Daily Archives: 15 November 2020

Origin of the British East India Company, 1600

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 44-45:

On 31 December 1600, the last day of the first year of the new century, the ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies’, a group of 218 men, received their royal charter.

This turned out to offer far wider powers than the petitioners had perhaps expected or even hoped for. As well as freedom from all customs duties for their first six voyages, it gave them a British monopoly for fifteen years over ‘trade to the East Indies’, a vaguely defined area that was soon taken to encompass all trade and traffic between the Cape of Good Hope and the Strait of Magellan, as well as granting semi-sovereign privileges to rule territories and raise armies. The wording was sufficiently ambiguous to allow future generations of EIC officials to use it to claim jurisdiction over all English subjects in Asia, mint money, raise fortifications, make laws, wage war, conduct an independent foreign policy, hold courts, issue punishment, imprison English subjects and plant English settlements. It was not without foundation that a later critic and pamphleteer complained that the Company had been granted monopoly on ‘near two-third parts of the trading World’. And though it took two and a half centuries for the potential to be realised, the wording of the EIC’s charter left open from the beginning the possibility of it becoming an imperial power, exercising sovereignty and controlling people and territory.

In the intervening year, the merchant adventurers had not been idle. They had been to Deptford to ‘view severall shippes’, one of which, the May Flowre, was later famous for a voyage heading in the opposite direction. Four vessels had been bought and put into dry dock to be refitted. Given that time was of the essence, a barrel of beer a day was authorised ‘for the better holding together of the workemen from running from ther worke to drinke’. What was intended as the Company’s 900-ton flagship, a former privateering vessel, specifically built for raiding Spanish shipping in the Caribbean, the Scourge of Malice was renamed the Red Dragon so that it might sound a little less piratical.

Before long the adventurers had begun to purchase not only shipping, but new masts, anchors and rigging, and to begin constructing detailed inventories of their seafaring equipment – their ‘kedgers’, ‘drabblers’, ‘all standard rigging and running ropes’, ‘cables good and bad, a mayne course bonnet very good’ and ‘1 great warping hauser’. There was also the armament they would need: ‘40 muskets, 24 pikes … 13 sackers, 2 fowlers, 25 barrelles of powder’ as well as the ‘Spunges, Ladles and Ramers’ for the cannon.

They also set about energetically commissioning hogsheads to be filled with ‘biere, 170 tonnes, 40 tonnes of hogshed for Porke, 12 tonnes drie caske for Oatemeal, one tonne dryie caske for mustard seed, one tonne dry caske for Rice … bisket well dryed … good fish … very Dry’ as well as ‘120 oxen’ and ‘60 Tons of syder’. Meanwhile, the financiers among them began to collect £30,000 [over £3 million today] of bullion, as well as divers items to trade on arrival – what they termed an ‘investment’ of iron, tin and English broadcloth, all of which they hoped would be acceptable items to trade against Indonesian pepper, nutmeg, cloves, mace, cardamom and the other aromatic spices and jewels they hoped to bring home.

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