OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

A great ship demolished on its first voyage

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Richmond Barbour

The 1610 waterfront gathering, which included King James, expected to celebrate the launching of the largest merchant ship so far built in England. Instead, the 1,200-ton Trades Increase proved too big to get through the dock head. And this was just the beginning of the ship’s troubles. As noted by the ship’s second-in-command in an unpublished log, at the attempted event “. . . all things failed & nothing was effected. . .”

     “It was an ill-omened start to an expedition whose catastrophic losses in equipment and personnel, and handsome profits for investors, ignited bitter controversy in England,” said Richmond Barbour, a Research Fellow and professor of English in the OSU School of Writing, Literature, and Film. “The full story of this voyage has never been told . . . But the narrative, fragmented among journals, minutes, and letters, some unpublished, has been treated summarily by scholars, most of whom have endorsed the mythos of British imperialism.” Everything related to the Sixth Expedition of the East India company went wrong—corporate strategy, marine technology, structures of command, even the extraordinary capture and temporary enslavement of the captain and many crew members in Ottoman-ruled Arabia Felix (Yemen).

     Barbour’s new book project, The Loss of the Trades Increase, aims to tell this story as it has not been told before, drawing in part on unpublished portions of a journal kept by the captain of the Eighth Voyage, which followed and ended up in conflict with the Sixth Voyage in the Red Sea and Java. “The biography of a great ship demolished on its first voyage, the book will present a ‘micro-history’ that illuminates the long view of the East India Company’s contributions to the development of British imperialism and global capitalism.” A portion of the Eighth Voyage journal, published in 1900, begins the account halfway through the journey. The suppressed earlier section, said Barbour, “provides material exceptionally useful for post-colonial scholarship—unvarnished witness to damaging conflicts among company agents and critical breakdowns in structures of command.”

     Long recognized as a principal tool of British empire building, the East India Company is less known for its initial failures and inherent limitations. Most prior editors of the company’s papers have marginalized or effaced the dysfunctions that haunted and ultimately unraveled the British Empire. The original work of the company deserves scrutiny, said Barbour, “not only because it set preconditions for a lengthy interval of British domination in India, but more importantly today, because the East India Company expressed and propagated, in elemental and sometimes brutal form, global appetites, methods of organization, conflicts of interest, patterns of exploitation, and structural weaknesses that persist in multinational corporations and continue to volatilize international markets.”

     The current project is a natural outgrowth of Barbour’s previous books, The Third Voyage Journals: Writing and Performance in the London East India Company, 1607-10, and Before Orientalism: London’s Theatre of the East, 1576-1626. For a literary scholar, the records of the founding generation of the East India Company provide a broad window. “The merchants kept careful records . . . To study their corporate writing culture in relation to the material traffic it managed, the other peoples and histories it engaged, and the public discourses the business stimulated, valuably triangulates literary and economic history for the twenty-first century.”