It is always a mistake to read history backwards. We know that the East India Company (EIC) eventually grew to control almost half the world’s trade and become the most powerful corporation in history, as Edmund Burke famously put it, ‘a state in the guise of a merchant’.
In retrospect, the rise of the Company seems almost inevitable. But that was not how it looked in 1599, for at its founding few enterprises could have seemed less sure of success.
At that time England was a relatively impoverished, largely agricultural country, which had spent almost a century at war with itself over the most divisive subject of the time: religion.
In the course of this, in what seemed to many of its wisest minds an act of wilful self-harm, the English had unilaterally cut themselves off from the most powerful institution in Europe, so turning themselves in the eyes of many Europeans into something of a pariah nation.
As a result, isolated from their baffled neighbours, the English were forced to scour the globe for new markets and commercial openings further afield. This they did with a piratical enthusiasm.
Sir Francis Drake set the tone. Drake had made his name in the early 1560s as a buccaneer raiding Spanish mule trains laden with silver on their way from mine to port along the Panama isthmus.
With some of the profits of these raids, Drake had set off in 1577 on his three-year circumnavigation of the globe in the Golden Hinde.
This was only the third time a global voyage had ever been attempted, and it was made possible by developments in compasses and astrolabes—as well as by worsening relations with Spain and Portugal.
Drake had set sail in ‘great hope of gold [and] silver… spices, drugs, cochineal’, and his voyage was sustained throughout by intermittent raids on Iberian shipping.
Following his capture of a particularly well-laden Portuguese carrack, Drake returned home with a cargo ‘very richly fraught with gold, silver, pearls and precious stones’, valued at over £1,00,000, one of the most profitable of all the voyages of discovery.
This harrying and scavenging off the earlier and richer Iberian empires that then controlled South and Central America was licensed by the Crown and was essentially a form of Elizabethan state-sanctioned organised crime controlled by the oligarchs of Whitehall and Charing Cross. When Drake’s rival, Sir Walter Raleigh, and his crew returned from a similar raid, they were immediately denounced by the Spanish ambassador as ‘Pirates, pirates, pirates’.
Many of those the Spanish ambassador would also have considered pirates were present that day in the Founders’ Hall.
The Company’s potential investors knew that this group of mariners and adventurers, whatever their talents as freebooters, had to date shown little success in the more demanding skills of long-distance trade or in the art of planting and patiently sustaining viable colonies.
Indeed, compared to many of their European neighbours, the English were rank amateurs at both endeavours.
Their search for the legendary North-West Passage to the Spice Islands had ended disastrously, not in the Moluccas, as planned, but instead on the edge of the Arctic Circle, with their galleons stuck fast in pack ice, their battered hulls punctured by icebergs and their pike-wielding crew mauled by polar bears.
They had also failed at protecting their infant Protestant plantations in Ireland which were under severe attack in 1599.
English attempts to bully their way into the Caribbean slave trade had come to nothing, while attempts to plant an English colony in North America had ended in outright disaster.
In 1584 Sir Walter Raleigh had founded the first British settlement on Roanoke Island, south of Chesapeake Bay, in an area he named Virginia, after his monarch.
But the colony survived barely a year and was abandoned by June 1586 when the relief fleet arrived to find the settlement deserted.
A shipload of eager new colonists jumped ashore to find both the stockade and the houses within completely dismantled and nothing to indicate the fate of the settlers except a single skeleton—and the name of the local Indian tribe, CROATOAN, carved in capital letters into a tree.
There was simply no sign of the 90 men, 17 women and 11 children whom Raleigh had left there only two years earlier. It was as if the settlers had vanished into thin air.
Even the two most experienced mariners and Eastern explorers in London, both of whom were present in the Founders’ Hall, had arrived back from their travels with little more than wonderful tales to show for their efforts, and with neither crews nor cargoes intact.
Ralph Fitch was the first. In 1583 he had set out from Falmouth on the Tyger. Sent to the East to buy spices by Auditor Smythe’s new Levant Company, Fitch had gone overland from the Levantine coast via Aleppo, but had only got as far as Hormuz before he was arrested as a spy by the Portuguese.
From there he was sent in chains to Goa where they threatened to subject him to the strappado—the Inquisition’s answer to bungee jumping, where a man was dropped from a height attached to a rope.
The bone-jarring jerk when the rope halted his rapid descent was said to be even more exquisitely agonising than the rack, the Elizabethans’ own preferred form of torture.
Fitch was helped to escape by Fr Thomas Stevens, an English Jesuit long based in Goa, who stood surety for him, and he duly succeeded in travelling through the rich Sultanates of the Deccan to the 16th century Mughal capital of Agra, and hence, via Bengal, to the Moluccas.
On his return to London three years later, he regaled the city with his traveller’s tales and became such a celebrity that his ship was mentioned by Shakespeare in Macbeth: ‘her husband is to Aleppo gone, master o’ th’ Tiger’.
But while Fitch brought back many enticing details of the pepper trade, he had arrived home with no actual pepper.