William Petrie (d.1816), Madras Civil Servant 1765-1812 and Governor,Penang 1812-1816

Rajesh Kochhar

William Petrie (d.1816) was an influential Madras Civil Servant of the English East India Company who remained in India from 1765 till 1812 with some breaks, and later (1812-1816) held the office of Governor of Prince of Wales Island, that is Penang. Though not an astronomer himself, he set up a private astronomical observatory at Madras in 1786 as a geographical and navigational aid. Taken over by the Government in 1789, the Observatory remained functional for close to a century. In 1899, astronomical activity was shifted to Kodaikanal Solar Physics Observatory .This Observatory is now a field station of Indian Institute of Astrophysics, headquartered in Bangalore. One of the original instruments donated by Petrie to the Observatory was a gridiron astronomical clock made by John Shelton for the transit of Venus of 1769. The clock is now in Kodaikanal, and still ticking. (For information on Shelton clock as well as Madras and Kodaikanal Observatories, publications by Rajesh Kochhar ( also indexed under R.K. Kochhar) may be referred to.)

The brief Wikipedia entry on William Petrie confuses two distinct persons with the same name , goofs on the dates, and makes factually incorrect statements. Wikipedia’s William Petrie becomes an FRS at the age of eleven! ( Why cannot Wikipedia have the flexibility of an on-line source and the rigor of a research publication?)
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Table 1. William Pwetrie, Madras Civil Servant

1765 Writer
1771 Factor
1774 Junior Merchant
1776 Senior Merchant; at home
1778 In India
1782 At home
1790 Member of the Council of Governor
1793 At home
1800 President of Board of Revenue and Member Council of Governor
1812 Appointed Governor of Prince of Wales Island
1816 Oct.27 died at Prince of Wales Island

Ref. Charles Campbell Prinsep (1885) Record of Services of Honourable East India Company’s Servants in Madras Presidency 1741-1858 (London: Trubner and Co.), p. 113. This reference wrongly gives 1809 as the date of Petrie’s appointment as Governor Prince of Wales Island .
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The following is William Petrie’s detailed professional biography which I had copied years ago from India Office Records of British Library. I am reproducing it for the benefit of scholars, interested laypersons and Petrie’s lineal or collateral descendents. The British Library Reference is IOR/0/6/5.

William Petrie: Official biography

Mr Petrie appointed a Writer in the year 1765 arrived at Fort St George on the 23rd of June in that year, and on the 2nd of July was appointed an Assistant in the Secretary’s Office. On the 19th of May he was placed under the Export Warehouse Keeper. In February 1768, he was permitted to proceed to Bombay for the recovery of his Health. In July 1769 he was appointed under the Commissionary. In February 1770, Clerk to the Grain Committee and in the June following, Clerk to the Committees of Accounts and Works.

In July 1771 he was appointed Paymaster of the Army, then about to proceed against Tanjore. In January 1772 he took charge of the Commissariat Department till the arrival of the Gentleman appointed thereto, and at the recommendation of General Joseph smith, was shortly appointed to take charge of the Nabab’s Grain in the Camps.

In December 1772 he was appointed Secretary to the Governor and Council in the Military Department, and Judge Advocate General and in January 1773 Persian Translator. In May 1773, he resigned these offices and proceeded to England on account of ill health, upon which occasion the Government in their Letter to the Court of Directors of the 4th July 1775 declared themselves satisfied with his conduct ans ability, before and during the time he had acted as their Secretary and thotoughly recommended him for permission to return with his rank as soon as his health would permit.

He was permitted to return to Fort St George in July 1777, and in 1778 was employed by Sir Thomas Rumbold to procure for the Company from the Rajah of Tanjore a Grant of the District of Nagore, estimated at the yearly value of 2 ½ Lack of Rupees which he having obtained, he was rewarded for his Conduct upon the occasion by being appointed Resident at that Place, an appointment he was obliged to relinquish in March 1780, and again to come to England on account of his health. He was recommended for leave to return with his rank in the letter from Fort St George of the 4th April 1780. He returned to Madras in April 1786, and was a few months after appointed to the Office of Military Storekeeper.

On the 18th of June 1787 he was appointed to fill the vacancy in the Council occasioned by Mr. Davidson’s removal, which he relinquished on the 31st July following, to Mr. Holland whom the Court of Directors had appointed thereto, and. Mr Petrie resumed his former office of Military Storekeeper.

In 1788 he was employed on a Special Commission to the Rajah of Tanjore for the purpose of enforcing the payment of the Company’s Subsidy which had fallen greatly in arrears, and effectualising certain Reforms in his Government, which he executed in a manner satisfactory to the Majority of the Board, but Mr [Robert] Maunsell, one of the Members, conceived he had connived at a Loan of Money which the Rajah had obtained from the Danes, to whom he had given Lands in his Country as a Security and that he was censurable for the same.

The Court of Directors on a review of this transaction observed in their Reply to the Letter from Madras, advising these Proceedings, that Mr Petrie had lost sight of that part of his Instructions which respected the proposed Reforms. This was expunged by the Board of Commissioners and a paragraph inserted by them giving a full appreciation to the whole of Mr Petrie’s Conduct in the business.

Mr Petrie returned to England on account of his health in February 1789 and was again recommended in the General Letter of that date for permission to return to the Service whenever his health will permit.

Mr Petrie was appointed on 12 May 1790, third Member of Council at Fort St George and to succeed to the temporary Government on the death or coming away of Sir Charles Oakley, but had permission to remain in England till the following season.

[Note added: Maj. Gen. Meadows was the Governor, while Sir Charles Oakley was Second in Council and Governor-Designate. ( Ref. : East India Company List of Civil Servants 1790.)]

On 19th June 1791 he arrived at Madras, and on the 20th took the Oath and his Seat and was on the 21st appointed President of the Board of Revenue. The Letter from Madras of 25 May 1792 mentions that Mr Petrie had been under the necessity of proceeding to the Cape, and eventually to Europe on account of Health, and the then Government regret the absence of so able a Member of the Council and recommend should he be compelled to take the latter step, that he be permitted to return without prejudice to his rank.

In the letter to Madras of 19th March 1793, the Court recommended having come to the Resolution That Mr Petrie’s Seat in Council became vacant on his quitting Fort St George, and that they had further resolved that the appointment of Mr Petrie to be a Member of Council be revoked and that should any payment have been made to his attornies on account of Salary, they should be called on to refund the same. The sum of 2666 pagoda, 2 fanam 8 cash had been received in India and was accordingly refunded in England.

On the 10th May 1793 Mr Petrie was reappointed by the Court, 2nd Member in Council at Fort St George, which appointment he declined on the 25th November following, but at the same time expressing a hope that in any further selection for the Governments abroad his Services will not be forgotten.

In February 1798 Mr Petrie was appointed to a provisional seat in the Council after the death or resignation of Mr Saunders or Mr Fallsfield, and if any person should have intermediately succeeded to a Seat at the Board, he was to succeed to the Chair pro tempore in case of a vacancy, the Court at the same time revoking the provisional appointment of Mr Westcott. [Note added:According to Madras Register 1799, the date is 11th December 1798.]

Mr Petrie arrived at Madras in August 1798 , and took his seat as First Civil Councillor in December following on the resignation of Mr Saunders , to which station was annexed the Office of the President of the Board of Revenue. He was also a Member of the Committee of Reforms, and to whose exertions the Court attributed a considerable degree of merit in effecting large retrenchments of expense.[Notes added:(i)The exact date 14 August 1798 for his arrival in Madras is mentioned by Madras Almanac 1800.(ii) Edward Lord Clive was the Governor at the time. The Council members were Lt.. Gen. George Harris, Edward Saunders, and Ernst William Fallsfield. The first vacancy was to go to Petrie, the second to George Westcott.( Ref. East India Company List 1803).]

On 17th December 1802, the Court of Directors resolved to present Mr Petrie with the Sum of Pagodas 10,000 in acknowledgement of his long and faithful service. Mr Petrie continued to hold his Seat in Council at Fort St George during part of the Government of Lord Clive, and the whole of that of Lord William Bentinck, and upon the return of the latter to Europe, the temporary charge of the Government devolved upon him, under the provisional appointment which he accordingly assumed on the 11th September 1807 and retained it till the arrival of Sir George Barlow on the 24th December following.

In April 1810, Court of Directors came to a Resolution that no person should remain a Member of the Supreme Council of Bengal beyond five years and it having been resolved the principle to Fort St George.In April 1810 the Court of Directors resolved to issue a new Commission of Government for Fort St George in which Mr Petrie was not included; Copy of the Paragraph advising that resolution was forwarded on the 10th April under the hand of the Secretary of the Court of Directors, and the Madras Government proceeded forthwith to exclude Mr Petrie from Council, a measure which was afterwards declared to be irregular and hasty and calculated in certain possible events pointed out by the Council to create Confusion. In consideration of this circumstance Mr Petrie was allowed to draw his full salary till the arrival of the Court’s Commission.

Upon Mr Petrie’s removal from Council he was directed to by Court’s orders to resume the office of he had formally held of first Member of the Revenue Board in which he could till …[blank]…

On the 22nd May1812, he received an appointment from the Court of Directors to the office of Governor of Prince of Wales Island.

Mr Petrie arrived in Prince of Wales Island and took his seat at the head of the Council Board on 28 September following and continued to hold that office until his death which happened on 27 October 1816.

In one instance the conduct of Prince of Wales Island Government during the time that Mr Petri presided in it was strongly disapproved by the Court, viz., the case of the Contract for Pepper with Mr Brown, upon which the Court say they will hold the Members of the Council responsible in their own individual fortunes for any loss which may eventually be sustained by the Company.

The Salaries enjoyed by Mr Petri after his succession to Council were as follows

As Member of the Fort St George Council Pagodas p.a. 17000 Pounds p.a. 6800

As First Member Board of Revenue Pagodas p.a. 12000 Pounds p.a. 4800

As Governor of Prince of Wales Island Pagodas p.a. 32000 Pounds p.a. 8000

Examiner’s Office
12 November 1817

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