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Sources from the British Library, London

Part 1: China and Japan

Between 1600 and 1833 the East India Company sent more than 4600 ships to
East Asia. At first an unwelcome troop of foreigners, the EIC merchants were persistent and gradually established numerous trading posts (or "factories").
By 1800 the EIC had become Britain’s biggest commercial enterprise.

The EIC records in this collection reflect the scale of the company’s activity and the merchants’ successes and failures in China and Japan. They are an essential source for studying the interaction between Western traders and Asian society. As well as documenting business activities, these files provide an insight into the character of English and foreign merchants, their operations and relationships.

Japan, 1600-1702

Trade with Japan started with the visit of ‘The Clove’ to the port of Hirado in 1613. The aim was to sell English woollen cloth to Japan. After this mission successfully established a factory in Hirado, merchants were sent to neighbouring islands and ports including Nagasaki, Edo, Osaka, Shrongo, Miaco and Tushma. Failure to establish good trading relationships with the Shogun, coupled with problems with the Dutch traders, finally led to the factory's closure in 1623.

Despite the short life of the EIC’s trade in Japan, the records here offer a detailed insight into the EIC’s activity and contemporary life in Japan up to 1702. All the records for Japan are covered in Part 1. Highlights include:

  • Richard Wickham's copy books of letters written in Japan and Bantam in Java (the site of the first English factory in 1602) between 1614 and 1617.
  • A description by William Adams of his arrival in Japan in 1600.

China, 1596-1840

Up to 1680 East India Company trade was controlled through the factory at Bantam in Java. Direct trade with China followed after 1672 when EIC merchants gained permission to trade at Amoy, Canton and Chusan. The three main commodities were tea – which was so highly demanded that by the late eighteenth century it represented 60% of EIC trade – silk textiles, and porcelain.

The records for China are split between Parts 1 and 2 of this project. There are many diaries, records of meetings and consultations of the Council in China, letters, drawings, catalogues, as well as lists of ships and cargoes, and material on the Opium trade.

These files are a core source for anybody interested in maritime trade, the origins of global commerce and the establishment of trading networks in Asia.

"Tea revolutionized the Company's trade in the eighteenth century in the same way that cottons had in the seventeenth. As a result, by 1770 it was the single most important item in the Company's portfolio and the value of the China trade had come to rival that of all its Indian settlements combined.”

John Keay writing in The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company (Harper Collins, 1991)

"Each factory consisted of a compound containing living quarters, public rooms, warehouses and open yards, the whole surrounded by a fence or wall as security against fire or thieves... the English factory at Hirado in Japan had a wharf fronting the harbour and, as well as the usual buildings, there was a garden with a pond for koi carp and a dovecote, an orchard, a vegetable patch, and a Japanese o-furo or hot bath, which friends and neighbours were often invited to share.”

Anthony Farrington writing in Trading Places: The East India Company and Asia, 1600-1834 (The British Library, 2002)

East India Co. Ensign

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