BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

Accessibility help
Text only
BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!



The series has now ended but you can still enjoy a wealth of information on the site, from the interactive timeline to historical narratives and profiles.


1600: The East India Company, Episode 15 - 14/10/05


Calicut Market, Malabar c.1600 (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Calicut Market, Malabar c.1600
(Getty Images)
View more images

The English had for almost four centuries bought spices through middlemen in the Levant and the European mainland. By the end of the 16th century, five Dutch companies dominated the trade. In 1598, two of them merged and financed a flotilla of eight vessels. That voyage showed a 400 per cent profit and the price of pepper trebled.

Since the 12th century, the British had been huge spice importers and re-exported even more. The London merchants declared war. The pepper gardens were largely inland from the Malabar coast. It was so profitable that rain forests were felled (little new in man made environmental disaster) so that the spice could be grown in ideal conditions.

In the early 16th century, pepper production in Malabar alone topped four million kilograms a year. In 1600, Elizabeth signed a charter for the "…Governor and Company of the Merchants of London, Trading into the East Indies…". Here was the origin of the English East India Company. That charter is the parchment upon which England etched the outline of its Asian empire.

The confidence to sail east was largely due to the leadership of Captain James Lancaster and the even then celebrated Captain John Davis, his sailing master and navigator. Davis, having sailed as pilot with a Dutch fleet, was already familiar with the waters.

In spite of the fact that British traders had travelled the region, that the Dutch and Portuguese had been in the Indies for decades and that Drake had sailed there during his circumnavigation, these first trading voyages to the East Indies were hazardous and the investors could not be sure they would return a profit, or return at all.

Back to top

Historical Figure

Flags of the East India Company exploiting the coast of Malabar, at Calicut (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Flags of East India Company exploiting the Calicut Coast (Getty Images)
View more images

John Davis, c.1550-1605

Davis was one of Elizabeth's finest navigators and explorers. He was a Devonian and his family were friends with the Raleghs and the Gilberts. As early as 1585, Davis was searching for the Northwest Passage to China with Elizabeth's blessing. The strait by Baffin Island is named after him. In another hemisphere, it was Davis who became the first Englishman to sight the Falkland Islands, having then failed to round Cape Horn. Navigation historians remember Davis as the inventor of the backstaff. He was killed by Japanese pirates off Sumatra.

Back to top

Did You Know...

That captains of ships had in their contracts the right to carry on private trade during these expeditions. The extension of this consideration was that when the English East Company was established in India, officials at all levels were tacitly expected to run private businesses and take 'commissions' to make up for their very low salaries.

Back to top

Have Your Say

Events of this episode took place in the Far East region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

Comment on the Far East

Philip Lundquist
Enjoyed the website...other readings on this subject demonstrate that British administrative practices in India were little different than prior administrations. While that may not constitute a ringing endorsement, it is nonetheless a buffer against certain historical criticisms.

Back to top

Contemporary Sources

Charter by Elizabeth I given to the East India Company
This charter by Queen Elizabeth I gave royal approval to merchants making trading links with the spice rich Far East.

"Charter granted by Queen Elizabeth to the Governor and Company of the Merchants of London, Trading into the East Indies, 31st December, in the 43rd Year of Her Reign, Anno Domini sixteen hundred.

"Elizabeth, by the Grace of God, Queen of England, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, et cetera. To all our Officers, Ministers, and Subjects, and all other People, as well within this our realm of England as elsewhere, under our Obedience and Jurisdiction, greeting.

"Whereas our most dear and loving Cousin, George, Earl of Cumberland, and our well-beloved Subjects, Sir John Hart of London, Knight, Sir John Spencer of London, Knight, William Starkey, William Smith, John Ellecot, Robert Bailey, and Roger Cotton, have been Petitioners unto us for our Royal Assent and Licence to be granted unto them, that they, at their own Adventures, Costs, and Charges, as well as for the Honour of this our Realm of England, as for the Increase of our Navigation, and advancement of Trade of Merchandise, set forth one or more Voyages, with convenient Number of Ships and pannaces, by way of Traffick and Merchandise to the East-Indies, in the Countries and Parts of Asia and Africa, and to as many of the Islands, Ports and Cities, Towns and Places, thereabouts, as where Trade and Traffic may by all Likelihood be discovered, established or had; divers of which Countries, and many of the Islands, Cities and Ports thereof, have long been discovered by others of our Subjects, albeit not frequented in Trade or Merchandise."

Account by James Lancaster on his Far East voyage
Captain James Lancaster was one of the captains in the flotilla to go to the Far East. The return voyage was treacherous.

"We all embarked on the twentieth of February sixteen hundred and three, shot off our ordnance, and set sail for England, giving thanks to God with joyful hearts for his merciful protection. On Sunday the 13th of March we were past the tropic of Capricorn holding our course mostly south west with a stiff gale at south east. We had a great and furious storm on the 28th which forced us to take in all our sails.

"This storm continued a day and night, during which the sea so raged that none of us expected our ships to live; but God, in his infinite mercy, calmed the violence of the storm, and gave us an opportunity to repair the losses and injuries we had received; but our ships were so shaken by the violence of the wind and waves, that they continued leaky all the rest of the voyage. We had another great storm on the third of May, which continued all night, and did so beat on the quarter of our ship that it shook all the iron work of our rudder, which broke clean off next morning from our stern, and instantly sunk. This misfortune filled our hearts with fear, so that the best and most experienced among us knew not what to do, especially seeing ourselves in so tempestuous a sea and a so stormy place, so that I think there be few worse in the world. Our ship now drove about at the mercy of the winds and waves like a wreck, so that we were sometimes within a few leagues of the Cape of Good Hope, when a contrary wind came and drove us almost into 40 degrees south among hail, snow, and sleety cold weather. This was a great misery to us, pinched sore with cold, having been long used to hot weather."

Back to top

Have Your Say

Timeline & Map

Interactive Timeline

More on the Empire

Elsewhere on

Elsewhere on the web

Book of the series

Audio CD


Send your Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy