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Wood and ivory mosaic in the Golden Temple at Amritsar.

Chapter 1 – The “Separate Voyages” of the Company


the weakness in the constitution of the English East India Company made itself felt from the

outset. Its capital proved insufficient for a single voyage; additional calls amounting to four shillings in the pound had to be levied from the subscribers and in some cases to be enforced by warrants of committal from the Privy Council. In the midst of these troubles the governor, Thomas Smythe, fell under suspicion of complicity in the Earl of Essex’s rebellion, and was thrown into prison. The deputy-governor’s health broke down under the strain of fitting out vessels and coercing defaulters, and an ad interim governor had to be suddenly chosen on April 11, 1601. Finally, however,

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Woolwich in 1682.

the four ships1, which had dropped down from Woolwich in February, got fairly started from Torbay on April 22, 1601.

James Lancaster, the hero of the Cape voyage to India in 1591–1594, commanded the squadron, with a cargo of British staples, cloth, lead, tin, cutlery, glass, etc., worth £6860, and silver to the amount of £28,742. Arriving at Achin, in Sumatra, on June 5, 1602, he delivered Queen Elizabeth’s letter to the king, together with presents, received in return a treaty of amity, and was made welcome to the trade of the place.

But unfortunately the pepper crop had failed in the preceding season, and Lancaster found that if his voyage was to be made a success, it must be by other methods than those of peaceful trade. The Company had, under the politic name of “reprisals,” given him a strong hint “to take such course therein as he shall think meet” with regard to enemies of the realm. He interpreted this as a sanction to join the Dutch in an attack upon the “Portugals,” still in a state of war with England, and captured a richly laden carrack of 900 tons. Having

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transferred her cargo to his own ships, he let the plundered Portuguese vessel go her way.

A good freight thus secured, Lancaster filled up his ships with spices at several of the islands, made a friend of the boy-king of Bantam, left a factory of English merchants and seamen, and returned to England on September 11, 1603. Two of his ships preceded him On June 16th the Company had received the glad news that the Ascension was in the Thames, and forthwith ordered “six suits of canvas doublet and hose without pockets,” for six porters to land her precious spices. The profits, apart from the plunder, were very large. The pepper had cost at Bantam, including dues, under 6d. per lb., while the selling price in England in 1599 had been raised from 3s. to 6s. and 8s. Its ordinary price was formerly 2s. 8d., and although it sank after the establishment of the Company to 2s. or even less, the returns were great. The gain on the finer spices was still larger. I find that £2948 paid in 1606 for cloves in Amboyna fetched £36,287 in London in 1608.

These enormous profits on Indian commodities, ranging from 500 to 1500 per cent., should at once have established the credit of the Company. But when the ships returned in 1603, the plague had brought business to a stand. Between December 7, 1602, and December 1, 1603, the Company declared that no fewer than 38,138 persons died of the pestilence in London; that all the merchants and people of condition had fled; and that “trade hath utterly ceased within the City for almost this half year.” When the plague abated, difficulties

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arose in disposing of the cargoes for cash. The subscribers had to take part payment in pepper and sell it as best they might; nor was it until 1609 that the affairs of the first voyage of 1601 could be wound up and the profits finally distributed. They amounted to 95 per cent. on the subscription; a large return if it had been quickly realized. The ordinary rate of interest was then 8 per cent. per annum, and the 95 per cent. profits only yielded 9½ per cent, if calculated over the ten years from the subscription in 1600 – not a tempting reward for a risky voyage and the long vexations of winding up. But part of the 95 per cent. had been distributed in previous years.

As a matter of fact, the Company seemed on the return of its first expedition in 1603 to be at its last gasp. It required at once to find £35,000 for seamen’s wages and the king’s dues; the plague had closed the market for its spices, and no money could be raised on loans. The Charter of 1600 authorized the sending forth of “six good ships and six good pinnaces at all times” during fifteen years, yet three years had passed and only four ships had sailed. Elizabeth seems to have expected a yearly expedition. In November, 1601, she notified her “mislike of the slackness of the Company,” “propounding unto them the example of the Dutch, who do prosecute their voyages with a more honourable resolution.” By 1603 the Privy Council lost patience at the prolonged delay, and the Company found itself compelled to project a second voyage.

The governor had in 1601 been directed to examine

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Queen Elizabeth

the charter to see if power were given to compel members to contribute to a further venture. A second voyage was resolved on, and the book sent round by the beadle, but only the paltry sum of £11,000 was subscribed. The freemen declined even to attend the General Court to discuss the question, and had to be summoned afresh under “a pain of twenty shillings upon every one that maketh default.” Finally, in 1603, when the pepper ships came home, “the Company resolved as a matter of necessity” that every subscriber of

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£250 to the first voyage should advance another £200 for a second voyage. “In consideration of which he should receive pepper at a settled price to the amount of £500, which he should dispose of at his own discretion.”

The four ships of the first voyage were taken over for the second, and sailed again from Gravesend in March, 1604, but with a cargo of only £1142 in goods. Its total freight, including specie, barely amounted to £12,302, as against the £28,602 sent out by the first voyage. Even this slender equipment was achieved only by making the profits of the first voyage responsible also for the second, so that practically the two ventures traded as a joint concern. Captain (afterwards Sir Henry) Middleton, in chief command of the squadron, loaded two ships with pepper at Bantam, where Lancaster had left a factory, and sent on the two others to Amboyna for the finer spices, particularly cloves. He returned to England in 1606, having lost the Susan on the voyage. The joint profits of this and of the first voyage yielded, as I have said, 95 per cent., but the final division could not be made till 1609.

These timid ventures contrasted with the magnificent operations of the Dutch Company, with its capital of £540,000 and its great yearly fleets. The English political economy of the day denounced the folly of sending forth the treasure of the realm; for the store of precious metals possessed by a country was then reckoned the measure of the nation’s wealth. If we remember that the whole goods shipped by the first

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Signature of Queen Elizabeth

(Harleian MS. No 285.)

two voyages amounted to only £8002, and the coin or specie to no less than £32,902, we may understand how strong the argument appeared. Gerard de Malynes laid his finger on this “canker of the commonwealth.” He compared our export of bullion for spices to “the simplicity of the West Indians” “in giving the good commodities of their countries, yea gold, silver, and precious things for beads, bells, knives, looking-glasses, and such toys and trifles.”

While the political economists condemned the nature of the trade, the Crown grew more and more dissatisfied with its petty results. The East India Company, like the Levant and Muscovy Companies, had weathered the storm of popular indignation which led Elizabeth in 1601 to abolish most of the monopolies; as so distant a trade manifestly demanded a strong corporate body vested with exclusive rights. But the accession of James I opened the door to more subtle influences, and an expelled member of the Company, who was also a courtier, worked them for his own ends. Sir Edward Michelborne, a soldier-adventurer of good family

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in the reign of Elizabeth, appears among the patentees named in her charter to the Company in December, 1600, but he does not seem to have actually put money into the concern. He had, however, procured a letter from the Lord Treasurer to the committees in 1600, recommending his appointment “as a principal commander” on the expedition. This the Company evaded on the ground that “they purpose not to employ any gentleman in any place of charge or commandment in the said voyage,” lest “the generality” should “withdraw their contributions.” In the following year, 1601, Michelborne was disfranchised by the Company on the ground that he had not paid up his subscription to the first voyage.

Having been implicated in the Essex rebellion, he had to digest his wrath as best he could during the remaining years of Elizabeth. But the accession of James gave him his opportunity, and in June, 1604, he obtained a royal license of discovery and trade from Cambay on the coast of India to China, “notwithstanding any grant or charter to the contrary.” The reduced scale of the Company’s second voyage which had lately sailed gave colour to this infringement of its privileges, and the new grant was confined to traffic at places where the Company had not established itself. But Michelborne’s ideas of “trade and discovery” were founded on the buccaneering models of Elizabeth’s reign. After eighteen months of piracy, during which he attacked the Dutch at Bantam, plundered a Chinese ship, and made the English name abhorred in the Eastern

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seas, he returned to England in 1606, never to sail again.

This first of the “Interlopers” had seriously compromised the position of the Company in the Archipelago. “If there should any more such as he be permitted by His Majesty to come into these parts,” wrote its factor at Bantam, “our estate here would be very dangerous.” King James had put an end to the nineteen years’ state of war with Spain and Portugal by the treaty of 1604, and although the hostility between the nations in the East still smouldered, our captains could no longer obtain a cargo by rifling a Portuguese ship, as Captain Lancaster boldly did on the first voyage. While the Company had thus lost an enfeebled prey, it had made a powerful enemy. The Dutch were stronger in the East than the Portuguese and the English put together, and for Michelborne’s attack on them a heavy price was to be paid. Their reprisals for Bantam ended in the tragedy of Amboyna.

The Company’s third expedition, consisting of three vessels under Captain Keeling, Captain Hawkins, and Captain David Middleton, sailed in 1607, and brought home a rich cargo of pepper from Bantam and cloves from Amboyna, which, together with the profits of plunder, yielded 234 per cent. on the subscriptions. Before its tardy return the Company had almost lost heart. For on the arrival of the ships from the second voyage, in 1606, the difficulties of realizing the profit seemed so great that “most of the Members were inclined to wind up their affairs and drop the business.”

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William Hawkins

They were stirred into fresh action partly by royal promises and partly by a new royal menace to their privileges – the grant to Richard Penkevell to trade to China and the Spice Islands by way of the northwest or northeast passage. No real harm came to the Company this time; but it felt compelled to fit out a fourth voyage in 1608. It could raise only a capital of less than half that subscribed for the first voyage, and barely sufficient to equip two ships, both of which perished at sea. The contributors lost their money, and in 1609 only one ship could be sent out on the fifth voyage, with a capital of less than a fifth of the subscription to the first voyage in 1601.

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This proved the low-water mark in the Company’s fortunes. The fifth voyage in 1609 was practically equipped by the subscribers to the third voyage, and the good management of the two left a profit of 234 per cent. on the joint venture. King James also began to interest himself in his new subjects’ enterprise beyond the seas. In 1609 he followed up an earlier grant by finally founding Virginia, the first great English colony, and he issued a new and more ample charter to the East India Company, securing to it “the whole, entire, and only trade” into “the East Indies.” Any persons not licensed by the Company who “directly or indirectly do visit, haunt, frequent, or trade,” “into or from any of the said East Indies,” were to incur the royal “indignation” and the forfeiture of their ships and goods, half to the Company and half to the Crown. James closely adhered to the terms and even to the words of Elizabeth, but where a divergence occurred it tended to strengthen the Company. Thus the new Charter of 1609 was to be in perpetuity and not for fifteen years, like Elizabeth’s. In case the grant did not prove profitable to the realm, a notice of three years, instead of two, was to be given by the Crown.

The East India Company now began to be the fashion. Elizabeth’s Charter of 1600 was granted to the privateering Earl of Cumberland and 217 commoners, chiefly City men. The list in King James’s Charter of 1609 is headed by a powerful band of courtiers. It is addressed to “Our right trusty and right well-beloved Cousins and Councellors, Robert Earl of Salisbury, Our

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High Treasurer of England, Charles Earl of Nottingham, Our High Admiral of England, and Edward Earl of Worcester, Master of Our Horse, and Our Right Trusty and Well-beloved William Lord Cavendish, and Our Well-beloved Servant Sir Thomas Lake, Knight, One of the Clerks of Our Signet,” and other knights and gentlemen. Royal favouritism had become a power in the State, and it was highly convenient that the Earl of Salisbury, who stands first in the list of adventurers, should also have the control of the export of treasure from the realm and of his Majesty’s customs. Men of rank sought the freedom of the corporation, and in July, 1609, the Earl of Southampton sent a brace of bucks to the Brethren “to make merry withal in regard of their kindness in accepting him of their Company.” A venison committee was promptly chosen, “who agree upon a dinner to be provided for the whole company at the Governor’s house.”

Under these happier auspices the unprecedented subscription of £82,000 was raised for the sixth voyage of 1610, commanded by Sir Henry Middleton. Elaborate instructions were given for the conduct of its business, for the prevention of private trading by the Company’s captains or factors, and as to the commodities to be purchased in the East – raw silk, fine book-calicoes, indigo, cloves, and mace. The Company had in 1607 decided to build ships for themselves at their hired dock at Deptford, and they now took up this business on a great scale. In 1609 they launched a leviathan of 1100 tons – the Trades Increase. The King

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Tomb of the Emperor Jahangir at Lahore.

himself consented to name the ship, and came down to the docks accompanied by the queen, the prince, and the court, for the ceremony. The Company entertained him at “a great banquet, all served on dishes and plates of china-ware [then a rarity more prized than silver plate], and his Majesty placed a great chain of gold and a medal about Sir Thomas Smythe’s [the Governor’s] neck with his own hands.” The Trades Increase – “for beauty, burthen, strength, and sufficiency,” says a contemporary writer, “surpassing all merchants’ ships whatsoever “ – proved, notwithstanding her royal sponsorship, an unlucky craft. After a brief career, while careening at Bantam, she was burned by the natives. Her brave captain, Sir Henry Middleton, died there soon afterwards, in 1613, it is said of grief.

The next two voyages, in 1611 and 1612, were also on a large scale. Events had occurred in the East which rendered the English system of small separate adventures extremely hazardous. In 1609 the Dutch closed their long war with Spain by a truce for twelve years, and had no longer any cause for keeping well with the English in Asiatic waters. By this truce, ill observed as it was in the East, the Portuguese were also left more free to deal with the English intruders. About the same time our ships came into conflict with the Asiatic land powers. Sir Henry Middleton, commanding the sixth voyage (1610), was seized and imprisoned, together with many of his people, by the Governor of Mocha, on the Red Sea. Captain Hawkins also found opposition at the court of the Indian emperor, whither

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A banyan, or native merchant of Surat

he had gone to arrange for a permanent factory at Surat.

Complications were thus arising on land and sea with which the English system of “Separate Voyages” was manifestly unable to cope. Not only therefore were the voyages of 1611 and 1612 on a large scale, but a new element of combination also entered into their equipment. The separate subscribers of the previous six voyages of the Company became the “joint adventurers” of the seventh in 1611.

The following year they united so closely that the eighth voyage in 1612 was sometimes reckoned the First Joint Stock.

I now summarize in tabular form the operations of the Company during its first twelve years of Separate Voyages. The following figures are extracted from a statement prepared about 1620 and reproduced in the India Office folio of “Marine Records.” They agree with the list of voyages given by the Company’s historiographer, from whose “Annals” I compile the column

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of profits2. But as the concluding ones were more or less joint undertakings with distinct branches, the number of separate expeditions is variously reckoned from nine to twelve. Thus the so-called “tenth” which fought Best’s famous fight off Suwali is included by the Company’s historiographer and in the Marine Records’ list under the eighth: as also the “eleventh,” which consisted of one ship detached from it. The “twelfth” was likewise a single-ship expedition, commissioned chiefly to carry back the Persian ambassador.

The difference in enumeration does not affect the main results. Macpherson, who takes the number of Separate Voyages at twelve, from 1601 to 1612–1613, gives the total capital employed at £464,284. My table, which takes the number at nine, shows an aggregate capital of £466,179.

The column of profits may awaken the envy of modern merchants. But they represent the gains both on the exports and the imports of the voyage, together with the results of “cabotage,” or port-to-port barter, during the long stay of the ships in the East. On the return of each expedition, money had to be found at once to pay off the crews, and within a certain period for the king’s customs. But the cargo could sometimes not be sold until the royal share of the pepper had been disposed of, and then only at long credits of eighteen months to two years. In many cases the subscribers had to take payment for their contributions in spices or calicoes and to find a purchaser for them as best

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they could. The system of “candle-auctions,” by public notice hung up at the Royal Exchange, afterwards relieved them of this burden. According to that system, the Company offered the commodities brought home by the ships at its London mart, with an inch of lighted candle on the desk. As long as the candle burned, fresh offers could be received, and the goods were knocked down to the highest bidder before the wick guttered out. At such auctions, even before 1622, a hundred thousand pounds’ worth of silk, indigo, or spices was sometimes disposed of in a single parcel.

The candle-auction became the regular method for the East India Company’s sales. Before it opened, “a black list” of defaulters or others who had wronged the Brethren was read out, and the persons thus named were not allowed “to bid at the candle.” At one sale in 1667 over four hundred lots were disposed of, and the carpenter’s bill “for setting up and taking down the scaffolds in the Great Hall “shows that the auctions were attended with some ceremony. But the government preferred to deal more privately with the Company. Thus in 1669, when the Lords Commissioners of his Majesty’s Ordnance wanted four hundred pounds of saltpetre, they declared “it was not honourable nor decent for the King to buy at the candle as other common persons did ... and therefore insisted to buy it by contract.”

Before this system fully developed, the divided interests arising out of the Separate Voyages led to a delay of six or eight years before the accounts of

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each expedition could be rendered. A non-official estimate gives the net profit at under twenty per cent. per annum on the capital invested: which “would perhaps be reduced to a level with the common interest of the time, if the expense of insurance were deducted.” Without accepting this calculation, it is certain that under the Charter of Elizabeth (1600–1609) the Company found great difficulty in raising capital for each successive voyage. They made frequent appeals to patriotic sentiment, declaring their adventure to be a “public action” “for the honour of our native country and for the advancement of trade,” and “rather for the good of the Commonwealth of their country than for their private benefit.”

The earlier voyages had been directed toward the Indian Archipelago, where the English trade had to be done either at islands in possession of the Portuguese, or at native ports in competition with the Dutch. King James’s peace with Spain in 1604 technically shut out the Company from the Portuguese islands except with the consent of Portugal. For Elizabeth’s Charter of 1600 had expressly precluded resort to any place or kingdom “in the lawful and actual possession” of any Christian prince who already or “hereafter shall be in league or amity with us, our heirs or successors, and who doth not or will not accept of such trade.” This proviso was again inserted in King James’s Charter of 1609, and although European treaties had little effect beyond the Cape of Good Hope, the king’s project of the Spanish marriage made him anxious to avoid

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An old picture of the Cape of Good Hope

grounds of umbrage to the united Spanish and Portuguese crown.

While the English thus found their trade at his Catholic Majesty’s settlements rendered dependent on the good-will of their Portuguese rivals, they began to encounter a keen competition at the Dutch marts in the Archipelago. As early as 1603 that competition was felt by the Company in European prices, and it soon complicated the relations of the Dutch and English in the East. Michelborne’s attack on the Dutch in 1605 was defended, and by many Englishmen condoned, on the plea of “the insolences of the Hollanders.” The commander of the Company’s fourth voyage (1608) was reduced by the Dutch intrigues at Achin to barter his cargo with ships from Gujarat. The fifth

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voyage under Captain David Middleton met with still stronger opposition after 1609. The Dutch truce with Spain in that year removed the need of any further complaisance to the English. Within ten years after the grant of Elizabeth’s Charter, the English found their old Portuguese prey in the Archipelago placed by treaty beyond their grasp, and their old Dutch allies no longer in want of their help, and turned into hitter trade rivals.

The simple remedy, as it now appears to us, would have been to withdraw from the contest for the produce of the islands, and to open up a direct traffic with the Asiatic continent. But the simple method is not always the obvious one. The tradition of Eastern commerce was that India yielded only the cheaper spices, pepper, and ginger, and furnished ports for trans-shipment of the more precious ones of the farther East – mace, cinnamon, and cloves. To shift our factories from the Archipelago to India seemed at the time equivalent to giving up the direct trade in the most lucrative commodities, and sinking into middlemen like the early Arab merchants on the Malabar coast.

Nevertheless the English soon began to feel their way toward India itself. The mission of Mildenhall (or Midnall), sent forth by Staper and armed with a letter from Queen Elizabeth in 1599 to the Great Moghul, returned in 1602 with news of the high civilization and boundless resources of the Indian court. Captain Hawkins, of the third voyage (1607), proceeded to the Indian coast with a letter from James I to the Emperor

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Jahangir, and obtained permission to establish a factory at Surat. But in spite of Hawkins giving a pledge of loyalty to the emperor by marrying “a white mayden out of his palace,” the Portuguese succeeded in getting the grant revoked, and Hawkins, after two and a half years of fruitless negotiation at the court of Agra, left in disgust. In 1609 the English obtained an unstable footing at Surat, and their letters begin to appear in the records of the Company. On August 30, 1609, one of them sent home an exhaustive price-list of Indian goods and of English commodities vendible at that port.

A main object of the sixth voyage of 1610 under Sir Henry Middleton was to establish a trade with the Red Sea. But Middleton’s reprisals after his seizure by the Governor of Mocha stirred up the Moslem zeal against the English, and placed us in an awkward position with the Moghul emperor. Sir Henry’s attempt to trade at Surat in 1611 was frustrated by a Portuguese fleet, which barred his entrance to the river, and by the ill-will of the Mussulman governor, so that he was forced back upon the old marts in the Eastern Archipelago.

Another expedition (1611), under the direction of two merchants who had been in the Dutch service, was intended to open up a trade between India and the Spice Islands. It sailed for Pulicat, the chief port of South-eastern India, and coasted up the Bay of Bengal as far as Masulipatam, north of Madras, buying calicoes which it carried for sale to Bantam and Siam. In 1611–1612 Captain Saris, commanding the Clove, was

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A general view of Masulipatam

provided with a pass from the Turkish emperor, ordering his governors on the Red Sea to admit the English to friendly trade. But the Moslem left behind by Sir Henry Middleton’s “rummaging of Indian ships,” rendered a traffic on shore impracticable. After a barter of cargoes enforced on Moslem vessels at sea, and something like a compact of piracy with Middleton, Captain Saris proceeded to Japan, which he reached on June 12, 1613.

There he found a solitary Englishman, whose story savours of the time. William Adams, having served as master in Elizabeth’s navy and in the English Company of Barbary Merchants, joined a Dutch fleet from Rotterdam to the East Indies as pilot-major in 1598. After long miseries the fleet got scattered, but Adams’s ship reached Japan in April, 1600, with the crew in a dying state. Adams was brought before the emperor, examined as to his country and the cause of his coming,

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and then thrown into prison for six weeks. The Portuguese tried to get him put to death, but eventually he rose by ship-building into favour with the emperor, and received an estate “like unto a lordship in England.”

In 1609 the Dutch obtained leave to establish a factory at the port of Firando, in Japan, and two years later a Dutch captain received through Adams’s influence ample privileges of trade. Adams then learned for the first time that the English also had penetrated into the Eastern seas. In 1611 he wrote a letter, full of sturdy pathos, to his “unknown friends and countrymen,” giving an account of his adventures and of the trade capabilities of Japan. On the arrival of Captain Saris in 1613, Adams secured permission from the emperor for an English factory, which was accordingly established, with the hopes of also opening out trade with Corea and China. Adams entered the Company’s service on a salary of £100 a year, and made many voyages, although the project of a northeast passage, to which he, like many bold sailors of the day, looked forward, remained a dream.

The emperor liked him so well as to prevent his return to his wife and child in England, and in due time Adams provided himself with a wife and two children in Japan. He died in 1620, after seeing a persecution of the Christians by a new emperor, and left his estate impartially to his English and Japanese families. A road in Yedo was named Pilot Street in his honour, and a native festival still annually commemorates

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The Panch Mahal at the Moghul court at Fathpur-Sikri

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Blank page

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the first Englishman who lived and died in Japan.

Wherever the English had gone they had encountered the hostility of the Portuguese. It was not alone in the Moluccas and Philippines, where Portugal had rights based on actual possession of certain of the islands. But in the great empires of India and Japan also, where all Europeans were but humble strangers, the Portuguese determined that for the English there should be no thoroughfare. In Japan they would have had Adams executed; they plotted with the native governors against our settling on the Indian coast; they procured the revocation of the grant to Hawkins at the court of the Great Moghul. The treaty of 1604 tied the hands of our captains, and if James I had one eye to his subjects’ interests, he had the other to a family alliance with Spain.

Fortunately the Portuguese themselves brought about a collision. Their fleet had prevented our ships from landing at Surat in 1611, and had compelled them to do what business they could by exchanging cargoes at sea. In 1612 Captain Thomas Best, with the Red Dragon and a smaller vessel, the Hosiander, arrived off Suwali, at the mouth of the Surat or Tapti River, with orders from the Company to conciliate the goodwill of the Indian emperor for trade on that coast. On November 29th four Portuguese ships, mounting over 120 guns, attended by twenty-six or thirty “frigates,” or rowed galleys for boarding, appeared off Suwali, with the intent to capture the two English vessels.

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Best saw that the Portuguese admiral and vice-admiral were separated by the tide and shoals from the rest. He promptly bore down on the two great ships in the Red Dragon, but the Hosiander could not get clear of her anchors, and the single English ship had to fight the desperate battle alone. He steered straight at the enemy, calmly reserving his fire till he got between the admiral and vice-admiral, and then delivered such a cannonade on either side that “by an hour we had well peppered” them “with some 56 great shot.”

The Red Dragon had her mainmast struck and her longboat sunk by cannon-balls, but she anchored in sight of the Portuguese for the night. Early next morning (November 30th) Best again steered into the enemy, now accompanied by the Hosiander, which had got clear of her anchors and “bravely redeemed the former day’s doing nothing.” The mouth of the Surat estuary was then encumbered (as it is now closed for ships) by silt banks, and rendered dangerous by strong currents. The silt of the Tapti River, near whose mouth Surat lay, together with the deposits from the obstructed sea currents, had formed a long shoal dry at high water, along the coast. Inside this shoal lay the Suwali anchorage, seven miles long by one and one-half miles broad, with sandspits and bars on the shore side – an ideal battle-ground for the skilful handling of the. English ships against the superior numbers of the heavy Portuguese.

Three of the galleons were driven on the sands, the

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An early type of English ship

Hosiander keeping up a fierce fire, “and danced the hay about them so that they durst not show a man upon the hatches.” At 9 A.M. the English captain, probably fearing to go aground himself with an ebb-tide on the shallows, stood out into deeper water and anchored. The respite enabled the Portuguese frigates to come to the aid of the three galleons, which they “shoared up with their yards,” and so got afloat again.

In the afternoon, as soon as the tide permitted, the English renewed the fight, and kept it up till dark, when they anchored in the estuary six miles from the Portuguese. At 9 P. M. the enemy sent a fire-ship down upon the Hosiander, but the English sank her by a cannonade, with an estimated loss to the Portuguese of between 120 and 140 men.

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The Palace at Agra

Agra, on the banks of the Jumna, is famous for its magnificent specimens of Indian architecture belonging to the period of the Moghul Empire. Graceful domes surmounting stately edifices, and minaret spires piercing the tropical sky or reflected in the heated waters of the river that flows beneath, form lasting memorials of the great Moghul builders.

Next day, December 1 (1612), passed without fighting, the wearied combatants riding at anchor. On the 2d, Best sailed twenty miles along the coast, hoping the enemy would follow, but they declined. Their rowed “frigates,” which were helpful to them and annoying to us among the shoals and currents of the estuary, would have been easily disposed of by our ships in the open sea and with a steady breeze. Best anchored in the neighbouring bay of Moha, whence he aided the Moghul troops in besieging a pirate fort. On December 22d the Portuguese squadron, including the four great galleons, having reinforced itself at Diu, again hove in sight. At daybreak on the 23d Best boldly attacked against overwhelming odds, and kept up the fight till ten or eleven o’clock, or, as some say, till two in the afternoon. The Indian soldiers crowded down to the beach to watch our two ships battling with a whole armada. The fight ended in the complete rout of the enemy, and Best chased the flying squadron for four hours.

It seemed, however, impossible that the enormous force of the Portuguese ships should not in the end prevail. But on December 24 (1612) a final engagement was fought. The Portuguese were decisively put to flight. We were, however, so exhausted that the pursuit could not be pressed, and on the 27th Best’s two ships triumphantly reopened communication with our factors at Surat. During the month’s fighting the enemy lost 160 men according to their own account, or three hundred to five hundred according to English

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estimates. Best lost only three, and the stout old Red Dragon, not a new ship when bought from the Earl of Cumberland in 1600, had still six years of good service before her. Her end came in 1619, when she and two other English vessels were taken off Sumatra by six Dutch ships after a desperate fight. The Hollanders offered to restore her, but the English declined, as her captors “had lamed her with misusage.” The gallant Thomas Best rose to the height of his profession. He appears as late as 1637 as Master of Trinity House, and in 1638 on a commission to inquire into frauds in the supply of timber.

The severest combat took place before the eyes of the Moghul troops, “all the camp standing by the seaside looking on us.” This running-fight of a single month broke the reputation which the Portuguese had won in India by the sea achievements of a hundred years. As a land-power they had sunk into insignificance on the establishment of the Moghul Empire in Southern India during the second half of the preceding century. The coast governors of that empire now turned with the tide in favour of the English, and Best found it easy to obtain sanction for a factory at Surat and at three other places around the Gulf of Cambay. By a formal instrument all grievances arising out of Sir Henry Middleton’s reprisals were buried in oblivion; our merchandise was to be subject only to a moderate fixed duty of 3½ per cent.; and in event of the death of the English factors, the Company’s property was to be kept safe by the Indian authorities for delivery

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View of Cambay from the south in 1772

to our next fleet. This agreement with the Governor of Surat, in December, 1612, was duly ratified by an imperial Farman, or decree, delivered with Oriental pomp to Captain Best at Suwali in January, 1613.

From this imperial decree our legal settlement on the Indian continent dates. It marks a new departure in the history of the English Company – a new departure which was to end in our withdrawal from the Archipelago and our establishment in India. In the same year (1612–1613) the Company at home developed its system of separate voyages into what was known as the system of Joint Stock. By this change it sought to increase its strength so as to join on more equal terms in the contest of the European nations for the Spice Islands. But in its settlement at Surat it had unconsciously provided a retreat for itself to a wider sphere of action, when worsted in that struggle.


1. For details concerning the ships see Appendix II, B.

2. These statistics are given in Appendix II, C.

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
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