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Call, Sir John, first baronet (1732–1801), East India Company servant and military engineer, was born on 30 June 1732 at Fenny Park, near Tiverton, Devon, the son of John Call (1704–1766) of Prestacott in Launcells, Cornwall, and his wife, Jane, daughter of John Mill of Shernick Farm in Launcells. He was educated in Tiverton and also Somerton, Somerset, and then left England for India. In 1751 he was employed on the coast of Coromandel as an assistant to Benjamin Robins, the mathematician who had been appointed engineer-general of the East India Company's settlements. Call, who had the rank of writer, remained on the coast after Robins died in July 1751, and held the post of sub-engineer at Fort St David. The rivalry between the French under Dupleix and the British led by Clive gave Call the opportunity to display his skills as a military engineer, and the directors of the company were impressed by accounts of his abilities. A friend described him to the historian Robert Orme as ‘a very worthy as well as very ingenious young man; possessing much knowledge, adorned with great modesty’ (Hill, 235). He remained at Fort St David, becoming assistant engineer to the presidency, which was based at Fort St George, Madras.

In 1757 Call was appointed chief engineer to the presidency and consequently moved to Fort St George. He also became captain of the newly formed corps of engineers. The Seven Years' War revived the Anglo-French struggle in southern India. Once again Call's skills were put to the test, notably during the French siege of Fort St George between 1758 and 1759, which ended in success for the British. He also took part in the siege of Karikal which ended in April 1760 and that of Pondicherry, which fell in January 1761, marking the end of French power in India. Call kept journals of the operations he was involved in, and copies were made by Orme, who described the events in his History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan (2 vols., 1763), which included prints of drawings by Call.

By 1765 Call was a member of the council at Fort St George, and in that year was appointed to the rank of colonel. The war against Haidar Ali of Mysore between 1767 and 1769 and the conduct of company servants at Madras provoked criticism and blame from the directors and others from which Call himself was not immune. In common with others he had made loans to the nawab of Arcot. In January 1770 Call resigned from the company's service and returned to England, ‘bringing with him an ample fortune, which might have been much larger’ (GM, 369).

In England Call, in common with other nabobs, acquired an estate. Soon after his arrival he made purchases at Whiteford, near Callington, in Cornwall, and his presence in the county was underlined by his serving as high sheriff between 1771 and 1772. Callington returned two MPs, but Call's interest was not sufficient at first to give him significant influence there and it was not until 1784 that he was elected for the borough. Call, who also acted on behalf of another nabob, Paul Benfield, in the electoral affairs of Shaftesbury, in Dorset, remained an MP until his death and supported William Pitt. There is no record of his having spoken in the House of Commons until 1792 and he apparently made only a few contributions thereafter. He acted as an agent for the creditors of the nawab of Arcot and played a prominent role in negotiating a favourable settlement for them with Pitt's administration in 1784. In addition to these activities he began an investigation into crown lands in 1782 and served as one of the commissioners appointed by act of parliament in 1786 to inquire into the management of the woods, forests, and land revenues of the crown. Between 1787 and 1793 the commissioners produced seventeen reports and one special report to the House of Lords. Call was also treasurer for the board of agriculture, which presented him with a medal, between 1794 and 1800 and he produced an abstract of births and burials for that board in 1800. On 28 July 1791 he was created a baronet.

Call maintained an interest in Indian affairs following his return to England, but also developed views on other subjects, such as the transportation of criminals and trading opportunities. These he communicated to the government. He designed a prison for Cornwall which was built at Bodmin, had interests in copper smelting and plate glass manufacture, and founded in 1785 the banking firm of Pybus's, Call, Grant & Co. His intellectual pursuits were reflected in his election to fellowships of the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries in 1775 and 1785 respectively. The latter were informed in 1785 that he possessed some drawings of Indian deities on the island of Elephanta. Call had married Philadelphia Batty (d. 1822), third daughter and coheir of William Batty MD, on 28 March 1772 and had two sons and four daughters. Blind towards the end of his life, he died of apoplexy on 7 March 1801 at his home in Old Burlington Street, London, and was buried at Lee in Kent one week later.

D. L. Prior

Sources  

East India Company records, BL OIOC · BL OIOC, MS Eur. Orme · BL, Warren Hastings MSS · BL, Arthur Young MSS · Reports of commissioners appointed to enquire into the management of the woods, forests and land revenues of the crown (1787–93) · HoP, Commons, 1754–90 · HoP, Commons, 1790–1820 · S. C. Hill, ed., Catalogue of manuscripts in European languages belonging to the library of the India Office, 2/1: The Orme collection (1916) · J. M. Holzman, The nabobs in England (1926) · GM, 1st ser., 71 (1801), 282, 369 · A complete parochial history of the county of Cornwall, 4 vols. (1867–72) · F. H. Hart, History of Lee and its neighbourhood (1882) · Burke, Peerage (1889) · GEC, Baronetage

Archives  

BL OIOC, letters to Paul Benfield and Nathaniel Wraxall, MS Eur. C 307 · BL OIOC, Clive MSS · BL OIOC, corresp. and journals, MSS Eur. Orme · BL OIOC, narrative of French attack, MS Eur. E 1 [copy] · BL OIOC, Home misc. Series, corresp. and papers relating to India · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Shelburne · letters to William Pitt, PRO 30/8


Likenesses  

oils, Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent