Page 164

Arms of the East India Company

Chapter 5 – The Company and the King

1623–1649 A.D.

In 1628, while the Petition of Right was giving shape to the conflict between the king and the Commons, the fortunes of the Company reached a low ebb. During the preceding five years one blow after another had fallen upon it, at home and abroad. In the Far East its servants saved their lives only by abandoning their settlements in Japan. In the Spice Archipelago we have seen them tortured and slain at Amboyna, and driven forth from the Clove Isles. In the Javanese Straits they had been decimated by disease at their ocean-refuge of Lagundy, and were brought back by the clemency of the Dutch to Batavia, only to quit it again after a further struggle with misery. On the Bay of Bengal, the native governor was inflicting on them the “foul injuries” which were to force them out of Masulipatam. On the opposite, or western, coast of India, their warehouses were ransacked and their

Page 165

chiefs at Surat imprisoned in irons; “to be,” in the words of their president, “the shameful subjects of daily threats, revilings, scorns, and disdainful decisions.”

At home, the finances of the Company threatened a collapse. Notwithstanding the profits of individual voyages, the value of its capital had in 1626 fallen over twenty per cent., and £100 of stock were not worth £80. Its shipping had decreased by one-third. The affrighted adventurers, seeing no end to their losses, would contribute but £40,000 instead of £200,000, or one-fifth of what they had formerly provided for the annual voyage, and in 1628 the Company could not obtain a subscription for a new joint-stock. It had already borrowed so heavily that no one would lend it more money on its common seal, and its managers had to carry on business by pledging their private credit. Internal dissensions rose high, and in 1627 the Company was constrained to “battulate” a brawling member (Mr. Thomas Smethwike), that is, to forbid him any more to come to its meetings or to trouble its house and courts. In June, 1628, the Company’s debt amounted to £230,000, which was further increased to £300,000 by March, 1629, and the yearly interest to £20,000.

From outside it could hope for little support. To the country gentlemen the East India Company was a monopoly which drained England of its bullion in order to buy spices, luxuries, and toys. This “canker of the commonwealth,” on which Malynes, in 1601, had laid a rough finger, with the threatening motto

Page 166

Indian carpenters at work.

sublata causa tollitur effectus, became a stock theme for patriotic eloquence. According to another writer (the author of the “Trade’s Increase,” in 1615), the delusive reports of the India trade were but “the pleasing notes of the swans in Meander flood,” which would in reality prove, like theirs, the dismal croaking of “greedy ravens and devouring crows.”

The Company, it was said, had cut down the oaks that should have built the royal ships; it had raised the price of timber for merchant vessels by five shillings a load; it was in truth “a parricide of woods.” Its gains, “the price of blood,” “bought with so many men’s lives,” had,

Page 167

the nation was assured, killed and worn out the mariners who formed the defence of England, and left a multitude of widows and orphans to an unhappy fate. “The whole land” was called to protest against the drain of bullion that “causeth the body of this commonwealth to be wounded sore.” As the Portuguese “were the enemies of Christendom, for. they carried the treasure of Europe to enrich the heathen,” so the Company was the enemy of England, which, between the export of coin and the Dutch, had become a blind Belisarius begging by the wayside.

To these popular denunciations, many of them ill-founded, some of them insincere, the Company opposed an array of facts, convincing to the modern economist. But the English political economy of that day was a compound of medieval tradition and national prejudice; the true principles of currency and commerce emerged only in the following century. Meanwhile the enemies of the India trade had mediaeval tradition and national prejudice on their side. The fact that the Company’s defence had to be conducted by its own servants or members deepened the popular distrust.

It was in vain that Sir Dudley Digges, in 1615, proved that the statements about the consumption of timber, the loss of mariners, and the export of coin were exaggerated, or compensated by counter benefits to the nation. For Sir Dudley Digges had been a candidate for the governorship of the Company in the preceding year. He did not help his case by insulting contrasts between “the idle drone and the greedy cater-

Page 168

pillars” who lived at ease in England, and the “laborious bees” in the East who “bring the honey to the hive.” Nor did the public take seriously his metaphor, which was destined to prove so true, of the Company as a “Hercules yet in the cradle.” We must, indeed, distinguish between the young Sir Dudley Digges of 1615 dabbling in the City, and the mature Sir Dudley Digges who stood forth for the Commons in the impeachment of Buckingham, and gave voice to the nation on the Petition of Right. Yet Sir Dudley Digges of the East India Company, under the first Stuart king, came near to the principles by which Sir Dudley North of the Turkey Company, under the last Stuarts, anticipated the doctrines of Adam Smith. In the case alike of the earlier and the later Sir Dudley, the actual facts of our Eastern commerce supplied the basis for sounder economics.

Thomas Mun’s “Discourse of Trade,” in 1621, formed by far the ablest statement of the case on behalf of the adventurers. But to his contemporaries Mun appeared as a wealthy director of the Company, who was rewarded for his advocacy by the offer of the inspectorship of its factories in India. His arguments were in advance of the age, and as we shall find them reiterated in the Company’s petition to Parliament in 1628, I need not pause over them here. On the public they had little effect. The Company still continued to be the Jason that had stolen away England’s golden fleece of bullion. “The. clamorous complaints,” which induced Mun to come forward in its defence, continued

Page 169

The Kaiser Bagh at Lucknow

as “loud as before,” “the only remedy” being “to put down this trade.”

Nor could the Company hope much from the king, to whose act of prerogative it owed its existence. The Crown had commenced anew the encroachments which James had on more than one occasion effusively relinquished. How far the royal aggression can be excused we shall presently examine. To the despondent adventurers it seemed to threaten the finishing stroke. It was bad enough that their interests should be the sport of an evasive foreign policy: thrown over in favour of Portugal when his Majesty sought a Spanish marriage; and sacrificed to a Dutch alliance when Prince Charles returned angry and sore from his wooing at Madrid. It also rankled that the Company should be bidden by a courtier, Sir William Heydon, and Endymion Porter, the groom of the prince’s bedchamber, to carry to India two emissaries whom it believed to be rivals in trade. But when King James arrested its ships and stigmatized the directors as “pirates” because, under legal advice, they refused to comply with certain demands of the Crown, the situation grew well-nigh intolerable. The end came when Charles was found conniving at the opposition within the Company’s own courts, and encouraging the “battulated” member, Smethwike, to raise the whole question of the Indian trade before his Majesty’s Council. Meanwhile the Company, on the flood-tide of popular feeling which bore forward the Petition of Right, appealed in 1628 to Parliament.

Its “Remonstrance” begins almost in the language

Page 170

A Moslem merchant in Ceylon

of despair. It prays the House that “if the said trade be found unprofitable to the commonwealth it may be suppressed, and if otherwise that then it may be supported and continued by some public declaration.” But it presently rises to a higher tone. Drawn up by Thomas Mun and revised by Sir John Coke, the memorial answers one by one all the objections that had been urged. during the past twenty-eight years against the Company. It is in fact Mun’s “Discourse of Trade,” reduced to language of precision, and developing in detail economic arguments which Mun’s book of 1621 had more timidly wrapped up.

So far from weakening the nation, the Company urged that its fleets formed a vast training school for the English marine, a magazine from which the royal navy could draw both men and munitions of war. That so far from decreasing the national wealth, it brought

Page 171

to England a store of Indian products of which only a portion was consumed at home, while the greater part was re-exported to other countries, at a large profit to the realm. Of £208,000 worth of pepper imported in 1627, no less than £180,000 worth was re-exported abroad. It urged that while the Crown thus secured an increase to its customs, the people were enabled to buy spices at much lower rates; although in some articles the Dutch interference had again doubled the prices. That the gentry gained by the increased exportation of wool and woolen stuffs, “which doth improve the landlords’ rents.” That the Company was in fact become a defence of the commonwealth, “to counterpoise the Hollanders’ swelling greatness by trade, and to keep them from being absolute Lords of the Seas.” It had also deprived Spain of the “incredible advantage of adding the traffique of the East Indies to the treasure of the West.” That if the English trade with the Indies should fail, then other English commerce would fail with it, and pass into the hands of the Dutch.

The Company thus grounded its first appeal to Parliament on a broadly national basis. But the charge of draining the country of its bullion was more difficult to meet. In 1621, Mun had exposed the exaggerated character of this complaint, and shown that during the previous twenty years the Company shipped only half a million sterling, not in English coinage but in Spanish reals, while licensed to export three-quarters of a million. In 1628, in the Remonstrance to the Commons,

Page 172

he took a bolder stand. The Company declared that the export of bullion to buy Indian wares, which it resold to foreign nations at a great profit, was a good employment for the national treasure It declared that, since England had neither gold nor silver, she could acquire bullion only “by making our commodities which are exported, to overbalance in value the foreign wares which we consume.” “It is not ... the keeping of our money in the kingdom which makes a quick and ample trade, but the necessity and use of our wares in foreign countries, and our want of their commodities which causeth the vent and consumption on all sides.”

“For,” as Mun privately wrote, “if we only behold the actions of the husbandman in the seed-time when he casteth away much good corn into the ground, we will rather accompt him a madman than a husbandman; but when we consider his labours in the harvest, which is the end of his endeavours, we find the worth and plentiful encrease of his actions.”

This early enunciation of the Mercantile System, which anticipated Colbert’s acceptance of it by a quarter of a century, fell flat in 1628. Parliament was too busy with the Petition of Rights to spare time for the complaints of the Company. But even if it had had the leisure, it was too deeply ingrained with the old prejudice against exporting bullion, to be enticed by new-fangled economics. Four years previously, on a motion “to search the East India ships for money,” the Company’s friends were answered by tumultuous cries of “stay the money that they send out of the

Page 173

land,” “search the books.” Cheap pepper and cloves mattered little to the country gentlemen of England, battling for their liberties with the Crown.

To the people at large the Company represented the survival of a royal prerogative, which had grown unpopular even under Elizabeth, become intolerable under James, and was, in 1624, sternly curtailed by statute. A monopoly might be needful for the armed trade which was then the only trade possible in the East. Yet to the rising spirit of the nation, the exclusive privileges granted to the Company by King James seemed scarcely more bearable than those granted by the Borgian Pope to Portugal and Spain. Its sufferings, with the exception of the Amboyna outrage, touched no chord of popular sympathy. Up to 1628, books for or against the Company were published at intervals. But from its appeal to Parliament in 1628 onwards until 1640, I do not find that a single book or pamphlet in its interests issued from the press. Parliament and the nation left the Company severely alone to the king.

The aggressions of the early Stuarts on the Company, often denounced as mere acts of extortion, are disclosed by a dispassionate inquiry in a somewhat different light. The Crown regarded the Company as its own creation, and knew it to be in continual need of its support. It had made over to the Corporation a privilege of a highly marketable value – the monopoly of the Indian trade – which it could have sold and resold at large prices to successive groups of adventurers. The king also armed the Company with powers of military

Page 174

aggression on sea and land, and he had to maintain it by the royal power in what went near to a piratical warfare on the ships of friendly Christian nations.

The Crown expected in return, not only the stipulated customs which it would in any case have received from successive groups of adventurers, but also a complaisance to its creatures, and loans or gifts of money. This necessity for paying for what was in fact a curtailment of the trade-liberties of the nation continued long after the power of curtailment passed from the Crown to Parliament. Such payments grew, indeed, from rare and grudging benevolences to the first Stuart kings, into large and frequent loans to the constitutional government.

In dealing with the Company James I might scold, Charles I might sigh, and Charles II might laugh; but they all understood their power and were equally resolved to profit by it. “Did I deliver you from the complaint of the Spaniards and do you return me nothing? “James I replied angrily to the directors when they refused the two-tenths of the £100,000 worth of booty seized at Ormuz. The directors took legal advice, wriggled long on the hook, but in the end paid the £20,000 to his Majesty and the Lord High Admiral. James, indeed, was as ready to share the misfortunes of the Company as he was determined to profit by its successes. During the darkest days of Amboyna he offered to become a freeman of the Company, and to support it with the royal authority and the right of carrying the royal flag. The Company foresaw, however,

Page 175

that with so high a personage among them they would lose “the free election” of their own officers, who must in the end become the nominees of the king and court. They also feared being “drawn into actions of war” and costly enterprises of state. They thus avoided the rocks on which the French Companies afterwards suffered shipwreck, and humbly declined his Majesty’s proposal.

The kingcraft which James I naively professed, Charles I feebly practised. His release, in 1628, of the Dutch ships which he had promised to hold fast as the sole means of securing redress for Amboyna, came like a stab in the dark to the Company. Nor did his unprecedented complaisance in sending the lords of his Council to Leadenhall Street to explain away the transaction avail more than to tinge resentment with contempt. The directors knew perfectly that it was the royal revenge for their Petition and Remonstrance to Parliament in the preceding spring. But Charles, unlike James, kept his temper and did not use bad words. Swallowing his wrath at the directors’ appeal to Parliament, he assured them in July, 1628, that such was his love to commerce in general and to the Company in particular that he would not have them doubt of his protection, and meanwhile he would feel obliged for a loan of £10,000. As the loan was not forthcoming, he transferred his civilities to the Dutch. In the following month he was said to have taken their bribe of £30,000, and he certainly let their ships go.

Charles thus learned early in his reign that the Company,

Page 176

Travelling snake-charmers at Surat

while ready to gratify the royal love of “varieties” by the gift of a leopard or other strange Indian beast, was not to be squeezed of hard cash. But his courtiers discovered more subtle means. The Company imported saltpetre, and this could not be sold till his

Page 177

Majesty’s pleasure was known as to whether he might want it for gunpowder, or until payments had passed secretly to the court. As the royal distresses increased he acted more vigorously, and in 1640, the Company having no money to lend him, he forced it to sell him on credit £65,000 worth of pepper, which he promptly resold for cash at a loss of £6000. His Majesty’s profit on the transaction was nevertheless a handsome one, as all that the Company received from him seems to have been £13,000, certain disputed exemptions from customs dues, and the privilege of taking timber from the Forest of Dean.

So ingenious a device would not bear repetition. Charles, however, had already hit on a surer plan for making money out of the Indian trade. The charter of James I granted the monopoly to the Company for ever. But it contained a proviso for the resumption of the privilege, on three years’ notice from the Crown, if the grant should not prove profitable to the realm. On this matter the king was the sole judge. He was surrounded by courtiers with their salaries in arrears, and by adventurers eager to show him a more excellent way, and to pay secret money for the permission to do so. How could he be sure that a Company, which constantly paraded its losses, was carrying on a trade profitable to the realm, unless he allowed others to try their hand? He had done many things for the Company, encouraged its efforts to raise fresh capital, issued royal proclamations to help it against its servants’ private trade, written letters to Eastern potentates,

Page 178

negotiated with Spain and Holland on its behalf, offered to send an envoy to the Great Moghul, and was he to get nothing for his pains? By some such casuistry Charles seems to have felt justified in allowing his courtiers and their City friends to experiment in the Indian trade.

The records of the Company during his reign are full of the ignominious struggle which ensued. The king commenced cautiously by compelling the Company in 1630 to find a passage for the Earl of Denbigh, who had been seized by a desire to visit India and Persia; not altogether without an eye to business, as, on his return, he was reported to have landed sixty bales of indigo and other goods secretly at Dover, and conveyed them in carts to Southwark.

Four years after Denbigh’s return, Prince Rupert, aged eighteen, appeared as the figurehead of a court clique for colonizing Madagascar, then regarded as a half-way house to India and within the limits of the Company’s charter. This is proved by manuscript entries in the Court Book, under the date March 20, 1637. The Company’s protests might have availed little; but the young adventurer’s mother, the Queen of Bohemia, laughed at the scheme as a Quixote’s isle of Barataria, “neither feasible, safe, nor honourable.” So, in spite of a servile poem by Davenant, Prince Rupert, or “Prince Robert” as he appears in the Company’s records, went off to the siege of Breda instead. Lord Arundell, who succeeded to the leadership of the project, not only proposed to plant a colony

Page 179

in Madagascar, but asked for a contract “to transport the Company’s pepper and other commodities from thence to England.” The Company politely thanked his lordship, said that it had enough ships of its own, and firmly refused a passage for him or his friends.

But it was not with noble and princely personages that the Company had mainly to strive. Wealthy merchants were now willing to stake their fortunes on breaking down the Company’s monopoly, and they found gentlemen about the king’s person ready, for a consideration, to gain his Majesty’s ear. The most famous of these cabals of the City and Whitehall was Courten’s Association; it had lasting consequences on the India trade, and it illustrates the hostile combinations to which the Company, as long as it depended on the royal favour, was exposed. The chief actors in the drama were Sir William Courten and Sir Paul Pindar, two London merchants, who between them “lent” the king £200,000; and with them was Endymion Porter, groom of the bedchamber and his Majesty’s factotum for secret affairs.

William Courten started as a plain London trader, the son of a Flemish Protestant clothier who had found refuge in England under Elizabeth and prospered beneath her protecting rule. William learned business at Haarlem, and began usefully by marrying the deaf and dumb daughter of a Dutch merchant who brought him £60,000. Returning to London, he grew into a great merchant with ships trading to Portugal, the African coast, and the West Indies. He had the distinction in

Page 180

1619 of being fined £20,000 by the Star Chamber for exporting gold – an experience sweetened after three years by a knighthood from James. This mingled taste of royal discipline and kingly favour led him to seek closer relations with the court, and in 1625 he modestly applied for a grant of the “Terra Australis Incognita,” or Unknown South of the World. Three years later, letters patent, more limited in scope and discreetly addressed to the Earl of Pembroke – the late king’s gentleman of the bedchamber, and a spirited company-promoter for Virginia, the Northwest Passage, South America, and elsewhere – were granted “in trust for Sir Wiliam Courten.” The project failed, and Sir William, with a purse ever open to his Majesty’s needs, obtained in 1635 a more promising license for the East Indian trade.

His principal partner in the adventure was Sir Paul Pindar, a man of good family, born after Elizabeth’s accession and educated for the University, but with a natural genius for commerce. He learned the secrets of the Eastern trade during fifteen years of profitable business in Venice and Italy, and practised them for nine years more as James’s envoy, and the nominee of the Levant Company, in Turkey. He brought home so great a fortune that Buckingham fitted out Prince Charles for his wooing trip to Madrid with Pindar’s diamonds, saying he would talk about payment afterwards. One fine jewel, valued at £35,000, Pindar was wont to lend James I to wear on state occasions; and in two transactions alone he handed over diamonds to

Page 181

An Indian tinsel-worker

the value of £26,000 on the payment-deferred system to Charles. His loans to his Majesty were reckoned at £100,000, besides moneys to the queen and royal children; for (as Carew wrote) “this Sir Paul never fails the king when he has most need.” To so generous a financier a Stuart king could pot stint his favours by scruples as to chartered rights.

The two merchants took into partnership an ally more influential than either. Endymion Porter, poetaster,

Page 182

courtier, speculator, virtuoso, patron of the Muses and of the Olympic Games on the Cotswold Hills, was a sort of Jacobean echo of Elizabethan Philip Sidney, with Zutphen left out. We have seen Sidney himself a defaulting subscriber to North-western Passages. Porter married the niece of Buckingham, accompanied the favourite and Prince Charles to Spain, and on Charles’s succession to the crown became groom of the king’s bedchamber. His portrait in the National Portrait Gallery shows a tall and graceful dilettante, with a face full of interest and intrigue, while another portrait of him in the same gallery displays a stouter sylvan hero elaborately accoutred for the chase. On more than one occasion this royal official had acted as go-between to the court and the Company; and in 1635, certain drainage projects of his on a royal grant of land in Lincolnshire having failed, he was on the lookout for some means of mending his fortunes.

The confederates, Courten, Pindar, and Porter, commanded a greater capital than the Company could then raise, and they wielded an influence with which it could not cope. In 1628 it had asked Parliament either to uphold it or to abolish the trade. Parliament had vouchsafed no answer, and the Company had ever since been wearying the king with tales of its losses. A trade so disastrous to its conductors could scarcely be profitable to the realm, within the meaning of the charter, especially when new capitalists were willing to take it up with more energy, and spirit. The three allies formed the bold design of erecting themselves into a

Page 183

rival Company, with the king as their partner – a partner who should bring in no money, but earn his profits by his secret support.

Charles had a plain course open to him. He had only to give the East India Company the three years’ notice required by the charter, and either resume its monopoly or force it to come to terms. Some of its members were quite ready for a compromise, and indeed preferred the “Regulated” system of separate ventures to a Joint Stock. Others were so despondent that they desired nothing better than to have three years allowed for bringing home their ships and property. In 1635 the king granted a license to his three friends on the ground that the Company had consulted only its own interests, neglected those of the nation, and broken the conditions on which its exclusive privileges had been bestowed. Instead, however, of giving the three years’ notice Charles assured the Company that the new association would not trade within its jurisdiction, but was to “be employed on some secret design which his Majesty at present thought not fit to reveal.”

In vain the dismayed governor waited in the Whitehall antechamber all forenoon. He only succeeded in thrusting a petition into the king’s hand as his Majesty passed forth after dinner, but got not a word in reply. News soon arrived that two of Courten’s ships which sailed “without any cargoes” almost as undisguised privateers, had plundered an Indian vessel in the Red Sea; and that the Company’s servants at Surat were

Page 184

The Old East India House on Leadenhall Street, 1726–1796

After an old drawing

in prison for the piracy. Other of Courten’s captains so outraged the Canton magistrates that the English were declared enemies of the Chinese Empire, and were to be forever excluded from its ports.

Projects by interlopers for plantations in Madagascar and the Mauritius; armed settlements by Courten’s agents on the Malabar coast; and their open hostility to the Company’s servants at Surat and elsewhere now become the staple of the India Office records. The Company’s factors in the East vainly begged for orders as to whether they were to obey the charter of King James, or the letters of King Charles which the newcomers flourished in their faces.

Page 185

Charles had another chance given him. On Sir William Courten’s death in 1636 his grant lapsed, and the king had only to enforce the three years’ notice clause of the Company’s charter in order to compel its despondent and wearied shareholders to a coalition. But his secret bonds forbade open methods, so he desired the Company not to trouble the dying man about the ships, and presently issued a new license to his son, William Courten, and his associates.

The remaining years of freedom left to Charles form a record of subterfuges to conceal his real relations to the rival companies. If the old Company arrested a servant of the new one for infringing its charter, the king did not defend him, but merely ordered his release. If the old Company by process of law stayed the interlopers’ ships, his Majesty or the lords of his Council arranged to let them go. He was prodigal of good wishes to the directors, dangled wider privileges before their eyes, and pressed on them the good offices of his government to compose the disputes which his own action had stirred up. But their attendance on the Privy Council only resulted in royal rebukes delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and reproaches from Lord Arundell.

The Company was in no humour to be harangued by Howard, or to be lectured by Laud. His Majesty’s request that if the Earl of Southampton, “who is a noble and brave gentleman, shall make any offer or proposition to the Company” (needless to say for the brave gentleman’s own benefit), “that they shall be

Page 186

pleased to hearken unto it,” fell on deaf ears. The Company had tried his Majesty’s courts in vain; it had tried his Majesty’s Privy Council in vain; it had tried the king in person in vain. Slowly and very reluctantly it resolved once more to try the House of Commons.

Charles became afraid. The same need of money which had tempted him into a confederacy against the Company now compelled him to summon. a Parliament. Within four days of its meeting in April, 1640, the Company was considering whether it should not lay its wrongs before the Commons. Mr. Recorder, however, counselled it not “to make his Majesty’s proceedings notorious,” and the abrupt dissolution of Parliament, after a three weeks’ wrangle with the Crown, seemed to put an end to the project. The Company’s stock fell so low that £100 of it sold for £60, as is shown by the entries of the Court Book. But in November of the same year the king, with a mutinous army and the Scotch war on his hands, was forced again to call together the estates of the realm. The Long Parliament met in wrath at the king’s creatures, and promptly arrested Strafford. In January, 1641, the Company, feeling that it was once more on the flood-tide of popular feeling, petitioned Parliament against Courten and against Endymion Porter, his Majesty’s groom of the bedchamber.

Charles in distress sent hurried messages to the governor of the Company to attend at Whitehall. The counsellors, on whose audacity he had relied, were

Page 187

Sculptured Figures of the Great Temple at Madura, Southern India

The peculiar and elaborate character of Southern Indian art, which stands in striking contrast to the classic Greek, is well illustrated by the stone sculptures in the great temple at Madura. An immense profusion of detail, bizarre and often grotesque effects, are among the noticeable features of the style, but strength and massiveness are not wanting.

themselves trembling; Strafford and Laud were impeached. Mr. Secretary Windebank and Lord Keeper Finch were soon to take flight, the Star Chamber and the Court of High Commission were doomed. The king at length confessed to the governor of the Company “that Mr. Porter had nothing to do in the business, his name only being used; that what was done was his Majesty’s act.” The petition, therefore, must not go forward. The governor feared it was too late: the petition had been delivered to the House on Friday night.

The king astutely replied that it was not too late, as the petition had not yet been read; and that he had in view a very fine thing for the Company, but that “without him they could never get a penny.” With a spark of the royal spirit which flickered up in his worst distresses, Charles declared that if the petition were pressed he would publicly own that Porter was only a screen for himself. In the end the governor sent round to the House of Commons, recovered the petition, and begged the Company to believe he had acted for the best, although “as yet he durst not divulge the reasons thereof.”

Charles was grateful for his escape. His thanks to the Company, and those of his groom of the bedchamber, were the prelude to a real effort to afford it redress. Courten supposed, however, that he still had the king secretly on his side, and insisted on terms which put an end to the negotiations. The Company now gave up further hopes from Charles. In June, 1641, it petitioned

Page 188

A scene in the Bombay Presidency, Western India

Parliament, and thenceforward boldly laid its grievances before the Commons.

But Parliament regarded the Company as the creation of the royal prerogative, and was by no means ardent on its behalf. It forbade the reprinting of the Amboyna Book against the Dutch, although Courten’s “Red Sea Pyrate” captain was at length lodged in prison, in 1642.

To the Commons, indeed, the Company seemed one of the secret sources of money which had helped Charles to do without their constitutional supplies. The Company now threw itself on their mercy, and in 1646 attempted to re-incorporate itself on a Parliamentary basis, under the form of an “Ordinance for the Trade,” which practically re-affirmed the provisions

Page 189

of its royal charter. The Commons, after a good deal of money had been spent, agreed, and gave Courten three years to withdraw from India. But the House of Lords rejected the bill, in spite of the report of their own committee in its favour. The Company was at the end of its resources, and a new joint stock could not be raised. In 1646 the governor, in despair, advised the shareholders to “draw home their factors and estate,” yet the court determined to go on for another year. In 1648 it resolved to abolish seven of its Indian factories.

The Company was a loyal body, but Charles wore out its loyalty. The fines and sequestrations afterwards laid on its stubbornly royalist members by Parliament and the Commonwealth fill many documents. Indeed, the sole great act of betrayal perpetrated by a servant of the Company was committed in the king’s cause. Captain Mucknell treacherously carried his ship into Bristol, then held for his Majesty, and made her over for the support of the war against Parliament at a loss of £20,000 to his masters. It was a useless crime, and only added resentment to the directors’ distrust of the king. Whatever his Majesty might say, the Company had always found that he left something unsaid, and that the royal prerogative, which he professed to exercise on its behalf, was at the secret service of its rivals.

Yet if these records disclose Charles I in an unheroic light, they also enable us to understand how he salved his own conscience. The kings of Portugal and of Spain

Page 190

had drawn large profits from the Indian trade, the King of France was about to try to do so, and why should Charles alone among the sovereigns of Europe deny himself? Nor is it by any means clear how far his early connivance with the opposition inside the Company, or with its “battulated” member, was his own act or that of the creatures about him. To force the Company to sell him its pepper, and then quickly to resell it at a loss without paying for it, would be called by an ill name in a modern law court. But the king had given bonds for the amount, and when they could not be realized, there is a pathos in his momentary earnestness to make restitution, even by the sale of the royal parks. When he violated the charter by a license to, and his secret partnership in, Courten’s Association, he half-believed that he secured the Company from damage by the condition that the new adventurers should not trade to its disadvantage. India was surely wide enough for both, and the king fancied that he could partition the Indian markets between the two without loss to either.

To all this there is a plain answer. Charles was not an absolute monarch like the kings of Spain, or Portugal, or France, and his very twinges of conscience show that he knew it. Even if he had been an absolute sovereign, his father had limited the exercise of the royal prerogative by the charter granted to the Company. He might have withdrawn that charter by giving the three years’ notice to the Company and firmly facing its opposition. But to this straightforward course

Page 191

Charles could never make up his mind. Elizabeth, imperious, wayward, yet sensible, had maintained the royal prerogative of monopolies by surrendering its abuses. Under James I, a genuine although foolish person, that prerogative had received a rude shock; under Charles I it became a discredited legend. His high pretensions and low expedients wearied out the Company, as they had wearied out the nation; and the Company’s appeal to Parliament was the commercial counterpart of the nation’s appeal to the sword.

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
hosted by ibiblio Support Wikipedia