Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
The Lure of Exotic Treasure
Piracy and the East India Companies
By Cindy Vallar
Imagine the smooth softness of silk whispering over one’s skin. Or the enticing aroma of nutmeg and cinnamon in a freshly baked apple pie. These were but three of the wares from China and India that Europeans could purchase . . . if they had enough money. For example, a mason working in Cambridge, England in 1438 earned six pence a day. A pound of cinnamon cost about twenty-four pence, so the mason needed to work four days to earn enough money to purchase the spice. Silk, however, was far beyond his reach. Depending on the quality of the silk (satin, damask, or velvet), a single yard cost between 105 and 280 pence. To buy seven yards – enough to make an outfit – he would need to work between 122 and 327 days. Little wonder that such commodities were attractive to pirates, who preferred to acquire them without going to the trouble of hard work and little prospect of saving enough to actually buy such indulgences.
Left to right: Chinese silk from the 2nd century BC (Wikimedia Commons), Nutmeg (Wikimedia Commons), and Cinnamon (Wikimedia Commons)
If it were possible to establish direct links with the countries from which the goods originated rather than interfacing with so many middlemen, the Cambridge mason stood a better chance of indulging in a treat or the European merchant might realize sufficient profit from one sale to risk a second and larger venture next time around. Vasco da Gama’s voyage to and from India made this possible, albeit over a period of time.
Route of Vasco da Gama's first voyage (Wikimedia Commons)
Portugal was the first to take advantage of these possibilities. First, they needed to establish bases of operation in various Asian countries, by force if necessary, and Afonso de Albuquerque succeeded in this endeavor. He conquered Goa, India in 1510. The following year, he and 1,200 men boarded eighteen ships and launched an attack on Malacca (Melaka), a thriving center of international trade. From there, he extended Portugal’s reach to Siam (Thailand), Burma (Myanmar), and the Spice Islands (Moluccas or Maluku Islands). He also initiated relations with Ming China in 1513, but the Chinese did not trust outlanders and refused them permission to establish a factory or warehouses there until 1557, at which time the Portuguese leased a small plot of land in Macao. This new trade network provided them with direct access to sugar, cinnamon, and cardamon from India; nutmeg and cloves from the Spice Islands; and pepper from Sumatra.1
As was often the case, what one nation had others coveted, and other countries soon came to wrest control of these areas from the Portuguese. One interloper was the Republiek der Verenigde Nederlanden (also known as the Dutch Republic or the United Provinces). For many years, Dutchmen had sailed aboard Portuguese ships bound for the East Indies.2 These voyages allowed them to learn the sea routes, the markets, and the cultural differences of various ports from India to the Spice Islands and China. Now that the northern provinces had gained their independence from Spain, the Dutch craved a more active role in this global commerce. The initial ventures were organized on an individual basis, which resulted in merchants in different provinces competing against each other in addition to alien mercantile ventures. This rivalry eventually led the States-General of the United Provinces to establish a single entity known as the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, or United East India Company) in 1602. The VOC was governed by the “council of 17,” who were gentlemen merchants from the major trading cities in the provinces.3 Normally, investors had provided capital for a single voyage, but to invest in the VOC meant their money was tied up for a decade at a time. This allowed the VOC to pursue long-range goals, and during the first two periods of investment an investor earned four times his initial outlay.
Left to right: 17th-century plaque for VOC in Hoorn, Netherlands (Wikimedia Commons) and English East India House circa 1800 by Thomas Malton the Younger (Wikimedia Commons)
Another interloper into Portuguese territory was England’s East India Company (EIC). Its first ship arrived in Surat, India in 1608, and those aboard experienced a “world of pungent spices and luxurious textiles, magnificent art and architecture, and impressive works of literature and science.” (What, 7) Sir Thomas Roe, the first EIC ambassador to India, described the city as “the fountain and life of all the East India trade.” (What, 27) It was the perfect place to establish the Company’s first factory in 1610. Sixty-four years later, a Company surgeon wrote:
The house the English live in at Surat, is partly the King’s gift, partly hired; built of stone and excellent timber, with good carving, without representations; very strong, for that each floor is half a yard thick at least, of the best plastered cement, which is weighty. It is contrived after the Moor’s buildings, with upper and lower galleries, or terrace-walks; a neat Oratory, a convenient open place for meals. The President has spacious lodgings, noble rooms for counsel and entertainment, pleasant tanks, yards, and an hummum to wash in; but no gardens in the city, or very few, though without the city they have many, like wildernesses, overspread with trees. The English had a neat one, but Sevaji’s coming destroyed it: It is known, as the other Factories are, by their several flags flying.Other vessels ventured farther east into Indonesian waters, but the VOC was so firmly entrenched there that eventually the EIC opted to focus on its trade with India instead. The Company established Fort St. George (Madras) in 1640. A marital alliance between King Charles II and the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza brought Bombay under English control in 1661 and, subsequently, the EIC. Fort William (Calcutta) was founded in 1690.
Here they live (in shipping time) in a continual hurly-burly, the Banians presenting themselves from the hour of ten till noon; and then afternoon at four till night, as if it were an Exchange in every row; below stairs, the packers and warehouse-keepers, together with merchants bringing and receiving musters, make a meer Billinsgate; for if you make not a noise, they hardly think you intent on what you are doing. (Wheeler, 28-29)
Left to right: Fort St. George in Madras (Wikimedia Commons) and Fort William in Calcutta (Wikimedia Commons)
Both etchings are by Jan Van Ryne in 1754.
No matter how powerful or rich these East India companies became, they still had a common enemy: pirates. One of the earliest attacks on record occurred in April 1635. Two London merchants obtained a letter of marque from King Charles I and hired William Cobb to command their privateer, Roebuck, which was armed with ten guns. Once in the Indian Ocean, he and his men captured two local vessels. Taufiqui was under the EIC’s protection and the Portuguese company had hired Mahmudi. (In seizing these two vessels, Cobb and his men crossed the line from privateers to pirates, because Portugal and England were allies.) The victims were rowed ashore under guard, while the marauders plundered the vessels. Not finding sufficient booty, the pirates tortured the passengers and crew to discover where their valuables had been hidden. Later, another EIC ship, Swan, encountered Cobb off Mohilla in the Comoros Islands. The two vessels exchanged barrages, but were too evenly matched and the skirmish turned into a stalemate. A compromise was reached between the two parties; Roebuck handed over the stolen loot and Swan permitted her to go on her way. Once the latter sailed out of sight, the former continued taking more vessels until her hold was filled. Only then did Cobb and his men head home to England, where they were arrested. Bail was paid and they were freed.
Around 1660, two Dutchmen became acquainted. One was Laurens Davidszoon, a merchant seaman who sometimes worked as a privateer for the Admiralty of the Maas in Rotterdam. The second man was Hubert Hugo, who had worked for the VOC for fourteen years and reached the position of Koopman (merchant). Both men came from good families, but soon after they met, they joined four other men to form a rederij or partnership to go privateering. On the surface, they claimed this venture was to trade with Arabs. In reality, this was subterfuge. They intended “to go capture the Moors . . . to harm Moors in the Red Sea . . . .” (Lunsford, Piracy, 170) With each man contributing 8,000 guilders, they arranged for a 400-ton ship to be built and armed her with up to thirty-six guns. Davidszoon was chosen as her captain and Hugo became the commander. She was christened de Seven Provintien or Seven Provinces, a reference to the seven provinces that comprised the Dutch Republic, but this too was a deception. Once they were at sea, her true name was unveiled: den Swarten Arent (the Black Eagle).
Their skullduggery continued after leaving the Dutch Republic. At Havre de Grâce (Le Havre), France they acquired a letter of marque from the Duc de Vendôme – an illegal document under Dutch law. As the Chief and General Superintendent of the Navigation and Commerce of France, he signed this commission on 24 May 1661. It permitted the Dutchmen to seize cargo and take “pirates, corsairs and infidel Mahometan people . . . and other savages and enemies of the state . . .” as prisoners. (Lunsford, Piracy, 170) The only French stipulation was that any seizures had to be brought back to Havre de Grâce to be declared a legal prize, which would then make it permissible to auction off the captured goods.
Davidszoon, Hugo, and their partners launched their piratical careers as soon as they reached Madagascar, where they plundered one ship. Then they proceeded onward into the Indian Ocean and Red Sea to pillage and destroy even more vessels. From their prizes they acquired an assortment of treasure: cloth, coins, gold, jewels, livestock, provisions, rice, spices, and more. Rather than simply hoard these items, they held them for ransom. One highly sought after “treasure” that they did not return to their rightful owners were VOC and EIC passes, which permitted them to sail without intervention in those waters. When authorities in Mocha (Yemen) tried to confront them, Davidszoon and Hugo torched several vessels, stole ammunition, captured hostages, and murdered soldiers. Rumors also circulated that they tortured any males taken from prizes, and raped women if they were on board. The grandest prize the zeerovers snagged belonged to the dowager queen of Bijapur. Arabian sources indicated they acquired “65,000 gold pieces, 150 bales of muslin, carpets, a great horde of money, rosewater aloes, and two beds, one of gold and the other of silver.” (Lunsford, Piracy, 171) An English document of the period placed the value of their haul at five to six tons of gold.
Davidszoon and Hugo finally decided it might be better to find new hunting grounds. After sailing to the Caribbean, they attacked ships near Martinique and St. Kitts. Dutch officials learned where the zeerovers intended to divide their plunder and set a trap, but only captured Davidszoon. The authorities confiscated whatever treasure he had with him and charged him with three offenses: working with three foreign governments; invading bodies of water where only the VOC was permitted to operate; and piracy. Upon his conviction, the judges declared he was
to be brought in chains to such a secure place as shall be decreed by their Honors [the judges] in order to be sequestered there for the time of thirty years, and upon the expiration of the same thirty years, for him to be banned for [his] lifelong days from the city of Dorrecht, and the province of Holland and West Frieseland . . . . (Lunsford, Piracy, 172)In other words, he was exiled from his place of birth. But Davidszoon was an enterprising man and had no intention of staying locked up. On the evening of 27 November 1663, he climbed up a chimney and escaped to Havre de Grâce, the place Hugo now called home. Davidszoon received a pardon from Dutch authorities about a year later, according to a letter housed in the Archives Nationales in Paris, France. He returned to the Netherlands and served as a captain of the Admiralty of the Maas during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667). He succumbed to an illness in 1672.
Hugo was neither caught nor tried. Instead, he reapplied to and was reinstated in the VOC in 1671. Once there, he ascended the corporate ladder to hold prestigious positions within the Company. When he passed away in Batavia seven years later, VOC officials in India honored him as one of the Company’s outstanding dignitaries.
Since the EIC owned only a limited number of ships, the Company often chartered or licensed other merchant vessels to conduct trade in India. One such example was the Bauden, a privately owned merchant frigate ferrying thirty-nine EIC soldiers to the garrison at Bombay. She carried sixteen guns and had a cargo capacity of 150 tons. Her captain, a Company employee, was John Cribb. Also on board were a man named Richard Salvey (sometimes spelled Salwey) and a young lad, who was a Huguenot (Protestant) fleeing authorities who wished to return him to France. His name was Guillaume Chenu de Chalezac, and Captain Cribb took him on as his servant. Accounts vary as to what Salvey’s position was, labeling him as a supercargo (owner’s representative), a landlubber, an ordinary seaman, or a retired captain, although the latter two were least likely.
Ships in Bombay Harbour by Samuel Scott, c. 1731 (Wikimedia Commons)
Bauden was designed so that her crew of thirty could retreat to “citadels” at either end of the frigate if attackers came aboard.
These citadels were known technically as ‘close quarters’ and were formed by strong barriers running across the breadth of the ship and separating the Forecastle and the Quarterdeck from the Waist or middle part, which in a frigate-built ship was some feet lower. These barriers were provided with loopholes from which the defenders could fire upon the enemy who had entered the ship . . . . In the case of the Bauden, the Roundhouse or Captain’s cabin appears to have been at the after end of and above the Quarterdeck, beneath which on the level of the Waist were the Steerage and the Great Cabin, with a Companion leading from the Roundhouse to the Great Cabin. The Waist was commanded by the loopholes in the Forecastle and the Quarterdeck. Thus when the crew had retired to the Forecastle and Quarterdeck and the Captain and some picked men to the Roundhouse, they were all under cover in their Close Quarters, in which also were situated all the guns which they had mounted for use. (Hill, November, 199)While on her southbound journey to round the Cape of Good Hope, Bauden’s rigging became damaged and she put into the harbor at São Tiago in the Cape Verde Islands to repair it. While sheltering there, a Dutch-built vessel tried several times to enter the harbor, but the wind and tide didn’t cooperate and she veered away.
An account of what transpired after the Bauden departed São Tiago was deposited on 22 October 1687, at Johanna Island, where it was retrieved nearly two years later by Nathaniel Warren, who served aboard a ship named Charles.
[A]bout 6 in the morning we descried a saile to the westward upon our starboard quarter, about three leagues distant . . . which our Commander and all of us concluded to be the same Dutch built ship . . . . (Hill, November, 200)The stranger dogged Bauden even through a squall and two hours later, they noticed a small boat approaching. Captain Cribb assumed those on the Dutchman were coming to request supplies since they had failed to put into São Tiago, but he remained wary and had small arms distributed among the crew.
About 9 a clock their boate being come within hale of us, they lay upon their oars and haled us in English, we answered of London bound for East India. We asking from whence they came, they answering from Rochill [Rochelle] bound for Brazill. They still kept without musquett shott of us . . . viewing us about half a quarter of an hour, after which wishing us a good voyage they made the best of their way to their ship, their boate being half between both ships. (Hill, November, 200)At this point, Captain Cribb surveyed the stranger through his telescope and discovered that in addition to her sails, she could also maneuver with sweeps (oars) of which she possessed twelve per side. And she was drawing nearer.
We then being confirmed in our opinion that he was a Rogue . . . made ready to receive him as such. We run out our guns double loaded with double and round shott, knocked down our cabbins and all impediments, cleered our decks, slung our yards and fixed our powder chests, two of which we placed on the forecastle and one upon our Poop, where we had [poured] melted butter and strowed Pease to make it slippery. We had allso two . . . boards struck full of ten-penny Nails with their points upward to prevent their boarding us. We had 4 great guns on our Quarterdeck, one of which we carried into the Roundhouse and levelled out of the Port in the doore to . . . [cover] our Quarterdeck, the others we spiked up, by reason the enemy should not turn them upon us. After which our Commander spoke some words to encourage the men, and every one went to his station.4 (Hill, November, 200)Guillaume Chenu reported to the magazine, where he handed out ammunition to the men.
Around noon, the pirates hoisted French colors. Captain Cribb ordered them to “bear under our stern,” a sign of submission; otherwise, he promised to open fire. One pirate, who also spoke English, crawled onto their bowsprit and ordered Cribb to lower Bauden’s boat and come over to the pirate ship. He had no intention of doing so and said they could lower their boat and come over to his vessel. The pirate replied that that was their intention, to which Cribb responded, “Wellcome, win her and ware her.” (Hill, November, 201)
No sooner were these words spoke but they sent a volley of small shott into us, which did little harme, upon which our Master and Mr. Salvey fired twice apiece from the Quarter deck and went to their close quarters in the Roundhouse, and our men giveing them a volley from the Waste, retired half of them into the Stearidge . . . and the other half into the Forecastle, excepting one, being a soldier, who was shott dead entring the Forecastle doore . . . .Both sides continued to fire upon each other for a time before the French captain ordered his men to board Bauden. Some came over the tangled bowsprit, others over the side. This gave those in close quarters on Bauden the chance to fire upon the pirates through the loopholes.
. . . they in the Forecastle brought their aftermost great gun to bear upon the enemys bow, which they fired . . . . Whereupon they run us aboard with their boltspritt in our main shrowds, at which time wee discharged both our Stearidge guns, being loaded with double round and Partridge shott, . . . upon which the enemy made a great outcry and veered so far astern that they brought their boltspritt into our mizen shrowds and lashed fast to our chain plates, by reason of which we could not bring our Forecastle guns to bear upon them. (Hill, November, 201)
Some of their men run up our shrowds, endeavouring to cutt down our yards, but findeing them slung in chains, they were discouraged. They that went up were either shott down and fell in the sea or else went down on the other side and swam round to their ship, they not dareing to enter upon our Quarterdeck, seeing us traverse our great guns upon them out of the Roundhouse doore. Neither did they dare to board us on our Poop by reason of our powder chest and other provision made there. Their Commander from on board earnestly pressed them to enter us, but they found our ship too hot for them. They still continued fireing upon us, their cheif aime being att our Roundhouse, Great Cabbin and Stearidge through which they fired three great shott, endeavouring to kill our Captain and sett fire to a powder chest, which att the last they accomplished.At this point, Captain Cribb emerged from the Roundhouse to encourage his men in the Great Cabin and was hit in the groin. He suffered a second wound two hours afterward to his chest, “which came through his back” and he succumbed thirty minutes later. Salvey, who was also wounded, encouraged the men to keep fighting and remained with them, rather than go below to have his wound tended. (He later wrote, “received besides bruises one shott which went a little below my small ribs and struck downwards towards the neck of my bladder above 5 inches and still [22 October 1687] remains in my body but (blessed be God) I feel little paine except upon change of weather.”) (Hill, November, 203)
Upon its blowing up, the enemy made a great shout and, reasuming courage, entered upon our Poop . . . but our men from our Forecastle and loopholes upon the Quarterdeck fired thick upon them, soe that they obleidged them to desist, and their living [i.e., those left alive] instead of cutting into us were employed to dispatch their dead out of our sight, but they left one aboard . . . . He had a long Fuzee, 7 foot in the Barrell, 2 Pistolls, one scimetar, one poleaxe, one stinkpott, a catutch box with 23 charges of powder and Bullett for his Fuzee, with lines [ropes] to bind us back to back . . . . (Hill, November, 201-202)
Around two o’clock in the afternoon,
the enemy struck his ensigne, as we all believed his Captain was then killed and they had received a shott from us between wind and water. They still continued to fire upon us till about 4 a clock, when we brought one of our guns to bear upon them double loaded with double round and Partridge . . . upon the fireing of which there was another outcry heard in their ship, att which time they cutt loose from us . . . . (Hill, November, 202)Instead of just allowing the pirates to escape in their leaking ship, the first mate tried to fire upon them, but a pirate with a pistol shot him in the head, killing him instantly. After making repairs, the survivors intended to go after the pirates, but found that during the night, the rogues had employed their sweeps to get away and were too far for Bauden to bother with them.5
According to the report of this attack, the pirate ship was armed with thirty guns,
but she played them from her larboard side with not above 12 guns upon us, being so nigh that most of their small shott came through us.Of the wounded, Salvey’s injuries were the severest. Before bodies were tossed overboard, the crew took useful items and divvied them out. Chenu received the fuzee (fusil), two pistols, and breeches. His estimates were higher than those in the report: 150 out of 300 pirates dead; eleven of Bauden’s crew killed and twenty-four injured. The second mate, Mr. Baker Master, became acting captain and they set sail for Bombay. Getting there proved to be another trial for those who survived. Chenu and seven others were stranded on a hostile section of African coastline after they rowed ashore to find fresh water and provisions; only he survived. He was only fourteen when he was “adopted” into the family of the Xhosa chief. A VOC vessel eventually rescued Chenu, taking him to South Africa, where he joined the Company before finally reuniting with his own family in Amsterdam in October 1689. Thereafter, he joined the Elector of Brandenburg’s army and served with distinction until he died in 1731. The Bauden eventually reached Bombay in October 1687. On her homeward bound voyage, she was captured by natives at Massalege, Madagascar.
Tis judged by all that there were above 250 of those rogues aboard this Pirate, and by computation we killed at least sixty of them . . . .
We lost in this engagement our Commander, Cheife Mate and 6 more with 16 wounded . . . . (Hill, November, 202-203)
While Bauden succeeded in thwarting the pirates, other vessels weren’t as lucky. One attack foreshadowed bigger problems for the EIC and involved a wealthy and influential Indian merchant named Abd-ul Ghafur. According to Alexander Hamilton, a seaman and trader who knew the gentleman, Ghafur
drove a Trade equal to the English East-India Company, for I have known him fit out in a Year, above twenty Sail of Ships, between 300 and 800 Tuns, and none of them had less of his own Stock than 10000 Pounds, and some of them had 25000 . . . . (Hamilton, 147-148)On 27 August 1691, pirates seized a large ship that Ghafur owned. He pleaded with the emperor of India to require compensation from the EIC for his losses. In spite of no evidence that the pirates had been Englishmen, Emperor Aurangzeb confined the Company’s agents and their employees to their factory in Surat until they paid restitution of 700,000 rupees (£78,750).6 The Company refused to do so without proof of the pirates’ identities – a wise move since not a single pirate had been English. They were Danes, but this fact mattered little to Indian authorities, who kept the Company’s employees immured until 2 December. This same scenario played out again in 1692, but this time the pirates were mostly English.
1. Sugar was known throughout China and the Middle East by the late 600s. It wasn’t used in Europe until crusaders returning from the Holy Land introduced the sweet substance during medieval times. Europeans coveted this new spice, making it extremely dear in price. Only later was it introduced to the islands of the Caribbean as a crop for cultivation.For additional information, I recommend the following resources:
2. Prior to the Eighty Years’ War (1588-1795), all of the Netherlands (including present-day Belgium and Luxemburg) and Portugal fell under Spanish control. Scurvy, tropical diseases, shipwrecks, and armed conflict exacted a heavy toll on the small country’s manpower. This forced the Portuguese to hire foreign sailors to man their ships, and most of these came from the Netherlands.
3. The principal trading ports included Amsterdam, Delft, Enkhiuzen, Hoorn, Middelburg, and Rotterdam. Each supplied a specific number of representatives, with Amsterdam being allotted eight.
4. "Powder chests," in this case, were like mines that could be set off when a deck was crowded with pirates.
5. This account identifies the French pirate ship as "Trampoos . . . a ship of about 300 tons and might carry 30 guns," but that is unlikely. (Hill, 202) Captain Carlisle of HMS Francis had destroyed La Trompeuse in August 1683 in the Caribbean. Her captain, Jean Hamlin, escaped and acquired a new vessel, which he named La Nouve Trompeuse, but thereafter he disappears from the historical record.
6. According to the National Archives currency calculator, £78,750 would be worth £9,436,919.63 in 2017. In 1690, this sum allowed a person to purchase 14,637 horses or hire a skilled tradesman for 875,000 days. According to the Bank of England, the restitution paid in 1691 was equivalent to £20,057,059.38 in 2020. That amount in February 2021 equates to US $28,199.922.
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Reddy, Srinivas. “Disrupting Mughal Imperialism: Piracy and Plunder,” Asian Review of World Histories 8:1 (February 2020), 128-142.
Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750. Cambridge University, 1999.
Ritchie, Robert C. Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates. Harvard University, 1986.
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