PortCities London

The East India Company

The early years

A new company

The Return of the Dutch East India Fleet 1 May 1599.
View full size imageThe Return of the Dutch East India Fleet 1 May 1599. © NMM

For many years, the Dutch had monopolized the spice trade and in 1599 they raised the price of pepper from 3 shillings (15p) to 8 shillings (40p) a pound (0.45 kg).

At the same time, they announced that they would enlarge their eastern fleets by purchasing English ships.

Elizabeth I, 1533-1603.
View full size imageElizabeth I, 1533-1603. © NMM
Exasperated London merchants demanded action and called a meeting, chaired by the Lord Mayor. They decided that they should secure their own supplies of spices.

On 31 December 1600, Queen Elizabeth I signed the Charter creating 'The Company of Merchants of London Trading to the East Indies'. Over 200 subscribers raised almost £70,000 – a massive amount at that time - for a voyage to the east. The Company was granted a monopoly on all English trade east of the Cape of Good Hope.

Sir James Lancaster

Sir James Lancaster.
View full size imageSir James Lancaster. © NMM

The following year, Sir James Lancaster sailed from Woolwich for the East Indies with 500 men and a fleet of five ships, led by the flagship Red Dragon.

The fleet sailed for the Banda Islands off Indonesia, which were the centre of eastern spice growing.

Lancaster found it hard to exchange his English cloth for spices in the East Indies, as local people did not want woollen garments in such hot climates.

A Portuguese Carrack before the wind.
View full size imageA Portuguese carrack before the wind. © NMM
However, after he captured a Portuguese carrack full of Indian cottons, he was able to trade these instead. Lancaster set up the Company's first trading post at Bantam in 1602. He returned to London with a cargo of pepper the following September.

Further fleets followed Lancaster's and the Company began to prosper as it sought access to Asian markets and commodities. In 1607 it established a trading post at Surat on the west coast of India.

Surat and Sir Thomas Rowe

Sir Thomas Rowe. From an original picture at Merchant Taylors Hall.
View full size imageSir Thomas Rowe. © NMM

The Company wanted to find a direct source of Indian textiles. The Portuguese already had fortified strongholds in India, but the Company needed permission from the Mughal Emperor to set up its own trading posts.

In 1614, therefore, a distinguished English ambassador called Sir Thomas Rowe led a mission to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. His purpose was to get trade concessions for the Company's factory at Surat.

View of Surat from the sea.
View full size imageSurat from the sea. © NMM
He sailed from London with four ships in March, and returned completely successful four years afterwards. Jahangir gave Rowe a 'farman' (a royal charter), which promised protection to resident English merchants.

New trading posts

The English Fort of Bombay
View full size imageThe Company's fort at Bombay. © NMM

Now operating under royal patronage, the Company soon managed to overtake the Portuguese. It established a commercial presence in India centred at first upon Surat.

By 1647 the Company had 23 'factories' in India. Its main trading posts were the walled forts of Fort William in Bengal, Fort St George in Madras and Bombay Castle on the western coast.

Fort St George, Madras, on the Coromandel Coast.
View full size imageFort St George, Madras, on the Coromandel Coast. © NMM

In 1717, the Emperor extended his hospitality to the Company when he abolished customs duties on trade in Bengal. At the same time as it was acquiring a foothold on the Indian sub-continent, the Company was also making inroads into the Dutch monopoly of spices in the Malacca Straits. In 1711, it also established a post in Canton, China, to trade tea for silver.


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