An insight into early 18th century trade in the East-Indies focusing on the English East Indies Company and the 1721-1723 trade voyage of the ship Townsend revealed through the maps of British cartographer Herman Moll.


Driven by more direct access to the lucrative Eastern spice trade, Europeans sought to circumvent its flow through the Middle East via a direct maritime route to Asia starting with the Portuguese Vasco da Gama who developed a direct sea route to India around the southern tip of Africa at the end of the 15th century.  The Portuguese continued to dominate the Eastern spice trade via this maritime route though the 16th century until the English (1600) and Dutch (1602) started making headway into the trade with the formation of private East India companies at the start of the 17th century.

Both the English and Dutch companies were to last over 200 years with the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) having more success than the English East India Company (EIC) in the 17th century.  However, Emily Erikson argues in her book Between Monopoly and Free Trade: The English East India Company, 1600–1757, that the English began to overtake the Dutch VOC by the 1720’s largely through the practice of allowing private and country trade, which not only allowed EIC employees the ability to make their own fortunes, but also indirectly enriched and grew the EIC as well.

The East India companies were typically formed under a grant from their government that gave the exclusive right to the trade in the East Indies, which was generally defined as the part of the world east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straights of Magellan.

British cartographer, engraver, and publisher Herman Moll published an atlas in 1719 titled The world described, or, A new and correct sett of maps : shewing the several empires, kingdoms, republics principalities, provinces, &c. in all the known parts of the earth which contains a couple maps that are emblematic of the East Indies trade in the early 18th century-  A Map of the East-Indies and a Map of Asia.

Moll, Herman, A Map of the East-Indies, from The world described, 1719, Geography and Map Division.

In the cartouche of Moll’s East-Indies map the extended title reads:  “A Map of the EAST-INDIES and the adjacent countries; with the Settlements, Factories and Territories, explaining what belongs to ENGLAND, SPAIN, FRANCE, HOLLAND, DENMARK, PORTUGAL &c with many Remarks not extant in any other Map By H. Moll Geog.”   It is followed by a dedication “To the Directors of the Honorable United East-India Company” (what the EIC had changed its name to at this point).

The East India Companies either owned or rented out ships called “East Indiamen” armed with cannons and equipped with a high capacity for cargo to protect and conduct their trade operations.  The factories mentioned in the cartouche, which were trading post warehouses, were set up in coastal ports managed by employees called factors.  The map insets depict plans or profiles of five major factories at the time: starting with the inset in the upper left corner of the map, Bantam is located at near the western end of Java, which was originally an English settlement and factory starting in 1602, but was captured by the Dutch by 1682.  The inset below it depicts Goa on the west coast of India under Portuguese control.  Below that is a profile of Surat, also on the west coast of India further north than Goa with English, Dutch, and French factories.  Below that is a plan of the English Fort St. George and city of Madras on the east coast of India.  And finally to the right of that is an inset of Dutch Batavia (current day Jakarta) located near the west end of Java.

Moll explicitly details the various trade goods and resources that could be found on his East Indies map.  Printed on the Island of Borneo we find the text “Produces Gold, Diamonds, Bezoar, Pepper, Camphire, Agario, Aloes, Musk, Sapan, Wax, Frankincense, Mastick, and other Gums.”  In Tonquin (current day Vietnam) we find it “Produces Great Quantity of Silks and Lignum Aloes.”  And in Golconda, India we find it is “Very Rich in Diamonds & other Precious Stones” while in nearby Masulapatan we find “…they stain Callicoes the best of any in the Indies.”

Section of Herman Moll's East-Indies map showing Borneo and surrounding islands.
Section from A Map of the East-Indies showing Island of Borneo by Herman Moll, from The world described, 1719, Geography and Map Division.

Moll’s Map of Asia covers the East Indies region on a wider scale including West Asia and north past the Artic Circle.  This map also includes seasonal wind directions in the Indian Ocean, which shows prevailing winds blowing to the southwest (from India towards Africa) from October through March, then reverses direction toward the northeast (from Africa to India) from April through September, which was important information for the commanders of the sail-powered “East Indiamen” in timing their trade voyages.

Map of Asia showing continent and seasonal wind patterns.
Moll, Herman, Map of Asia, from The world described, 1719, Geography and Map Division.

If we look at one of these voyages taken by EIC Commander Phillip Worth on the ship Townsend in 1721-1723, we find a voyage from Europe to the East Indies and back could take over a year.  Capt. Worth’s ship log reveals his voyage starts in The Downs of England on December 3, 1721 with a ships company of 80 people spending 7 months sailing around Africa to his destination at the port of Mocha, located in “Happy Arabia” (aka. Arabia Felix; present day Yemen) just inside the Straight of Babelmandel on the Red Sea.  After arriving and anchoring in Mocha Roads (a road or roadstead is a sheltered body of water where ships can anchor in relative safety) on Friday, June 8, 1722, Capt. Worth then spent about 2 months conducting trade activity by unloading from the Townsend 303 slabs of lead, 1,050 bars of iron, 20 bales of cloth, several casks of wine, and a chest of medicine, while receiving 2,800 bales of coffee.

The port of Mocha was a significant location in the coffee trade at this time, receiving Mocha Sanani beans harvested from the geographic origin of the coffee plant in Abyssinia (current day Ethiopia and Eritrea) and the hinterlands of Happy Arabia. Hence the use of the word mocha to describe coffee which is still in use today. Coincidently, I am drinking a mocha latte as I write this blog.

Section of Herman Moll's Map of Asia showing part of Africa, Arabian Peninsula, Indian Ocean, and the Malabar Coast of India.
Section from Map of Asia showing Abyssinia, Mocha in Arabia, Calicut on the Malabar Coast of India, and the seasonal wind patterns of the Indian Ocean, from The world described, by Herman Moll, 1719, Geography and Map Division.

On August 14, 1722 Capt. Worth sailed from Mocha with the cargo of coffee he acquired for the EIC toward the Malabar Coast of India, taking advantage of the seasonal winds blowing in that direction.  The Townsend anchored in Calicut in September of 1722, receiving provisions and a new foreyard, foremast, and topsail along with “40 bales of paddy.” Reaching Cape Comorin in November of 1722, it then sets sail for the Cape of Good Hope, utilizing the seasonal southwestern winds to reach Table Bay by February 3, 1723.  The Townsend then joins three other British ships at Table Bay, the Middlesex, Drake, and Godfrey on February 13, 1723 headed back to England via Saint Helena.

The Townsend arrived back at the Downs on June 7, 1723 and subsequently on June 21st having “received orders to deliver the Honorable Company’s [EIC] goods” after anchoring at Gravesend on the Thames River closer to London, a month was spent shuttling the 2,800 bales of coffee to the EIC via hoys (heavy barges used for freight).  Capt. Worth notes in his ship log an additional 11 bales under his initials as well as a bag of casha lignam under he initials A.R. which may signify the private trade afforded to the Captain and higher ranking members of the crew.  Casha lignam could potentially be the Tonquin lignum on Moll’s East Indies map, which is now known as agarwood, a highly valuable fragrant resinous wood used for incense and perfume.

Further Reading:

Crowley, John, Herman Moll’s The World Described (1720): Mapping Britain’s Global and Imperial Interests. The International Journal for the History of Cartography, Volume 68, 2016 – Issue 1.


Trader Flows: Early 18th Century East Indies Trade