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Edward III seal Let’s take a small digression on our journey to the Great Southern Land…

As we have seen, the Spanish and the Portuguese have moved out into the Indian Ocean on their journeys of discovery.

Soon the English and the Dutch will enter our south sea adventure, and in the process, the English will create arguably one of the most successful trading companies the world has ever known, The British East India Company.  A company that eventually not only dominated global trade, but rules millions of people across the globe.

But first, let’s look at the origins of the British taking to the seas…

The first tentative steps are taken in England, around beginning of the 14th century…

The English in trade are largely inward looking. Local Guilds dominate local trade and manufacturing activities, while overseas trade is largely in the hands of foreigners. What overseas trade that occurs is largely in the hands of foreigners, and uncoordinated from a national perspective. The seas are high risk, they have no refined laws, while the typical merchant displays more than a streak of the pirate in his competitive actions.

This all begins to change when, in 1341, Edward III establishes by decree the Staple of Wool and other Merchandise. He signs this decree the year after his destruction of the French fleet at the battle of Battle of Sluys. It is probably still in his mind that the fleet involved in his victory were mostly hired merchant ships.  No doubt, having no organised navy, any growth in English controlled trade will reduce his risk of a successful invasion.

Edward  III decrees states clearly that this critical trade with Flanders should be ordered and controlled. And the nature of that control should be self control.

Edward directs all those merchants involved in overseas wool trade through Bruges in Flanders to elect a mayor and constables and enforce the “rules of trade” covering behaviour, location and (of course) the levying of tax’s for the Crown’s benefit. There is no shared capital; rather they raise fees from members to cover running costs in return for access to a nationally endorsed trade monopoly.

So essentially national interests, as opposed to a pure mercantile hunger, create the first structured English approach to overseas trade, and the first form of a regulated overseas trading company.

In 1407 the Merchant Adventurers establishes itself under the sponsorship of Henry IV.  As Henry provides the royal charter he is well aware that all the recent naval victories of Edward III and Richard II are due to pressed merchant fleet.

So, for the time being, with only two ships at royal disposal, the Crown must promote and support overseas trade. It was in everyone’s interest…

So launches a glorious, and sometimes inglorious, English sea-born adventure…

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