William Hedges (colonial administrator)

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Sir William Hedges (21 October 1632 – 6 August 1701) was an English merchant and the first governor of the East India Company in Bengal.

Life and career[edit]

He was born in Coole in County Cork, Ireland, the eldest son of Robert and Catharine Hedges. The Hedges had their roots in Wiltshire, and had originally gone by the surname of Lacy.

Details of Hedges' early career are unclear, but it is known that he went to Turkey as a trader for the Levant Company. In his diaries, he refers to his knowledge of colloquial Turkish and Arabic. Initially posted to the trading station (or factory) in Smyrna, by 1668 he had risen to the position of company treasurer in Constantinople. It is alleged, however, that the demands of this position became too much for him. Having arranged for a replacement from Smyrna, he quit Turkey and returned to England around 1670–71.

In London, Hedges involved himself in a variety of ventures. He joined the Mercers' Company, supreme among the City's Livery Companies. He invested £500 in the recently reformed Royal African Company. He served two stints as a Levant Company assistant. From 1677 to 1680, he was even a councilman for his local ward of Bassishaw.

Through his first marriage, Hedges had also aligned himself with London's dissenting Protestant movement. His brother-in-law and fellow merchant Jeremy Sambrooke was to become a leading dissenter. Hedges took part in the campaign against the Conventicle Act that forbade religious assemblies of more than five people outside the auspices of the Church of England. In the end, however, Hedges returned to the Anglican church.

Nearly a decade later, Hedges got his East India Company posting. At the time, the Company's commercial interests in Bengal were managed from Fort St George in Madras, more than 800 miles down the coast. However, for a number of reasons, this arrangement was proving inadequate. Business in Bengal was expanding steadily, but at the same time the Company's interests were increasingly under threat from native rulers as well as from commercial parties keen on breaking its trade monopoly in that part of India. Further, there were rumblings against the management in Madras and accusations of dishonesty against the Company's own officials.

The Court of Directors therefore decided that the Bengal station needed more autonomy to cope with its various challenges, and created a separate Agency for the province. Hedges had already been elected as one of the Company's 24 directors in April 1881.[citation needed] On 3 September of that year, he was appointed the first chief agent and governor of the new Bengal Agency. His brief was to deal with the issues outlined above.

Preceded by
none
Chief Agent and Governor of Bengal Agency
1681–1684
Succeeded by
John Beard