The newspapers are full of the story of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat who recently faced charges of ill-treating her maid. Whatever be the truth in that, it brings to mind the first ever trial by jury in India, which took place in our very own Madras. The case pertained to the murder of the slave girl Chequa alias Francesca, by her mistress Ascentia Dawes.
There are no further details about the victim who is recorded as being a native. For that matter, there are hardly any more details about Ascentia. The records speak of her as the wife of an East India Company employee. Was she English? Here again there are doubts. Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras is silent on her nationality. Arthur Mitchell Fraas, in his 2011 dissertation submitted to the Duke University (They Have Travailed Into a Wrong Latitude, The Laws of England, Indian Settlements, and the British Imperial Constitution 1726-1773) writes that she was Luso-Indian, thereby indicating mixed Portuguese and Indian blood.
And who was Dawes, the employee of the EIC? At time this episode took place, there were not many English households in the city. From the names that crop up in records, it is likely that this was William Dawes who by 1656 was Secretary of the Council. In 1657 he was imprisoned on charges of corruption and was incarcerated for over a year. By the 1660s however, he had bounced back and was once again in Council, as a trusted right hand of Sir Edward Winter, the Agent for Madras. Winter was a character by himself and by 1664/65 was incurring the displeasure of the EIC, which sent out Nicholas Buckeridge as Supervisor to investigate matters. Winter retired in high dudgeon to Madapollam, a village in the West Godavari District and from there, sent letters of protest to England, all of which were signed by Dawes as well.
Sometime in 1664, Chequa died at the hands of Ascentia Dawes. The Agent and his Council were uncertain of their powers to try a capital crime and wrote to England seeking guidance from the EIC. The headquarters too was uncertain of the powers vested in the heads of its outposts and so referred the matter to the Privy Council, which in turn passed it on to Sir Heneage Finch (afterwards the first earl of Nottingham) then Solicitor General of England, and much later the Lord Chancellor of England. Finch deliberated on the matter and in due course pronounced that the Company had the jurisdiction to try such crimes, taking its powers from the Charter of 1661, issued by King Charles II.
While matters progressed slowly in the trial of Ascentia Dawes (and we do not know if she was placed under arrest during this time), things were hotting up on the Winter front. By early 1665, the Company, not waiting for a report from Buckeridge, sent out George Foxcroft to supersede Winter as Agent. The composition of the Council remained otherwise unchanged, Winter becoming Second-in-Council. Foxcroft began a detailed investigation of Winter’s transactions and discovered incriminating evidence. With the balance of power shifting, Dawes abandoned Winter and became a confidante of Foxcroft. Changes were made in the administration of the native town, with Dawes being appointed Magistrate in place of the dubashes Beri Timmanna and Kasi Viranna. Is it likely that the husband of a woman accused of murder would be made magistrate of a town? We don’t know.