Continued from Tuesdays With Norwood: John Company – Part One

John Company, as this group came to be called, was granted a monopoly on all trade beyond the shores of the Atlantic, east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of Cape Horn (for all intents everything except western Europe, western Africa, and South America). This organization of wealthy merchants was to play a central role in the creation of the British Empire. Over the years to come, its far-reaching powers would be extended even further. It was granted the right to acquire territory, coin money, maintain armies and forts, form foreign allliances, declare war, conclude peace, and try and punish law breakers. And as the basis of its power, the John Company was to become the biggest and mightiest monopoly in any commodity that the world has ever known. That commodity? Tea.

Only six weeks after receiving their charter, the East India merchants dispatched their first fleet of five ships and four hundred men under the command of one James Lancaster. Sixteen months later, he found himself anchored off Sumatra and disinclined to venture farther east into seas the Portuguese claimed as their own. He collected a certain amount of cargo in trade with a fat and aged local king and assigned men to stay and start a “factory”–not a place of manufacture in the parlance of the times, but a fortified trading establishment complete with offices, warehouses, and living quarters. On the way back, Lancaster captured more Oriental merchandise from a Portuguese ship and reached home to discover that one out of every three Londoners had perished of the plague and James I occupied the throne. And the Company discovered it had a 90 percent profit on capital and expenses to pocket!

To be concluded in Tuesdays With Norwood: John Company – Part Three