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The Spice Trade, Episode 12 - 11/10/05


Indian Emperors, c.1600 (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Indian Emperors, c.1600
(Getty Images)
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We shall shortly come to the beginnings of the English East India Company. The Company landed in England with its first cargoes in 1603. Yet those cargoes came from the East Indies as the name suggests, not India. Nor were the Company's men the first English traders in the region.

The way to China, the silk road, had been explored since well before the birth of Christ, although usually from East to West. Earliest reports of this trading start in the 900s BC with mainly Chinese travellers reaching as far west as Persia. Pope Innocent IV in the 1240s sent two Franciscans to meet the Mongol Khan. One of them, Friar John of Plano wrote the History of the Mongols from which later explorers took directions.

In the 1250s William of Rubruck set down an account of his travels as far as the Christian community of Karakorum. His manuscript was studied by late 16th century English explorers, among them John Newbery and Ralph Fitch. More famously, the Polo family, Marco and his father and uncle became the most celebrated of the 13th century travellers to India and then Cathay.

So we should not have the impression that the late Elizabethans were breaking new ground when they headed east. After all, Elizabeth did not write earnest letters of introduction to the Emperor of China for John Newbery in the 1580s without knowing about him and his powers. Newbery made three voyages to the east (1579, 1580-1582, 1583-1584) but died on the way back. His companion for some of the way, Ralph Fitch at first was no chronicler but did eventually write descriptions of the south east Asia he saw in the late 16th century.

By the time the English East India Company's merchants and sailing masters left England, they knew far more about their destinations than sometimes is suggested. Yet it remained for most English people and investors, the great unknown. Truly to the English here was the mysterious east, yet it would become the most memorable part of the British Empire.

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Historical Figure

Ralph Fitch, d.1611

Ralph Fitch went with John Newbery (d.1584) through the Levant and across to northern India. He reached Malacca. By the time he returned to London his friends had thought him dead and so had sold off his property and the proceeds distributed according to his will. His account of his journey was not entirely his own work and he drew on the works of earlier explorers stretching back to the 13th century.

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Did You Know...

Fitch claimed he had seen the white elephants of the King of Pegu. As no one but the king was allowed to own them and demanded money from the people of Pegu for their upkeep, they were considered, expensive and useless, hence the expression white elephant.

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Contemporary Sources

Letter of Introduction to the Emperor of China, by Queen Elizabeth I
John Newbery carried with him on his journey to India this letter from his queen.

"Elizabeth by the Grace of God to the most invincible and most mighty prince, Lord Zelabdim Akbar: The great affection which our subjects have to visit the most distance places of the world, not without good will and intention to introduce the trade of merchandise of all nations whatsoever they can, by which means the mutual and friendly traffic of merchandise on both sides may come, is the cause that the bearer of this letter, John Newbery, jointly with those that be in his company, with a courteous and honest boldness do repair to the borders and countries of your empire, we doubt not that your imperial Majesty will favourably and friendly accept him. And that you would do it the rather for our sake to make us greatly beholding to your majesty; we would more earnestly and with more words require it, if we did not think it needful. But by the singular report that is of your imperial majesty's humanity in these uttermost parts of the world, we are greatly eased of that burden and therefore we use these less words only that because they are our subjects they may be honestly intreated and received. And that, in respect of the hard journey which they have undertaken to places so far distant, it would please your majesty with some liberty and security of voyage to gratify it with such privileges as to you shall seem good, which courtesy we, according to our royal honour, will recompense with as many deserts as we can. And herewith we bid your imperial majesty to fare well."

Letter by John Newbery to Richard Hakluyt
In 1583 John Newbery wrote to Richard Hakluyt from Aleppo in northern Syria about his plan to get as far as India.

"Aleppo, 28th of May, fifteen hundred and eighty three. After we set sail from Gravesend, which was the 13th of February, we remained on that coast till the 11th of March, and that day we set sail from Falmouth and never anchored until we arrived in the road of Tripolis in Syria, which was the last day of April last past. And the twentieth day of this present month we came hither to Aleppo and, with God's help, within five or six days go from hence towards the Indies…"

Letter by John Newbery to Leonard Poore
In July 1583, Newbery wrote to his friend and business partner Leonard Poore. He was now in Babylon, just south of Baghdad.

"My last I sent you was the 29th of May from Aleppo, by George Gill, the purser of the Tiger. The last day of the same month we came from thence and arrived at Fallujah the 19th of June. At this time of the year by reason of the great heat that is here camels are very scant to be gotten. Since coming hither we have found very small sales, but divers men say that in winter our commodities will be very well sold. I pray God their words may prove true.

"I think cloth and tin have never been here at such low prices as they are now. By God's help there will be a reasonable profit made of the voyage. With half money and half commodities may be bought here the best sort of spices and other commodities that are brought from the Indies. With God's help, two days hence I mind to go hence to Balsora and from then of force I must go to Ormus, for want of a man that speaketh the Indian tongue.

"The Portuguese have a castle here which standeth near unto the sea wherein there is a captain for the King of Portugal having under him a convenient number of soldiers. In this town there are merchants of all nations, and many Moors and Gentiles. Here is very great trade of all sorts of spices, drugs, silks, cloth of silk, fine tapestry of Persia, great store of pearls which come from the isle of Baharem and are the best pearls of all others, and many horses of Persia which serve all India. They have a Moor to their king, who is chosen and governed by the Portuguese."

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