Advice On Tax Dodging And Bribery From An 18th-Century East India Company Merchant

An 18th-century East India Company merchant named John Pybus offers advice on tax dodging and bribery in his notes.

East India Company merchant John Pybus compiled notes about the practicalities of trade in various ports and settlements of the Indian Ocean in the 18th century. Among lists of prices, exchange rates, and goods are advice and instructions for enterprising traders looking to maximise their profits through bribery and tax dodging.

A list of goods available at Bengal. Mss Eur F110/11, f 16.

Gift-giving is mentioned in the description of many ports. At Atcheen (Aceh, Indonesia), Pybus bluntly states that a visiting merchant must “visit the King and make him a Present”. For the Spanish colonial port of Manila, he helpfully includes a list of individuals “whom it is proper to get acquainted with” and whose goodwill was required to conduct business successfully at the port.

A list of notable officials, merchants, and other individuals in Manila. Mss Eur F110/11, f 36.

The propriety of these “gifts” seems questionable, at least in the case of the authorities at Manila. While a trader was instructed to prioritise visiting the Governor of Manila to present him with a token of gratitude, this “must be done… without any witness, for should any body be by, he will not accept it”.

Payments could also be used to avoid paying dues on merchandise when the Spanish authorities came to measure a ship and assess its cargo. First, it was important to greet the inspectors warmly – “you must have a very handsome entertainment for them which is very acceptable to them…I would advise to have at least, a dozen dishes of victuals, with what variety you can of Europe pickles and likewise of wines.”

Sundara-Mahadevi, an Odia queen in medieval Sri Lanka who was called its greatest politician, ended up in Lanka due to marriage.

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