East Indiaman

An East Indiaman was a ship
operating under charter or license
to the English East India Com-
pany. The 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 return-
ing to England via the Cape of
Good Hope. Main ports visited in India were Mumbai (then Bombay), Madras and Kolkata (then 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, and some carried a sizable armament. 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 successfully fought off a marauding squadron commanded by Admiral Linois in the Indian Ocean. The event 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 a 56-gun Fourth Rate Ship 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.

Another significant East Indiaman in this period was the 1176-ton Lord Warley that was being built at the Perry yard at Blackwall in 1795 when sold to the Royal Navy 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. HMS Calcutta was seized by French forces in 1805 and sunk by the Royal Navy off Sicily in 1809.

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.

The East Indiaman Repulse (1820) in the East India Dock Basin. Creator: Charles Henry Seaforth (artist, engraver & publisher)  - Click To Enlarge