Unseen Hand in British History - Ian D. Colvin




V. John Bull in the Grocery Trade

Now that we have got so far in the quarrel between the Stuarts and the Merchant Adventurers, let us retrace our steps a little to the origins of another great quarrel no less disastrous, between the Stuarts and the East India merchants.

The East India Company was one of the last roses of our Elizabethan summer. It began, like most Elizabethan enterprises, in our quarrel with Spain and the Empire. In mediaeval times England got her groceries from Venice: English grocers are called Italian merchants to this day. But Venice had been drawn into the Spanish and Hanseatic intrigue against England. "I have always heard," said Queen Elizabeth to a Venetian in 1583, "that Venice was a city founded in the sea; but now I rather think it to be founded in the River of Oblivion."

Elizabeth had hoped to detach Venice from the Imperial cause, and with some reason. For Venice had flourished as the European depot of the overland route from Asia. The sea route discovered by Portugal and now in the hands of Spain fatally injured the Venetian trade. But Venice was too much in awe of the Emperor, who carried German frightfulness into Italy, to venture upon an independent policy. Hence Elizabeth's bitter jibe.

Venice raised the duties upon English cloth, and Elizabeth retorted by forbidding any but English ships of the Levant Company to import Venetian currants. Then she tried to establish a direct trade with Constantinople, where, despite Venetian intrigues, she succeeded in placing an English Ambassador. Spain replied by trying to blockade English trade from Naples and at the Straits of Gibraltar. Thus Philip Jones, in his narrative of the worthy sea-fight between English and Spanish ships at Pantalarea, "within the Streights," tells how the King of Spain, "grudging at the prosperity of this kingdom, gave orders to the captains of his galleys in the Levant to hinder the passage of all English ships."

The English counter-move was to develop a new trade route to Asia by way of the North Cape, Archangel, the Caspian, and Constantinople. The secret of this design was given away by a certain Baron Schomberg to Mendoza in 1682, and Philip was advised to influence Denmark to send out ships to intercept the new trade.

The upshot was that the City of London ran out of spices, and the Dutch who had just returned from their first voyage to India with full cargoes, ran up the price of pepper in London from 3s. 5d. to 6s. and even 8s. per lb. 4

This was too much for Mincing Lane, and the grocers and Levant merchants combined to form the East India Company, whose first recorded meeting was held on September 24, 1599.

Now the English were rather doubtful about this East Indian trade. India, it was thought, would have no great use for English woolens, and therefore spices would have to be paid for with treasure. "The exhaustion of our treasure" was one of the stock arguments against the East India Company during the seventeenth century. There is nothing new under the sun. Tiberius and Pliny made the same complaint against the Indian trade of ancient Rome, whose fleet of 120 vessels sailed every year from Myos Hormos on the Red Sea, laden mainly with silver, to the Malabar Coast and Ceylon and returned with silks and spices, which were carried from the Red Sea to the Nile upon the backs of camels, and thence by ship from Alexandria to Rome.

The charter therefore limited the company's export of bullion to £30,000, the company, on its side, promising to "bring in after every voyage . . . as great a quantity of silver or foreign coin as they shall carry out the first voyage only excepted."

A free trade to India was no more possible in those times than a voyage to the moon: Spain and Portugal, at that time united, claimed a monopoly, and the Dutch rebels had organized themselves into a great Company or League of Cities to wrest this monopoly from Spain and appropriate it to the United Netherlands. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch maintained their claims by fortresses, armies, and fleets against all comers, and nothing but a strong organization on a national basis could have lived in such a world. The English company was therefore granted "the whole entire and only trade and traffic from the Cape of Good Hope to the Straits of Magellan for fifteen years, on the condition that the trade "be not hurtful but shall be shown profitable."

Now the company had suffered in its earliest days from the attentions of a swashbuckler called Sir Edward Michelborne, and to him James granted a license which was in fact a breach of the company's charter. "This license," says Anderson, "was probably well paid for to a King always profuse."

Michelborne was, not to put too fine a point upon it, a pirate, and although his fights with valiant Japonians and others make pretty reading in Purchas, his raids upon Guzerat junks and Mogul shipping got the company into serious trouble.

In 1618 the King and his courtiers made another raid upon the company. "The King," as John Chamberlain reports, "has granted a patent to Sir James Cunningham to raise a Scottish East India Company. . . . They only yet make a noise and show . . . hears they would fain compound and sell their rights to the East India Company."

There is just a suspicion of blackmail in the business. The London company reports on March 10 that the King is "very favorably disposed" and "would not be swayed by fair promises against the East India Company." Bacon, then Lord Chancellor, writes to the Governor,

"desiring him to proceed to let his lordship be admitted into this society, which motion seconding the former gracious speeches delivered by His Majesty (and honorable reports given by many of the Lords of the Council of His Majesty's constant resolution to preserve and maintain the privileges and honor of this company) gave good satisfaction, both of His Majesty's and their lordships' favor, and doth infer that the troublesome business for the Scottish patent is ended."

But it was by no means ended. In December the matter is still being argued, not only between Cunningham and the company, but between the company and the King: "The King blamed the company for not having yet satisfied Sir James Cunningham, relating from point to point all particular passages therein, and concluded that he would admit of no further excuse; but expected to have the money paid, if for no other respect yet for his sake." At the same time the King asks the company for a loan of £20,000, which the company owing to their "many losses and discouragements" refuse to give.

There was something impotent and degenerate in James's policy as in his character. Elizabeth had in her time screwed money out of her merchants; but Elizabeth was at least faithful to their interests. James could protect them neither from the Spaniards nor the Dutch. In 1618 a Royal Commission reported on the Navy that out of forty-three ships of war "nearly half were utterly unserviceable, and were with difficulty kept from sinking by incessant repairs, without the slightest prospect that they would ever again be fit for sea." In 1617 the Dutch had a fleet of thirty sail and four thousand soldiers in the East Indies, and enforced its monopolies not only upon the Portuguese but upon the English. Our East India Company valiantly fitted out six ships "to try what the Hollanders will do"; but six against thirty were too, long odds.

Those two English heroes, Nathaniel Courthope and "Hurly-burly Captain John Jourdain," and many more like them, fell in the unequal struggle that ensued. In 1619 the Dutch procured a favorable treaty from King James. Their commissioners had come over in November 1618, "their chief confidence being in His Majesty's favor," and were reported to "carry themselves insolently." By the end of January, the negotiations being "likely to break," the King intervened, promising "neither to spare any travail . . . nor be in anything more partial than if they were both his own subjects." Incidentally he demanded half and received the whole value of an interloper seized by the English company.

By July a treaty was concluded. It was received by the English with dismay and by the Dutch with jubilation.

"The London Company," says Hunter, "obtained no compensation for past injuries, reckoned at £100,000 during a single year, and no share in the control of the Dutch fortifications to whose cost they were to contribute. . . . The English should have one-third and the Dutch two-thirds of the trade, paying for the garrison in a corresponding ratio. Each company to furnish ten ships of war for common defense. All forts to remain in the hands of their present possessors which practically meant of the Dutch, as we had then so few and certain proposed fortifications of the English were to be postponed for two or three years, until both companies could agree upon them. The treaty to be binding for twenty years . . . supervised by a joint Council of Defense in the Indies with an appeal . . . to the States General and the King."

The English company felt itself betrayed. It petitioned the King especially against the articles touching the forts, "as utterly cutting off the company from all hope and expectation," etc., and Chamberlain summed up the feeling of our poor London grocers:

"Say what they can, things are passed as the other would have it, which makes the world suspect that they have found great friends and made much use of their wicked mammon."

The Dutch felt so secure that they did not even honor the partial terms of the treaty. Thus Thomas Batten wrote from Jakatra on October 15, 1620:

"The Dutch have glory of all conquests and keep our necks still under their girdles . . . and many English, which during the quarrel did but little envy their pride here, do since the peace hate them most deadly, and would fight with them, they care not on what odds."

The massacre of Amboyna was only the worst of many outrages. The English at Amboyna were accused, falsely, of a plot to capture the fort, and Captain Towerson and nine of his men were examined, "with that extreme torture of fire and water which flesh and blood could not endure," and were afterwards shot.

Now if this had happened in Elizabeth's time Amsterdam would have been laid in ruins; but neither James nor Charles ever succeeded in getting any satisfaction out of the Dutch. And when the disconsolate Englishmen tried to make good by helping the Persians to take Ormuz from the Portuguese, Buckingham insisted that a tenth part of the booty belonged to him as Lord High Admiral. At the same time the King put in for the whole as the proceeds of piracy. The two positions were, as one might say, mutually destructive. But the Company's ships were held up and in danger of losing the trades, and as necessity knows neither law nor logic, the company paid £20,000.

Things went from bad to worse: the Dutch cut down the English nutmeg-trees at Puloran; Charles forced the company to sell him saltpetre at his own valuation, raised the customs on pepper until it stood at 75 percent, of the value, and chartered privateers which got the company into all manner of difficulties with the Great Mogul. A crisis came in 1635. Endymion Porter, who gave Herrick

"Not only subject-matter for our wit,

But also oil of maintenance for it,"

bethought himself of the East Indies as a means of filling his cruise. He organized an interloping expedition which was to be financed by Sir William Courteen under the royal patronage. "Charles," we are told, "entered heartily into the project and put down his name for £10,000." He did not, we gather, put down the money.

"I conceive it very requisite," Edward Nicholas wrote to Porter, "that there were some declaration how the King is to have the benefit of the said 10,000, for which His Majesty hath written, which may show that it is intended that His Majesty is to have only the benefit of that sum, the interest and assurance money for the same being first deducted."

The preparations were made secretly; but the company got wind of the project. They approached the King, who assured them, "upon the word of a king and as he is a Christian king," it was only "a voyage of discovery." A month later the Governor-Deputy and two committees are again at Whitehall, and are kept waiting "all the morning" and "all the afternoon." The King took their petition at last without vouchsafing a word. This was in March: in April the fleet sailed.

"This shall nothing discomfort us," said our grocers bravely but bitterly. "Wee hope the East India Company maie stand and flourish when these new undertakers maie be wearie of what they have taken in hand, when they have to their cost well paid for the same."

It was at this time that the King raised the pepper duty to 75 percent. At this time, too, another interloper, the Roebuck, shrewdly suspected to be under the protection of the King, made prizes of Surat and Diu ships in the Red Sea. The company's president and council at Surat were thereupon imprisoned by the Mogul's governor and "great sums of money enforced from them." The company's estate was also seized, "to the utter ruin of the trade." The company, which had painfully built up its position in India and in Persia, felt its honor compromised, and the Dutch were quick to use the opportunity "to ingratiate themselves with the Mogul and King of Persia." The King confessed that the Roebuck went out "with our privity and license albeit with no authority to commit any act which might bring so apparent prejudice and damage to our said East India Company." But he protected the Roebuck and authorized still another voyage.

The company was now in a desperate position from the Persian Gulf to the Moluccas. A memorandum to His Majesty, assigned to May 1637, represents that "His Majestic hath an ill opinion of their persons and endeavors," that the interlopers were ruining the trade, that the State gave them no protection and countenance against the Dutch, beg for a final investigation and settlement and threaten to discontinue the trade.

Two years later, in the petition of October 27, 1639, "the company finds it impossible under present conditions to continue the trade." The King, evidently frightened, sent the Archbishop of Canterbury to promise amends both against the Dutch and the interlopers. Yet in 1641, "as no recompense had hitherto been obtained for the injuries suffered from the Dutch," the company had failed to raise the necessary capital for a new voyage. Moreover, "notwithstanding the Order in Council, Mr. Courten was fitting out ships from England, and establishing factories in the East Indies."

Events were now sloping steeply towards disaster. The King, in want of money to subdue rebellion in Scotland, took two measures, one against the East India Company and the other against the Merchant Adventurers, which precipitated the civil wars.