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The East India Company

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A dangerous business


Wrecks of the Britannia and Admiral Gardner on the Goodwin Sands, 24 January 1809.
View full size imageWrecks of the Britannia and Admiral Gardner on the Goodwin Sands, 1809. © NMM

Before the mid-18th century and the development of accurate instruments, successful navigation relied on the skills and knowledge of individuals.

Navigation at sea was always dangerous. Sailors might not see land for weeks at a time and shipwreck was a constant danger. About 5% of the Company's ships were wrecked or lost at sea.

Unfriendly locals

Captain Robert Knox of the East India Company (1642-1720).
View full size imageCaptain Robert Knox was a captive on Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for 20 years. © NMM

Even if a crew member managed to survive a shipwreck and get to shore it was often very difficult to return to England from Asia.

This was especially true in the earlier periods when there were fewer ships.

Company servants could also be imprisoned by unfriendly local rulers or captured by pirates. On other occasions, Company trading posts and settlements were attacked. 


Illness was common on board ship during the early voyages. Scurvy and the ‘flux’ (dysentery) claimed many victims, as did the unsanitary conditions. More than 100 out of 480 men had died by the time Sir James Lancaster's first fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1601.

View full size imageThe Company's first trading settlement was at the disease-ridden town of Bantam. © NMM

Even ashore, a sailor or merchant was not safe. The ports and trading posts that the Company's officials visited harboured many unknown diseases that they could not resist. It was thought to take five years to acclimatize, but most people were lucky to last two monsoons. In some years, a third of Company staff died of cholera, typhoid and malaria.

Rival powers

View full size imageAmbon, scene of a Dutch massacre of Company traders. © NMM

Competition between European trading companies was always fierce. Outbursts of violence between the Company's servants and its Dutch and Portugese rivals were common.

One of the most notorious episodes was the execution by the Dutch of ten Company merchants on the spice island of Ambon in 1623.

Three East India Company Ships and a French Squadron, 9 March 1757
View full size imageThree East Indiamen and a French Squadron, 9 March 1757. © NMM

In the 18th century, the Company was at war with the French in a struggle for commercial supremacy on the Indian sub-continent. During the fighting, the Company's trade became a target. Fleets of East Indiamen sailing along the trade routes were vulnerable to attack from French warships.


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