East Indiaman

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The East Indiaman Repulse (1820) in the East India Dock Basin.

An East Indiaman was a 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. 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, often continuing on their voyages to China before returning to England via the Cape of Good Hope. Main ports visited in India were Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.


East Indiamen were designed to carry both passengers and goods and to defend themselves against piracy, and so constituted a special class of ship. In the period of the Napoleonic Wars they were often painted to resemble warships; an attacker could not be sure if gunports were real or merely paint, and some carried sizeable armaments. A number of these ships were in fact acquired by the Royal Navy, and in some cases they 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. The event, termed the Battle of Pulo Aura, is dramatised in Patrick O'Brian's novel HMS Surprise.

East Indiamen were the largest merchant ships regularly built during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, generally measuring between 1100 and 1400 registered tons. Two of the largest were the Earl of Mansfield and Lascelles being built at Deptford in 1795. Both were purchased by the Royal Navy, completed as 56-gun Fourth Rate Ships of the Line, and renamed Weymouth and Madras respectively. They measured 1426 tons on dimensions of approximately 175 feet overall length of hull, 144 feet keel, 43 feet beam, 17 feet draft.

File:East Indiamen in a Gale.jpg
East Indiamen in a Gale, by Charles Brooking, c. 1759

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 ship with a crew of 150, Lowjee Family, of 800 tons and a crew of 125, and Shampinder (1802), of 1,300 tons.[1]

Another significant East Indiaman in this period was the 1176-ton 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 a British boarding party burned after her French crew had abandoned her.

The 1200 ton 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 the Dutch Oostindiëvaarder of the Dutch East India Company.

Notable Indiamen

Name Nationality Length (m) Size (tons) Service Fate Comment
Admiral Gardner British 44 816 1797-1809 stranded Blown ashore on Goodwin Sands with most of the crew lost. 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 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.
Bonhomme Richard United States 46 998 1779 sunk Former French East India Company, gift to the American revolutionaries. Sunk in battle during the Revolutionary War, while successfully capturing HMS Serapis
Ceylon British ? ? ? Captured in the action of 3 July 1810
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 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-? ?
Götheborg Swedish ? ? ? Sank off Gothenburg in 1745
Joanna British ? ? ? Wrecked near Cape Agulhas on 8 June 1682
Kent British ? 820 1800 Captured by Robert Surcouf, Bay of Bengal.
Kent British ? 1,350 1825 Burned at sea She was lost during her maiden voyage, shortly after setting out. Some 550 persons of the 650 passengers and crew were saved.
Red Dragon (also Dragon) British ? 300 1601–1619 Sunk by Dutch fleet Was the flagship of the first voyage of the British East India Company in 1601.
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.
Wyndham British ? ? ? Captured in the action of 3 July 1810

See also


  1. Braudel, Fernand (1979). The Perspective of the World: Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Volume 3. Harper & Row. p. 506. ISBN 0-06-015317-2. 
  2. The Lieutenant and Commander by Basil Hall. Bell and Daldy. 1862. http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/17032. 
  3. Raikes, Henry (1846). Memoir of the Life and Services of Vice-admiral Sir Jahleel Brenton. Hatchet & Son. p. 527. http://books.google.com/books?id=m18DAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA527&lpg=PA527&dq=arniston+wreck+giels. 

External links

de:Ostindienfahrer fr:Indiaman it:East Indiaman nl:Spiegelretourschip no:Spiegelretourskip pl:East Indiaman sv:Ostindiefarare