The “Musquitto fleet” and “Mac, the Historian”

The long and ignominious personal conflict between Philip Francis and Warren Hastings is well known to historians of the East India Company, but the parallel proxy war that played out between perhaps their closest adherents—William Macintosh and Captain Joseph Price—is much less familiar. Although Macintosh and Price did not fight a literal duel, as Francis and Hastings did in 1780, they nevertheless engaged in a vociferous exchange of “paper bullets” throughout 1781 and ’82 in the London press, as each pressed the case of their ally.

The first salvo in this “inky warfare” (as the Monthly Review described a similar print conflict in which Macintosh was involved) came in a series of pseudonymous letters published in The London Courant between March and May 1781. The first of these—from Junius Asiaticus, a pseudonym that had appeared nearly a decade earlier in the Public Advertiser in letters critical of Robert Clive—set out a score of charges illustrative of Warren Hastings’ alleged corruption and mismanagement. For weeks thereafter, a near-daily stream of letters appeared attacking or supporting the original criticisms, from various noms de plume including “No BLACKLEGGS,” “Philo-Junius Asiaticus,” “CONSISTENCY,” “SIMPLICITY,” “No Party Man,” and “NAUTICUS.”

Joseph Price was in no doubt that Macintosh was Junius Asiaticus (and the other likeminded aliases) because the original letter had contained a term that Price believed bore Macintosh’s fingerprint: “Musquitto fleet”. The reference here was to a commission Price had received from Hastings in 1778 to fit out two merchant vessels, the Resolution and the Royal Charlotte, as 40-gun warships to use in a planned assault on Pondicherry. The commission was widely criticised at the time by Francis who called it “a most infamous job” and lambasted its inflated costs. As chance would have it, Macintosh secured a passage on the Royal Charlotte during its return voyage to Calcutta in 1779 and came to know Price during the journey. At least in Price’s recollection, the pair came instantly to dislike one another; Macintosh struck Price as bookish and arrogant while Price struck Macintosh as uncritical and besotted with Hastings. Price later alleged that when Macintosh arrived in Calcutta, he immediately started to refer to Price’s ships as the “Musquitto fleet”—a disparaging name intended to undermine the pride Price took in his role as commodore.

Although the pseudonymous nature of the letters means that there is always some room for uncertainty over their authorship, it is likely—perhaps even probable—that the letters were co-authored by Macintosh and Philip Francis’s cousin, Major Philip Baggs. Baggs had left India at the same time as Macintosh, carrying a bundle of documents from Francis and the advice that “Facts cannot be made too Public”.

Price was sufficiently certain of Macintosh’s role that he felt confident in satirising him in one letter, signed “Mac, the Historian“. Here, Price posed as a penniless Macintosh keen to earn a crust as a writer-for-hire to Junius Asiaticus:

If you will but send me three half crowns to No. 8, Fumigating-ally, just to raise my spirits, and buy materials to begin with, I will soon silence No Blackleggs [a pro-Hastings letter writer] for you.

Really Sir, I have great funds of knowledge in manuscript; I have five and twenty times crossed the Atlantic Ocean, to study West-Indian and American politics. Lord North and other Lords have felt the weight of my hand a thousand times—but mum for that. I am now very poor. My last excursion was to the East-Indies. If you will but use your influence with the editor of this paper, to give me some small matters, he shall have the history of my voyage to Bengal—a very good thing, I do assure you.

The London Courant, 23 April 1781.

The print conflict between Price and Macintosh accelerated when Macintosh published a long pamphlet, The origin and authentic narrative of the present Marratta War (1781), and his two-volume Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa (1782). The pair were also locked in a real-world cat-and-mouse game as Price tried to confront Macintosh in London. Having presented himself at the Piccadilly bookshop of Almon and Debret (issuers of Macintosh’s pamphlet), Price obtained an address for Macintosh—an apartment above a grocer’s shop on Queen Anne Street East—but found him gone to Bath. The publication of Travels ultimately triggered Price’s most vigorous counterblast: an excoriating pamphlet, Some observations and remarks on a late publication (1782), that exposed Macintosh’s identity and sought to undermine his credibility by portraying him as a mixed-race blowhard and Price’s puppet.

All of this excitement is, in the narrative of my monograph, still to come. I have just begun work on a new chapter of the book: the one that will detail Macintosh’s experiences in Calcutta, including, crucially, the emergence of his friendship with Francis and how that laid the foundation for the print and pamphlet war of 1781–82. Quite how much of that I will manage to write this summer is, of course, an open question. If I can find a spare day, however, one thing I would like to do is to visit the parish church in Monmouth where Price is buried and where his command of the “Musquitto fleet” is commemorated. It is the same church were, in 1763, two Black slaves belonging to Price—Andrew Davis and Joseph Monmouth—were baptised.

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