East Indiaman was a general name for any sailing ship operating under charter or licence to any of the East India trading companies of the major European trading powers of the 17th through the 19th centuries. The term is used to refer to vessels belonging to the Austrian, Danish, Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, or Swedish companies.
In Britain, the Honourable East India Company held a monopoly granted to it by Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1600 for all English trade between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, which was progressively restricted during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, until the monopoly was lost in 1834. English (later British) East Indiamen usually ran between England, the Cape of Good Hope and India, where their primary destinations were the ports of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. The Indiamen often continued on to China before returning to England via the Cape of Good Hope and Saint Helena. When the company lost its monopoly, the ships of this design were sold off. A smaller, faster ship known as a Blackwall Frigate was built for the trade as the need to carry heavy armaments declined.
Description of the sailing vessels and the trade
"East Indiaman" was a general name for any sailing ship operating under charter or licence to any of the East India Companies of the major European trading powers of the 17th through the 19th centuries. These include the Danish, Dutch, English, French, Portuguese and Swedish East India companies.
East Indiamen carried both passengers and goods, and were armed to defend themselves against pirates. Initially, the East Indiamen were built to carry as much cargo as possible, rather than for speed of sailing. The East India company had a monopoly on trade with India and China, supporting this design.
East Indiamen were the largest merchant ships regularly built during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, generally measuring between 1100 and 1400 tons burthen (bm). Two of the largest were the Earl of Mansfield and Lascelles being built at Deptford in 1795. The Royal Navy purchased both, converted them to 56-gun fourth rates, and renamed them Weymouth and Madras respectively. They measured 1426 tons (bm) on dimensions of approximately 175 feet overall length of hull, 144 feet keel, 43 feet beam, 17 feet draft.
In England, Queen Elizabeth I granted an exclusive right to the trade to the East India Company in 1600. This monopoly lasted until 1834. The company grew to encompass more than the trade between England and India, but the ships described in this article are the type used in the 17th to the early 19th centuries to carry the trade.
During the wars with France
During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars they were often painted to resemble warships; an attacker could not be sure if gunports were real or merely paint, and some Indiamen carried sizable armaments. The Royal Navy acquired several East Indiamen, turning them into fourth rates (e.g., HMS Weymouth and HMS Madras, described above), maintaining the confusion for military ships seeking merchant ships as prizes of war. In some cases the East Indiamen successfully fought off attacks by the French. One of the most celebrated of these incidents occurred in 1804, when a fleet of East Indiamen and other merchant vessels under Commodore Nathaniel Dance successfully fought off a marauding squadron commanded by Admiral Linois in the Indian Ocean in the Battle of Pulo Aura.
Due to the need to carry heavy cannon, the hull of the East Indiamen – in common with most warships of the time – was much wider at the waterline than at the upper deck, so that guns carried on the upper deck were closer to the centre-line to aid stability. This is known as tumblehome. The ships normally had two complete decks for accommodation within the hull and a raised poop deck. The poop deck and the deck below it were lit with square-windowed galleries at the stern. To support the weight of the galleries, the hull lines towards the stern were full. Later ships built without this feature tended to sail faster,[when?] which put the East Indiamen at a commercial disadvantage once the need for heavy armament passed.
Ships for the India-China trade
According to historian Fernand Braudel, some of the finest and largest Indiamen of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were built in India, making use of Indian shipbuilding techniques and crewed by Indians, their hulls of Indian teak being especially suitable for local waters. These ships were used for the China run. Until the coming of steamships, these Indian-built ships were relied upon almost exclusively by the British in the eastern seas. None sailed to Europe and they were banned from English ports. Many hundreds of Indian-built Indiamen were built for the British, along with other ships, including warships. Notable among them were Surat Castle (1791), a 1,000-ton (bm) ship with a crew of 150, Lowjee Family, of 800 tons (bm) and a crew of 125, and Shampinder (1802), of 1,300 tons (bm).
Another significant East Indiaman in this period was the 1176-ton (bm) Warley that John Perry built at his Blackwall Yard in 1788, and which the Royal Navy bought in 1795 and renamed HMS Calcutta. In 1803 she was employed as a transport to establish a settlement at Port Phillip in Australia, later shifted to the site of current-day Hobart, Tasmania by an accompanying ship, the Ocean. French forces captured Calcutta in 1805 off the Isles of Scilly. She grounded at the Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809, and was burned by a British boarding party after her French crew had abandoned her.
The 1200-ton (bm) Arniston was likewise employed by the Royal Navy as a troop transport between England and Ceylon. In 1815, she was wrecked near Cape Agulhas with the loss of 372 lives after a navigation error that was caused by inaccurate dead reckoning and the lack of a marine chronometer with which to calculate her longitude.
End of the era of East Indiamen sailing ships
With the progressive restriction of the monopoly of the British East India Company the desire to build such large armed ships for commercial use waned, and during the late 1830s a smaller, faster ship known as a Blackwall Frigate was built for the premium end of the India and China trades. The last of the East Indiamen was reputed to be the Java (1813–1939) that became a coal hulk, then was broken up.
The Battle of Pulo Aura is featured in Patrick O'Brian's novel HMS Surprise, with French Admiral Linois in pursuit of a large fleet of East Indiamen. In the novel, HMS Surprise under Captain Aubrey organizes the merchantmen to defeat Linois and his squadron. In history, all the ships that defeated the French squadron were merchantmen.
In the Aubrey-Maturin series, East Indiamen are involved in many of the novels, including the second set in the Peace of Amiens, where some of the sailors took positions on East Indiamen. In other of the novels, Aubrey intercepts enemy vessels that interfere with the merchant ships, earning their gratitude.
Examples of Indiamen
|Name||Nationality||Length (m)||Tons burthen||Service||Fate||Comments|
|Admiral Gardner||British||44||816||1797–1809||stranded||Blown ashore on Goodwin Sands with the death of one crew member. Wreck located in 1985 with plenty of coins (mostly copper) salvaged.|
|Albemarle||British||?||?||?–1708||stranded||Blown ashore near Polperro, Cornwall, with her freight of diamonds, coffee, pepper, silk and indigo. The ship was a total loss and little of the freight ever recovered, yet it is said that most of her crew survived. The location of the wreck is still unknown.|
|Amsterdam||Dutch||42.5||1100||1749||beached||Lost on maiden voyage. Wreck still visible at low tide off Bulverhythe, Bexhill-on-Sea, reputed to be the best preserved wreck because of the covering of fine sinking sand. Protected under UK law. Can be dangerous to visit because of sinking sands.|
|Arniston||British||54||1200||1794–1815||wrecked||Longitude navigational error due to her not having a chronometer. Only 6 of the 378 on board survived. The seaside resort of Arniston, Western Cape, South Africa is named after the wreck.|
|Batavia||Dutch East India Company||56.6||1200||1628–1629||sunk||Struck a reef on Beacon Island off Western Australia but most of the crew and passengers made it to a nearby island. In 1970, the remains of the ship and many artefacts were salvaged.|
|Bredenhof||Dutch East India Company||41||850||1746–1753||sunk||Foundered on a reef thirteen miles off the African coast on 6 June 1753 carrying 30 chests of silver and gold ingots. Her cargo was recovered in 1986.|
|Bonhomme Richard||France/USA||46||998||1779||sunk||Former French East India Company (as the "Duc de Duras"), gift to the US revolutionaries. Sunk in battle during the Revolutionary War.|
|Candia||Dutch East India Company||150 ft 0 in (45.72 m)||1150 tons||1788-1796||Dismantled in Batavia in 1796||Depicted by Dutch maritime artist Gerrit Groenewegen (1754-1826) near Rotterdam in 1789.|
|Ceylon||British||?||?||?||Captured||Captured in the action of 3 July 1810|
|Cumberland||British||40.8||1350||?||Sold||The ship was sold to the revolutionary Chilean government 1818 and renamed San Martín. 1821 sunk in Peru|
|David Clark||British||39.7||608||1816||Broken up 1854 at Batavia|
|Diemermeer||Dutch||?||?||?||Wrecked on the Banana Islands, Sierra Leone, 1748||The Captain, Christoffel Boort, and some surviving crew members built themselves a fort on the Banana Islands, but became embroiled in a dispute with the inhabitants. They were accused of kidnapping three children.|
|Doddington||British||?||499||?–1755||wrecked in Algoa Bay||23 survivors out of 270 marooned for some time on Bird Island. Ship carried a significant quantity of gold and silver, some of which was later illegally marine salvaged, with the ensuing legal battle influencing the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage|
|Dutton||British||?||755||1781–1796||stranded||Chartered to the government to carry troops, blown ashore on Plymouth Hoe, most of the crew and passengers rescued by Sir Edward Pellew.|
|Earl of Abergavenny (I)||British||48.9||1182||1789–1794||Sold||Sold to the Admiralty in 1795|
|Earl of Abergavenny (II)||British||53.9||1460||1796–1805||Wrecked, with more than 250 lives lost||The wreck is located at Weymouth Bay, in England.|
|Earl of Mansfield (I)||British||?||782||1777–1790||Sunk||Sunk in 1790|
|Earl of Mansfield (II)||British||?||1416||1795-?||?|
|Earl of Mornington||British||1799-?||packet ship|
|Exeter||British||1265||1792-1811+||Unknown||During the Action of 4 August 1800 Exeter captured the French frigate Médée , the only instance of a merchantman capturing a large warship during the French Revolutionary Wars. In February 1804 she was present at the Battle of Pulo Aura.|
|Friendship of Salem||East India Marine Society||171 ft 10 in (52.37 m)||1797-1812||Captured by the British||Captured as a prize of war by the British in September 1812|
|General Goddard||British||143 ft 10 in (43.84 m)||799||1782–1799||Captured||On 15 June 1795 captured seven Dutch East Indiamen off St Helena; Captured by the Spanish in the West Indies; subsequent fate unknown|
|Götheborg||Swedish||40.9||788||1739-1745||sunk||Sank off Gothenburg in 1745|
|Grosvenor||British||?||729 tons||?||sunk||Sank off the Pondoland coast of South Africa, north of the mouth of the Umzimvubu River on 4 August 1782. Of 150 crew and passengers there were 123 survivors of whom only 18 made it to land alive.|
|Horssen||Dutch East India Company||93 ft 0 in (28.35 m)||880 tons||1784-1792||Put out of service in Goeree in 1792||Transported Mary Bryant on a voyage from Batavia, 21 December 1791, to Cape Town, arriving on 19 March 1792.|
|Java||British||48.5 m (159ft 2in.)||1175 tons||1813 -1827||Converted to Coal Hulk||Built in 1813 at Calcutta, became a troop ship in 1827. Later served as an Australian migrant ship, and merchant ship serving Asia. Reputed as the last East Indiaman, taken to Gibraltar about 1860 as coal hulk number 16 and scrapped in 1939.|
|Jonkheer Meester Van de Putterstock||Dutch||?||?||?||sank||The Jonkheer Meester Van de Putterstock with a cargo of sugar, coffee, spices and Banca tin with a value of £50,000 was wrecked under Angrouse Cliff near Mullion Cove, Cornwall in March 1667.|
|Joanna||British||?||?||?||Wrecked||Wrecked near Cape Agulhas on 8 June 1682|
|Kent||British||?||820||1800||Captured||Captured by Robert Surcouf, Bay of Bengal.|
|Kent||British||?||1,350||1825||Burned at sea||She was lost in 1825 on her third voyage to China, shortly after setting out. Some 550 persons of the 650 passengers and crew were saved.|
|Nemesis||British||1839||first British-built ocean-going iron warship|
|Nossa Senhora dos Mártires||Portuguese||?||?||1605-1606||Sunk||Struck a submerged rock at the mouth of the River Tagus, near Lisbon, and went down close to shore. Wreck located in 1994, and excavated between 1996 and 2001.|
|Ogle Castle||British||?||?||1803-1825||Wrecked||When the Ogle Castle docked at Bombay in May 1825, the crew mutinied and were held in jail until loading was complete; on the return voyage, it was driven onto the Goodwin Sands on 3 November 1825, with the loss of over 100 crew members.|
|Ponsborne||British||43.6||804||1780-1796||Wrecked||Sailed ports such as Bombay and China. Requisitioned for an expedition against the French in the West Indies in 1795, was wrecked off the coast of Granada on 26 March 1796.|
|Red Dragon (also Dragon)||British||?||300||1601–1619||Sunk||Was the flagship of the first voyage of the English East India Company in 1601. Sunk by Dutch fleet|
|Royal Captain||British||44||860||1772-3||sunk||Struck a reef in the South China Sea, 3 lives and the entire freight was lost. Wreck located in 1999.|
|Sussex||British||?||490||1736–1738||sunk||Sunk off Mozambique, located in 1987. No actual wreck, but the freight was dispersed over a large area on the Bassas da India atoll due to wave movement. Several cannon, two anchors and thousands of porcelain fragments were salvaged.|
|Tryal||British||?||500||1621–1622||sunk||The likely wreck site was found in 1969 off Western Australia (Monte Bello Islands). At least 95 of the crew of 143 were lost and due to use of explosives while searching for treasures, there are only very few remains.|
|Windham||British||36.2||830||1800–1828||Scrapped||The French captured Windham at the Action of 18 November 1809, but the British recaptured her in December. The French again captured her at the Action of 3 July 1810, but the British recaptured her at the Battle of Grand Port. Windham was sold to the revolutionary Chilean government 1818 and renamed Lautaro. Beached at Valparaiso and scrapped 27 September 1828|
In other media
The 2018 video game Return of the Obra Dinn features an East Indiaman as the fictional vessel, with gameplay requiring players to thoroughly explore a 3D model of the ship and observe its crew's activities.
- Armed merchantman
- Chinaman (ship), a ship used to transport colonial goods from China
- Guineaman, a ship used to transport slaves from the region of Guinea
- West Indiaman, a ship used to transport colonial goods from the West Indies
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Media related to East Indiamen at Wikimedia Commons