By the eighteenth century, the world’s richest cargoes were carried by the big armed merchantmen of the Dutch , English, and French East India companies.
Trading with India and the Far East, the East Indiamen carried rich cargoes of bullion on their outward voyages with which to purchase the luxury goods demanded by the markets of Europe — spices, tea, Chinese porcelain and jade, jewelry, and furniture.
The cargoes carried by a single East Indiaman would have made every man in her crew rich for life, and had to be defended against pirates. East Indiamen were therefore as heavily armed as many warships, with up to 50 guns or more per ship, and indeed many did serve as warships in time of war. There are plenty of detailed ship models in museums which show what East Indiamen looked like.
Rather less was known about their cargoes until wrecked East Indiaman Witte Leeuw (sunk off St. Helena in 1631), and Slotter Hooge (sunk off the Madeira Islands in 1724). Witte Leeuw was homeward bound from the East Indies with a cargo of 1,311 diamonds, spices, and Chinese porcelain. A century later, outward bound from Holland to the East Indies, Slotter Hooge’s cargo consisted of three tons of silver ingots and four chests full of silver coins.
The splendid ear of the stately East Indiamen was a long one. It lasted nearly 250 years until the 1840s and 1850, when private merchant shipping fleets helped by steam power proved able to ship cargoes faster and more cheaply.