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Original Records of Western Traders, Travellers, Missionaries and Diplomats to 1852

Part 4: East India Company: Ships' Logs, Ledgers and Receipt Books, 1605-1701 from the British Library, London

Publisher's Note

The history of the East India Company is an exceptional instance of the initiation of trade on a global scale. A high risk and haphazard commercial enterprise was transformed into an integrated and successful trade network linking the East with the West. The ships’ logs are an important part of the substantial East India Company archive which documents this process. This microfilm project focuses on the early voyages between 1605 and 1701.

On 31 December 1600 Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to George Earl of Cumberland and two hundred and fifteen Knights, Aldermen and Merchants for the formation of “The Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies”. Initially the East India Company, as it became known, concentrated on buying aromatic spices from the Indonesian islands but by the second half of the seventeenth century it was importing textiles  from India, coffee from Mokha in the Yemen and tea and porcelain from China. Ultimately it had the monopoly of all British trade east of the Cape of Good Hope with the right to prosecute any other ships sailing to Asia. However, in 1813 the renewal of its charter limited its monopoly to the China trade and in 1833 even the China monopoly had been abolished. In the following year the Company ceased to trade although it continued to administer British India and other territories on behalf of the Crown until 1858. Some of the records of the Company were destroyed but fortunately most survived, including the logs of the company’s ships. They are now preserved in the Maritime Records of the East India Company in the Oriental and India Office Collections at the British Library, London.

The Company’s first fleet of four ships and a victualler sailed from Woolwich in February 1601. From 1609 the Company built its own ships and in the December of that year two new ships were launched with great ceremony by the King. Between then and 1614  a further eleven fleets, each operating as a “separate stock voyage”, keeping its own accounts and paying its own dividends, were sent to Asia. In 1614 the separate voyages were replaced by single joint stock. In 1614 the Company opened its dockyard for building and repairing ships at Blackwall and the average sailings over the next forty years were five ships a year. In 1656 the Company sold the Blackwall yard as they decided to freight ships from private owners rather than rely on their own fleet and ships were built to agreed specifications by groups of managing owners. By the early 1800s at the Company’s peak forty to fifty sailings a year was the norm.

From the mid-seventeenth century it was practice for each ship’s commander to hand in to the Company a copy of his ship’s log, together with associated ledgers and receipt books. They were arranged and bound at the India Office in the late nineteenth century, arranged chronologically and divided into those for the seventeenth and those for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1999 a new catalogue of the logs covering both sections was published. This is arranged alphabetically by the name of the ship with its voyages arranged chronologically. It shows the ports the ship called at with dates.

The collection of seventeenth century ships’ logs held at the British Library covers the period 1605-1701 (the last voyage included departed in 1701 but did not return to England until 1705) and we include all of these in our microfilm collection. For some of the voyages, ledgers and receipt books are preserved and these have also been included.  There are 171 volumes, arranged in chronological order according to the date of departure of the ship. They are all written in a very clear hand and are in very good condition. Some of them contain excellent topographical pencil sketches.

The logs contain basic ship records together with added details on the events of the voyages:

  • Ports of call and encounters at each port
  • Routine tasks carried out on board
  • Details of the cargo carried
  • Information on contact with trading communities
  • Living conditions on board
  • Notes on the loss of seamen due to sickness or accidents
  • Details on punishments handed out to seamen for misdemeanours onboard
  • Routes taken, course settings, latitude and longitude, and weather conditions

The ledgers contain an alphabetical list of the ship’s crew with their ages and a note of the wages paid them. Occasionally notes are added of money spent by the crew, on items such as breeches and jackets but usually on tobacco and spirits! Some ledgers also give details on the amount of cash paid on imprest, usually around two shillings and details on the discharge of crew and list of men who died in service. L/MAR/A/CXLI, the ledger of the Sommers captained by John Douglas contains a very interesting list of belongings of dead crew men who had died onboard and how they were disposed of. Details of the sale of the belongings of Richard E Morigo who drowned are given and include:

“Coat and Breeches to William Grant 3 shillings and sixpence

1 Bible to Mr Joseph North for 7 shillings and sixpence….”

For some voyages receipt books are available, containing signed receipts for the wages paid. Seamen’s pay was very low, the average yearly wage being £11.00 and the real attraction of service was the Company’s system of private trade privileges for officers and seamen which permitted them to export and import their own goods.

Some of the very early logs have been lost and others are incomplete. The log of the first expedition of the Company to Sumatra and Java under the command of James Lancaster in the Red Dragon has been lost.  So have some of the other very early logs such as that for the second expedition for the discovery of the North-West Passage to India. Despite this the early voyages of the ships are very well represented.

The earliest log extant is a fragment of a journal covering 31 July to 4 August 1605 (L/MAR/A/I) kept by an officer on board the Ascension on the second expedition sent out by the Company to discover the North-West Passage to India on 23 March 1604. Also on the expedition to Bantam and the Molucca Islands, under the command of Henry Midddleton, were the Red Dragon, the Hector, and the Susan. The Susan was lost on the way home but the other vessels returned safely. The journals of the other ships do not survive.

The next expedition was one to the North-West under Captain John Knight in the Hopewell which sailed on 12 May 1606 and his journal up to 26 June 1606 forms the second log in the collection (L/MAR/A/II). The ship made it to the coast of Labrador and Knight went ashore with several others to explore. They never returned and the ship with great difficulty made it back to England.

For the third voyage to the East Indies the Dragon, Hector and Consent were prepared under the respective commands of William Keeling, William Hawkins and David Middleton. The logs of Keeling and Hawkins are preserved in L/MAR/A/III-VI, VIII. The fourth voyage to the East Indies was commanded by Captain Alexander Sharpeigh in the Ascension (L/MAR/A/VII).The log of the fifth expedition in the ship Expedition which sailed to Java and Banda on 24 April 1609 does not exist.

The sixth expedition, consisting of the Trades Increase and the Peppercorn set off for the East Indies on 1st April 1610. Unfortunately the captain of the Trades Increase, Henry Middleton was taken prisoner at Mocha, the ship ran aground on the way to Bantam and while being repaired there was set on fire and totally destroyed by the Javanese. Journals of the two ships are held in L/MAR/A/IX-XII.

In 1611 two expeditions were dispatched. The first consisted of the Globe under Captain Anthony Hippon. Included at L/MAR/A/XIII is a translation of the journal of the voyage written by a merchant on the ship, Peter Williamson Floris.

The second expedition, despatched on 3 April 1611, consisted of the Clove, Hector and the Thomas commanded by Captain John Saris. This was the first expedition sent by the Company to Japan where they settled a factory at Hirado. His journal of the voyage is held at L/MAR/A/XIV. Included in the collection also are logs kept on the Sea Adventure, commanded by William Adams, which traveled back and forth to Hirado from 1615-1619.On 20 March 1617 another expedition by William Adams in the Sea Adventure set off for Japan and China. We include at L/MAR/A/ XXVI journals kept by Edmund Sayers of Adams’ voyages from Hirado to Cochin in China and back. Also included are notes on events in Hirado from 23 August 1618-8 January 1619.

What are known as the ninth, tenth and eleventh voyages in 1612 really formed part of one expedition to the east under the command of Captain Thomas Best and consisted of the ships, Dragon, Hoseander, James and Solomon. Captain Best’s journal on the Dragon and two other journals kept on the Hoseander are included (L/MAR/A/XV-XVI, XVIII).

Voyages continued until the latter part of the seventeenth century at an average rate of five a year. The majority of the voyages were to the east, Surat, Bantam, Batavia, Persia, Sumatra, the Coromandel coast, Malacca, Macao but some were to China and some to India. L/MAR/A/LXIII contains the log of the Dragon captained by John Weddell on a voyage to Acheen and Canton in China between 6 April 1637 and 4 February 1638.

The first log recording a voyage to India is that kept by Ralph Hodgkines on the Concord, captained by Roger Kilvert (L/MAR/LXVIII). It left London on 25 February 1660 and sailed to the Coromandel coast and then from Balasore to Masulipatam and Madras returning to England on 19 February 1663. The next example of a voyage to India is the London (L/MAR/A/LXXI) which sailed on 24 August 1672 to Masulipatam, Madras and Bombay returning on 27 July 1674.

In the last year of the seventeenth century the number of voyages increased  with 1699 seeing more than twenty ships setting off for the East Indies, China and India. L/MAR/A/CXXI records the voyage of the Neptune, commanded by John Lesly which left London on 14 January 1699 and sailed to Fort St George and Masulipatam, returning on 23 April 1700. L/MAR/A/ CXXIII contains the log of the Macclesfield captained by John Hurle which sailed on 2 March1699. The journal of Robert Douglas, the Supercargo records the voyage to China with details on transactions at Macao and Canton. L/MAR/A/CXXXIII contains the log of the Rooke, captained by George Simmonds, which sailed on 5 August 1699 to the Malabar coast and then from Surat to Amoy in China, to Gombroon and back and to Ceylon.

The two extracts below will give an idea of the rich detail contained in the logs:

L/MAR/A/CXXXIII Log of the Rooke, captained by George Simmonds, 5 August 1699 to 11 April 1702 to the Malabar coast, from Surat to Amoy in China, to Gombroon and back and then to Ceylon.

“Friday 21st June 1700 This morning at six the land made thus, just before we weighed anchor, the Northern most land in sight…. We steered along the Shoare now you will see another Small Island lyeth close into the Shoare, and about midway between the headland and the point going into Malacca, it being about 5206 leagues from Malacca at half past three wee anchored in Malacca road in 7 and a quarter fathom water finding six sail of ships under English colours and 2 Moor ships of Suratt, the French from us NE all the Ships saluted us. Capt Mathers is one come last from Massalapotan….”

L/MAR/A/CV II Journal of the voyage of the Sampson from 12 February 1696 to 8 August 1698. It called at Madras, Vizagapatam and Calcutta:

“29th July 1696 Towards Cape Good Hope

This morning Mr Jon Hunter, a writer for the Company deceased, having been consumptive and very long sick; he is the 3rd Person, and 2nd Passenger….

Saturday 8th May 1697 At Calcutta This morning…sent on shoar 28 Chest of Treasure and 340 sticks of redwood….

Sunday 9th May 1697…. This morning James Bouy one of our Seamen accidently fell over board but a dinge came in of shoare by the help of God Almighty we saved him…”

The ships’ logs of the East India Company at the British Library are an under-used source which provide scholars with an insight into the dynamics behind the construction of a global market, providing rich detail on the early voyages, life of the seamen and trade with local communities.



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