by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
National Maritime Museum, London
A Trading Junk by an unknown Chinese artist, 19th century

How Maritime Routes Led to Cultural Exchanges

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 5 November 2011


Sir John R. Seeley, the 19th-century British historian, famously remarked that 'the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind.'

The greatest single force in the expansion of that empire was the East India Company. Although in theory dedicated to trading by sea, the company gradually acquired vast areas of territory in Asia and found itself the ruler of a sixth of humanity.

A further unplanned consequence was that the Company became the primary conduit for carrying Asian art and artifacts to the West, and European art and manufactures to the East, profoundly influencing the development of the arts at both ends of the long and arduous trading routes of the day.

After its somewhat inglorious demise following the Indian Mutiny, the Company was abolished in 1858. Its grandiose headquarters at East India House in the City of London were demolished in 1863, and much of the former contents of the Company museum found their way to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1879.

But at last there is a new permanent gallery, 'Traders: the East India Company and Asia,' inaugurated in late September at the National Maritime Museum in the London borough of Greenwich, which relates the Company's remarkable story with more than 125 fascinating historical pieces, including paintings, artworks, artifacts and manuscripts.

The initiative is accompanied by an exemplary, highly readable and handsomely illustrated book by H.V. Bowen, John McAleer and Robert J. Blyth: 'Monsoon Traders: The Maritime World of the East India Company.'

When the Company made its first tentative foray into the Indian Ocean in 1601, it was entering seas that had been the scene of commerce for thousands of years, whose activities were regulated by the monsoon winds. Owing to contrary winds nearer home, it took the first Company fleet of four small ships nearly two months to leave the shores of England. But the expedition returned successfully after 939 days with 500 tons of pepper and its commander, James Lancaster, was knighted by King James I. The only known portrait of Lancaster, from the museum's own collection, is now on show in the gallery.

The Company was competing in an arena that was already dominated by Arab, Ottoman, Portuguese and Dutch fleets. The Dutch East India Company managed to exclude the English company from the lucrative Spice Islands, now part of Indonesia, forcing it to carve out a niche for itself in India: trading in textiles and spices from the Asian subcontinent.

The ancient overland Silk Roads had carried examples of the Eastern arts to Europe for many centuries. But the rise of maritime trade vastly increased the variety and sheer quantities of these goods that made it to European shores, and guaranteed their wider distribution and appreciation.

While spices remained a staple, by 1664 textiles accounted for 70 percent of the value of the Company's imports. And by 1699 a writer was commenting on the calico 'craze' in England among both men and women with 'Calico shirts, Neckcloths, Cuffs, Pocket-handkerchiefs' for the former, and 'Hoods, Sleeves, Aprons, Gowns, Petticoats' for the latter; and 'India stockings for both sexes.' By 1750 the Company was importing 11 million yards of handwoven Indian cloth, by then an essential element in everyday dress and high fashion, as illustrated here by historic textiles and contemporary paintings and prints.

The diarist Samuel Pepys records tasting tea as early as the 1660s. Even after the Company gained regular direct access to Canton in 1711, tea drinking was a luxury. But the practice gradually became popular at every level of society. In the early 1750s the Company was shipping around three million pounds, or 1.36 million kilograms, of tea annually. By the end of the century this had risen to more than 30 million pounds. And, as was noted in 1812, China was now 'the most important branch of the Company's concerns.'

The craze for tea and the imported paraphernalia involved in its drinking had a similar effect on décor and furniture that the earlier craze for Indian textiles had on fashions. Chinese ceramic and porcelain teapots, cups, saucers and bowls helped fuel the mania for Chinoiserie.

This also gave rise to China-export wares, styled for Western markets, a trend that produced some of the extraordinary hybrids on show in the 'Traders' gallery. Among these are a teapot with additional decoration added in Holland (probably in Rotterdam), a bowl and beer mugs owned by Capt. James Cook and his wife, Elizabeth; and a breakfast service that belonged to Lord Nelson. Although supposedly based on 'Japan' patterns, this garish, gilded ensemble, which mixes Japanese floral motifs with crowns and images of ships' sterns, was made in Worcester, England, by Chamberlain's China Factory, which Lord Nelson visited in 1802.

No less curious is a punch bowl presented to an English shipyard owner in the 1780s. Made in China, the bowl is decorated with Western sailing ships under construction, probably taken from technical drawings, but with a delicate, inescapably Chinese landscape backdrop.

Such local orders gave rise to a thriving Western-inspired school of Chinese paintings of marine, river and port scenes, some splendid examples of which expand the gallery's horizons into the artistic influences that the Company's presence played a large part in introducing into China. One of the most richly colored and atmospheric of these is 'A Trading Junk' from the 19th century, with an Indiaman flying the Company flag anchored in the background.

Many of the art pieces and artifacts brought back from the East were essentially souvenirs, like a Qianlong period miniature Chinese garden in the gallery, made of coral, carved wood and ivory, of the kind that a visiting artist like William Alexander, who joined a diplomatic mission in the 1790s, might have dismissed as 'knick knacks.' But objects of high quality were also sought out and exported for discriminating Western buyers, reaching Europe in the Company's vessels.

Lavish diplomatic gifts presented to Asian rulers in the hope of gaining advantageous trade concessions arrived in impressive quantities every year on the Company's ships and were a principal means through which Western tastes were introduced into the region. Among the gifts delivered by King James I's ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, to the Mogul emperor Jahangir was a coach, with which the emperor was so pleased he had two copies made. Emperor Jahangir was no less delighted when, as a wager, he had a copy made of a miniature given to him by Sir Roe and the disconcerted

ambassador found himself unable to say which was the original.

War booty was another source of Asian art exported to the West, as witnessed in the museum by an Imperial Chinese silk flag with a gold-leaf winged lion, carried off when Canton was captured in the Second China War in 1857. In the same year, one of the prizes taken from the King of Oudh's palace, when Lucknow was stormed, was a fine 17th-century Persian astrolabe, also on display.

The largest exhibit on show is the colorful painted wooden figurehead of H.M.S. Seringapatam, built at the Bombay Dockyard in 1819. The vessel took its name from the capital of the then ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan. After a protracted and bloody struggle, the city was overcome by the Company's troops in 1792. The colossal booty amassed, valued at more than £1 million, included numerous artworks, quite a number of which are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Collection and various country houses in Britain.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023