In this first episode, we look at the official journey from Britain to India – not as the government or crown, but as a trading and profitable company! Where did the relationship between Britain and India begin? We travel back four centuries to meet the East India Company that set off to trade goods and were granted the right to wage war by the crown!

Background: The story of Britain's relationship with India starts with British merchants petitioning Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 for permission to explore the 'Indian seas'.  The aim of the East India Company was, to cash in on the spice trade from Indonesia, in particular spices such as nutmeg, which were very sought after in Europe. One needs to remember that at this point what we recognise as India did not exist and the Indies or East Indies referred to the region of Southeast Asia. 

A cabal of merchants, traders, and adventurers gathered at Founders Hall, London to petition Queen I to establish a company. A royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I is granted on 31 December 1600, to the Governor and Company of Merchants trading to the East Indies which consisted of 218 men in total. They start trading however, trade is very different to what we recognise today. Controversially, the royal charter of 1600 granted The East India Company the right to wage war if necessary. The charter also grants EIC with a monopoly for 15 years over trade to the East and stipulates that a license from the EIC was required from all other British merchants to trade in the East indies. Operating without a licence meant that the EIC could seize the ships and cargo, both of which would be split equally between the EIC and the crown. It's important to remember that the crown did not own any shares in EIC and therefore it could not exert any influence of it. 

The East India Company’s embarked on their first voyage for the East on 13th February 1601 and reached Sumatra on 5th June 1602. The first voyage was commanded by Sir James Lancaster and returned to England on 11th September 1603.  The EIC’s second voyage in 1604, commanded by Sir Henry Middleton was fraught with difficulties. 

1607-1610: EIC’s third voyage commanded by General William Keeling set sail on 12th March 1607 - their mission was to travel to Java and to establish a relationship with India. On 28 August 1608, William Hawkins landed at Surat and become the first commander of an EIC ship (the Hector) to set foot on Indian soil. Hawkins pays court to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir at Agra in April 1609 and soon became very close to King Jahangir who presses him to marry one of his maids. He takes as his wife, Mariam Khan, an Armenian Christian. Through his close relationship with the King, Hawkins manages to gain formal permission to establish a factory in Surat. Hawkins leaves India in November 1611 with his new wife Mariam and dies on the voyage back to Britain.

View the next episodes to see how, from these first tentative steps in India, the East India Company expand their control of much of India.

Read more about Sir William Hawkins: