The East India Company’s charter of incorporation, dated 31 December, 1600, provided the Company with a monopoly of all English – and later British – trade East of the Cape of Good Hope. Dutch voyages to Asia in the closing years of the 16th century had encouraged expectations of high profits to be made from the spice trade, and on 13 February, 1601, the English East India Company’s first fleet of four ships sailed from Woolwich, bound for the pepper producing islands of Java and Sumatra.

Between 1601 and 1614, 11 more Company fleets were sent to Asia. Each one of the fleets operated as a “separate stock voyage”, meaning that they were separately financed, kept their own accounts, and paid their own dividends, before the separate voyages were replaced by a single joint stock in 1614, which provided continuous financing for annual sailings. By the early 1800s, sailings had reached a peak of 40-50 ships per year.

A sketch of the ship Rooke in a storm off Cape Bonesprance. Credit: The British Library

Account books

At first, the Company either bought or built its own ships. However, from 1639 the Company began to hire ships, and after the closure of the Company’s dockyard at Blackwall in 1652, freighting from private owners became the general practice. Ships were built to agreed specifications by groups of managing ship-owners on the understanding that they would be hired by the Company.

By the end of the 18th century, however, ships which had not been built specifically for the Company’s service were increasingly being hired or licensed for voyages to Asia. Whilst the owners were responsible for providing the crew for the ships, the officers were appointed by the Company, which tightly controlled aspects of the voyages including the pay for all ranks, private trade by crew members, and the precise amounts that could be charged for passage.

It was the regular practice for the commander and other principal officers of a ship to keep a full account of the voyage in a journal or log-book, which would eventually be handed in to East India House, the Company headquarters. From about the beginning of the 18th century these were supplemented by an official log, that was kept in a special form book supplied by the Company.

The Company preserved the journals as evidence for the fulfilment of the terms of the charter. They were available for study by any East India Company ship commander, and the often detailed observations and navigational information they contain were utilised extensively by successive hydrographers for the purposes of improving the marine charts published by the Company.

Far and wide

Enhanced catalogue descriptions have been created for journals of ships that visited ports in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, and these journals have been digitised and are being made freely available on the Qatar Digital Library website as part of the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership.

They constitute an extraordinarily rich and valuable set of primary sources for numerous areas of research, including: the history of global trade networks; encounters between British merchants and crews and diverse people in different parts of Asia, Africa and elsewhere; the origins of British imperialism; rivalry between European powers in Asia; long-distance marine navigation; the experience of everyday life on board ship, and during lengthy voyages, for members of the crew; and historic weather patterns over the course of more than two centuries.

The first 12 voyages all had Indonesia as their primary destination, and the first English “factory” or trading post in Asia was established at Bantam, now Banten, on the island of Java. England’s main export of woollen cloth proved unpopular in Southeast Asia, however, whereas Indian cottons were discovered to be in high demand.

India was comprised of a number of distinct trading zones, each governed by separate and independent states, with each state being historically and commercially linked to a number of trading areas in both East and West Asia. Gujarati ships, for example, had long sailed to Java and Sumatra, exporting cotton in return for pepper and spices, as well as trading with the ports of the Red Sea and the Gulf.

It was in order to explore new possibilities for trade, to capitalise on these existing trade links, and to discover potential markets for English woollens, that the ships of the Third Voyage were instructed to sail to Bantam via the Arabian Sea and Surat. The latter was the principal port of the Indian Mughal Empire, and it was where the Company would establish its main factory in India.

By 1620 the “Presidents” or Chief Factors at Bantam and Surat controlled nearly 200 factors spread out across more than a dozen trading centres, from Macassar, now Makassar, to Masulipatnam, now Machilipatnam, and from the Malabar Coast to the Red Sea.

In addition to Bantam and Surat, other destinations of the voyages included Persia, now Iran, where raw silk was obtained, and Mocha in Southern Yemen, where coffee could be purchased. Indeed, by the 1660s, coffee had become the staple export of the Red Sea ports. Other ports of call in Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula included Aden, Socotra, Bandar ‘Abbas, Jeddah, Muscat, Jask, Masirah and Qeshm.

Further destinations included Madras, Bombay, Calcutta, Calicut, Borneo, and Japan. The journals also record the ships calling at a variety of other places, in India, and elsewhere, such as: Table Bay, the Cape of Good Hope, St Helena, Madagascar, Mayotte, Joanna, Mauritius, Comoros, Batavia, Malacca, Rio de Janeiro, Trinidad, Santiago on Cape Verde, Texel, and Macau.

A sketch of the "Ship Defence at Anchor in Table Bay". Credit: The British Library/In Defence: Journal, 4 November 1738-11 Oct 1740

Travels and travails

The daily entries in the journals record: the arrival and departure of the ships from the various ports of call on the voyages; wind and other weather conditions; actions performed by members of the crew; encounters with other ships, including accounts of engagements with Portuguese ships; disease and deaths amongst the crew; punishments inflicted on crew members for various offences; and sometimes sightings of birds, fish, and other marine animals.

Entries for when the ships were in port also record the provisioning of the ships, goods being loaded onto the ships, and goods and chests of treasure being unloaded from the ships and taken ashore for trading purposes. Entries for when the ships were at sea additionally record navigational information, including measurements of latitude, longitude, variation, and the courses of the ships, as well as sightings and bearings of land. Sketches, mostly of coastlines, can also occasionally be found in the journals.

Entries from the journal of the London, July 1724, when the ship was at anchor in Mocha Road, recording weather conditions, bales of coffee being received on board, and the death of the Chief Mate, Joshua Thomas Moor. Credit: The British Library

The journals sometimes mention other significant or interesting incidents, such as: an earthquake felt at sea off the coast of Sumatra on 27 May 1623; the reception given to the crew of the New Year’s Gift by the King of Socotra in September 1614; the massacre of 12 members of the Nathaniel’s crew at Hawar, on the Southern coast of Arabia, East of Aden, on 4 September 1715; and a meeting between Captain Richard Shuter of the Wyndham and the “kings” of Anjouan and Mayotte on 14 July 1736.

Some of the files take the form of ships’ ledger books, consisting of accounts of pay and other financial records of each of the ship’s crew members, and lists of the crew. Some also include lists of crew members, any passengers, East India Company soldiers, as well as local Indian, Portuguese, and Arab “lascars” transported by the ships.

In addition to these, others catalogues include: abstracts of ship’s journals; correspondence related to the Euphrates expedition of 1835-’36; journals and other descriptions of journeys in and around the Arabian Peninsula and India; a list of ships, in alphabetical order with full physical descriptions, names of builders, where they were built, and their launch dates; and other files, including volumes containing various documents relating to East India Company shipping.

The renewal of the East India Company’s charter in 1813 limited its monopoly to trade with China, opening up the whole of British India to private enterprises, except for trade in tea. Then under the Charter Act of 1833 the Company’s remaining monopolies were abolished and the Company ceased to be a commercial organisation, although it continued to administer British India and other territories on behalf of the Crown until 1858. This led to a large-scale destruction of mercantile records, but fortunately the marine records survived, and those which relate to the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula are now being made freely accessible through the Qatar Digital Library.

This article first appeared on The British Library’s Asian and African studies blog.