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The East India Company

Introduction
Early years
The London headquarters
Ships and shipbuilding
A dangerous business
Company cargoes
The East India Docks
Final years
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Ships and shipbuilding

Largest vessels

Two views of an East Indiaman of the time of King William III.
View full size imageA 17th century East Indiaman. © NMM

Given that it was such a rich and powerful organization, it is not surprising that the Company used the largest ships that visited the port of London. Even after the eastern market was widened to include other traders in 1813, the Company led the way.

Every season, its fleet of ships, known as East Indiamen, sailed between London and the East Indies. Between 1600 and 1833 the Company's ships made about 4600 voyages from London.

Lords of the ocean

The East Indiaman Warley (1795).
View full size imageThe East Indiaman Warley (1795). © NMM
The Company's ships were so well armed that they were often mistaken for men-of-war. They were built of wood, highly decorated and gilded, and the interiors were finished to a high standard as much for the comfort of the officers and passengers as for cargo-carrying capacity.

The East Indiaman Princess Royal.
View full size imageThe East Indiaman Princess Royal (1769). © NMM

For more than 200 years there was nothing more superior than the East Indiamen anywhere in the shipping world.

The stately, magnificent ships were considered to be the 'Lords of the ocean'.

 

Shipbuilding

East India Company's Yard at Deptford.
View full size imageEast India Company's Yard at Deptford. © NMM
The Company's first ships were purchased privately as and when required. Each had a limited life expectancy, normally four voyages to Asia over 8 to 10 years. Losses from wear, tear and wreck took their toll and suitable ships were soon at a premium, some costing as much as £45 per ton.

Site of the old East India Company Yard.
View full size imageSite of the old East India Company Yard at Deptford. © NMM

In 1607, the Company therefore decided to build its own ships and leased a yard in Deptford. Initially, this new policy seemed to work, as the first ships cost only about £10 per ton. However, the shipbuilding and repair yards at Deptford soon proved expensive to run. The Company, ever eager to save money, had second thoughts. Later in the 17th century it went back to the practice of hiring vessels.

Blackwall Yard

Blackwall Yard from the Thames.
View full size imageA view of Blackwall shipyard from the River Thames. © NMM

Many of the leased vessels were built in private yards on the Thames. The most important of these was Blackwall. The Blackwall shipyard, begun in the late 16th century, continued, under various owners, to repair and build ships for the Company throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

View of Mr Perry's Dock at Blackwall.
View full size imagePerry's Dockyard at Blackwall. © NMM
By the late 18th century, Perry's yard, as the Blackwall establishment was then known, was the biggest private yard in the world. Besides wet and dry-docks, there were timber yards, saw pits, cordage works, rigging shops, draughtsmen's offices and foundries - all employing hundreds of craftsmen. 

The 'shipping interest'

An East Indiaman in a fresh breeze.
View full size imageAn East Indiaman in a fresh breeze. © NMM
The private yards would build the expensive East Indiamen only if the Company could assure them that such vessels would be profitably employed. So there was an understanding that the ships would be used to transport goods at fixed, and often artificially high, rates for a set number of Company voyages.

Ships laid up near Blackwall.
View full size imageShips laid up near Blackwall. © NMM
The finance for construction was provided by managing owners or 'husbands', who also provided the crews. As many of the managing owners were also shareholders in the Company, the 'shipping interest' was a powerful lobby.

Indian ships

Shipyard model of the East Indiaman Charles Grant (1810).
View full size imageShipyard model of the East Indiaman Charles Grant (1810). © NMM

Many of the East Indiamen that traded between London and the East were built in Indian dockyards. The Charles Grant, for example, was built at Bombay. 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 that ate through the bottoms of many ships.

Blackwall frigates

Model of the East Indiaman Seringapatam (1837).
View full size imageModel of the Blackwall frigate Seringapatam (1837). © NMM

Although the Company's Indiamen were very beautiful ships, they made very slow journeys to the East Indies. This did not really matter so long as the Company's monopoly continued.

However, when the Company lost its monopoly of trade with China in the 1830s it needed faster vessels to compete with its new rivals.

The East Indiaman Prince of Wales embarking troops off Gravesend, 1845.
View full size imageThe Blackwall frigate Prince of Wales (1842) off Gravesend. © NMM
The Blackwall Yard therefore built a series of ships known as 'Blackwall frigates'.

They were faster than the East Indiamen, which they superceded, but were built to look like well-defended single-deck warships.
 


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Glossary
Bombay
Cargo
Frigate
Indiaman
Monopoly
Port
Rigging
Spice Islands

Find out more
GalleriesThe Lords of the Ocean: Ships of the East India Company
The East India Company's ships were the most magnificent vessels of their era
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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