Among the many wonderful characters that I keep running into as I journey backwards in time into the history of Madras, that of Catherine Nicks (nee Barker), arguably the first woman entrepreneur of our city, continues to fascinate.
In 1678, she was listed in a Madras survey as one of five English women who were single. She set her cap on the fast-rising Elihu Yale but in 1680, he opted to marry the wealthy Catherine Hynmers, widow of his recently deceased friend. Catherine Barker was a bridesmaid at the wedding.
She soon married John Nicks, a close friend of Yale’s and had ten children for four of whom Yale was godfather. Several were named after members of the Yale family. In business, it would appear that Yale and she were partners.
The Nicks’ fortunes peaked when Yale became Governor in 1687. Catherine was a merchant in her own right, “being so forward as to have invoices, accounts etc” in her own name. She dealt in cloth, and more importantly, diamonds, in which Yale also had investments. By 1689, with Mrs Yale permanently in England, Mrs Nicks and Hieronima da Paivia, widow of a diamond merchant, ran the Governor’s establishment. Nicks was conveniently away as head of the Company’s interests at Connimere.
Fortunes nosedived in 1692 when Yale was dismissed and faced enquiries. Nicks was arrested. Yale retired with Catherine and Mrs de Paivia to his garden house, “to the scandal of Christianity among heathens”. The trial found Catherine guilty of breaking into the Company’s godowns, removing cloth and selling it on Yale’s private account. She absented herself from the enquiry and a warrant was issued for her arrest. It took a “file of Musqueteers with a Corporal” to bring her to justice.
She paid a fine of 600 pagodas and was allowed to leave for England. Unable to pay the fee of 26 pagodas for each of her children she left them behind, no doubt in the care of Yale. In England, she petitioned the Privy Council on behalf of her husband.
By 1696, charges against Yale came to nothing and he was allowed to return home. He took three leisurely years to settle his affairs in Madras and when he sailed in1699, took John Nicks with him.
Back in England, while Yale retired to a life of comfort and wealth, the Nicks found the going tough. They returned to Madras, Nicks as a merchant and Mrs Nicks, once again as Yale’s agent. Governor Pitt, an old crony of Yale’s, noted that she let out Yale’s godowns, and repaired the houses he still owned in Madras.
Catherine died in Madras in 1709. Nicks died here in 1711. In 1721, Yale passed away. His will, made in 1709 and unchanged thereafter, had provisions for four of the Nicks children and Catherine. Way below was a bequest to “my wicked wife”.
Evidently, the wife Catherine did not like the business associate-cum-companion Catherine.
This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column