British Muslim Heritage
The East India Company

The street names of many of the roads and avenues of the Docklands area, whether old or new, are perhaps the best indicators of its spice-ridden, eastern heritage. Two Wapping street names that come to mind are Cinnamon Street and Penang Street. St Katherine’s Docks boasts ownership of Cape Yard. Manilla Street and Taeping Street can be found on the Isle of Dogs. The Blackwall Tunnel Approach runs past a certain Mauritius Road, and Bermondsey, near to Tower Bridge, has a district known as Leather Market, which contains Tanner Street, Morocco Street and Leathermar Street. Limehouse, one-time haven of tea-clippers coming in from the China Sea, has a bigger variety in West India Dock Road, West India Quay, Saracen Street, Nutmeg Lane, Saffron Avenue, Oregano Drive, Clove Crescent, and, of course, East India Dock Road.

Many of the original warehouses and factories that would have serviced the sea-faring companies like the East India Company have now been destroyed in a combination of the Blitz bombing raids, and more recent re-developments. However, in Bermondsey on the South Bank, or “Hay’s Wharf”, the re-development has been more sympathetic to the style of its predecessors, and many of the Victorian facades have been preserved. Whereas apparently in St Saviour’s Docks, especially in the Shad Thames area, it is still possible to smell the spices in the air because they had been stored there for so long.

A bit further along the river, in Greenwich, the Cutty Sark is the only surviving tea-clipper to have emerged from this once teeming dockyard, and its neighbour the Royal Observatory would once have provided the onlooker with an excellent view of all the activity on the river and its surrounds.

This is where the East India Company finds itself now, relegated to the archives of the National Maritime Museum and only an aromatic reminder carried on the odd passing breeze. A great deal of imagination is needed to recapture its past, particularly when the docks are now mostly deserted, derelict, or home to yuppies and office-towers.

The Company was begun in 1600, when Queen Elizabeth I granted it its first royal charter. It was not the first of the sea-born trading companies by any means, and was heir to the Barbary Company and the Levant Company, among others. Its activities immediately after the Charter remained fairly limited, and it only really began to develop in the later 1600s having broken into the previously unknown Indian market. The Mughal Emperor, Akbar, was aware that his realm was being slowly strangled by the Mahrattas in the south, the Gorkhas and Sikhs in the north and west, and the Spanish and Portuguese at sea. He was happy to grant a trading franchise to the English after hearing of the enmity between Britain and Spain and receiving a report of how an English ship had sunk three Spanish galleons in Surat Bay. Keen also to hedge his bets, this franchise was given for the Hoogly River; and so, eventually, Calcutta was born and became the focus of the East India Company’s activities into Bengal. The first expedition of the East India Company to Agra was in 1604. Akbar’s treaty was continued by his son Jehangir. During the 18th and early 19th Centuries, the Company consolidated its operations in India around three ‘presidencies’ at Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. Penang, acquired by Francis Light, and Singapore, developed from the mangrove swamp ridden island of Tumasik by Sir Stamford Raffles initially came under the Calcutta Presidency.

To protect its investments and secure the flow of goods, especially indigo, through Bengal, the East India Company began to recruit what became its own army largely from the Muslim kingdom of Oudh, whose capital was Lucknow. It eventually established a military cadet training establishment at Addiscombe, near Croydon, and a school for its civil service at Haileybury in Hertfordshire. Many famous military figures served in the East India Company’s regiments including Robert Clive and the Duke of Wellington. The 18th century wars such as the Wars of the Spanish and Austrian Succession, left Britain with a dominant role in Asia, and after the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars, Britain’s world-wide role was effectively imperial. Thereafter its position on the seas and docks of the far-eastern world became more and more unchallenged.

The East India Company had a number of routes from London to the shores of Canton, and these included several key stop-off points on the way where ships would either lose or collect sailors to work them. This not only provided the vessels with a constantly renewed crew, but it also meant that there was a great deal of movement and travel between countries at that time. Initial activity was concentrated in the Malay Archipelago and the Spice Islands, but competition with the Dutch eventually pushed its focus of operations to Calcutta in the mid-17th century. This rivalry was temporarily somewhat resolved with the joint monarchy of William of Orange and Mary Stuart. The key points on these routes, which were mainly centred around the Cape of Good Hope, included the ports of the Malay lands (such as Bencoolen on Sumatra, and later Penang and Singapore), Somalia, the Yemen, Zanzibar and the East African coast, the Bay of Bengal and of course Canton in mainland China. All of these ports, including that of Canton which was mainly being serviced by Muslim Chinese at the time, were in Muslim areas, and many sailors from these areas were carried back to London. Later routes took in more of the Indian coast, and the Arab world.

The trade goods that these ships were carrying varied. A large part of it was woollen cloth and manufactures from Britain in exchange for sugar, tea, coffee, silk, cotton, and “china” porcelain. Britain had also, by this time, developed a reliance on spices (especially cloves, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, and nutmeg), and this was an important commodity in the trade with India and the Spice Islands. With such valuable cargoes, the ships not only of the English East India Company, but also of the Dutch and French, were targets of piracy. Located particularly at St Mary’s, a tiny island off the east coast of Madagascar, Perim, an island off Zanzibar, and Babu-l Mandab, known to them as Bab’s Key, the Red Sea Rovers were a major threat to shipping throughout the late 17th and 18th centuries. Some of them, such Thomas Tew, master mariner out of Newport, Rhode Island, came from as far afield as New England, often as privateers with “letters of marque and reprisal”, to freeboot on what came to be termed “The Pirate Round”. 

To protect themselves, the merchants in London commissioned a special type of ship to sail to the Indies: a merchant vessel armed like a warship with an appropriate size. So was born the famous East Indiamen, which came to be a familiar sight in London’s docks. The Company also paid its sailors rather better than the Royal Navy, getting the cream of the docksides, especially during periods of peace, when experienced gunners, topsailmen, bosuns, carpenters, sailmakers, and so on needed a ship. They gained such a reputation that pirates and the mainly French privateers steered clear of them. This led the merchants to cut back on manning and would often send the ships out without a full complement, in particular the expensive gunners. And so the pirates came back. The London merchants came up with a further idea.

The Indiamen were big and fast, and could usually outrun most pirates. So they concentrated their ‘military’ personnel in a Maritime Service – a private navy. The Maritime Service of the East India Company came to be headquartered at Bombay, from where it could deal with the Red Sea and Indian Ocean pirates, and so acquired the nickname ‘The Bombay Marine’. Soon its ships were collaborating with the Royal Navy in hunting down pirates not only in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal but also in the Malay Archipelago and the South China Sea. A famous commander at the turn of the 18th century was Admiral Sir Edward Rice Owen. The Bombay Marine and the Bengal Squadrons of the Royal Navy became merged into an Indian Navy after the Mutiny, and is one of the parents of the navies of Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka. It, more so even than the Indiamen, recruited sailors locally, and as its ships would often return to England for refits, Muslim sailors were brought to Britain by the Bombay Marine where they would have to wait months sometimes for the ship to return to eastern waters.

The impact the East India Company had on an empirical level is known about. Many people view it as facilitating the rule of India and its markets. On another level, however, a fundamental impact that this company had, as well as all of the others, on British society was the in-flow of thousands of people from all over the world. These various vessels were a facilitator to global travel and cross-cultural exchange for hundreds of years.

In 1813, Thomas William Plummer wrote that, “scarcely any part of the British community is distinct from some personal or collateral interest in the welfare of the East India Company”.

The East India Company came to an end with the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and its once famous building in Leadenhall Street was unceremoniously pulled down in 1860. Addiscombe House was also pulled down around this time, and all that is left in Croydon are a few more street names. Haileybury school continues to this day, now known as Haileybury and Imperial Service College, and is a major boys’ public school. After the Mutiny, contact with India was maintained under the Queen’s Viceroys and towards the end of the 19th Century elevated to the Empire of India, but it petered out in other areas. Eventually, with the twentieth century and the arrival of a lot of change and upheaval, contact with India too began to wane after the Second World War, and with the Malay Peninsula and Singapore after the late 1950s. The Chinese “Treaty Ports” were successively given up: Shanghai in 1949, and Hong Kong and the New Territories in 1999. | British Muslim Heritage