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2 - Trades Increase

24 March 2023

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August, 1613. Thomas Overbury was still stewing in the Tower of London; the king's squabble with his Parliament for money had not yet started; and Thomas Roe was still travelling across Europe. Meanwhile, John Jourdain, formerly of Lyme Regis, arrived at the port of Bantam in present-day Java, Indonesia, one of the richest cities in South Asia and a hub of the international spice trade. As his ship entered Bantam's waters, Jourdain spotted a dark hulk looming up ahead. It was an East India Company vessel, the Trades Increase. 'I saluted them with three pieces [of ordinance],' he would report later, 'but no answer, nor sign of English colours [flags]'. Finally, he spotted a prau making its way through the shallow waters. There were four familiar faces aboard, all merchants, 'all of them like ghosts or men frighted'. They represented the handful who remained from the huge ship that had come out of England. Almost all the others, 140 people, were dead.¹

The ghost ship in Bantam was a world away from the plots and gossip snaking their tangled way through the corridors of Whitehall, but the risks and speculations that had brought it to that point were no less important in shaping the future that awaited both England and Roe. Jourdain came from a merchant family himself. He had started off with a small ship, trading with the Portuguese in the Azores, before joining the East India Company in 1607 as one of its chief 'factors' or agents. As with many of the sources used in this book, we have to be thankful for the East India Company's obsession with paperwork, which has preserved Jourdain's journal of his travels. It is from here that we know that Jourdain had seen the Trades Increase in happier days. In 1611, he had been a member of a small contingent of English ships to reach Surat, on the western coast of India. The Portuguese who were there already considered the English newcomers to be pirates and interlopers. Their light frigates immediately blockaded the English. With no route out, Jourdain had disguised himself in Indian clothes and hidden for three nights in the estuary when he heard that other English ships were coming. Luckily, keen eyes had spotted the white flash of the turban he was desperately waving, and he was sensationally rescued. One of those newly arrived ships had been the Trades Increase, out on its maiden voyage.

At around 1,300 tons, the Trades Increase was the largest English merchant ship, custom-built for the East India Company's long voyages and a symbol of its burgeoning fortunes. James I himself had named it at a lavish shipboard banquet before it set out to sea in 1609. And royal approval had extended beyond that. The king, keen to show his favour to the richest merchants of London, had presented Sir Thomas Smythe, the East India Company's first governor, with a miniature image of himself, set as a pendant on a chain worth £200. As a mark of particular honour, he had placed it around Sir Thomas's neck with his own hands.2 In Surat, Jourdain gloated over the impression that the English ship made even on the notoriously uncooperative Mughal governor, Muqarrab Khan: 'when he came aboard the Trades Increase he wondred to see her, affirminge that he had bene aboard many Portugall carricks and they were nothinge in respect of this; as afterwards he affirmed the same on land in my presence to many Portugalls."3

There was a reason for Jourdain's smug delight at showing up the Portuguese. Its roots went deep into England's longstanding anxiety about its place in global trading networks.

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Courting India
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When Thomas Roe arrived in India in 1616 as James I's first ambassador to the Mughal Empire, the English barely had a toehold in the subcontinent. Their understanding of South Asian trade and India was sketchy at best, and, to the Mughals, they were minor players on a very large stage. Roe was representing a kingdom that was beset by financial woes and deeply conflicted about its identity as a unified 'Great Britain' under the Stuart monarchy. Meanwhile, the court he entered in India was wealthy and cultured, its dominion widely considered to be one of the greatest and richest empires of the world. In Nandini Das's fascinating history of Roe's four years in India, she offers an insider's view of a Britain in the making, a country whose imperial seeds were just being sown. It is a story of palace intrigue and scandal, lotteries and wagers that unfolds as global trade begins to stretch from Russia to Virginia, from West Africa to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. A major debut that explores the art, literature, sights and sounds of Jacobean London and Imperial India, Courting India reveals Thomas Roe's time in the Mughal Empire to be a turning point in history – and offers a rich and radical challenge to our understanding of Britain and its early empire.