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During the Elizabethan era there was little to distinguish between the Royal and Merchant Navies as most of the expeditions were undertaken on behalf of the crown by, in many cases, officers of the crown. One minute our Elizabethan heroes were plundering the Spanish Main as privateers or looking for new routes to the spice islands in the east, the next, fighting the Spanish fleet as admirals and vice admirals, picking up knighthoods along the way. However, with the development of overseas trade and colonies two separate navies were soon to evolve with individual identities; the merchant navy carrying cargoes, passengers and, eventually, the mails and the royal navy providing armed protection against ships of other nations and pirates.

As trading routes and colonies were being established merchants looking for new products and markets were keen to venture further. But the risks were greater. Small groups of merchants who, hitherto, had traded in single commodities around the coasts of the British Isles and Northern Europe did not have the resources to finance expeditions to the new found lands. However, these entrepreneurs began to organise themselves into marketing areas with the objective of maintaining a monopoly of trade in a particular part of the world, and they would resort to using force if necessary to protect that monopoly. Companies were formed, usually by royal charter and, although there were several, the Muscovy Company, founded in 1553, was the first English trading company to be set up on a joint stock basis, the profits and the risks being shared amongst participants. The Hudson's Bay Company, founded in 1668, still exists today but the most notable company was the Honourable East India Company.

The Honourable East India Company was one of eight companies established at the end on the 16th century to exploit trade in India, the East Indies and the Far East. The other seven were set up by Holland, France, Denmark, Scotland, Spain and Austria but only the Dutch company was of any significance.

Denied the spice, peppers, cloves, nutmegs, ginger and fragrances of the East and worried by soaring prices a meeting of concerned merchants was convened by the Lord Mayor of London in September 1569 to decide on what action should be taken to combat the crippling monopoly of trade held by the Dutch. It was agreed to form a company, the Company of London Merchants trading to the East Indies, and to acquire ships. The company took some time to mature but no one could guess then that the first steps had been taken to establish a mercantile empire that would last for more than 250 years, acquire jurisdiction over a sub-continent and amass a huge fleet of ships.

The Honourable East India Company was incorporated by the royal charter of Queen Elizabeth 1 on 31st December, 1600 with 215 shareholders and a share capital of £72,000. Sir Thomas Smythe was the first governor. The first voyages were undertaken by individual shareholders who took all the risk but also the profit. These ventures were referred to as separate voyages, but from 1612 all sailing's were made on behalf of the company. During this time the company's ships reached as far as Japan where, in 1612 and with the help of John Adams, friendly relations were established with the Shogun of Japan and favourable trading concessions obtained. Trading centres or factories were also being established on the mainland of India at Masulipatam and Pettapoli but this upset the newly formed Dutch East India Company to the extent that a virtual war existed between the two companies. Agreement to quell the disputes was reached in 1619 but the truce only lasted for one hour before the recriminations started once again and fighting broke out. The fighting reached a peak in 1623 when, protected by a flag of truce, English merchants were tortured and massacred by the Dutch governor at Amboyna.

The East India companies established and equipped their own dockyards to build the ships and in 1609 the English company built its dockyard at Deptford on the River Thames. The ships were larger than anything else built anywhere in the world, were constructed of wood, highly decorated and gilded, and the interiors were finished to a very high standard as much for the comfort of the captain, officers and passengers as for cargo carrying capacity. For more than 200 years there was nothing more superior than the East Indiamen anywhere in the shipping world and the stately, magnificent ships were considered to be the lords of the ocean. It wasn't until the 19th century, when private competition started to erode the monopoly enjoyed by these companies, that orders for ships were placed elsewhere. The English company used the Blackwall yard of Green & Wigram for the greater part of its shipbuilding programme.

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