John Millward’s Beard Brush: a Global Tale from 1623

The Social Historian

Deep in the papers of the English East India Company, kept in the British Library in London, lies one of the most astonishing lists I’ve ever seen.

It’s a particular kind of list, which will be familiar to many. It’s a list of goods held by someone at their death, just like the probate inventories used all the time by English social historians and genealogists. It dates from 1623, and is for a man called John Millward. In fact, at first it looks pretty mundane.

And yet, on closer inspection, the inventory is truly extraordinary.

Millward was one of a very small number of English men (and some women) who lived completely globalized lives. His age, the early seventeenth century, was the first one of truly wide-ranging global interaction and exchange. True, earlier times had seen some remarkably cosmopolitan people. Ibn Battuta, for example, or Zheng He, or Marco Polo. Commerce…

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