The East India Company’s progress was anything but a straight, easy path. We must never forget that if it made big profits—and when examined these figures, taken on an average, are not so colossal as they seem at first sight—the risks and responsibilities were very far from insignificant. Quite apart from the difficulties out in India, and the absence of the invention of telegraphy thus making it difficult to keep a complete control over the factors and trade; quite apart, too, from the pressure which was harassing the Company from all sides—public opinion which grudged this monopoly: shipowners who wanted to raise the cost of hire: and Parliament which kept controlling the Company by legislation—there were two other sources of worry which existed.
The first of these was the continued insults by the press-gangs, and the consequent inconvenience to the East India Company and the great danger to their ships and cargoes. The second worry was the ever-present possibility during the long-drawn-out wars of losing also ships and goods by attack from the enemy’s men-of-war. In both respects the position was not easy of solution. On the one hand, it was obvious that the Company’s trade was likely to139 be crippled; but, on the other, the Government must come first in both matters. The navy was in dire need of men. All that it had were not enough. Men who had been convicted and sentenced for smuggling—some of the finest sailors in the country—were shipped on board to fight for the land that gave them birth. All sorts of rough characters were rounded up ashore and sent afloat by the press-gangs, but even then the warships needed more.
Now the crews of these eighteenth-century East Indiamen were such skilled seamen, so hardened to the work of a full-rigged ship, so accustomed to fighting pirates, privateers and even the enemy’s men-of-war, that it was no wonder the Admiralty in their dilemma overstepped the bounds and shipped them whenever they could be got. A favourite custom was to lie in wait for the homeward-bound East Indiamen, and when these fine ships had dropped anchor off Portsmouth, in the Downs, or even on their way up the Thames, they would be boarded and relieved of some of their crew: to such an extent, sometimes, that the ship could not be properly worked. I have carefully examined a large number of original manuscripts which passed between the Admiralty and the East India Company of the eighteenth century, and there runs through the period a continuous vein of complaint from the latter to the former, but there was very little remedy and the Company had to put up with the nuisance.
On the 21st of December 1710, for instance, the Company’s secretary, Thomas Woolley, sends a letter from the directors complaining to the Admiralty of the press-gang actually invading East India House, Leadenhall Street, one day during the140 same month, “on a pretence of searching for seamen.” As a matter of fact the press-gang had come to carry off the most capable of the Company’s crews, who happened to be present at that time. Very strongly the Company wrote complaints to the Admiralty that the press-gangs would board the East Indiamen lying off Spithead (bound for London) and take out all the able-bodied seamen they could lay their hands on. These men had to go whether they liked it or not, and the Company’s officers were indignant but powerless. But it added injury to insult that the press-gangs replaced the picked men taken out by “such as have been either unskilful in their duty or careless and refractory in the performance of it,” as one of the letters remarks. The Company therefore begged that no man might be taken out until the East Indiamen should arrive at their moorings, or at least till they came into the London river: for, they pointed out, the ships had very valuable cargoes on board, and this seizing of men exposed them to very great danger, it being often impossible to replace the men taken out.