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East Indiamen


East Indiamen

East Indiaman was a general name for any ship operating under charter or license to any of the East India Companies of the major European trading powers of the 17th through the 19th centuries. Thus, one can speak of a Danish, Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, or Swedish East Indiaman.

In Britain, the Honourable East India Company itself did not generally own merchant ships, but held a monopoly granted to it by Queen Elizabeth I of England for all English trade between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, which was progressively restricted during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. English (later British) East Indiamen usually ran between England, the Cape of Good Hope and India, where their primary destinations were the ports of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. The Indiamen often continued on to China before returning to England via the Cape of Good Hope and Saint Helena.


East Indiamen carried both passengers and goods, and were armed to defend themselves against pirates. During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars they were often painted to resemble warships; an attacker could not be sure if gunports were real or merely paint, and some Indiamen carried sizable armaments. The Royal Navy in fact acquired several East Indiamen, turning them into fourth rates, and in some cases the East Indiamen successfully fought off attacks by the French. One of the most celebrated of these incidents occurred in 1804, when a fleet of East Indiamen and other merchant vessels under Commodore Nathaniel Dance successfully fought off a marauding squadron commanded by Admiral Linois in the Indian Ocean in the Battle of Pulo Aura. Patrick O'Brian's novel HMS Surprise features the battle.

East Indiamen were the largest merchant ships regularly built during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, generally measuring between 1100 and 1400 tons burthen (bm). Two of the largest were the Earl of Mansfield and Lascelles being built at Deptford in 1795. The Royal Navy purchased both converted them to 56-gun fourth rates, and renamed them Weymouth and Madras respectively. They measured 1426 tons (bm) on dimensions of approximately 175 feet overall length of hull, 144 feet keel, 43 feet beam, 17 feet draft.

According to historian Fernand Braudel, some of the finest and largest Indiamen of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were built in India, making use of Indian shipbuilding techniques and crewed by Indians, their hulls of Indian teak being especially suitable for local waters. These ships were used for the China run. Until the coming of steamships, these Indian-built ships were relied upon almost exclusively by the British in the eastern seas. None sailed to Europe and they were banned from English ports. Many hundreds of Indian-built Indiamen were built for the British, along with other ships, including warships. Notable among them were Surat Castle (1791), a 1,000-ton (bm) ship with a crew of 150, Lowjee Family, of 800 tons (bm) and a crew of 125, and Shampinder (1802), of 1,300 tons (bm).[1]

Another significant East Indiaman in this period was the 1176-ton (bm) Warley that John Perry built at his Blackwall Yard in 1788, and which the Royal Navy bought in 1795 and renamed HMS Calcutta. In 1803 she was employed as a transport to establish a settlement at Port Phillip in Australia, later shifted to the site of current-day Hobart, Tasmania by an accompanying ship, the Ocean. French forces captured Calcutta in 1805 off the Isles of Scilly. She grounded at the Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809, and was burned by a British boarding party after her French crew had abandoned her.

The 1200-ton (bm) Arniston was likewise employed by the Royal Navy as a troop transport between England and Ceylon. In 1815, she was wrecked near Cape Agulhas with the loss of 372 lives after a navigation error that was caused by inaccurate dead reckoning and the lack of a marine chronometer with which to calculate her longitude.

Due to the need to carry heavy cannon, the hull of the East Indiamen – in common with most warships of the time – was much wider at the waterline than at the upper deck, so that guns carried on the upper deck were closer to the centre-line to aid stability. This is known as tumblehome. The ships normally had two complete decks for accommodation within the hull and a raised poop deck. The poop deck and the deck below it were lit with square-windowed galleries at the stern. To support the weight of the galleries, the hull lines towards the stern were full. Later ships built without this feature tended to sail faster, which put the East Indiamen at a commercial disadvantage once the need for heavy armament passed.

With the progressive restriction of the monopoly of the British East India Company the desire to build such large armed ships for commercial use waned, and during the late 1830s a smaller, faster ship known as a Blackwall Frigate was built for the premium end of the India and China trades.

The shipwreck of one of the largest East Indiamen, the Earl of Abergavenny, is located at Weymouth Bay in England.

The word is also used as a translation of both the Dutch Oostindiëvaarder of the Dutch East India Company and the Swedish ostindiefarare of the Swedish East India Company.


Name Nationality Length (m) Tons burthen Service Fate Comments
Admiral Gardner British 44 816 1797–1809 stranded Blown ashore on Goodwin Sands with the death of one crew member. Wreck located in 1985 with plenty of coins (mostly copper) salvaged.
Albermarle British  ?  ?  ?–1708 stranded Blown ashore near Polperro with her freight of diamonds, coffee, pepper, silk and indigo. The ship was a total loss and little of the freight ever recovered, yet it is said that most of her crew survived. The location of the wreck is still unknown.
Amsterdam Dutch 42.5  ? 1749 beached Lost on maiden voyage. Wreck still visible at low tide off Bulverhythe, Bexhill-on-Sea, reputed to be the best preserved wreck because of the covering of fine sinking sand. Protected under UK law. Can be dangerous to visit because of sinking sands.
Arniston British 54 1200 1794–1815 wrecked Longitude navigational error due to her not having a chronometer.[2] Only 6 of the 378 on board survived.[3] The seaside resort of Arniston, Western Cape, South Africa is named after the wreck.
Batavia Dutch East India Company 56.6 1200 1628–1629 sunk Struck a reef on Beacon Island off Western Australia but most of the crew and passengers made it to a nearby island. In 1970, the remains of the ship and many artefacts were salvaged.
Bredenhof Dutch East India Company 41 850 1746–1753 sunk Foundered on a reef thirteen miles off the African coast on 6 June 1753 carrying 30 chests of silver and gold ingots. Her cargo was recovered in 1986.
Bonhomme Richard France/USA 46 998 1779 sunk Former French East India Company (as the "Duc de Duras"), gift to the US revolutionaries. Sunk in battle during the Revolutionary War.
Ceylon British  ?  ?  ? Captured Captured in the action of 3 July 1810
Cumberland British 40.8 1350  ? Sold The ship was sold to the revolutionary Chilean government 1818 and renamed San Martín. 1821 sunk in Peru
Doddington British  ? 499  ?–1755 wrecked in Algoa Bay 23 survivors out of 270 marooned for some time on Bird Island. Ship carried a significant quantity of gold and silver, some of which was later illegally marine salvaged, with the ensuing legal battle influencing the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage
Dutton British  ? 755 1781–1796 stranded Chartered to the government to carry troops, blown ashore on Plymouth Hoe, most of the crew and passengers rescued by Sir Edward Pellew.
Earl of Abergavenny (I) British  ? 1182 1789–1794 Sold Sold to the Admiralty in 1795
Earl of Abergavenny (II) British  ? 1460 1796–1805 sunk Sunk in the English Channel with more than 250 lives lost
Earl of Mansfield (I) British  ? 782 1777–1790  ?
Earl of Mansfield (II) British  ? 1416 1795-?  ?
Exeter British 1265 1792-1811+ Unknown During the Action of 4 August 1800 Exeter captured the French frigate Médée , the only instance of a merchantman capturing a large warship during the French Revolutionary Wars. In February 1804 she was present at the Battle of Pulo Aura.
Friendship of Salem East India Marine Society 171 ft 10 in (52.37 m) 1797-1812 Captured by the British Captured as a prize of war by the British in September 1812.
General Goddard British 143 ft 10 in (43.84 m) 799 1782–1799 Captured On 15 June 1795 captured seven Dutch East Indiamen off St Helena; Captured by the Spanish in the West Indies; subsequent fate unknown
Götheborg Swedish  ?  ?  ? sunk Sank off Gothenburg in 1745
Grosvenor British  ? 729 tons  ? sunk Sank off the Pondoland coast of South Africa, north of the mouth of the Umzimvubu River on 4 August 1782. Of 150 crew and passengers there were 123 survivors of whom only 18 survived.
Joanna British  ?  ?  ? Wrecked Wrecked near Cape Agulhas on 8 June 1682
Kent British  ? 820 1800 Captured Captured by Robert Surcouf, Bay of Bengal.
Kent British  ? 1,350 1825 Burned at sea She was lost in 1825 on her third voyage to China, shortly after setting out. Some 550 persons of the 650 passengers and crew were saved.
Red Dragon (also Dragon) British  ? 300 1601–1619 Sunk Was the flagship of the first voyage of the English East India Company in 1601. Sunk by Dutch fleet
Ponsborne British 43.6 804 1780-1796 Wrecked Sailed ports such as Bombay and China. Requisitioned for an expedition against the French in the West Indies in 1795, was wrecked off the coast of Granada on the 26th of March 1796.[1]
Red Dragon (also Dragon) British  ? 300 1601–1619 Sunk Was the flagship of the first voyage of the English East India Company in 1601. Sunk by Dutch fleet
Repulse British  ? 1334 1820–1830  ?
Royal Captain British 44 860  ?-1773 sunk Struck a reef in the South China Sea, 3 lives and the entire freight was lost. Wreck located in 1999.
Sussex British  ? 490 1736–1738 sunk Sunk off Mozambique, located in 1987. No actual wreck, but the freight was dispersed over a large area on the Bassas da India atoll due to wave movement. Several cannon, two anchors and thousands of porcelain fragments were salvaged.
Tryal British  ? 500 1621–1622 sunk The likely wreck site was found in 1969 off Western Australia (Monte Bello Islands). At least 95 of the crew of 143 were lost and due to use of explosives while searching for treasures, there are only very few remains.
Windham British 36.2 830[4] 1800–1828 Scrapped The French captured Windham at the Action of 18 November 1809, but the British recaptured her in December. The French again captured her at the Action of 3 July 1810, but the British recaptured her at the Battle of Grand Port. Windham was sold to the revolutionary Chilean government 1818 and renamed Lautaro.[5] Beached at Valparaiso and scrapped 27 September 1828

See also


External links

  • The East India Company
  • The East Indiaman Gotheborg project
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