Treasures from the Deep

Ruth Herman

An East Indiaman, by William Huggins
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

The archives at Hertford are a treasure trove and when I started to look for Hertfordshire connections with the East India Company and the sub-continent itself I was astonished at the richness and choice of material.

The East India Company grew big on the wealth of the Indian sub-continent there is a wealth of evidence in the archives. Perhaps the most powerful proof of the growing wealth of the company sits the response to the tangible threat to the Company’s profits. The warrants issued and authorised by the monarch are the attempts to stop the “pyrates, Free booters or sea rovers” holding up the ships as they made their way to and from India. Eighteen separate commissions were issued between 1706 and 1717 signed at first by Queen Anne herself. the trouble the Company experienced with piracy. The documents take the form of warrants issued and authorised by the Lord Chancellor, Earl Cowper whose seat was at Panshanger.

This is hardly suprising given the wealth of the India sub-continent so that the ships went out laden with silver to pay for the return cargo which included the most exotic goods including camphor, chinaware, diamonds, gold, redwood, sandalwood, spices and tea. This was treasure no self-respecting pirate could let go. This was particularly the case when England and Spain came to an agreement on English holdings in the New World and no longer needed to sponsor the buccaneers to harass the enemy. Ironically the pirates fIound themselves threatened from an unexpected direction. Many of their former colleagues in the pirate business were being recruited as governors of the new territories and these turncoats felt no compunction in hanging their former fellow pirates. So pirates had to find somewhere else to operate and as the East India Trading Company grew their ships became increasingly attractive as potential revenue streams.

The warrants themselves are plain. With “Anne R “at the top of the page they are explicitly for certain ships and their captains. So for instance the first one after the very important note that it is our “Will and Pleasure is that you forthwith cause our Great Seal of England to be affixed” to the commission which directs the captains to

Apprehend and secure all Pyrates, Freebooters, and Sea Rovers together with their Vessels Goods and Merchandise which they shall meet with in any Ports or Places upon any of the Coasts or Seas of India or in any other Seas whatsoever

The first of the commissions is dated November 1706. The second one is dated one year later and shows that the Queen had finally persuaded the ministry to give her husband, Prince George of Denmark, a job as this names him as being the High Admiral of Great Britain. She also gives him the power to authorise the reprisal of “any subject he shall think it fit to take and seize the ships and vessels goods and subjects belonging to France and other of our Enemies”. There are two things which are notable here. The first is the change from England to Great Britain which reflects the union with Scotland which took place in 1707. The other point which could be made is that as the French are the enemy (the country was engaged in the War of the Spanish Succession against France) and were fair game they prowled the same routes as the pirates and were equally keen on loot.

In all the warrants, ships are specified with their tonnage. These ships represented an important innovation in the development of the East Indian Company. They needed to carry cargo which is obvious. But they also needed to take out and bring back the stream of staff and families (and potential wives). And furthermore with the goods and passengers an attractive return for the successful pirates they needed to be able to defend themselves and fight off their attackers. So these East Indiamen, as the ships were named, were large and bristling with guns.
In conclusion, the East India Company exotic as it was had connections in Hertfordshire ranging from their own Academy to the men who signed the documents which sent the ships and the people to run the expanding operation.

This page was added on 14/07/2021.

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