Country Sea Service

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During the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century the East India Company owned the monopoly of the trade between Europe and the East. However, during this period, there also existed privately owned merchant ships that, originally, engaged upon trade along the coastal waters of India and its nearby ports.

These were called Country Ships and from around 1790 they operated under licence from the East India Company. Their owners/officers were Europeans – mainly British - and were known as Free Mariners. They usually had previous marine experience of at least three years – often on East India Company Ships. The Country Ships did not trade with Europe as they were forbidden to sail west of the Cape of Good Hope. The Country Ships were large ships and built of teak. They were much slower than the clippers which succeeded them.

Trade

The country ships often carried goods such as raw cotton from India but their importance to trade peaked around 1800 when the Chinese Government forbade the importation of Opium. At this time the East India Company held the monopoly of the opium trade in Bengal and supplied large quantities of the drug to China. Trade with China, which operated via Canton, was important to the East India Company and the threat of losing this was not to be taken lightly. For example, the Chinese supplied the East India Company with tea – which, it is said, accounted for the majority of its trade as tea drinking had become very fashionable in England. Other important imports from China were silk and porcelain.

The East India Company, therefore, pretended to give up their connections to the opium trade by not carrying the drug on its own ships. In reality, however, deals were done with the owners of Country Ships who continued to smuggle the drug into China on their vessels. As the country ships were under licence to the East India Company this meant the company still had control of the sale of opium. This practice continued until 1833 when the trading monopoly of the East India company was abolished.

After this time two related changes took place – the increased production of tea growing in India and the Opium Wars of the 1840s.

Research References

Scattered records exist for free mariners – mention may be found in annual directories - eg. East India Registry and Directory

British Library gives some links to records of Free Mariners at Other Occupations

Recommended Reading

Free Mariner : John Adolphus Pope in the East Indies 1786-1821 Edited by Anne Bulley (1992). Review in Fibis Ships and sailing reading list.

External Links

Historical Books Online