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The Old East Indiamen

Edward Keble Chatterton

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
In this volume I have to invite the reader to consider a special epoch of the world’s progress, in which the sailing ship not only revolutionised British trade but laid the foundations of, and almost completed, that imposing structure which is to-day represented by the Indian Empire. It is a period brimful of romance, of adventures, travel and the exciting pursuit after wealth. It is a theme which, for all its deeply human aspect, is one for ever dominated by a grandeur and irresistible destiny. With all its failings, the East India Company still remains in history as the most amazingly powerful trading concern which the world has ever seen. Like many other big propositions it began in a small way: but it acquired for us that vast continent which is the envy of all the great powers of the world to-day. And it is important and necessary to remember always that we owe this in the first place to the consummate courage, patience, skill and long-suffering of that race of beings, the intrepid seamen, who have never yet received their due from the landsmen whom they have made rich and comfortable. Among the Harleian MSS. there is a delightful phrase written by a seventeenth-century writer, in which, treating of matters that are not immediately concerned with the present subject, he remarks very quaintly that “the first article of an Englishman’s Politicall Creed must be that he believeth in ye Sea etc. Without that there needeth no general Council to pronounce him uncapable of Salvation.” This somewhat sweeping statement none the less aptly sums up the whole matter of our colonisation and overseas development. The entire glamour of the Elizabethan period, marked as it unfortunately is with many deplorable errors, is derived from the sea. With the appreciation of what could be attained by a combination of stout ships, sturdy seamen, navigation, seamanship, gunnery and high hopes that refused persistently to be daunted, the most farsighted began to see that success was for them. Honours, wealth, the founding of families that should treasure their names in future generations, the acquisition of fine estates and the building of large houses with luxuries that exceeded the Tudor pattern—these were the pictures which were conjured up in the imaginations of those who vested their fortunes and often their lives in these ocean voyages. The call of the sea had in England fallen mostly on deaf ears until the late sixteenth century. It is only because there were some who listened to it, obeyed, and presently led others to do as they had done, that the British Empire has been built up at all. Our task, however, is to treat of one particular way in which that call has influenced the minds and activities of men. We are to see how that, if it summoned some across the Atlantic to the Spanish Main, it sent others out to the Orient, yet always with the same object of acquiring wealth, establishing trade with strange peoples, and incidentally affording a fine opportunity for those of an adventurous spirit who were unable any longer to endure the cramped and confined limitations of the neighbourhood in which they had been born and bred. And though, as we proceed with our story, we shall be compelled to watch the gradual growth and the vicissitudes of the East Indian companies, yet our object is to obtain a clear knowledge not so much of the latter as of the ships which they employed, the manner in which they were built, sailed, navigated and fought. When we speak of the “Old East Indiamen” we mean of course the ships which used to carry the trade between India and Europe. And inasmuch as this trade was, till well on into the nineteenth century, the valuable and exclusive monopoly of the East India Company, carefully guarded against any interlopers, our consideration is practically that of the Company’s ships.