1. Early Voyages

On 13 February 1601, four British ships set sail for the pepper producing islands of Sumatra and Java. In charge of the voyage was James Lancaster, a member of the newly founded Company - then known as the 'Company of Merchants of London Trading with the East Indies'. The Company had been established a year earlier by a royal charter, which granted it a monopoly over all English trade with the East. This kind of restriction on competition was typical of late Elizabethan overseas trade: there were many risks involved in this type of trade (shipwreck, pirates, and war were frequent dangers), and so investors needed to ensure that they could safeguard their profits as much as possible.


The ships sailed around the coast of South Africa and across the Indian Ocean to Sumatra where two ships stopped at Aceh. The other two ships arrived at the busy port of Bantam in December 1602. They were carrying a cargo of woollen cloth and different kinds of iron. The problem was that Sumatrans were not very interested in trading their precious spices for these goods - given the climate in Sumatra, wool seemed particularly useless to the natives. So Lancaster acted quickly: he decided to capture a Portuguese carrack (a large ship) and steal its rich cargo of gold, silver and Indian textiles. These goods allowed him to buy pepper at Aceh. Soon he noticed that pepper was even cheaper in Bantam (Island of Java), and he traded more cloth there.


All four ships, filled with pepper, arrived back in London in 1603. Many sailors had died on the voyage. They had all lived in cramped conditions, their diet was poor and sickness was common. Over the next 9 years 11 more voyages left the Thames for the factory that James Lancaster had set up at Bantam. The East India Company had begun.