History of the Merchant Navy

During the Elizabethan era there was little to distinguish between the Royal and Merchant Navies as most of the expeditions were undertaken on behalf of the crown by, in many cases, officers of the crown. One minute our Elizabethan heroes were plundering the Spanish Main as privateers or looking for new routes to the spice islands in the east, the next, fighting the Spanish fleet as admirals and vice admirals, picking up knighthoods along the way. However, with the development of overseas trade and colonies two separate navies were soon to evolve with individual identities; the merchant navy carrying cargoes, passengers and, eventually, the mails and the royal navy providing armed protection against ships of other nations and pirates.

As trading routes and colonies were being established merchants looking for new products and markets were keen to venture further. But the risks were greater. Small groups of merchants who, hitherto, had traded in single commodities around the coasts of the British Isles and Northern Europe did not have the resources to finance expeditions to the new found lands. However, these entrepreneurs began to organise themselves into marketing areas with the objective of maintaining a monopoly of trade in a particular part of the world, and they would resort to using force if necessary to protect that monopoly. Companies were formed, usually by royal charter and, although there were several, the Muscovy Company, founded in 1553, was the first English trading company to be set up on a joint stock basis, the profits and the risks being shared amongst participants. The Hudson’s Bay Company, founded in 1668, still exists today but the most notable company was the Honourable East India Company.

The Honourable East India Company was one of eight companies established at the end on the 16th century to exploit trade in India, the East Indies and the Far East. The other seven were set up by Holland, France, Denmark, Scotland, Spain and Austria but only the Dutch company was of any significance.

Denied the spice, peppers, cloves, nutmegs, ginger and fragrances of the East and worried by soaring prices a meeting of concerned merchants was convened by the Lord Mayor of London in September 1569 to decide on what action should be taken to combat the crippling monopoly of trade held by the Dutch. It was agreed to form a company, the Company of London Merchants trading to the East Indies, and to acquire ships. The company took some time to mature but no one could guess then that the first steps had been taken to establish a mercantile empire that would last for more than 250 years, acquire jurisdiction over a sub-continent and amass a huge fleet of ships.

The Honourable East India Company was incorporated by the royal charter of Queen Elizabeth 1 on 31st December, 1600 with 215 shareholders and a share capital of £72,000. Sir Thomas Smythe was the first governor. The first voyages were undertaken by individual shareholders who took all the risk but also the profit. These ventures were referred to as separate voyages, but from 1612 all sailing’s were made on behalf of the company. During this time the company’s ships reached as far as Japan where, in 1612 and with the help of John Adams, friendly relations were established with the Shogun of Japan and favourable trading concessions obtained. Trading centres or factories were also being established on the mainland of India at Masulipatam and Pettapoli but this upset the newly formed Dutch East India Company to the extent that a virtual war existed between the two companies. Agreement to quell the disputes was reached in 1619 but the truce only lasted for one hour before the recriminations started once again and fighting broke out. The fighting reached a peak in 1623 when, protected by a flag of truce, English merchants were tortured and massacred by the Dutch governor at Amboyna.

The East India companies established and equipped their own dockyards to build the ships and in 1609 the English company built its dockyard at Deptford on the River Thames. The ships were larger than anything else built anywhere in the world, were constructed of wood, highly decorated and gilded, and the interiors were finished to a very high standard as much for the comfort of the captain, officers and passengers as for cargo carrying capacity. For more than 200 years there was nothing more superior than the East Indiamen anywhere in the shipping world and the stately, magnificent ships were considered to be the lords of the ocean. It wasn’t until the 19th century, when private competition started to erode the monopoly enjoyed by these companies, that orders for ships were placed elsewhere. The English company used the Blackwall yard of Green & Wigram for the greater part of its shipbuilding programme.

They weren’t just large and magnificent ships, they were also armed as warships not only for protection against pirates, which were rife in the Malay States, but so that they could hold their own against the similarly armed merchantmen of the Dutch, Portuguese and French companies. The Honourable East India Company was successful from its inception so much so that, during the reign of Charles II, its charter was enlarged to enable the company to acquire territory, exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction, command armies, wage war, make treaties and issue its own money. By this time the company was well established in India with three presidencies in Bombay, Madras and Bengal and it wasn’t long before the entire country was subdued and the various native rulers brought under the control of the company. In 1757 Robert Clive won the battle of Plassey which made the company all powerful in India and the English government looked again at the charter and was forced to concede that it had to take some responsibility for the territory. Consequently, the British government insisted that all top company appointments were approved by them and gradually political, financial and military control passed from the company to the government in London. In 1813 trade with India was thrown open to the public, the company losing its monopoly although it was allowed to retain sole rights to the trade with China but only until 1833 when that too was opened to anybody who was prepared to compete. The loss of these valuable monopolies spelt out the beginning of the end of the Honourable East India Company and as other companies’ ships, especially those of P & O, began to compete for the eastern trade routes their ships gradually disappeared from those waters. However, the company still had the machinery of government in place in India and as a matter of convenience the British government left the civil administration entirely in the hands of the company. This arrangement continued up until 1857 and the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny at Meerut but the excesses of the mutiny and the severe punishments imposed by the company forced the British government to assume responsibility for the internal government of India, replacing many of the company’s officials. The Honourable East India Company was then formally dissolved in 1858.

Here is a chronicle of the most powerful corporation in world history, beautifully illustrated with full-colour paintings, photographs and maps. This is the story of the Honourable East India Company by Antony Wild, an undisputed authority on the company and its history. Read about how the company ruled India, raised its own army, minted its own currency but also trafficked in opium, greed and brutal oppression. Read, through the colourful figures of Captain James Skinner and John Nicholson, how the company’s opulent life style eventually led to its downfall.
East India Company

William Adams (d. 1620) was an English navigator who, after serving in the Royal Navy for a short time, worked for the Company of Barbary Merchants as a pilot and navigator. Attracted by the Dutch trade to India, in 1598 he sailed with a squadron of five ships for India via the Straits of Magellan at the southernmost point of South America. The squadron suffered badly and of the five ships only Adams in the “Charity” survived to eventually reach Kyushu in Japan with a crew of sick and dying men. His extensive knowledge of ships, shipbuilding and pilotage meant that he was a valuable asset for the Japanese rulers and they refused him permission to return to England. They did however present him with an estate near Yokosuka and a local girl for a wife. In 1612 an English trading station was established near Bantam and Adams got to hear of it and made contact. A year later the “Clove” an English ship commanded by Captain John Saris visited Adams who was able to help Saris obtain valuable trading concessions from the Shogun of Japan in favour of the The Honourable East India Company. Adams went on to play a leading role in establishing the East India Company’s branch in the Far East and eventually obtained permission to leave Japan. He made many voyages to Siam (Thailand) and Cochin China on be half of the company but always returned to Japan where he died.

George Glas (1725-65) was a Scottish seaman and adventurer who commanded a ship which traded between north-west Africa and Brazil. In 1763 he discovered a river, possibly at Gueder, which went some way inland. Glass made an arrangement with the Board of Trade to secure a grant of £15,000 providing he could obtain for the British crown the land he proposed to develop. Consequently, he signed a Treaty with the Moors and named his settlement, Port Hillsborough.
In November 1764 during a visit to Lanzarote to purchase a barque for river work he and his party were set upon by the Spaniards and imprisoned at Santa Cruz. During his imprisonment the settlement was attacked by natives and the survivors, which included his wife and small daughter, were forced to flee to Tenerife. After the British government interceded Glas was released from prison and, with his wife and daughter, set sail for England on the barque Earl of Sandwich. However, tragedy was the befall the Glas family. It was rumoured that the ship was carrying bullion and during the voyage the Spanish and Portuguese crew mutinied slaughtering the captain and crew. Glas was stabbed to death and his wife and daughter thrown overboard before the ship was recaptured. When the ship arrived in Dublin the mutineers were hanged.

Nathaniel Dance (1748 – 1827) was born in 1748, joined the East India Company in 1759 at the age of 11 and was promoted to his first command in 1787. In 1804, Dance was homeward bound from Canton as senior master and, therefore, commodore of an unescorted convoy of sixteen East Indiamen and twelve independent country vessels. On 14th February, as the convoy approached the southern entrance to the Malacca Strait it was intercepted by a squadron of French warships commanded by Rear Admiral Linois. Although the ships of the convoy was armed to a certain extent they were no match for the French squadron which comprised a ship of the line, three heavy frigates and an armed brig. The convoy was in great danger and had Linois been determined to attack he could have made an easy capture. However, Dance displayed more tactical cunning and by manoeuvering his vessels deceived Linois into thinking that the convoy was being escorted by three ships of the line. The French made a half hearted attack which amounted to nothing before withdrawing and fleeing. The merchantmen chased him for two hours before resuming their course for the Malacca Strait. The convoy eventually arrived safely back in England where Nathaniel Dance was knighted and presented with a sword of honour. He also received a service of plate and a sum of money usually given to merchant officers who had save their ships