Built on the River BandonThe Asian adventures of the East India Company ships: ‘The Hope’ and ‘The Thomas’ built on the river Bandon circa 1610-1614
A special type of hybrid ship was developed by the East India Company to deal with the challenges facing them in Asia. On the one hand East India ships were exceptionally broad-beamed to justify shipping as much cargo as possible to ensure a good profit for the company after a voyage that might take anything up to two years. On the other hand those very same ships had to serve the role of warships and were strongly armed to fight off an attack. On average they shipped twenty cannon with a trained gun crews consisting of twelve men per cannon. In terms of size they were regarded as Monarchs of the oceans due to their enormous dimensions and capacity. By comparison the average size of a ship at that time trading between England and Europe was 50 to 100 tons. Throughout the 18th and 19th century East India ships were the largest merchant ships afloat.
Having departed their builder’s yard on the Bandon River the Thomas built in 1612 and later the Hope built in 1614 sailed to London for orders. London’s docklands in those days was a bustling mass of activity. In the heyday of the wooden ship no less than 400 shipbuilding and repair yards were established on the Thames. Low tides allowed ships to be beached on mud banks for cleaning and tarring of their hulls. London’s great shipping trade was supported by secondary industries such as cooperage for cask making, pickling houses to salt and preserve beef, and bakeries to make bread and biscuit, abattoirs where cattle were slaughtered on the hoof to provision ships and blacksmith forges to repair anchors and chains. In turn these services spawned shanty towns of alehouses, waterfront dives and brothels. Forests of masts from ships riding at anchor on the Thames obliterated the horizon. Pungent smells permeated the scene, smells such as tar, newly sawn timber, salt-soaked coils of rope and stinking mud banks blended with smells of culinary spices and pepper from newly arrived cargo from the East. Intermingled with shipping smells were the overpowering stench of horse-manure and urine from the hundreds of carts that trundled over the cobbled streets daily.
However, the reality was quite different, on board ship, conditions of overcrowding, squalor and lack of sanitation proved a perfect breeding ground for such diseases as typhus, dysentery and cholera. Sailors in those days rarely, if ever, washed - the limits of available fresh water deprived them of the opportunity to do so. On average one in four sailors died during the voyage, their bodies were unceremoniously heaved over the side without recourse to last rites or spiritual consolation. Those who lived through the terror of the voyage had to endure lice, fleas, cockroaches, agonising seasickness and the stench of vomit and excreta below decks. Dietary problems also attended those long voyages. In the first few weeks of sailing, fresh food ran out only to be replaced by such monotonous fare as salted meat or stock fish stored in barrels below decks - this food smelled and tasted disgusting and was only eaten as an alternative to starvation. Salted meat was supplemented by potatoes, peas, and ship biscuit known as hardtack. Hardtack was derived from oatmeal and tough as old boots, Sailors routinely broke this biscuit in half and then tapped it against a bench to shake out the weevils, it was then dipped in broth to soften it. Rats regularly spoiled food as they gnawed their way through barrels and crates. The absence of fresh fruit and vitamin C over long periods afflicted sailors with the dreaded scurvy causing their gums to decay and teeth to fall out. Drinking water in casks might turn stagnant especially in warm weather; this left the sailors no option but to gather fresh rainwater in canvas sails. It was against this backdrop that the Thomas and later the Hope set out on their great adventures to the east.
The Hope tended to ply a triangular trade route between London, Surat on the northwest coast of India, and Bantam, the company’s main trading station in Java. The other Bandon river ship, the Thomas, plied the Asian route as it traded between Java, Sumatra, The Molloccas, Macassar, Siam, the Malay Peninsula, the Spice Islands of Banda and Hirado in Japan. The Hope departed London on its maiden voyage in February 1614 bound for Surat in India not knowing it would be taking on the might of the Portuguese Navy in a fierce battle on arrival. The Hope was accompanied by three other ships, The Hector, The Gift and The Solomon. That epic voyage was led by Thomas Downton who recorded events in great detail in his diary.
In 1498, a hundred years earlier, the Portuguese, led by Vasco de Gama, discovered India. They subsequently established a base in Goa to trade along its Western Coast and also to exploit the Spice Islands for nutmeg, cloves, mace, cinnamon and pepper. In the course of time the Portuguese established long term trading relations with the Great Mogul, Jahangir, who had granted them privileges to engage in the lucrative Gujarat trade dealing mainly with calicoes, various textiles and indigo dye. Jahangir held sway over the territories of Northern India. Gujarat calicoes and various printed cotton fabrics were a ‘must have’ consumer item throughout England and Europe - much to the annoyance of English woollen manufacturers.
Downton’s small fleet of four outbound ships were laden with such trade goods as: Ivory, broadcloth, woollens, lead, mercury, tin, pewter, shirts, shoes, looking-glasses, sword blades, knives, strong waters, Russian hides, fowling pieces. The cost of the voyage was 33,489 pounds sterling, of that amount approximately 23,000 pounds sterling was converted into silver bullion in the form of Spanish reals (pieces of eight) and silver bars. The silver was carried on board in chests. Silver was essential for purchasing Asian goods. Presents for the Great Mogul were also included, among them imaginary portraits of Jahangir and Tamerlane. Nicholas Downton led the expedition. The fleet left London on 28 February 1614, its voyage to the Cape of Good Hope took a little over three months. On arrival the crew rested at Cape for two weeks to regain their health and store up on fresh fruits and provisions. The ships sailed again at ‘the end of June, their next stop was St. Augustine, on the South West side of Madagascar where provisions were taken on board. From thence they proceeded to the Island of Sokotra (200 miles off Yemen) mainly to glean intelligence about India and also to buy Aloeveras, a cactus-like plant held in high regard for its medicinal properties. After five days they departed for the coast of India which they reached on 2 October at a spot near Dabol on India’s West coast; from there they turned north and anchored in the Swally (near Surat) on the 15th. October 1614. Therefore the outward bound voyage took seven-and-a-half months. Surat had been the commercial capital of India for several hundred years before Vasco de Gama touched its shores. Cities like Bombay, Madras and Calcutta came much later as creations of the various East India companies. In pre East India times Surat exported textiles and other goods to Persia, the Red Sea and Egypt, it also traded down the east coast of Africa as far as Zanzibar. Surat was also the embarkation point for the ‘Haj’ the all-important annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
When Downton’s fleet of four ships arrived in India they were surprised to find the country (Northern India) at war with the Portuguese. Unbeknownst to Downtown the Portuguese delivered an ultimatum to the Great Mogul, they demanded that he expel the English from India or face the consequences of war. To show they meant business, the Portuguese burnt out many Indian villages and ten Indian ships on the shores near Surat - in a final act of outrage they seized the Mogul’s ship Rahmee on its way back from the Red Sea. It had a cargo valued at more than 100,000 sterling and two women for the Mogul. The intention was to force the Mogul’s hand by holding his ship to ransom until he made determined efforts to expel the English from India.
The conflict interrupted the Portuguese benefits of trade with Gujarat. On the other side the textile weavers of Gujarat, suffered the loss of their commerce with great severity. Also the pilgrim trade to Mecca was brought to a standstill as Indian ships were afraid to put to sea for fear of capture by the Portuguese. After months of stand-off both parties were weary of the war, yet pride prevented them giving in. The Jesuits did their best to bring both sides together. Jahangir would not listen to their overtures until his ship had been returned and losses made good. The Portuguese Viceroy was unwilling to do this and was resolved not to conclude any agreement that did not provide for the exclusion of the English.
The stalemate suited the English very well, the small fleet of ships of the previous voyage, Middleton’s voyage, lay at anchor off Surat. However, rising tensions made them extremely nervous as they longed for the arrival of Downton’s fleet to reinforce their position. As a result of the stalemate, the English East India ships were now in a very favourable position to take advantage of the cheapness of cotton, calicoes and indigo. Prices plummeted due to the glut created by the suspension of the Portuguese trade. Downton’s fleet finally arrived 15 October 1614 and anchored in the Swally, (a series of sand banks) in the vicinity of Surat. Mukarrab Khan, the Mogul’s agent, now tried to entice the English to join forces with him and attack the Portuguese settlement at Daman. Not wishing to wage war on the Portuguese the English declined much to the great annoyance of Khan who reckoned the English were the cause of the trouble in first place by their very presence and were duty bound to assist him.
In early December a large fleet of Portuguese frigates passed the Swally heading north. On 23 December the Portuguese flotilla reappeared in the Swally and took up position between the English ships and the mouth of the river. Three weeks later on 18 January the Viceroy of Goa arrived on the scene with a great fleet of ships. According to a captured prisoner the fleet consisted of six great Galleons of 400 to 800 tons and crewed by a thousand men; the Galleons carried in all 114 guns. They were accompanied by two smaller ships of 200 tons, a pinnacle of 120 tons, and sixty frigates Despite the unequal match in numbers, the men of Goa tended to have a perennial lack of expert gunners and generally a shortage of European seamen. Fighting depended largely on volunteer swordsmen who were untrained, impatient and lacking in discipline. Khan panicked at the sight of this fleet on his door step and made peace overtures to the Portuguese to no avail.
Suddenly there came the news that the Hope was being attacked and ‘was in sore peril’. The Portuguese noticed the Hope’s exposed position and at the top of the tide sent three smaller ships and a number of frigates to cross the sand-bank to grapple with it. Their swordsmen poured on deck and a terrific combat ensued. Thrice the Portuguese got the upper hand and thrice they were driven back by the desperate bravery of the English. Meanwhile, Downton’s other ships in the distance, the Hector, the Gift and the Solomon cut their cables and came to the assistance of the Hope. Soon the English ships were pouring steady fire at the Portuguese who were unable to extricate themselves from the hurricane of cannon balls and musket shot pouring down on them. The sand-banks at their rear prevented them moving to safety. The barrage of artillery from the English ships set the attacking Portuguese ships ablaze, within a short space of time the fires raged to inferno proportions. With flames at their backs and English cutlasses in front of them the fighting men turned their attention to securing their own safety. Many jumped into the sea and were drowned. Their hopes of being rescued by their colleagues did not materialise. Many more were burnt in the cataclysm. The English cast off the burning vessels which drifted onto the sand-banks and were soon consumed in the flames.
In the heat of battle, The Hope caught fire due to an accident on her main mast. An English crew member climbed to the mast top to throw a ‘firework’ (a flaming torch like implement) at an enemy ship. While aloft he was killed and his ‘firework’ fell to the main deck igniting a gun powder charge and setting the mast ablaze. The fire was eventually put out but not before the mast had been severely damaged and burnt beyond repair. A tally of the dead or injured was taken. Miraculously only five men of the Hope were dead and several injured. Portuguese losses were listed as between 350 dead. The following day their bodies were carried ashore for burial. The Portuguese suffered a disastrous defeat when they should have scored and easy victory; they regrouped and decided to change tactics to defeat the English by use of fire-ships (leaky ships in an advanced state of dereliction and fit for no other purpose). Fire-ships were prepared for their task by filling them with gunpowder, wildfire and other combustibles before setting them against the enemy and igniting their highly volatile cargoes as they closed with their prey.
The defeated Portuguese made various peace gestures to the Great Mogul who stood by his principles by demanding full compensation for the loss of his ship and all the other damage they had done. The Portuguese promised compensation but it was conditional on the Mogul excluding the English and the Dutch; the Mogul refused to accede to their demands. Over time peace broke out rather than a truce. Meanwhile, the master of the English fleet, Downton, decided to send the Hope back to London after its damages were made good and a new mast fitted. Before departing it had taken on a full cargo of indigo and calicoes. The calicoes and other textiles were exchanged for pepper in Bantam. Bantam is recorded in the letters as a place cursed with ‘a vile and sweltering climate’ it was located in tropical marshland from whence rose blizzards of biting mosquitoes nightly to torment the East India settlers. Disease was rife in Bantam with many an East India servant being struck down and drawing his last breath there. Downton, the hero of our story also succumbed to the fever-laden atmosphere of Bantam - he died at the age of fifty-four on 6 August 1615, His grave is unmarked but it is likely that he is buried in Panjang Island in the Bay of Bantam, the usual place for interment of English victims of Bantam’s ‘pestiferous’ climate. An English Fort at Bencoolen in nearby Sumatra lost its entire garrison to unknown diseases, only the cook and few helpers survived, in a letter to the company, the cook states that there is nobody left alive to bury the dead.
Having survived her baptism of fire against the Portuguese off Surat, the Hope settled down to her mundane purpose of trading in Asia. From her humble birth on the banks of the Bandon River, the Hope covered itself in glory when she defeated the Portuguese Navy against overwhelming odds in a David-and-Goliath-like battle. In so doing she not only raised the prestige of her country, but opened the door to the Mogul Court for trade negotiations by her successors. The Hope by its actions had established a permanent foothold for England on the Indian continent; and in so doing laid the foundation for the East India Company’s successor, the British Empire, 274 years later.
In hindsight the Portuguese may have adopted the wrong tactics in the battle of the Swally by entrapping themselves in the sand banks before doing battle with the English. Had the Portuguese taken a different approach there is no doubt that the Hope and its three colleagues would have been annihilated. The success in battle of the Honourable East India Company of London against the Portuguese enabled the English to stay on the West Coast of India and pursue their polices to develop trade in Gujarat, Persia and the Red Sea This could only be achieved with the goodwill of the Great Mogul, Jahangir, father of Shah Jahan who was catapulted onto the world stage when he built the Taj Mahal. The intrepid Hope is mentioned for the last time in 1619 when she is reported missing. The East India Company records attribute her loss to piracy, mutiny or loss due to shipwreck on a hidden reef, we will never know how she met her end.
The first of the two ships built on the Bandon river, The Thomas, largely escaped the glare of history’s spotlight. Due to her handy size she was retained for port to port voyages along the coast of Asia and as far afield as Japan which she visited many times to trade goods for Japanese silver which seemed to be in abundance in that country. On one such voyage the captain of the Thomas noted that the old Emperor of Japan had died. He was succeeded by his son who had a deep mistrust of the ‘the foreign devils’. The new Emperor withdrew certain trading privileges from the English and other Europeans, he also limited their access to Japan to two ports, Firado and present day Nagasaki. He then set about banishing or persecuting Jesuits and other Christians in his country.
The Thomas was stationed at Bantam in Java and relegated to trading mainly along the coast of nearby Sumatra to Achen, at it’s very tip. Letters of the Thomas mention the great difficulty they encountered in getting permits to trade from Sumatra’s unpredictable king whom they describe and being a barbarous tyrant. The Thomas also plied the shipping lanes to the east trading in various ports with romantic sounding names like Macassar, Mollocas, Ternate, Tidore, Amboyna and the Isles of Banda. The most valuable of these islands were the ones that grew nutmeg, cloves and mace. Such commodities were virtually worth their weight in gold.
However, the Dutch East India (VOC) dominated these Islands, and while they were prepared to tolerate the English on the fringes, they had no intention of giving them access to the fortunes to be made therein. The VOC were vastly more powerful than the English by a ratio of eight ships to one, they dominated the Spice Islands for twenty years and when challenged to various sea-battles by the English the VOC were always victorious. As if to reinforce their claims the VOC wrote a letter to the English company in Bantam in 1616 warning them not to voyage to the Spice Islands of Amboyna, Molloccas and the Isles of Banda; the letter went on to declare that they would not be responsible for their actions if defied, they also gave warning that intruders may be slaughtered. However, the lure of nutmeg and cloves dangled tantalising bait to the English company. In 1618 two of their ships, the intrepid Thomas of Bandon river fame, and The Solomon decided to tempt fate and visit the Spice Islands by stealth. Their plan was soon uncovered when the Dutch attacked them and captured their ships, we do not know the fate of the crew; they may have been slaughtered. We know no more of the Thomas other than the fact that she served her Dutch masters for a few years. A letter of 1623 notes that she was abandoned a decaying hulk on the white sands of the Banda Islands Prior to her capture by the Dutch, her English captain noted that her planks were all but eaten through and through by sea worms who were permanent residents in her timbers. We may assume from these comments that the Thomas was abandoned by the Dutch after she outlived her useful life.
The name East India Company conjures up images of majestic tall ships with billowing canvas and holds laden with spices, tea, silks, porcelain and cashmere. However, we are also reminded of its darker side as the world’s biggest opium trader, its long history of oppression and greed against indigenous peoples helpless in defending themselves. The East India Company regularly waged devastating wars against Asian nations who would not comply with their directives. They also forced opium on the Chinese people in exchange for much need silver to pay for tea. The Chinese Emperor on realising that millions of his people were becoming opium addicts took drastic action against the English by burning 1,000 crates of their opium on the Canton Quayside. They also closed Canton to opium trading and declared that any English man setting foot in China would be hanged. The East India Company were outraged by what they regarded was the Emperor’s high-handed action. This sparked off a series of Opium wars which brought the Emperor to his knees in surrender having suffered a humiliating defeat. Terms dictated by the English saw them acquire Hong Kong; they also demanded that Canton and other ports be opened for opium trading; finally the bewildered Emperor was forced to pay the cost of the wars estimated at twenty million pounds sterling.
Almost all the major E.C. countries known today exploited China during their colonial years. In recent years the then Chinese Vice President, Zi Jin Ping, decided to visit an EC country. It may be more than a coincidence that he choose Ireland!
- John O’Donovan, BA MA HDE.
- Mary Lombard, Boole Library, UCC.
- Max McCarthy, Head Librarian, retired, Boole Library.
- The East India Company - Antony Wilde.
- The Wooden world, N.A.M. Rogers.
- The Safeguard of the Sea N.A.M. Rogers.
- The Last Crusade - the epic voyage of Vasco de Gama by Nigel Cliff.
- Shipbuilding on the Thames and Medway by Philip Banbury.
- The Voyage of Nicholas Downton to the East Indies 1614-15.
- Sir GCM Birdwood and Sir William Foster (editors) The Register of letters of Governor and Company of Merchants trading into the East Indies 1600Ð1619. (British Library).
- The Journal of John Jordain, 1608-1617.
- The Origins of Empire, Nicholas Canny, Ph.D., MRIA (Vol. 1).
- A narrative of the fight at Swally, by Rev. Samuel Purchas. From an East India collation by Christopher Farewell.
- Captain Downton at Swally to Company 1614.