Ship roles - what do they mean?

Sometimes you will come across the word 'type' in this connection, but strictly speaking it should be 'role'. It means in what capacity the ship was employed by the East India Company, or how it was associated with the Company.

The East India Company utilised vessels in various different ways in its Mercantile Service. In addition, there were other sea services operated by the Company (such as the Bombay Marine, which was the East India Company's own fighting navy.)

It is important to understand that ships may have had different roles at different times, and sometimes moved out of East India Company service and back again. A vessel may have traded for its owners or been chartered to others, then re-hired by the EIC again. This is particularly true of Extra ships, Chartered ships, and of course, the Licensed ships.

In the ship lists there is not usually a role shown for early ships: ones which were sailing in the early 1600s. This is because the early voyages were founded on a different trading basis, that of the 'joint stock voyage'. This meant that merchants 'clubbed together' to send a specific ship or groups of ships out to trade (and return) for one voyage only.

Regular Ship

The East India Company chartered most of its merchant ships, rather than owning them itself (unlike other countries' East India companies). Most of these vessels were chartered on a long term basis from particular owners, and made "regular" voyages to the east in the sailing season. A season was supposed to run from September one year to April the next, although ships did not always depart on time, as there were often delays.

These ships took anything up to two years to make a round trip to the east and back, sometimes even longer.  A set number of ships departed England each year, depending on the amount of cargo to be carried and brought back from the east. These ships were known as Regular Ships and the rules for operating them were tightly controlled by the Company.

Extra Ship

When requirements to ship cargo exceeded the amount of space provided by the Regular ships, the EIC would charter one or more vessels specially for one particular season's voyage, out to the east and back. These were known as the Extra Ships. In practice, however, an Extra Ship was often hired for several years in succession if the need was there and it performed well.

Chartered Ship

Occasionally, the Company would charter a ship for a particular voyage if the need arose. Often (but not always) this was for a one way voyage. A chartered ship was usually employed on special terms and usually for a much shorter period than an Extra Ship.

New Company Ship

The original East India Company received its Charter in 1600 by a grant from Elizabeth I, and it was limited to a particular group of merchants who had joined together for the new venture. As it progressed and flourished, other people wanted to share in the profits, and another company took advantage of the accession of William III to the throne in 1688 to apply, and receive, their own charter. It was known as the New Company, and it traded alongside the Old Company for about 20 years, until the two were merged in 1707 to become "the United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies."

Licensed Ship

The East India Company maintained a strict monopoly on voyages to the east for trade. This meant that only they had the right to send ships there. Naturally, many other shipowners were eager to benefit from the profits of far east trade, and occasionally the EIC bowed to pressure and permitted other vessels to go under license. These were the Licensed Ships. Although allowed to go to the east, a Licensed ship was strictly controlled as to which ports it could visit and what trade it could engage in. If it broke the terms of its agreement, it was considered to be an Interloper. There were several types of Licensed ships, with conditions of operation which varied slightly (for example, some were called Private Ships and others Permission Ships).


During the 17th century many attempts were made by various merchants or groups of merchants to break into the East India Company's monopoly of trade. These were known at that time as 'interlopers', another term for trespassers. They were treated harshly, being subject to inspection and seizure by the East India Company's navy, with cargo and vessel often confiscated. Penalties for crew were severe.

Packet Service

Ships in the Packet Service were smaller and faster than most of the other ships in the mercantile service. They were employed, as their name implies, to carry packets of correspondence and other important documents. Sometimes they also carried a limited amount of cargo.

Country Ship

A ship which was employed in the local trade in Asia and the Far East was known as a Country Ship. These ships were owned by local shipowners in the east, many of which had long standing connections with the Company. As well as collecting cargo from outlying places to particular ports, ready for loading on the Regular ships for transhipment to England, the Country ships traded freely all year round.