The ledgers and Minute Books are all extant and can be read. Great modern cities, Calcutta, Bombay, even Hong Kong, can be visited. The evidences of the Company lie scattered about Europe and Asia. Yet one has an odd feeling that the Company was not exactly that, and that the attempt to make the East mercantile on the European model ended by altering Europe and leaving the East, under the surface, untouched….

R.H. Mottram, Trader’s Dream

Sixty years before Samuel Pepys first tells his Diary he “did send for a cup of tea” in London, Queen Elizabeth had had to face up to one of the most important decisions of her reign. Her valiant little navy had broken the Spanish Armada, but in international commerce, the Spanish remained supreme in the West, just as Portugal was rivaled only by the Dutch in the East. As a lady with a wardrobe of three thousand costumes, mostly made of Oriental fabrics, Elizabeth was in a position to guess at the enormous profits to be had from direct trade for such goods with the Far East. Gradually England and Holland began to form some idea of just what was at stake. Captain Thomas Cavendish returned from the China seas to Plymouth “under a suit of silken sails” he had plundered from an unfortunate junk. In 1592, the English captured a Portuguese ship off the Azores Island on its way back home from Asia. The Madre de Deus was brought to the port of Dartmouth: 165 feet in length with a beam of forty-five feet and some sixteen hundred tons, she was the largest ship Elizabethan England had ever seen. Beneath her hatches was a cargo of jewels, cloth, ebony and spices with an estimated value of half a million pounds sterling or about half the total holdings of the Crown’s Exchequer at the time. This fabulous haul not only created a sensation but also gave England’s merchants a firsthand glimpse of the wealthy trade they were missing out on.

Merchants agitated for a chance to compete for this wealth until at last, on the last day of 1600, “for the honour of the nation, the wealth of the people… The increase of navigation and the advancement of lawfulle traffic,” Elizabeth charted the Honorable East India Company.

To be continued in Tuesdays With Norwood: John Company – Part Two