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
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.