Previous in series: “…We Have Renounced Tea…”

Our (1770) voyage from China to England, including the stay at St. Helena, and notwithstanding the week we lay to in the chops of the Channel in Bad weather, was performed in four months and four days, then the shortest that ever had been made by an Indiaman.

–William Hickey, Memoirs of William Hickey

For sheer majesty, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries offered few sights to compare with a fleet of East Indiamen gliding down the English Channel, twenty or more great three-masters under clouds of canvas escorted by frigates of the Royal Navy busily flagging signals. These fleets, like their crews and passengers, sailed under orders from India House in London, headquarters of John Company, officially The United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies. By the mid-1700’s the men of India House were not merchants, and they were not trading with India–in fact, they were not often united and not all Englishmen either. They were directors and managers of the most powerful economic force the world has ever seen. The consequences of their actions, great and small, are with us still today. John Company came to be hated and loathed by smugglers and consumers alike as a symbol of corrupt, complacent monopoly. But it also founded the cities of Calcutta, Bombay, Singapore and Hong Kong. It hired Captain Kidd to combat piracy and made Elihu Yale the fortune with which to endow a university. Its corporate structure is the model for all joint stock companies to this day. The Stars and Stripes was inspired by its flag, the “typical” New England church patterned after its London chapel, and St. Petersburg modeled on its shipyards where Czar Peter the Great had worked incognito. It created British India, caused the Boston Tea Party and kept Napoleon captive on its island possession St. Helena. And this long-standing effort and enterprise was chiefly paid for by tea. The Company’s fortunes came to rest on products destined to go down the drain in Europe and up in smoke in Asia.

Continued in An Empire Brewed From Tea Leaves – Part 2