As the 16th century turned into the 17th, few would have predicted that Britain would become a major sea power with an empire on which the sun never set. Sir Francis Drake completed his circumnavigation of the globe in 1580, but he was only the first Englishman to do so. In fact, the first such voyage started out from Spain in 1519 and was led by Ferdinand Magellan until his death in 1521, at which point Juan Sebastián Elcano, the Basque sea captain, took over and completed the first voyage round the globe on 6 September 1522.
On his three-year expedition, Drake sacked many Spanish ports and towns in the Americas, captured several Spanish ships, and found hospitality in Portuguese trading posts around Asia and Africa. He was hardly exploring terra incognita and (despite John Cabot’s voyage from Bristol to Newfoundland in 1497) England was, in Ian Friel’s words, ‘a latecomer to oceanic enterprise’. The Portuguese and Spanish had reached Africa, Asia, and the Americas in the 15th century, and had already divided the world outside Europe between them under the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. More than a century later, England had nothing to show by way of an oceanic empire other than the failed attempt to set up a colony in Roanoke, Virginia, and one tiny settlement – Jamestown – established in May 1607 (see CA 330).
Neither did the omens look very positive when James I, after whom the American settlement was named, arrived at Deptford on 30 December 1609 to launch two new ships built by the East India Company (EIC). That organisation had been formed exactly ten years previously, having been granted a royal charter on 31 December 1599 by Elizabeth I which allowed the EIC a 15-year monopoly on trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa. That trade was largely theoretical: each of the EIC’s early voyages was numbered, and the first had taken place as recently as 1603. James I renewed the Company’s charter for an indefinite period in 1609, and the ships he planned to launch were due to sail on the EIC’s sixth voyage.
In the event, James I named the ships, but did not see them launched and left Deptford in a bad mood as a consequence. The 250-ton Peppercorn got stuck on the slipway on which it was constructed and was not finally hauled into the water until 1 January. Trade’s Increase, a far bigger ship at 1,000 tons (the cargo-holding capacity, measured in numbers of barrels or tuns), had been built in a dry dock and, when it was floated on 2 January, was found to be too wide to pass through the dock gates. These had to be demolished before the ship was able to float out on to the Thames on 3 January 1610.
Establishing the East India Company
Records kept by the EIC tell us a great deal about its sixth expedition, but not about the ships themselves. Instead, Ian Friel turns to archaeologically excavated examples for clues, including the much smaller but contemporary merchant ship The Warwick, which sank off Bermuda in a hurricane in 1619. It was recorded between 2008 and 2012 by the National Museum of Bermuda, working alongside the Institute of Nautical Archaeology and the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M.
The Trade’s Increase was probably built of English oak and may have had two layers of planking (like The Warwick) as protection against shipworm. The planks were attached to the ribs that formed the hull, made as a series of intersecting curves. The masts may have come from Lithuania, as EIC records show the import of ‘Lettowen’ mast timbers in 1609 and the Baltic was the main source of mast timbers for England, along with boards, pitch, and tar. The EIC also imported significant amounts of French canvas for sails. The anchors for a ship as large as Trade’s Increase would have been made locally and to order. She would have had four masts and another small square sail attached to the bowsprit – the timber running out from the bow of the ship, which was used to help the ship turn.
Trade’s Increase had a crew of 180 men and Peppercorn 60. Living in very cramped conditions, the ordinary seaman earned a salary of about £5 a year (£23,000 in today’s terms), some of it paid in advance to help support sailors’ families during their absence. EIC minute books show that the ships were well supplied with food (salt cod, pork and beef, wheat, oats, peas, and biscuit meal), drink (beer, wine, spirits, and fresh water), and even lemon juice as a precaution against scurvy. Heavy cast-iron cannons and smaller bronze guns were carried for defence. Trade was the main aim of the expedition, and England’s main export at the time – woollen cloth – was not in demand in hot climates. Even so, the goods exported on this sixth voyage included English and Venetian cloth, red lead, vermilion, mercury, ivory, coral, tin, mirrors, English and Venetian glassware, and sword blades – an interesting mix of locally made and imported products that the company hoped to exchange for pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger, silk cloth and calico, opium and sandalwood, indigo and fine ceramics, as well as cowrie shells (about which there is more below).
The story of what happened to this expedition illustrates all the risks and dangers, the cruelty, lawlessness, and opportunism of these early days of trade between Europe, Africa, and Asia. Most of all it shows what a disruptive element European traders were as they forced their way into well-established networks of shipping and trade among the peoples bordering the Indian Ocean. In the course of the 43-month voyage, the ships were raided, some of their crews imprisoned by Turkish and Arab soldiers, and the prisoners escaped; the fleet also fought off attacks by Portuguese frigates, blockaded the entrance to the Red Sea, captured 13 Indian vessels and plundered their cargoes of cloth, bombarded the town where they had previously been held captive as a form of revenge, and sailed to Java. There the Peppercorn took on board the expedition records and all the available cargo, and headed back to London.
Trade’s Increase, meanwhile, had been leaking badly and needed repairs. Bringing the ship close to the shore, cables were attached to the masts and windlasses were used to pull the ship on to its side so that local labourers could replace rotting timbers and recaulk one side of the hull. Before the ship could be turned to repair the other half, though, the ship’s mainmast snapped and the vessel turned upright, killing as many as 500 Javan carpenters. Local Javanese people then probably set fire to the ship in revenge. Henry Middleton, the expedition leader, died on 24 May 1613, most likely from the disease that then carried off the remainder of the crew.
The Peppercorn made it back to England, but 19 members of the crew – those who had not already died or been killed in skirmishes – succumbed to scurvy, dysentery, and other diseases en route. Such was the value of the cargo, however, that the EIC still managed to make a profit of just under 12 per cent overall. The wills drawn up by 18 of the Trade’s Increase crew who died on the expedition – mainly specialist tradesmen – showed that some crewmen could also turn a profit. Nine left more than four times the value of a seaman’s annual pay (£20) and in the case of the top four, the figure was ten times that amount (£50, just under £159,000 in terms of modern wage values).
In 1615, two years after the crew of the Peppercorn arrived back in London, an anonymous author published a controversial tract called The Trades Increase, referring to the EIC’s great ship, in which he was extremely critical of the EIC’s trading activities and the company’s waste of sailors’ lives, ships, and investors’ capital. England would be better off, he argued, developing its North Sea herring fishing fleet, where it was in danger of losing out to the Dutch. The EIC pondered getting the pamphlet banned, but instead their spokesman Sir Dudley Digges published a rebuttal arguing that the EIC’s activities benefited the nation, and that the high death toll was ‘not in vain’. Indeed, the EIC would evolve in the 18th century into an almost state-like imperial operator, supported by the Royal Navy and successive British governments. Still, in the four decades between 1601 and 1640, of the 168 ships that sailed from England bound for the East Indies, one third (64) never returned.
At the same time as the EIC was sending its first expeditions to the Indian Ocean, another Company of London merchants was establishing bases around the coast of West Africa. The Company of Adventurers (CoA) dealt at first in commodities such as ivory and gold, but from the 1640s they started shipping African slaves to English-owned sugar plantations in Barbados. As with voyages to the Americas and the Indies, England was a late entrant to the slave trade. Portugal’s success in growing sugar on Madeira from 1420 and in Brazil from 1516 was heavily dependent on the labour of slaves from north Africa. But nobody should take comfort from that, because Britain went on to become the biggest slave trader of all. Between the 1660s and 1807, when the trade was abolished in Britain (but not the ownership of slaves), the number of enslaved people shipped across the Atlantic by British ships was roughly equivalent (at 3.4 million) to the total number of slaves transported by all the other European nations added together.
About 450,000 (one in seven) of those people died en route, such were the conditions on board. Shipbuilding technology helped to reduce death rates, which declined from around 20 per cent between 1660 and 1730, to 5 per cent in the last two decades of the trade. Faster journey times also meant that more slaves arrived alive and in good health. It was a miracle that any of them did. Little is known about pre-1700 slave ships, though they were probably ordinary merchant ships converted for the purpose. Liverpool shipbuilders began building specialised vessels from the mid-18th century.
A typical vessel had two ‘slave rooms’, one for men and one for women, often fitted with a mezzanine deck to maximise accommodation space, though this also reduced the available headroom. Male slaves were often manacled for fear of insurrection, and both rooms were kept under surveillance by armed crew members. Slaves were fed a meagre diet of rice and beans flavoured with palm oil and pepper. Unwashed bodies and the reek of the latrine tubs made the atmosphere below deck foul, and seasickness, heat, and vermin would have added to the misery. Slaves were occasionally allowed on to the main deck for exercise, but netting prevented them from attempting escape or suicide by leaping overboard.
Working on a slave ship was not popular with crews: voyages were long, disease rife, and punishments (mainly for drunkenness and theft) were brutal. Crews were formed of the desperate and those insensitive to human suffering. Ships departed Liverpool (the base for some three-quarters of British slave traders, with London next, followed by Bristol) carrying textiles, firearms, beads, and cowrie shells. The latter, imported by the EIC from the Indian Ocean and exported to Africa, served as a form of currency, but guns were in greatest demand by the African kings, chiefs, and merchants who supplied the slaves: some 20m guns were traded between 1750 and 1800. The slaves were then shipped to the Americas and the products of slave plantations – mainly sugar, tobacco, and rum – were subsequently carried back to Britain.
The trade was highly profitable and, in Liverpool, was controlled by a cartel of about 200 merchants, but many more people benefited indirectly, including shipwrights and the manufacturers and merchants who made or sold trade goods. As Ian Friel says, it never seems to have occurred to Liverpool’s Africa merchants that there was something grotesque about using the fortunes they made from slaving to ‘do good’ in the form of school and church endowments and fine public buildings. Similarly, the ‘Tobacco Lords’ of Glasgow benefited greatly, and throughout the UK the proceeds of slave-based trade were used to buy or develop landed estates. The National Trust, English Heritage, and Cadw have all recently conducted audits to assess the legacy of slavery in their own property portfolios.
It has been estimated that the profits from slavery made up around 1 per cent of gross domestic product in Britain in the later 18th and early 19th centuries, though, when abolition was proposed, Liverpool merchants published a report saying it would cut the city’s revenue by half. In fact, slaving accounted for 18 per cent of the port’s tonnage and the city’s merchants moved swiftly after abolition in 1807 into the import of American cotton (itself a slave-based industry until 1865 and the end of the American Civil War).
The wreck of one slave ship, the Eliza, probably still lies at the bottom of Glenmore Bay, on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, the UK’s most westerly point. Having sailed from Liverpool on 9 March 1805, the Eliza traded salt, tobacco, and other goods for 180 slaves. Ten weeks and two days later, the ship arrived close to its destination port of Demerara, now Georgetown, Guyana; 29 slaves had died en route and the remainder were put ashore. After repairs to the rudder and the ship’s copper sheathing, a cargo of rum, cotton, and Demerara sugar was loaded on board and the ship left on its homeward journey escorted by the same Royal Navy that would shortly be entrusted with suppressing the slave trade.
Bad weather scattered the convoy and the Eliza suffered severe storm damage, limping into Tobermory Bay, on Mull, on 14 February 1806. Part of the ship’s cargo had already become waterlogged, but the customs officers on Mull refused permission for the dry cargo to be unloaded because they lacked the authority to process colonial imports. The captain took his ship to the shelter of Glenmore Bay but water continued to flood the hold and the crew abandoned the vessel on 26 February, watching from the shore as the ship and its cargo disappeared stern first. Excavating the remains, argues Ian Friel, would not only help us to understand more about how slave ships functioned, it would also serve as a small memorial to ‘the millions of Africans kidnapped and transported by the evil trade that the Eliza served’.
Ian Friel, Britain and the Ocean Road: shipwrecks and people 1297-1825, Pen and Sword, £25, ISBN 978-1526738363.
Special thanks to the Wisbech & Fenland Museum for providing images as well as information for this article. The museum houses an exceptional collection of artefacts, letters, and documents belonging to the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. While the museum is currently closed due to COVID-19, you can learn more about the collections on their website www.wisbechmuseum.org.uk.