Among the Harleian MSS. there is a delightful2 phrase written by a seventeenth-century writer, in which, treating of matters that are not immediately concerned with the present subject, he remarks very quaintly that the first article of an Englishman’s Politicall Creed must be that he believeth in ye Sea etc. Without that there needeth no general Council to pronounce him uncapable of Salvation.” This somewhat sweeping statement none the less aptly sums up the whole matter of our colonisation and overseas development. The entire glamour of the Elizabethan period, marked as it unfortunately is with many deplorable errors, is derived from the sea. With the appreciation of what could be attained by a combination of stout ships, sturdy seamen, navigation, seamanship, gunnery and high hopes that refused persistently to be daunted, the most farsighted began to see that success was for them. Honours, wealth, the founding of families that should treasure their names in future generations, the acquisition of fine estates and the building of large houses with luxuries that exceeded the Tudor pattern—these were the pictures which were conjured up in the imaginations of those who vested their fortunes and often their lives in these ocean voyages. The call of the sea had in England fallen mostly on deaf ears until the late sixteenth century. It is only because there were some who listened to it, obeyed, and presently led others to do as they had done, that the British Empire has been built up at all.
Our task, however, is to treat of one particular way in which that call has influenced the minds and activities of men. We are to see how that, if it summoned some across the Atlantic to the Spanish3 Main, it sent others out to the Orient, yet always with the same object of acquiring wealth, establishing trade with strange peoples, and incidentally affording a fine opportunity for those of an adventurous spirit who were unable any longer to endure the cramped and confined limitations of the neighbourhood in which they had been born and bred. And though, as we proceed with our story, we shall be compelled to watch the gradual growth and the vicissitudes of the East Indian companies, yet our object is to obtain a clear knowledge not so much of the latter as of the ships which they employed, the manner in which they were built, sailed, navigated and fought. When we speak of the Old East Indiamen” we mean of course the ships which used to carry the trade between India and Europe. And inasmuch as this trade was, till well on into the nineteenth century, the valuable and exclusive monopoly of the East India Company, carefully guarded against any interlopers, our consideration is practically that of the Company’s ships. After the Company lost their monopoly to India, their ships still possessed the monopoly of trading with China until the year 1833. After that date the Company sold the last of their fleet which had made them famous as a great commercial and political concern. In their place a number of new private firms sprang up, who bought the old ships from the East India Company, and even built new ones for the trade. These were very fine craft and acted as links between England and the East for a few years longer, reaching their greatest success between the years 1850 and 1870. But the opening of the Suez Canal and the enterprise of steamships sealed their fate, so that4 instead of the wealth which was obtained during those few years by carrying cargoes of rich merchandise between the East and the West, and transporting army officers, troops and private passengers, there was little or no money to be made by going round the Cape. Thus the last of the Indiamen sailing ships passed away—became coal-hulks, were broken up; or, changing their name and nationality, sailed under a Scandinavian flag.
The East India Company rose from being a private venture of a few enterprising merchants to become a gigantic corporation of immense political power, with its own governors, its own cavalry, artillery and infantry, its own navy, and yet with its trade-monopoly and its unsurpassed regular service” of merchantmen. The latter were the largest, the best built, and the most powerfully armed vessels in the world, with the exception only of some warships. They were, so to speak, the crack liners of the day, but they were a great deal more besides. Their officers were the finest navigators afloat, their seamen were at times as able as any of the crews in the Royal Navy, and in time of war the Government showed how much it coveted them by impressing them into its service, to the great chagrin and inconvenience of the East India Company, as we shall see later on in our story.