Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pitt, Thomas (1653-1726)

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PITT, THOMAS (1653–1726), East India merchant and governor at Madras, often called ‘Diamond Pitt,’ born at Blandford, Dorset, on 5 July 1653, was second son of John Pitt, rector of Blandford St. Mary, and of Sarah, daughter of John Jay. In youth he appears to have been at sea, and he is repeatedly styled ‘captain’ in his earlier days; even before he was twenty-one he engaged in the East India trade as an interloper, i.e. as a merchant not authorised to trade by the East India Company.

In 1674 Pitt settled at Balasore, and began a long struggle with the company. On 24 Feb. 1675 the court sent directions that he should be seized: ‘wee do require you to take care to send them [Pitt and his party] to the fort, to remain there till next yeares shipping, and then to be sent to England.’ When this order reached India (in June 1676), Pitt seems to have left India on a trading expedition in Persia. On 19 Dec. 1676 the court again repeated their orders for his arrest, and Pitt is said to have been brought before the Madras council, and to have promised compliance with the company's orders; but he made no change in his methods of business. He paid further visits to Persia during 1677 and 1679–80, and he trafficked in very various commodities, including sugar and horses. His ventures proved successful. During 1681 he returned to England. On 15 Feb. 1682 the court of the East India Company gave instructions for a writ ne exeat regno against Pitt and one Taylor, ‘untill the suit depending in chancery against them by the Company be heard and determined.’ Nevertheless, Pitt left England in the Crown on 20 Feb. 1682, and reached Balasore about 8 July, immediately resuming, in the most open manner, his old modes of trading. ‘We would have you,’ the court writes to Hedges, ‘secure his person whatever it cost to the government … Be sure to secure him, he being a desperate fellow and one that we fear will not stick at doing any mischief that lies in his power.’ Accordingly Hedges obtained the consent of the nawab of Bengal, as the territorial sovereign, to the arrest of Pitt, who, however, after obtaining a permit from the nawab to build a factory on the Hooghly, left for England on 5 Feb. 1683. He was arrested on his arrival at the suit of the company, and was bound over in recognisances to the amount of 40,000l.

The litigation seems to have detained Pitt in England for many years. In 1687 he was fined 1,000l. for interloping, but the court reduced the penalty to 400l. Settling down for the time in Dorset, he purchased and laid out land there, and in both 1689 and 1690 was returned to parliament as member for New Sarum, or Salisbury. In 1690 he bought the manor of Stratford (and Old Sarum) from James Cecil, fourth earl of Salisbury. Without vacating his seat in parliament, he undertook in 1693 his last interloping voyage in the Seymour, in company with one Catchpoole. He arrived at Balasore on 1 Oct. The court and their agents in Bengal made vain efforts to stay his progress. ‘Notwithstanding all our endeavours with the nabob and Duān to frustrate and oppose the interlopers in their designs, they are rather countenanced and encouraged by the whole country in generall.’ Consequently in January 1694 the court, recognising their inability to resist Pitt, decided to come to terms with the interlopers, and to admit them to the company. Pitt received offers of help from the company, and early in 1695 returned to England, where he was temporarily engaged as agent for the company in the recovery of certain ships from Brest. On 28 Oct. 1695 he was elected M.P. for Old Sarum.

The court of the East India Company quickly recognised Pitt's capacity, and on 26 Nov. 1697 he was appointed president of Fort St. George. His commission, dated 5 Jan. 1698, gave him for twelve months special power to suspend any officer; enjoined strict retrenchment, including, if possible, reduction of the number of officers; and directed Pitt's particular attention to the prevention of interloping, ‘he having engaged to us,’ as remarked in a despatch to Bengal, ‘to signalise himself therein.’ His term of appointment was for five years, and his salary and allowances 300l. a year, with 100l. for outfit. According to Sir Josiah Child, ‘the adventurers’ resented Pitt's appointment to ‘such a degree as to turn out eighteen of that committee, whereas I never before knew above eight removed.’ On 12 Jan. Robert Pitt, ‘son of the president,’ was granted permission to reside at Fort St. George as a free merchant.

Pitt arrived in Madras on 7 July 1698. On the 11th he entertained all the company's servants and freedmen, by way of celebrating the reading of his commission. Settling down to business, both on the company's account and his own, he was subjected to much hostile criticism, and the court found it necessary to reaffirm their confidence in his management. In May 1699 he was disabled by a fever. During the conflict between the old company, his masters, and the new company, which had been constituted on 5 Sept. 1698, Pitt vehemently defended the interests of the former. When, in September 1699, Sir William Norris [q. v.] landed as envoy of the new company to Aurungzib, Pitt declined to recognise him in the absence of orders from the old company. He pursued the new company's agent, his cousin, John Pitt, with the utmost rancour until his death, in 1703, denouncing him as crack-brained and inexperienced. These acrimonious disputes were determined by the union of the two rival companies in August 1702, and Pitt was continued in the presidency of Madras under the united company, to whom, on 3 Oct. 1702, he writes, quoting William's words to the French at Ryswick: ‘'Twas my fate, and nott my choice that made mee Your Enemy; and Since You and My Masters are united, Itt Shall bee my utmost Endeavours to purchase Your Good opinion and deserve your Friendship.’

Meanwhile he fearlessly defended the English settlements from attack. In February 1702 Daud Khan, nawab of the Carnatic, blockaded Madras. Pitt met the danger with a characteristic combination of shrewdness and boldness, and on 3 May the nawab retired with a small subsidy, agreeing to restore all that he had taken from the company or its servants (cf. Wheeler, Madras in the Olden Time, i. 359–60). In 1703, apparently at his own request, Pitt's term of five years' service was extended. In 1708–9 he opened a negotiation with the successor to Aurungzib for a commercial arrangement in favour of the company, to which great importance was attached by the inhabitants of Fort St. George, but the negotiation was cut short by Pitt's supersession.

Early in 1704 William Fraser had been appointed a member of his council. Pitt distrusted his new colleague from the first, and differences between them soon followed. In August 1707 a feud arose between certain castes at Madras. Fraser urged, at a council meeting, a mode of settlement which was opposed to that suggested by his chief, but was in agreement with a proposal made in a petition by one of the parties at feud. Pitt at once accused Fraser of collusion with the petitioners, and suspended him from the council, subsequently making him a prisoner at the fort. The matter was referred home, and was the subject of deliberate consideration. On 28 Jan. 1709 the court decided to remove Pitt and reinstate Fraser. Pitt, with characteristic promptitude, handed over his post and counted up the cash balance in the presence of the council on 17 Sept. 1709. He left Madras on the Heathcote about 25 Oct., transhipped at the Cape on to a Danish vessel, and landed at Bergen, where he stayed for the greater part of a year.

Pitt proved himself a resourceful governor. He maintained considerable pomp, yet the revenues of the factory continuously rose under his guidance. At one time he proposed to give some sort of municipal government within the bounds of the factory. To the value of judicious commercial experiments he was fully alive. Early in 1700 he shipped home new kinds of neck-cloths and chintzes. Sir Nicholas Waite calls him ‘the great president,’ and Peter Wentworth wrote that ‘the great Pits is turned out.’ ‘It was his general force of character, his fidelity to the cause of his employers (in spite of his masterfault of keenness in money-making), his decision in dealing with difficulties, that won his reputation. He was always ready; always, till that last burst which brought his recall; cool in action, however bitter in language; he always saw what to do, and did it’ Yule).

During the whole of his stay at Madras Pitt kept a look-out for large diamonds, which he utilised from time to time as a means of sending remittances to the company. In December 1701 a native merchant, called Jamchund, brought him a large, rough stone weighing 410 carats, for which he demanded 200,000 pagodas. The stone had been sold to Jamchund by an English skipper, who had stolen it from a slave. The latter had found it in the Parteal mines on the Kistna, and had secreted it in a wound in his leg. It was doubtless a vague knowledge of these circumstances which suggested Pope's lines: <poem. Asleep and naked as an Indian lay, An honest factor stole a gem away; He pledg'd it to the knight: the knight had wit, So kept the diamond, and the rogue was bit. </poem> (Moral Essay, Epist. iii. 361–5). Pope originally ended the last line with ‘and was rich as Pitt.’ But the imputation that Pitt had stolen the stone was ill-founded, as he proved before the council at Madras, and afterwards by an elaborate justification of his conduct which he wrote at Bergen in 1710, and which was subsequently published in the ‘Daily Post,’ 3 Nov. 1743. Pitt doubtless drove a hard bargain with Jamchund, who was finally induced to part with the diamond for 48,000 pagodas, or 20,400l. (at 8s. 6d. per pagoda). He sent it home by his son Robert in October 1702. The cutting was done with great skill in London at a cost of 5,000l., the diamond being reduced to 136¾ carats in the process. The cleavage and dust were valued at from 5,000l. to 7,000l. After many negotiations, during which Pitt knew little rest, and spent most of his time in disguise, the embarrassing treasure was eventually disposed of, through the agency of John Law [q. v.] the financier, to the regent of France for the sum of 135,000l. (see Saint-Simon, Mémoires). Pitt and his two sons themselves took the stone over to Calais in 1717. The gem, which was valued in 1791 at 480,000l., was placed in the French crown, and, although it has experienced many vicissitudes, it is still preserved among the few crown jewels of France that remain unsold (Yule, pp. cxxv, sq.; Streeter, Great Diamonds of the World; Wheeler, Hist. of Madras, chap. xxiii.)

On 20 Dec. 1710, when Pitt was settled again in England, the court of the East India Company made arrangements to confer with him on Indian affairs, and not only took his advice, but gave evident signs of regretting his recall. While in India Pitt had looked after the management of his ‘plantations and gardens in England, and had added to his estates, often showing his dissatisfaction with his wife's conduct of his affairs in his absence. He now began to consolidate his properties. Besides Mawarden Court at Stratford and the Down at Blandford, he acquired Boconnoc in Cornwall from Lord Mohun's widow in 1717, and subsequently Kynaston in Dorset, Bradock, Treskillard, and Brannell in Cornwall, Woodyates on the border of Wiltshire, Abbot's Ann in Hampshire, and Swallowfield in Berkshire. He resumed his place in parliament, being elected for Old Sarum on 25 Nov. 1710, and reelected on 16 Feb. 1714 and in 1715, on both occasions with his son as colleague. In 1714 he ‘declared himself against every part of the address,’ and in 1715 was appointed a commissioner for building new churches under the acts beginning with 9 Anne, c. 22. On 3 Aug. 1716 he accepted the government of Jamaica, and vacated his seat. But he never assumed the office, possibly because he failed to secure instructions to his liking, and he resigned in favour of another. At a by-election on 30 July 1717 he was elected to parliament for Thirsk. In 1722 he was returned for Old Sarum.

Pitt died at Swallowfield, Berkshire, on 28 April 1726, and was buried at Blandford St. Mary's, in the church which he had restored. A stone or brass, with a somewhat ‘extravagant laudation’ commemorating his benefactions, was extant in the church until 1861, when a restoration swept it away. He also built or restored the churches at Stratford and Abbot's Ann.

Pitt was, above all things, a hard man of business. He gave his son on going up to Oxford characteristic advice: ‘Let it ever be a rule never to lend any money but where you have unquestionable security, for generally by asking for it you lose your ffriend and that too.’ Yet, despite his intolerance of all mismanagement of money matters, his correspondence gives occasional evidence of kindness, consideration, almost of affection.

Pitt married, in 1678 or 1679, Jane (d. 1727), daughter of James Innes of Reid Hall, Moray, who was descended in the female line from the Earls of Moray. He had three sons and two daughters. His eldest son, Robert, was father of William, earl of Chatham [q. v.]; his second son, Thomas, was created Lord Londonderry [q. v.]; his third son, John (d. 1744), was a soldier of some distinction. His second daughter, Lucy, married, on 24 Feb. 1712–13, General James (afterwards first Earl) Stanhope.

Two portraits of Pitt are extant; one at Boconnoc in Cornwall, with the diamond in his hat; another at Chevening, Sevenoaks, is the property of Earl Stanhope. Both are by Kneller.

[Colonel Yule in vol. iii. of the Diary of William Hedges (Hakluyt Soc.), 1889, has collected everything which bears on the biography of Pitt. See also Wheeler's Madras in the Olden Times, 1861, vols. i. and ii. passim; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope, iii. 157; Certain Appendices to Life of Lord Chatham, London, 1793, and Collins's Peerage of England, sub ‘Chatham.’]

C. A. H.