Joseph Sherburne, the husband of my 4th great grand aunt (1751–1805), was born in 1751 in Falmouth, Cornwall. His father, also named Joseph (c. 1721–1763), was a seaman, captain of the pacquet “Hanover” (a ‘pacquet’ or ‘packet’ was a small-to-medium mail, passenger, and general-cargo boat, usually coastal). In 1763, when young Joseph was twelve, the Hanover” was wrecked in a hurricane and his father drowned.


In 1767 Joseph Sherburne junior, aged 16, was appointed a writer (junior clerk) in the East India Company. He quickly rose to Head Assistant in the Accountant’s Office, and in 1870 was promoted to Assistant under William Harwood, the Collector of two Districts, Rajemehal [Rajmahal] and Boglipore [Bhagalpur], 200 miles north of Calcutta. Hoping to succeed to the collectorship, Sherburne took the opportunity to study the local language and the administration of collections.

A Collector was head of a district’s revenue management, responsible for the registration, alteration, and partition of holdings; the settlement of disputes; the management of indebted estates; loans to agriculturists, and famine relief. A Collector also served as District Magistrate, exercising general supervision over inferior courts and directing police work.


In 1773 Sherburne missed out on promotion to Harwood’s position, superseded by another candidate, James Barton. Sherburne claimed that Barton was his junior in the service and less experienced. He ‘returned to the Presidency‘—was moved to Calcutta. For the next five years he held no substantial position in the Company and received only a small monthly retainer.


In 1778 he gained an appointment, becoming Superintendent of Police in Calcutta under Charles Stafford Playdell. When Playdell died in 1779 Sherburne was again passed over for promotion, superseded by a Mr Motte who, Sherburne noted, was not at the time even in the Company’s employment.

In 1781, Joseph Sherburne, Deputy Jemedar [a police rank, roughly equivalent to army Lieutenant] was a Member of the Grand Jury in the Calcutta trial of Mr James Augustus Hicky, printer of the Bengal Gazette. Hicky, a strong critic of Governor Hastings, was found guilty of libel and sentenced to jail. The newspaper was shut down.


In 1784 and 1785 Sherburne, by then senior merchant at Fort William, Calcutta on the Bengal Establishment wrote a series of memorials to John Macpherson, acting Governor General, to Warren Hastings, the Governor-General, and to “The Honorable Court of Directors for the Affairs of the Honorable United Company of Merchants of England trading to the East Indies”, giving a history of his employment with the Company and petitioning to be appointed again, in a different capacity.

Sherburne’s memorials were published and can be read through GoogleBooks


In the early 1780s Sherburne established Sherburne Bazar in Calcutta, where the Chandni Chawk now stands. Sherburne and two other merchants separately petitioned the Governor General and Council for permission to build market places in accordance with a 1781 Bye Law. They pledged to set up bazaars with pucca (lit. ‘ripe’, here, ‘well-constructed’, ‘permanent’) buildings, tiled shops and stalls instead of the straw huts of the desi (native Indian) bazaars.

Sherburne’s was a private bazaar, specialising in articles catering to European demands. Of the private bazaars his is said to have stocked the largest number of articles.

A view in the Bazaar, leading to the Chitpore Road in about 1815 by James Baillie Fraser from his ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs’ . Image retrieved from the British Library.
Chandni Chowk Street, Kolkata 2008 photograph by P.K.Niyogi Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons


In June 1785 Joseph Sherbourne was appointed” Scavenger of Calcutta” under the Commissioner of Police. “Scavenger” is derived from “Scavage”, a tax levied upon goods offered for sale subject to duty. A Scavenger was an officer charged with inspecting the goods and collecting the tax. In 1786, when he joined the Freemason Provincial Grand Lodge of Bengal, Joseph Sherburne described himself as “Scavenger of the Town of Calcutta”.

It seems Sherburne’s persistence in his memorials petitioning to be re-employed by the Company paid off, for in April 1787 Joseph Sherburne was appointed Collector of Beerbhoom [Birbhum] and Bishenpore [Bishnupur], 80 miles north-west of Calcutta.


In histories of rural Bengal, Sherburne’s appointment of April 1787 as Collector of Beerbhoom and Bishenpore is regarded as the beginning of a new period of order and prosperity in those districts. Sherburne is said to have ruled sternly, “as a governor of a newly subjected frontier ought to rule”. During Sherburne’s brief administration—a year and a half—“the capital of the united district was transferred from Bishenpore, on the south of the Adjii, to Soorie [Suri] the present headquarters in Beerbhoom, on the north of the river; the larger bodies of marauders were broken up, and two hereditary princes reduced to the rank of private country gentlemen.”

Under Sherburne’s administration of Beerbhoom and Bishenpore, “the two frontier principalities had passed from the condition of military fiefs into that of a regular British district administered by a collector and covenanted assistants, defended by the Company’s troops, studded with fortified factories, intersected by a new military road, and possessing daily communication with the seat of government in Calcutta.”

In November 1788 Sherburne was removed as Collector, recalled on suspicion of corruption. With the charge no longer an impediment to his employment in the Company, however, 12 years later, in 1801 he was again employed by the East India Company.

Water-colour painting of the Fort of Rajanagar in the district of Beerbhom [Rajnagar, Birbhum] dated 1790, during the third Mysore War, by Colin MacKenzie (1754-1821). Image from the collection of the British Library.


Discussing the ruinous interest rates that debtors in 18th century Calcutta sometimes incurred, the memoirist William Hickey, who knew Sherburne, recounts that he, “upon his first arrival from England, borrowed from a Bengal sitcar [probably sowcar, a native banker] nine hundred sicca rupees [coined money] for which he executed a bond and warrant of attorney to confess judgment, payable in six months, and not having a command of money he continued to renew the security every six months ; I myself [Hickey] saw this gentleman prosecuted in the Supreme Court for fifty-eight thousand odd hundred rupees, to which enormous amount the comparatively trifling sum of nine hundred had swelled in the manner above mentioned.”

(On these figures, Sherburne was being sued for 65 times the original loan.)


At some point in the twelve years between his removal as Collector in 1788 and his re-employment in 1801, Sherburne appears to have left India to travel to Boston Massachusetts, where he had distant cousins. He was possibly hoping to find a wife. There, on 7 July 1793, Joseph Sherburn married Frances Johnstone Dana (1768–1832). She was the older sister of my 4th great grandfather William Pulteney Dana, and the aunt of my 3rd great grandmother Charlotte Frances Dana. The marriage record is annotated “of Great Britain”. Frances Dana’s father had been born in Cambridge, Massachusetts; presumably she was visiting her cousins there.

Joseph Sherburne and his new wife returned to Bengal.

In June 1802 Joseph Sherburne was appointed Collector of Boglepore (present day Bhagalpur in Bihar).

Water-colour drawing of the Hill House at Bhagalpur by Sir Charles D’Oyly (1781-1845), September 1820. Image from the British Library. Hill House was built by Augustus Cleveland (1755-84) of the Bengal Civil Service who was Collector and Judge at Bhagalpur.


In 1785 Eldred Thomas Sherburne, son of Mr. Joseph Sherburne, Senior Merchant, was baptised in Calcutta. His mother was ‘a Brahmin’. In the early years of the nineteenth century Thomas Eldred Sherburne kept a school in the Chitpore Road.

Joseph and Frances Sherburne had two children, both baptised in Boglepore [Bhagalpur]. Their son Pulteney Johnstone Poole Sherburne was baptised on 16 December 1802 and their daughter Frances Henrietta Laura Sherburne on 3 October 1803.


Joseph died 54 years old on 15 July 1805. His death notice in the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser of 10 February 1806 states that he was late Judge Magistrate of Purneah (Purnia, a district in the Baghalpur Division of Bengal), and Senior Merchant on the Bengal Establishment. He died intestate; administration was given to his widow.

Frances stayed in India for a number of years but eventually returned to England, probably in 1819 after 14 years of sorting out Joseph’s affairs and then the affairs of her brother Charles Patrick Dana who died in India in 1816. Frances died in England in 1832.


Wikitree: Joseph Sherburne (1751 – 1805)