as a fellow Scot is what most likely persuaded Boyd to allow him to join the ship. Although they spent only five or so days in each other’s company, Boyd made a significant impression on Macintosh. He found Boyd to be “very sensible and liberal” but also, undoubtedly, looked on him with a degree of envy. Boyd embodied what Macintosh strived to achieve—success as a private merchant in the India trade. That Boyd appeared to have done so without sacrificing his family life (his wife, Maria, and daughters, Matilda and Veronica, were with him on the Francis) would have given Macintosh pause. Macintosh, for his part, had sacrificed his relationship with his wife, Ann, and had not seen his children for more than two years.
As I look ahead to another year in the company of Macintosh, tacking back and forth between the horizontal and the vertical, it is with the usual combination of excitement and apprehension—curiosity over finding out what happens next is mixed with the fear that the story, in all its infinite complexity, will overwhelm my ability to tell it. Onwards, onwards!