The British created a corporation called the "East India Company" as an extension of their privateering against the rest of Europe and their piracy across the globe. The East India company was according to Paul Rittman's sanitized history:
"The British East India Company was formed to share in the East Indian spice trade. This trade had been a near monopoly of Spain and Portugal until the Dutch moved into the region in the 1600s; after which they maintained the same control by trying to keep out other nations. The British were relative latecomers to the East Indies trade; the first British pilot to sail to India via the Cape of Good Hope (near the southern tip of South Africa), did so in 1582—almost a century after Vasco da Gama made the journey for Portugal." [Paul Rittman: R&F]
Rittman's narrative strips out context. There is always a motive for doing that. So let's resupply it. The context of the creation of the East India Company was the Protestant Reformation, the internal struggle between authoritarian absolutism and commonwealth and Piracy.
The Search for Loot
The East India Company was the outgrowth of not just any kind of commerce but of Privateering. Privateering is legal piracy. The British wars with France, Spain and other countries gave license to british Merchants such as the Hawkins family, to loot and steal on the high seas. The protestant reformation gave them license to directly challenge Spain and Portugal, who had been granted a monopoly over most of the world by the Pope. So when Rittman notes:
"One thing that motivated the British to trade in the East, was seeing the immense wealth of the ships that made the trip there, and back. In 1593, a captured Portuguese ship was hauled into a British port —1,500 tons burden, 700 men and 36 brass canon. This was the largest vessel that had ever been seen in Britain, her hull full of eastern cargo: gold, spices, calicos, silks, pearls, porcelain, and ivory." [Paul Rittman: R&F]
He is leaving out that the British were already up to their hips in a worldwide struggle against the Spanish and Portuguese. By 1600, Intrepid Pirates like Sir Francis Drake and is mentor the Hawkins family had been challenging the Spanish and Portuguese, and before them the French, for years. For example Sir Francis Drake cut his teeth privateering against the French:
"Francis was apprenticed to a merchant who sailed coastal waters trading goods between England and France. He took to navigation well and was soon enlisted by his relatives, the Hawkinses." [Drake]
A Privateer was an armed Merchant who saw a merchant ship from an enemy country and had a license to attack it. Privateering and piracy were alternative ways for "Sea Dogs" or ocean going merchants to make money. As illustrated by the Portuguese example a captured ship could be sold at auction for an immense fortune, and everyone from Captain on down would usually share in the prize money. Privateering, smuggling and legitimate enterprise were seen as a single profession by such merchants. A pirate was an outlaw who didn't have a license to steal.
Piracy and Slaving
That was really the only difference other than the virtual slavery of sailors aboard privateers and their "outlaw freedom" on pirate ships. So for example the slave trade involved (illegal) British sailors pretty much from it's inception. This biography of Sir Francis Drake notes that one of his earliest expeditions was to Africa and "New Spain" as a slaver. It also notes that Drake was employed by the Hawkins family and that they were slavers. It was a hazardous occupation. Especially during wartime.
"By the 1560s, Francis Drake was given command of his own ship, the Judith. With a small fleet, Drake and his cousin, John Hawkins, sailed to Africa to engage in the slave trade. They then sailed to New Spain to sell their captives to settlers, an action that was against Spanish law. In 1568, Drake and Hawkins were trapped in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua. The two escaped, but many of their men were killed. The incident instilled in Drake a deep hatred of the Spanish crown." [Drake]
King James and East India company Entrepreneurship
The only real difference between the earlier privateers and the East India Company was that this private warfare had been successful enough so that the British could dare to challenge that monopoly. By 1600 the British were secure enough to constitute companies to manage that trade:
"The East India Company (EIC) was incorporated by royal charter in 1600. The charter granted a monopoly of all English trade in all lands washed by the Indian Ocean (from the southern tip of Africa, to Indonesia in the South Pacific). Unauthorized (British) interlopers were liable to forfeiture of ships and cargo. The company was managed by a governor and 24 directors chosen from its stockholders." [Paul Rittman: R&F]
Initially the East India company was focused on the lucrative Spice Trade, centered on what is now Indonesia. But in 1608 East India company Ships:
"first arrived in India, at the port of Surat, in 1608. In 1615, Thomas Roe reached the court of the Mughal Emperor, as the emissary of King James I, and gained for the British the right to establish a factory at Surat. Gradually the British eclipsed the Portuguese and over the years they saw a massive expansion of their trading operations in India. Numerous trading posts were established along the east and west coasts of India, and considerable English communities developed around the three main towns of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras, with each of these three roughly equidistant from each other, along the coast of the Indian Ocean." [Paul Rittman: R&F]
Not equally of course. The Merchants who invested in these ships made the lions share of the loot. Even so for ordinary people and gentry (the little brothers of the nobility) becoming a Sea Dog could be a path to riches. But it could also be a path to death for ordinary seamen and their officers alike.
"Although the Spanish and Portuguese controlled the East Indies trade in the 1500s, the Dutch took it over from them in the 1600s. The Dutch were every bit as jealous about preserving these trade goods for themselves as the Spaniards and Portuguese were. The British were virtually excluded from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) after the Amboina Massacre in 1623. That year, the Dutch Governor beheaded ten Englishmen, another ten Japanese mercenaries and a Portuguese merchant, at Amboyna on a charge of conspiring to seize the fort. Not able to defend itself against the Dutch, the company conceded that region to them, and focused instead on what must have been considered a consolation prize, India." [Paul Rittman: R&F]
Again the context is missing. James the 1st was already the King of Scotland. But he came to power during a Tory Resurgence. The English and their frenemies and new friends the Scots were joining together:
"In the early hours of 24 March 1603, Elizabeth I died at Richmond. The 'Virgin Queen' made no explicit provision for an heir, fearing that she might encourage faction within her kingdom. Yet James VI of Scotland was smoothly proclaimed as the new king. There was no opposition, but equally no immediate celebration. The London diarist John Manningham slyly noted that the proclamation was met with 'silent joye, noe great shouting', although there were bonfires and bell-ringing that evening as the announcement sank in. Three days later in Edinburgh, the king himself received the news with exultation." [http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Elizabeth/]
Queen Elizabeth fought the Spanish and Portuguese because she had to. King James was not afraid of a Spanish invasion. When the now united Scots and English "Brits" fought; it was for "God, King, Country and loot.
To be Continued with "A History of Loot" - Next Chapter
- Rise and Fall of the British East India Company
- Francis Drake Biography Explorer (c. 1540–1596)
- James and Elizabeth
- Privateering and Piracy
- Many Kinds of Privateering
- An Ideology of Privateering
- Many forms of Freebooting
- Pirates and Privateers/Privatizing History
- Origins of the East India Company
- Bretton Woods, NeoColonialism and the "Money Men."
- Origins of the East India Company
- Corrupt Court and Undue Influence
- East India Company and Islamic Jihad
- Utility Versus the Pirates
- Tribunals Admiralty Courts & Privateers