The great transoceanic trading voyages associated with the East India trade between Britain and China are – in many respects – a gift for storytelling. They have a small cast of named protagonists – the ship’s captain, his mates, the ‘supercargoes’ who managed the trade itself – with the sailors themselves almost invisible in the historical record. They have a clear narrative structure: the routes to and from China were well established by the turn of the eighteenth century, and involved clear waypoints: the Azores, the Cape of Good Hope, Java, Canton. The promised climax of their stories involves the successful procurement of tea cargoes at Canton, with the mounting tension presented by the need to have departed the Pearl River in time to catch the prevailing north-easterlies.
The archival records through which we can tell these stories – such as that of the Stretham frigate around which Chapter Three of Empire of Tea is organised – are rich in particular kinds of detail. The Stretham’s voyage of 1703-1706, in common with hundreds of others, is documented most precisely in the vessel’s journal, probably kept by one of the ship’s mates. Via a complex series of abbreviations, each daily entry whilst at sea records key navigational data, including measurements of latitude and estimations of the total distance travelled. This evidences the speed of the journey, the periods of time spent in ports on the way. Occasional details add human emotion to the account: ‘I Pray God send us a Prosperous Voyage’ the journalist notes, on leaving the waters of home. Notes about sightings of ‘Chinese buildings’ as the ship noses carefully along the Pearl River to Canton hint at how unfamiliar this landscape must have appeared to the officers and crew of early voyages. We feel with the sailors the sense of relief as months at anchor near Canton come to an end, and the journey home begins: ‘last night our Supracargos and Passengers came down from Canton haveing Dispacht there business […] [We] loosd our topsayle & hoisted our Culers’.
Precise accounts of the trading business of these ships is provided in another set of archived accounts: the journals maintained by the supercargoes who accompanied each voyage (though later consolidated into the ‘China diary’ maintained by the East India Company’s ‘Select Committee’ in Canton). In an earlier post I took a closer look at a Supercargo’s Journal of 1723, evidencing both the mercantile rigour and diplomatic tact that successful trading voyages required. Before the East India Company was able to establish a more-or-less permanent trading presence in China (around the 1780s), one is keenly aware of how difficult the role of the company’s supercargoes was, in terms of being required to acquaint themselves quickly with contexts of the local trade that obtained in that season: the status of the tea harvest, the degree of competition from ships from other companies, changes to local governance and the regulation of foreign trade, the prosperity of particular ‘hong’ merchants with whom they might have transacted on earlier voyages. The Stretham’s supercargoes journal – in common with those of all voyages before the early 1720s – has been lost, though it was read at the turn of the nineteenth century by Company library clerk Peter Pratt, who copied excerpts into his manuscript history of the Company.
Read alongside each other, these two principal sets of records hint at the wide range of concerns upon which the success of a typical East Indies trading voyage depended. While the supercargoes were striving to get the best terms from the local Hong merchants, the captain and his officers were having to put arrangements into place for the provisioning of the ship and its men during their long stay. In September 1704, as the Company officers carried by the Stretham strove to find the best sale prices for the cargoes of cloth and lead that they had brought with them (‘they sold all their Cloth […] to Empsaw; and the next day all their Lead to Anqua’), Captain Flint and his crew executed the complex business of deliberately beaching the vessel and laying it on its side, so that its leaky hull could be examined and re-tarred ready for the voyage home. The sense of their absolute vulnerability in a strange landscape far from home seems redolent in the log, even though it is almost entirely free from adjectives denoting sentiment or concern.
Perhaps most surprising is the way in which even early voyages such as that of the Stretham, engaged on a trip to the other side of the world and back, left a surprisingly rich paper record. In addition to the ship’s journal, and the excerpted supercargo’s diary, the passing of the vessel is also recorded in the journal of the Company’s Madras factory, Fort St. George. Letters which the ship’s supercargoes sent on their out-bound voyages with homebound Company ships are preserved, in fair copy, in the Company’s correspondence files. The Company’s letter-books of ‘Dispatches to the East’ contain fair copies of the letters sent by the Company’s Directors to the ship’s captain and supercargoes. Though the Stretham’s return to London is unremarked in the press, it’s quite typical for London newspapers to note the imminent arrival in the Thames estuary of incoming East Indiamen.
The range of manuscript archives – the thin sheets of the ship’s journals on the one hand, often virtually illegible, using abbreviations which modern readers must work hard to decipher; the high quality paper of the Company’s official records on the other, with elegant practised copper-plate hand and measured sentiments of respect and courtesy – trace the practicalities of continuing a long-distance trade. The record is both business-like and practical, splicing the mercantile, legal, nautical, and commercial strands of the story of each trading voyage.
This is part of a series of posts to this blog during 2015 that relates to a specific chapter of Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World.