Reply To: Design of East Indiamen

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Phillip Reid

    Hi Sam–I would wager there is someone on here who knows more than I do on this, but I can offer at least this: the East Indiaman was the largest merchantman in the fleet. Like any line-of-battle ship in the 18th and early 19th century, it was a three-masted full-rigged ship. A warship rigging expert would need to weigh in on whether there were any common differences in rig details. It was common for the Navy to set precedent in such matters, and for merchantmen to imitate them. EImen were also the most heavily-armed of merchantmen, to my knowledge, but not as heavily-armed as a line-of-battle ship of comparable size. That difference would have affected construction; while stoutly-built, to be sure, the EIman would not have to have all the structural reinforcement of a ship built to carry significantly more armament. We also know that EImen were coppered early, like warships and slavers, at the end of the 18th century; these were very expensive ships engaged in very expensive trade, so such investment was justifiable to the owners.

    In the 17th century, too, EImen were the “ultimate” merchantmen; we would have seen four-masted “bonaventure” ship rigs on at least some of these. The Trades Increase, of the first decade of the 1600s, was 1000 tons, though her misfortune in Asia precluded her setting a precedent for that size, at least at the time. By the end of the 18th century, EImen were considerably larger than that.

    Their large size and relatively heavy armament suited their long transoceanic voyages. They required large crews and the stores for them, as well as the capacity to load as much cargo as possible to maximize profit potential and thus return on a large investment, and they needed good defense against the predation they were likely to encounter on such prolonged, exposed voyages, loaded as they were with so much valuable stuff.