The early years
|Pepper vine. © NMM |
At first, the Company's ships tended to follow the Portuguese and Dutch to trading ports along the Eastern coast of India and in the Spice Islands (Indonesia).
Spices (especially pepper, nutmeg, mace and cloves), medicinal drugs, aromatic woods and perfumes were rare commodities in Europe, and therefore valuable. They were also ideal cargoes because they were light in weight and would last almost indefinitely if they were kept dry.
Trading in spices made people rich. In 1620, the Company purchased 250,000 pounds (113,000 kg) of pepper with a value of £26,041 in the East Indies. This was sold in London for £208,333.
Likewise, 150,000 pounds (68,000 kg) of cloves, worth £5,126, had a selling price in London of £45,000. With the chance of profits like these, many were willing to risk their lives and travel east.
At this time, Britain's main export was woollen textiles. Unfortunately, these were unsuitable for the hot and humid places that the Company's ships visited. The East India merchants knew this, but their monopoly charter insisted that English exports formed a percentage of their cargoes.
|Ships trading in the East. © NMM |
|View of Surat from the sea. © NMM|
The ships therefore carried woollen cloth as well as unwrought metals, scientific instruments, and re-exported goods like coral and ivory. The Company's officials were also forced to buy cottons from Surat in western India. They could then sell these in exchange for spices in the East Indies.
|Calicoes were imported from India. © NMM |
During the 17th century, the Company came under such pressure from its Dutch rivals that it was forced to shift the main focus of its activities.
Its trade shifted from the Malay archipelago and the Spice Islands to South Asia and China.
As a result, the cargoes shipped back to London also changed.
Fine cloth such as calico, indigo and porcelain replaced spices as the main cargoes.
|Sillks were a major cargo for the East India Company. © NMM|
High quality fabrics from India and China eventually became hugely important to the Company.
The wide availability of beautifully patterned silks and cottons that followed the beginnings of maritime trade with the East had a dramatic effect on British household clothing and fashion.
Chinese and Indian manufacturers began to produce designs and styles especially for the British market.
|Chinese export punch bowl. © NMM|
Porcelain was originally imported into London simply to pack around tea cargoes.
It was a good thing to transport, adding ballast to the Company's ships without tainting the valuable tea cargoes.
|Elizabeth Cook's teapot. © NMM|
The Chinese craftsmen were very skilled. They were used to giving customers what they wanted and were ready to produce goods in response to western taste.
In 1713 alone the Company brought more than 517,000 pieces to London.
Tea and opium
Tea was first brought from China to London in the 1670s as a medicinal herb. It was slow to become a popular drink. Only when it was sweetened with sugar did it begin to appeal to British taste.
|Tea was normally imported in chests. © NMM|
Tea drinking became so popular that by 1794 Britain was buying nine million pounds (4 million kilograms) each year. By 1813 the total was almost 32 million pounds (14.5 million kilograms).
|Opium clipper Water Witch (1831). © NMM|
The problem for the Company was that the Chinese would only sell tea in exchange for silver, and so large amounts of silver were leaving Britain. In order to stop this, the Company began to smuggle Indian opium into China illegally, for which it demanded payment in silver. This was then used to buy tea. By 1839, opium sales to China paid for the entire tea trade.
|Opium smokers. © NMM|
This illicit traffic was fiercely resisted by the Chinese authorities, and led to Britain declaring war in 1840 to force China to buy the drug.
It was only when the British managed to cultivate their own tea in India that the Company's involvement in opium smuggling ended.