The Treasures of India

The front cover of “John Ogilby, Asia, the first part”, 1673.

John Ogilby, Asia, the first part, being an accurate description of Persia, and the several provinces thereof. The vast Empire of the Great Mogol, and other parts of India: and their several Kingdoms and Regions.

Published 1673 in London

In 1673, John Ogilby published a written account of India and Persia. This was very trendy of him, as India was a hot topic at the time, especially when it came to investment. Every wealthy Londoner was wondering whether they should invest in shares in the East India Company. After all, it held a monopoly over trade with the Far East, and India was said to be an incredibly rich country…

When Ogilby’s book was published in 1673, trading in the treasures of East India had not yet begun in earnest. There’s a frequently referenced quote by Charles II that attests nicely to this: When his Portuguese bride arrived in May 1662 and asked for a cup of tea, his embarrassed response was: “We don’t drink tea in England. But maybe some ale will do?” Britons found this quote pretty amusing when, a good twenty years later, England had become a nation of tea-drinkers. This transformation was due to a large extent to the East India Company.

Saucer for a tea set made to order in China for a household in Amsterdam. It depicts Western traders and ships buying tea from their Chinese trading partners. China, approx. 1735-1755. Photo: KW.

The East India Company was a kind of joint stock company. Founded under the rule of Elizabeth I with a starting capital of 72,000 pounds, the “Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies” spent the first half of the 17th century setting up a small network of trading stations across India. This network wasn’t actually as impressive as it might sound: by 1647, the company owned 23 stations with 90 permanent employees across the entire 3.3 million square kilometers of the Indian subcontinent. Trade didn’t really take off until Charles II enacted a series of extremely useful laws in 1670, which allowed the East India Company to act as a sort of state: it was granted the right to mint coins, form its own army, acquire territories, and exercise its own jurisdiction within them. Charles even enabled the East India Company to run its own political system, meaning that it could forge alliances and wage wars.

Only then could the company start to systematically exploit its trading partners. In Persia, silk was traded for silver and gold. India supplied cotton, indigo dye, saltpeter, and, most importantly, tea. The English also started a bitter (bloody and ferocious) feud with the Dutch trading company over the Spice Islands.

By then, at the latest, the East had caught the attention of London’s financial sharks. They wanted to know more – they wanted more reliable information about this wonderland in the East, that enabled merchants to make such enormous profits. John Ogilby sensed an opportunity here. He wasn’t a philanthropist or a scientist, but a publisher with a lot of business acumen. He had an uncanny knack for knowing what interested people.

And so in 1673, he published a book about India and Persia, that is to say about the areas where the East India Company was conducting its business. We can see from the title, “Asia, the first part”, that he had planned a second volume. But it would never be published. It probably would have focused on China, and would therefore have been in competition with a book Ogilby had reissued that same year: “Embassy to the Emperor of China”.

Ogilby was an old hand at this and he knew exactly what his readers wanted. He gave them a clever combination of information and gossip, all lavishly illustrated, so that even the ladies could enjoy it (back then, nobody suspected that a woman might actually read a book for its content).

The author dedicated his book to King Charles II – and with good reason. Charles II loved maps and geography, which is why, in 1671, he appointed John Ogilby, who had published an atlas of Africa, Japan, and America in 1670, as his royal cosmographer. In 1674, one year after his work about Asia was published, Ogilby was even given the title of “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographic Printer”.

So this book on Asia meant good business for its publisher as well as for its readers, who got a detailed account of this fantastically rich wonderland of the East, where Great Britain would have a lasting impact until well into the 20th century.

 

John Ogilby’s biography would make any aspiring Hollywood storyboard writer green with envy. Click here to find out more about the life of John Ogilby.

The University of Michigan has produced a transcript of the entire book.

The Guardian has published a detailed and critical history of the East India Company.