The Ostend East-India Company

The Ostend East-India Company The trade from Ostend in the Austrian Netherlands to Mocha, India, Bengal and China started in 1715. Some private merchants from Antwerp, Ghent, and Ostend were granted charters for the East-India-trade by the Austrian government that had recently come to power in the Southern Netherlands. Between 1715 and 1723, 34 ships sailed from Ostend to China, the Malabar or Coromandel coast, Surat, Bengal or Mocha. Those expeditions were financed by different international syndicates composed of Flemish, English, Dutch and French merchants and bankers. The mutual rivalry between them however weighed heavily upon the profits and this resulted in the foundation of the Ostend East-India Company, chartered by the Austrian emperor in December 1722.

The capital of the company was fixed at 6 million guilders, composed of 6,000 shares of 1,000 guilders each. It was mainly supplied by the moneyed inhabitants of Antwerp and Ghent. The directors were chosen out of the rich and skilled merchants or bankers who had been involved in the private expeditions. The company also possessed two factories: Cabelon on the Coromandel coast and Banquibazar in Bengal.

Between 1724 and 1732, 21 company vessels were sent out, mainly to Canton in China and to Bengal. Thanks to the rise in tea prices, high profits were made in the China trade. This was a thorn in the side of the older rival companies, such as the Dutch VOC, the English EIC and the French CFT. They refused to acknowledge the Austrian emperor's right to found an East-India company in the Southern Netherlands and considered the Ostenders interlopers. International political pressure was put on the emperor and he finally capitulated.

In May 1727 the charter of the company was suspended for seven years and in March 1731 the second treaty of Vienna ordered definitive abolition. The flourishing Ostend Company had been sacrificed to the interests of the Austrian dynasty. Between 1728 and 1731 a small number of illegal expeditions were organized under borrowed flags, but the very last ships sailing for the company were the two "permission-vessels" that left in 1732 and were a concession made in the second treaty of Vienna.

Only a few documents are left because the municipal archives of Ostend were lost during the Second World War.


The ships

The ships used for the East India trade were generally large three-masters of the frigate-type, heavily armed and measuring several hundreds of tons. The vessels used by the Ostenders were of the same type. Although the period of activity was rather short, there was already a clear tendency to use larger ships.

The first ships that sailed in 1715-1717 only measured 200 to 250 tons, but the average of 22 private East-Indiamen (1715-1723) was from 330 to 360 tons. The company took over some of the larger private vessels and bought a few others, second-hand ships of about 400 tons. From 1725 on the company directors ordered new ships built in Hamburg and in Ostend. The average size of those vessels was 600 tons, and it raised the average of the 15 company ships from 407 to 433 tons. It was only for the illegal expeditions of 1729-1730 that the company again preferred smaller bottoms.

The small Ostend shipyards at first were not able to produce vessels of that size and so the Ostenders were obliged to look for their ships abroad. The private merchants bought them mainly in England. Out of 23 private vessels, 15 came from England against 8 from the Northern Netherlands, and the English preponderance even becomes larger when we consider that those 15 ships made 25 voyages between 1715 and 1723, against only 9 voyages for the 8 Dutch vessels. The English private East-Indiamen were smaller than the Dutch. The latter averaged around 390 tons, against around 320 tons for the English. This difference in size seems to have been typical for both types of ships.


The Sea Routes - Charts and Navigators

The route the Ostend ships followed was very similar to that of the other European companies. This is not a surprise since the first expeditions were often organized under the command of foreign captains and mates. These officers had already undertaken a few voyages to the East Indies in English or French service. In this way, Flemish officers learned to navigate safely around the Cape to Asia.

There was also foreign influence in the sea rutters and the charts on board. The Ostenders used a combination of Dutch, English, and French charts and sailing directions. In two journals of private voyages data were given on the origins of the charts and on knowledge of navigation problems. The captain of the Mochaman Stadt Gendt (I 720) attached more value to the observations of the English hydrographers Thornton and Seller than to the information on the sea charts of St. Malo.

Aboard the same ship, there was also a chart of the Dutchman Pieter Goos. When another Mochaman, the Graaf van Lalaing (1721), called at Fayal after six weeks of sailing from Pernambuco, the captain and the mates started a discussion on the longitude of the Azores. They found a difference of 7'45 min. between the dead-reckoning and an unspecified English chart. The captain gave two possible explanations: '... de stroom die loopt omtrent de linie om de west oft dat de cust van Bresil 5 a 6gr. westelicker liggen volghens de stellingh van de engelse hydrograef edmund Halley...'.

It is remarkable that the Ostenders knew and used the theory of Edmund Halley on the variation of the compass and the isogonic lines, while this innovation did not find general acceptance on board VOC ships until 1740. The tradition of navigation with the help of foreign sea-charts and rutters continued on the GIC ships.

The company directorate ordered all maps and navigation instruments from London and Amsterdam. From England arrived in 1723, apart from East India pilots and charts, several world maps of Halley, and a copy of Greenville Collins' Great Britain's Coasting Pilot.

Louis Bemaert, agent of the company in Ostend, bought on the Dutch market charts of Hendrick Doncker and also 'een nieuwe generaele wassende paskaert van de gehele werelt by Joannes Loots tot Amsterdam,"' On the Carolus Sextus (1723) German versions of Lastman's 'Bescbryvinge van de kunst der stuer-luyden' and of Gietennaker's 'Vergulden Licbt der Zee-vaert' traveled to Bengal in the private library of Cobbe, the first governor of Banquibazar.


Among the investors was the Moretus family, heirs from the famous Plantin Printing shop
Jonker Joannes Jacobus Moretus (1690-1757), advocate and publishing printer, was a multi-millionaire, one of the richest men in the Southern Netherlands, if not the wealthiest of them all, had a very active share in the formation of the famous ‘Ostend Company’ and was later one of the promoters of the ‘Trieste and Fiume Company’.

Other major investors was Ferdinand Anthoin Baron de Veecquemans, also from Antwerp who held 100 shares and the family Proli in the same city. Other investors were Melchior Breton (Antwerp), probably Thomas Hall in London, and other merchants in Antwerp.

Share in the Oostendse Compagnie for sale.

Share of the Ostend East-India Company

Very rare share in the Ostend Company. Copper engraving and manuscript on paper. 320x 200mm. Upper left-hand corner share number in manuscript. In the top emblem of the Company in copper engraving.

Text: "De Directeurs van de generale Keijserlijche- Indische compagnie, ordoneren aen hunnen cassier 'joan Baptist Cogels junior, te ontvangen van De Heer Ferdinand Anthoin Baron de Veecquemans te Antwerpen de somme van tweehondert en vijftigh guldens wisselgeldt, voor het eerste payement sijnder actie van een duijsent guldens in het Capitael van de Selve compagnie, op de conditien in het Octroij breeder vermeldt, stellen de quitanfie hier onder, actum in Antwerpen derthien augustus seventhienhondert dry en twintigh.

Ontvangen van De Heer Ferdinand Anthoin Baron de Veecquemans de somme van tweehondert vijftigh guldens wissel gelt voor het eerste paijment ady primo (1) september 1723 (signatuur) Solvit als boven het tweede payement 16 december 1723 (signatuur) Solvit als boven d helft van het derde payement 22: November 1724 (signatuur) Solvit als boven de heffi van het derde payement 3 July 1725. -"

Price: US $ 2,000.00

References: K.Degryse, in Spiegel Historiaal, 1973112; J.Undwehr, VOC, page 14-46; N.Laude, La Compagnie d'Ostende et son activité commerciale au Bengale, 1725-1730; E.Stols, A companhia de Ostende e os Portos Brazileiris. In: Estudos Hist.S; P.Vandewalle, Oostende ten tijde van de Oostendse Compagnie, in: Oostende kruispunt van Europa, een koningklijke stad.

Only a few documents are left because the municipal archives of Ostend were lost during the Second World War.