East Indiaman was a general name for any sailing ship operating under charter or license to any of the East India Companies of the major European trading powers of the 17th through the 19th centuries. The term is therefore used to refer to vessels belonging to the Danish, Dutch (Oostindiëvaarder), English, French, Portuguese, or Swedish (ostindiefarare) East India companies. Some of the East Indiamen chartered by the British East India Company were known as “tea clippers”.
In Britain, the East India Company (EIC) — also known as the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) or the British East India Company and informally as John Company — held a monopoly granted to it by Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1600 for all English trade between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. The trade was progressively restricted during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, until the monopoly was lost in 1834. English (later British) East Indiamen usually ran between England, the Cape of Good Hope and India, where their primary destinations were the ports of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. The Indiamen often continued on to China before returning to England via the Cape of Good Hope and Saint Helena. When the company lost its monopoly, the ships of this design were sold off. A smaller, faster ship known as a Blackwall Frigate was built for the trade as the need to carry heavy armaments declined.
Soon after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, captured Spanish and Portuguese ships with their cargoes enabled English voyagers to potentially travel the globe in search of riches. London merchants presented a petition to Queen Elizabeth I for permission to sail to the Indian Ocean. The aim was to deliver a decisive blow to the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly of Far Eastern Trade. Elizabeth granted her permission and on April 10, 1591, James Lancaster in the Edward Bonaventure with two other ships sailed from Torbay around the Cape of Good Hope to the Arabian Sea on one of the earliest English overseas Indian expeditions. Having sailed around Cape Comorin to the Malay Peninsula, they preyed on Spanish and Portuguese ships there before returning to England in 1594.
The biggest capture that galvanized English trade was the capture of the great Portuguese carrack Madre de Deus by Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Cumberland at the Battle of Flores in 1592. When she was brought in to Dartmouth she was the largest vessel that had been seen in England and her cargo consisted of chests filled with jewels, pearls, gold, silver coins, ambergris, cloth, tapestries, pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, benjamin, red dye, cochineal and ebony. Equally valuable was the ships rutter containing vital information on the China, India, and Japan trades. These riches aroused the English to engage in this opulent commerce.
In 1596, three more English ships sailed east but were all lost at sea. A year later however saw the arrival of Ralph Fitch an adventurer merchant who along with his companions had made a remarkable fifteen year overland journey to Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, India and Southeast Asia was also of significance. Fitch was then consulted on the Indian affairs and gave even more valuable information to Lancaster.
On September 22, 1599, a group of merchants met and stated their intention “to venture in the pretended voyage to the East Indies (the which it may please the Lord to prosper), and the sums that they will adventure”, committing £30,133. Two days later, “the Adventurers” reconvened and resolved to apply to the Queen for support of the project. Although their first attempt had not been completely successful, they nonetheless sought the Queen’s unofficial approval to continue. They bought ships for their venture and increased their capital to £68,373.
The Adventurers convened again, a year later on December 31 and this time they succeeded; the Queen granted a Royal Charter to “George, Earl of Cumberland, and 215 Knights, Aldermen, and Burgesses” under the name, Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies. For a period of fifteen years, the charter awarded the newly formed company a monopoly on English trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan. Any traders in breach of the charter without a license from the company were liable to forfeiture of their ships and cargo (half of which went to the Crown and the other half to the company), as well as imprisonment at the “royal pleasure”.
The governance of the company was in the hands of one governor and 24 directors or “committees”, who made up the Court of Directors. They, in turn, reported to the Court of Proprietors, which appointed them. Ten committees reported to the Court of Directors. According to tradition, business was initially transacted at the Nags Head Inn, opposite St Botolph’s church in Bishopsgate, before moving to India House in Leadenhall Street.
Sir James Lancaster commanded the first East India Company voyage in 1601 aboard the Red Dragon. After capturing a rich 1,200 ton Portuguese carrack in the Malacca Straits the trade from the booty enabled the voyagers to set up two “factories” — one at Bantam on Java and another in the Moluccas (Spice Islands) before leaving. They returned to England in 1603 to learn of Elizabeth’s death but Lancaster was knighted by the new King James I. By this time, the war with Spain had ended but the Company had successfully and profitably breached the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly, with new horizons opened for the English.
In March 1604, Sir Henry Middleton commanded the second voyage. General William Keeling, a captain during the second voyage, led the third voyage aboard the Red Dragon from 1607 to 1610 along with the Hector under Captain William Hawkins and the Consent under Captain David Middleton. Early in 1608 Alexander Sharpeigh was appointed captain of the company’s Ascension, and general or commander of the fourth voyage. Thereafter two ships, Ascension and Union (captained by Richard Rowles) sailed from Woolwich on 14 March 1607–08.
Initially, the company struggled in the spice trade because of the competition from the already well-established Dutch East India Company. The company opened a factory in Bantam on the first voyage, and imports of pepper from Java comprised an important part of the company’s trade for twenty years. The factory in Bantam was closed in 1683. During this time ships belonging to the company arriving in India docked at Surat, which was established as a trade transit point in 1608.
In the next two years, the company established its first factory in south India in the town of Machilipatnam on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal. The high profits reported by the company after landing in India initially prompted James I to grant subsidiary licenses to other trading companies in England. But in 1609 he renewed the charter given to the company for an indefinite period, including a clause that specified that the charter would cease to be in force if the trade turned unprofitable for three consecutive years.
Wealthy merchants and aristocrats owned the EIC’s shares. Initially the government owned no shares and had only indirect control until 1657 when permanent joint stock was established.
During its first century of operation, the focus of the company was trade, not the building of an empire in India. Company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century as the Mughal Empire declined in power and the East India Company struggled with its French counterpart, the French East India Company (Compagnie française des Indes orientales) during the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s. The battles of Plassey and Buxar, in which the British defeated the Bengali powers, left the company in control of Bengal and a major military and political power in India. In the following decades it gradually increased the extent of the territories under its control, controlling the majority of the Indian subcontinent either directly or indirectly via local puppet rulers under the threat of force by its Presidency armies, much of which were composed of native Indian sepoys.
By 1803, at the height of its rule in India, the British East India company had a private army of about 260,000 — twice the size of the British Army, with Indian revenues of £13,464,561, and expenses of £14,017,473. The company eventually came to rule large areas of India with its private armies, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions. Company rule in India effectively began in 1757 and lasted until 1858, when, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Government of India Act 1858 led to the British Crown’s assuming direct control of the Indian subcontinent in the form of the new British Raj.
Despite frequent government intervention, the company had recurring problems with its finances. It was dissolved in 1874 as a result of the East India Stock Dividend Redemption Act passed one year earlier, as the Government of India Act had by then rendered it vestigial, powerless, and obsolete. The official government machinery of British India had assumed its governmental functions and absorbed its armies.
Ships of the East India Company were called East Indiamen or simply “Indiamen”. East Indiamen carried both passengers and goods, and were armed to defend themselves against pirates. Initially, the East Indiamen were built to carry as much cargo as possible, rather than for speed of sailing. The EIC had a monopoly on trade with India and China, supporting this design. East Indiamen were the largest merchant ships regularly built during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, generally measuring between 1100 and 1400 tons burthen (bm). Two of the largest were the Earl of Mansfield and Lascelles being built at Deptford in 1795. The Royal Navy purchased both, converted them to 56-gun fourth rates, and renamed them Weymouth and Madras respectively. They measured 1426 tons (bm) on dimensions of approximately 175 feet overall length of hull, 144 feet keel, 43 feet beam, 17 feet draft.
During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, East Indiamen were often painted to resemble warships; an attacker could not be sure if gunports were real or merely paint, and some Indiamen carried sizable armaments. The East India Company arranged for letters of marque for its vessels such as the Lord Nelson. This was not so that they could carry cannon to fend off warships, privateers, and pirates on their voyages to India and China (that they could do without permission) but so that, should they have the opportunity to take a prize, they could do so without being guilty of piracy. Similarly, the Earl of Mornington, an East India Company packet ship of only six guns, also sailed under a letter of marque.
In addition, the company had its own navy, the Bombay Marine, equipped with warships such as Grappler. These vessels often accompanied vessels of the Royal Navy on expeditions, such as the Invasion of Java. Due to the need to carry heavy cannon, the hull of the East Indiamen — in common with most warships of the time — was much wider at the waterline than at the upper deck, so that guns carried on the upper deck were closer to the centerline to aid stability. This is known as tumblehome. The ships normally had two complete decks for accommodation within the hull and a raised poop deck. The poop deck and the deck below it were lit with square-windowed galleries at the stern. To support the weight of the galleries, the hull lines towards the stern were full. Later ships built without this feature tended to sail faster, which put the East Indiamen at a commercial disadvantage once the need for heavy armament passed.
According to historian Fernand Braudel, some of the finest and largest Indiamen of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were built in India, making use of Indian shipbuilding techniques and crewed by Indians, their hulls of Indian teak being especially suitable for local waters. These ships were used for the China run. Until the coming of steamships, these Indian-built ships were relied upon almost exclusively by the British in the eastern seas. None sailed to Europe and they were banned from English ports. Many hundreds of Indian-built Indiamen were built for the British, along with other ships, including warships. Notable among them were Surat Castle (1791), a 1,000-ton (bm) ship with a crew of 150; Lowjee Family, of 800 tons (bm) and a crew of 125; and Shampinder (1802), of 1,300 tons (bm).
On June 15, 1795, the General Goddard played a large role in the capture of seven Dutch East Indiamen off St. Helena. On January 28, 1797, five Indiamen, the Woodford, under Captain Charles Lennox; the Taunton-Castle, Captain Edward Studd; Canton, Captain Abel Vyvyan; Boddam, Captain George Palmer; and Ocean, Captain John Christian Lochner, encountered Admiral de Sercey and his squadron of frigates. On this occasion the Indiamen succeeded in bluffing their way to safety, and without any shots even being fired.
Another significant East Indiaman in this period was the 1176-ton (bm) Warley that John Perry built at his Blackwall Yard in 1788, and which the Royal Navy bought in 1795 and renamed HMS Calcutta. In 1803, she was employed as a transport to establish a settlement at Port Phillip in Australia, later shifted to the site of current-day Hobart, Tasmania by an accompanying ship, the Ocean. At the Battle of Pulo Aura on February 14, 1804, which was probably the company’s most notable naval victory, Nathaniel Dance, Commodore of a convoy of Indiamen and sailing aboard the Warley, led several Indiamen in a skirmish with a French squadron, driving them off. French forces captured Calcutta in 1805 off the Isles of Scilly. She grounded at the Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809, and was burned by a British boarding party after her French crew had abandoned her.
The 1200-ton (bm) Arniston was likewise employed by the Royal Navy as a troop transport between England and Ceylon. In 1815, she was wrecked near Cape Agulhas with the loss of 372 lives after a navigation error that was caused by inaccurate dead reckoning and the lack of a marine chronometer with which to calculate her longitude.
East Indiamen were large and strongly built and when the Royal Navy was desperate for vessels to escort merchant convoys it bought several of them to convert to warships. Earl of Mornington became HMS Drake. Their design as merchant vessels meant that their performance in the warship role was underwhelming and the Navy converted them to transports.
With the progressive restriction of the monopoly of the British East India Company the desire to build such large armed ships for commercial use waned, and during the late 1830s a smaller, faster ship known as a Blackwall Frigate was built for the premium end of the India and China trades.
The Battle of Pulo Aura is featured in Patrick O’Brian’s novel HMS Surprise, with French Admiral Linois in pursuit of a large fleet of East Indiamen. In the novel, HMS Surprise under Captain Aubrey organizes the merchantmen to defeat Linois and his squadron. In history, all the ships that defeated the French squadron were merchantmen. In the Aubrey-Maturin series, East Indiamen are involved in many of the novels, including the second set in the Peace of Amiens, where some of the sailors took positions on East Indiamen. In other of the novels, Aubrey intercepts enemy vessels that interfere with the merchant ships, earning their gratitude.
Scott #577 was released by Great Britain’s Royal Mail on January , 1969, as part of a set of six stamps honoring British seamen and shipbuilders (Scott #575-580). The “British Ships” series was designed by David Gentlemen and printed by Harrison & Sons Ltd. using the photogravure process. All were perforated 14½x14 but came in two different sizes. The lowest denomination, 5 pence, measured 58×22 millimeters and portrayed the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2, still some five months shy of her maiden voyage at the time the stamps were released. Three 9-pence values measured 38½x22 mm and featured an Elizabethan Galley, today’s East Indiaman, and the Cutty Sark. Finally, two 1-shilling stamps measuring 58×22 mm pictured the S.S. Great Britain and RMS Mauretania. All of the stamps featured white backgrounds except the 5p QE2 which has a turquoise background.