A ship of the East India Company leaves port in a painting by Adam Willaerts (1577-1664)

When young men headed East

The early growth of the Empire was fuelled by spices, not slaves


This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One of my ancestors was briefly the master of one of the jewels of the East India Company’s fleet, a 1,000-ton East Indiaman named the Royal James. This enormous merchant ship launched in 1616 and undertook three voyages to the Far East and Japan in the years to 1630. Between 1613 and 1617, the company had 29 ships: by the end of 1617, eight had returned with cargoes, four had been either lost or broken up, two had fallen into the hands of the Dutch and 15 were still in the East Indies. 

Adventurers: The Improbable Rise of the East India Company: 1550—1650, David Howarth (Yale University Press , £25)

It wouldn’t surprise me if John Lyman was appointed master of the vessel because his uncle, Sir John Lyman, was an early “venturer” in the “Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies” — and this was, of course, a family business. It wouldn’t surprise me either if the ship was named by Sir John, as he had been elevated to a baronetcy by King James I by virtue of his active contribution to keeping the financial ship of state afloat. 

Back to the Royal James. The voluminous records of the East India Company reveal that John Lyman attended a meeting on the high seas between two of the Company’s fleets, one consisting of 12 ships and another of nine, on 26 January 1620. 

The masters of the combined fleet, deciding how best to sell their outbound goods to buy the silk and spices they would carry back to London, voted to sail for Acheen (Aceh) on the northernmost tip of today’s Sumatra and thence to Japan to repair the ships before travelling to the coast of China. 

The biggest threat to the financial success of their voyage was the Dutch East Indies Company, which had a stranglehold on the Spice Islands and used every tactic — above and below board — to prevent the English from profiting from what they considered to be their trade. 

The result of a successful three-year journey to the East would be a return to London with untold riches — mace, nutmeg, cloves and pepper — on board. So rich was each consignment that only one in three vessels needed to make it home for the venture to have been profitable. On 16 March 1620 a further consultation was held on board the Royal James about a plan to send one of the ships, the Bee, back to England. 

The following year John succumbed to one of the many maladies afflicting mariners on these voyages and died at sea. Only 30 per cent of all sailors returned from a voyage to the East, a fact so well known to the company accountants that they factored it into the estimates they made of the profit each trip would make. John Lyman’s widow, Joan, petitioned the company in 1621 for “her husband’s goods” and later for her husband’s wages. It was agreed that she should be paid, and the award was made in pepper. 

It is the human details of the EIC and the ultimate triumph of its trading endeavours, despite the best efforts of Portugal, the Dutch Republic and of the vicissitudes of Neptune, that hold great fascination for me. This is the triumph of Howarth’s intimate and intricate portrayal of the Company over its first century. 

His great achievement is to bring the dusty tomes of the EIC back to life — not just to humanise one of the greatest trading ventures of history, but to interpret its earliest years as a peculiarly human rather than institutional endeavour. 

Humans have agency; institutions consume or act upon the determining agency of human beings, not the other way around. Too much of modern (post-1880) history is based upon determining the perspective of organisations and movements (as interpreted by later historians, many with their own ideological baggage) rather than of real people making decisions for themselves in the particular context of their lives and times. 

Howarth paints his story by the decisions, actions and activities of actual people, some influential decision-makers but many who were not, all of which makes up a remarkably vivid tapestry of human intercourse. Each chapter, indeed, is constructed around a person or group of people.

The ultimate triumph of European expansion into Asia is not difficult to comprehend. Europe was pursuing an adventure, aggressively, relentlessly and determinedly, to bring the world’s riches back to its own shores. At no time did the Chinese, Japanese, Indians or inhabitants of the Spice Islands return the favour. 

The energetic persistence of Sir Thomas Roe, for instance, the Company’s ambassador to the Mughal court (1615–19), may be contrasted with the intellectual (and alcoholic) indolence of the Great Mughal. Roe was there, in India: Europeans were interested in the “East” and in travelling to the other side of the world for purposes of human engagement, adventure, patriotism and, yes, self-interested greed. 

Sir Thomas Roe at the Court of Ajmir, 1614, seen in a mural by William Rothenstein

The Great Mughal, by contrast, was also driven by greed, but he just wasn’t interested in exploring. He certainly wasn’t interested in Europe. Being already, in his view, at the top of the human tree, he had no need for the ideas or money of red-haired barbarians from across the sea — a sea that few Mughal emperors had ever even seen. Fascinatingly, the Mughal shared with King James I an abhorrence of “trade”, although James knew he needed grubby merchants to deliver money by the bucketload that they couldn’t create themselves. 

As Howarth observes, “EIC belonged to the globe of politics as much as it did to the sphere of commerce.” Indeed, these two symbiotically created a sense of nationhood in Tudor and Stuart England for the first time. The Mughal Empire was ultimately swallowed up as a result of European politicians and merchants working in unison, which it never replicated by embarking on the reverse journey.

What about power? No. Howarth is clear that the EIC’s primary task was to make money, not to accrue territory, advance power in foreign territories or aggrandise native populations. The role of the executive arm of the EIC (its ships, sailors and factors) was to make money for investors, many of whom were the very same adventurers who were travelling over vast oceans in these little ships. 

The great game of mercantile expansion took place because those who had most to lose were also sailing the ships, negotiating with foreign emissaries, fighting the Portuguese and the Dutch, and placing their lives on the line. Remarkably, in 1570 England had only 58,000 tons of marine tonnage compared with Spain’s 300,000. It was very definitely the minnow rushing to conquer the seas. 

The men who built and sailed its boats came from a long way behind, but in time they forged a sea-going commercial empire that more than rivalled all its competition. Its early growth was fuelled by the wealth provided by spice rather than slaves and, in contradistinction to what some modern historical moralists are keen to tell us, by a “reluctance to use violence and vigilance to avoid land commitments”. Unlike with the Dutch, and despite what one might assume if we were to read the British national anthem back into history, “expansion in England happened with no appeal whatever to national glory”.

The amazing thing about the EIC was just how chaotic and disorganised it was. There was nothing inevitable about its rise to be the monolithic mercantile overlord of India. Second-guessing history is only possible for historians able to look backwards and identify trends; those around when history was happening were just trying to make their way through the fog of an uncertain and troublesome future. The EIC proved simply to be better organised than the Portuguese, and it was free from the distractions the Dutch faced in their long war against Spain. Luck and serendipity played as much a role on the Company’s eventual survival, as did its ability to raise massive amounts of money from English venturers.

Howarth’s book is a joy of revelation, page by page. It’s also beautifully written, as here, where Howarth is describing the Portuguese carracks that first sailed to Asia:

These were ships the size of cathedrals, sterns of carved exuberance, windows fretted like the honeycomb, escutcheons hanging like so many lanterns at a festival, with such splendours of the deck giving way to hobbit-like burrows beneath.

Howarth does what all good historians should do: he lets the people of the story speak and, without moralising, allows us to understand their remarkable story as it happened, rather than as we wished it might. “As Orpheus counselled Eurydice,” he says, “historians do well to look resolutely forwards, not backwards.” 

In the process he reminds us that history as a morality tale is precisely what our mediaeval forebears practised, preaching to us the ways of God rather than allowing us to understand what happened, by whom and why. For my money, I prefer Howarth’s approach. 

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