PRINSEP, John (1746-1831), of Thoby Park, Essex.
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Family and Education
b. 23 Apr. 1746, o. surv. s. of Rev. John Prinsep, rector of Bicester, Oxon. by Sarah, da. of John Bossum, bursar of Balliol, Oxf. Apprenticed to William Hird, skinner, of London 1762. m. 22 Jan. 1782 at Calcutta, Sophia Elizabeth, da. of James Auriol, 8s. 3da.
Cadet, E.I. Co. (Bengal) 1771, res. 1771; alderman of mayor’s ct., Calcutta 1773; asst. supt. of investments 1778-85; home 1788.
Alderman, London 1804-9; high bailiff, Southwark 1817-24.
Dir. Sierra Leone Co. 1795, British Fire Office 1805.
Prinsep, as a young London cloth merchant, impressed an East India Company directors’ committee with his information on the improvement of Indian fabrics. Two years later he sailed to India as a cadet, but resigned to become a free merchant.1 He was the pioneer of the cultivation of indigo in Bengal and of the printing of cotton fabrics. Another enterprise of his was a copper mint, which supplied the first copper coinage; he surrendered it to the Bengal government for an indemnity in 1784. He returned home with a fortune in 1788 and purchased an Essex estate. In 1789 appeared his pamphlet A review of the trade of the East India Company, which was followed by others on kindred subjects. He was a principal in the London East Indian shipping agency of Prinsep, Saunders & Co. and at East India House debates he became a protagonist of ‘fair and open competition’ against the Company monopoly.2
In 1796 Prinsep offered himself to the electors of Abingdon, against another nabob, but withdrew on finding that a poll must go against him.3 In 1802 he toyed with the idea of contesting Wycombe against Sir Francis Baring*, but was diverted elsewhere.4 In collusion with Peter Moore he ousted the ministerial candidates at Queenborough. Unlike Moore, whose son was returned with him, he was not a Foxite. In his maiden speech, 13 Dec. 1802, he started by complimenting Addington on his ways and means, but raised a doubt about excessive circulation of Exchequer bills and proclaimed the necessity of a commercial agreement with France to preserve peace:
Britain might have prescribed a mercantile code which, while it admitted the rights of independent nations, would have secured a continuance of her own pre-eminence in the glorious contest; she would have been mistress of the terms; and before she had opened every part of her eastern dominions to the subjects of every nation.
On 11 Feb. 1803 he defended the continuance of the Bank restriction.
It was on Indian affairs that Prinsep embarrassed the government. He disputed the ministerial picture of Company profit, 29 July and 2 Aug. 1803, insisting that there was a deficit owing to the unpaid interest on capital borrowed in India. He dismissed Board of Control policy since Henry Dundas’s presidency as wrong-headed and had to be brought to a halt by the Speaker after abusing the directors and Lord Castlereagh. He was also a critic of the bankers indemnity bill and of the marine society fishery bill, 26 and 27 Mar. 1804; yet he did not vote against Addington and was listed a supporter of his on Pitt’s return to power in May. In September he was listed ‘Pitt’ by the Treasury, having found nothing to object to except the counterfeit dollars bill and, as before, the Indian budget, 19 July. Reporters could not cope with his ‘minute and circumstantial’ arithmetic, but it pointed to the bankruptcy of the East India Company, unless they retrieved the carrying trade that had fallen into foreign hands. Yet he opposed Francis’s motion critical of territorial expansion in India, 5 Apr. 1805, because it might prove bad publicity for the new governor-general, Cornwallis, whom he described, 3 Feb. 1806, as ‘as great a man as any this country ever possessed’. He had shown a passing interest in Irish affairs in 1805, opposing the 6 per cent impost as a tax on industry, 15 Mar., opposing the use of silver tokens in Ireland, 3 May, and advocating the lowering of canal tolls there, 22 May. Having voted against ministers on Melville’s conduct on 8 Apr. and 12 June, Prinsep was listed ‘doubtful Sidmouth’ in July.
Prinsep voted for the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806, and was well disposed to the Grenville ministry, except on Indian questions. On 28 Feb. 1806 he moved for comparative figures on the India and China trades and for capital borrowing in India, and on 14 Mar. for information on the encroachment by neutrals on East India Company trade, which he wished to see redeemed by British shipping. He was forced to withdraw the latter motion, but threatened to renew it next session. He was drawn into collusion with James Paull* and Philip Francis* and was in the minority on India, 21 Apr. 1806. He also waxed sour on other subjects, objecting to the restrictions on slave importation to the newly acquired colonies, 31 Mar., 25 Apr., and quibbling with the customs duties bill, the exemption of foreigners from property tax and the application of the latter to Exchequer bills, 24 Apr., 12, 15 May; but he approved the iron duty bill, thinking that ‘the iron merchants wished to shift the burden from their own shoulders to somebody else’. His objections to the American intercourse bill, 17 June, were adopted as amendments three days later. He complimented the premier’s nephew Lord Temple on his pilots bill, 15 July, and seconded it. But he still took a dim view of the plight of East India Company trade and, winding up the debate on the Indian budget, 18 July 1806, referred to his allies in the House and promised to pursue the campaign against the company monopoly next session.
Prinsep was unable to renew this subject in the House because he did not find a seat in it again. On 15 Oct. 1806 he wrote indignantly to Viscount Howick that the Treasury had ignored his request not to be disturbed at Queenborough and set up two nominees against him:
Duty to a large family on the one hand and some little conceit on the other that I am not unfit for the House of Commons induce a momentary hesitation as to the line I am to take and some degree of anxiety to know if your lordship will condescend to intimate what would be most agreeable to yourself.5
As an alderman of London, he had notions of offering for the City, but in 1806, as in 1807, decided to postpone them. He offered at Beverley, 23 Oct. 1806, as an independent man of commercial experience,6 but retreated nearer home on receiving an invitation to spend his money at Colchester, where he was defeated. It was his last fling. His business suffered setbacks and in 1817 he was relieved to obtain a salary of £1,500 per annum as bailiff at Southwark. He was, it seems, easily duped.7 He died 30 Nov. 1831. Three of his sons distinguished themselves in the East India Company service.8
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: J. W. Anderson / R. G. Thorne
- 1. Hodson, Officers of the Bengal Army 1758-1834, iii. 577.
- 2. DNB (Prinsep, Robert Thoby); Hickey Mems. ed. Spencer, ii. 161; C. Hardy, Reg. E.I. Ships, 137; Morning Chron. 28 Sept. 1797.
- 3. True Briton, 28 May 1796.
- 4. The Times, 10 Feb. 1802.
- 5. Grey mss.
- 6. E. Riding RO, DDX/24/21.
- 7. HMC Bathurst, 449.
- 8. DNB.