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The Lords of the Ocean: Ships of the East India Company

The East India Company was founded in 1600 when Elizabeth I granted a charter to the 'Company and Merchants of London trading with the East Indies'. Until 1813, it was the sole company importing goods like spices, cotton and indigo from India to Britain. The Company maintained its monopoly over the lucrative China trade in tea and silk until 1833. It was a rich, powerful, and well-organised body using the largest ships that frequented the Port of London. Even after the market was widened to include other British traders, the East India Company led the way. Every season, its fleet of ships, known as East Indiamen, sailed between London and the East, laden with the merchandise of two civilisations. This gallery looks at several of these ships, the most magnificent vessels of their time.

An East Indiaman, c. 1690.

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An East Indiaman, c. 1690.
A portrait, from both the side and the stern, of a powerfully armed East India Company vessel. She is identifiable by the striped ensign, jack and pendants. The crew can be seen in the rigging in the view to the right, busy with the sails or climbing the shrouds. The vessel mounts over 60 guns, which would however have been smaller than those in a man-of-war of equivalent size. During the 17th century it was vessels of this size and armament that traded between London and Calcutta or other Indian ports.

An East Indiaman from the bows, c.1720.

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An East Indiaman from the bows, c.1720.
The well-armed East Indiamen which sailed between India and London were often mistaken for men-of-war. By 1720 the Company operated nearly 40 such ships. At first, the Company leased the ships from their owners, usually for no more than four voyages. Later on however, the Company established its own shipbuilding facilities at Deptford on the Thames. It also purchased vessels from the private shipyards at Blackwall.
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East Indiaman 'Princess Royal' (1769).

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East Indiaman 'Princess Royal' (1769).
The 499-ton 'Princess Royal' undertook two voyages from Blackwall for the East India Company both of which visited China. The first took place between 1770-71, the second between 1772-74. The owner or husbandman of the vessel was Alexander Hume, while the captain on both voyages was Robert Ker. Charles Hardy indicates that a vessel with the same name, captain and owner undertook two further voyages between 1777 and 1781, however the tonnage of that vessel was recorded as 864 tons.

The East Indiaman 'Warley' (1795).

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The East Indiaman 'Warley' (1795).
The 1475-ton East Indiaman 'Warley', one of the larger and more famous vessels of the East India Company, is shown in three positions off Blackwall, on the Thames, at sunset. The 'Warley' was built at John Perry's yard at Blackwall in 1795, the second vessel of the name that he built for the same owner. The tall building to the left of centre is the Blackwall yard mast house, with its gibbet for lowering the masts into ships clearly visible.
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Shipyard model of the East Indiaman 'Charles Grant' (1810).

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Shipyard model of the East Indiaman 'Charles Grant' (1810).
Many of the East Indiaman that traded between London and the East were built in Indian dockyards. The 'Charles Grant', for example, was built at Bombay in 1810. Ships built in India were constructed using superior tropical hard-woods such as teak. They were more resistant than vessels built from English oak to the sea-worms which ate through the bottoms of many ships. Wherever they were built, each East Indiaman had a limited life expectancy - 4 voyages to Asia over 8 to 10 years. Between 1600 and 1833 the East India Company's ships made about 4600 voyages from London.

Model of the East Indiaman 'Seringapatam' (1837).

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Model of the East Indiaman 'Seringapatam' (1837).
The 'Seringapatam' was named after a victory by British troops over Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore in 1798, which finally gave the East India Company control over the south-west Indian state. She was the first of a series of ships to be built at the Blackwall yard in London after the East India Company lost its monopoly of trade with China in the 1830s. These ships were known as 'Blackwall frigates'. They were faster than the Company's Indiamen, which they superceded, but were built to look like well-defended single deck warships.
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East Indiaman 'Repulse' (1820) in the East India Dock Basin.

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East Indiaman 'Repulse' (1820) in the East India Dock Basin.
The company's ships were larger than anything else built anywhere in the world. They 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'.

The East Indiaman 'Prince of Wales' (1842) embarking troops off Gravesend.

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The East Indiaman 'Prince of Wales' (1842) embarking troops off Gravesend.
The 'Prince of Wales' was a large vessel specially fitted-out for the conveyance of the East India Company's troops. She was built by Green's of Blackwall in 1842 to a design known as that of the 'Blackwall Frigates' - Indiamen which had the single-decked appearance of that type of warship. The ship is shown anchored off Gravesend, with Tilbury Fort on the north Bank of the Thames under her bow. Although the Company's Indiamen were very beautiful ships, they made very slow passages. The frigates were much faster.
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