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The ship Admiral Gardner

East India Company ships were large and well equipped. They were often almost indistinguishable from Royal Naval vessels of the time, except that they were built for carrying cargo and were much less heavily armed. They also carried fewer crew than a naval vessel.

Image of a typical East India Company Ship
This illustration is adapted from a detail taken from the jacket painting by F J H Gardiner for the book Lords of the East, by Jean Sutton [London, Conway Maritime Press, 1981]

The Admiral Gardner may have looked something like this, but I have not yet been able to locate any illustrations of the actual ship. The Admiral Gardner's tonnage was 813, and she was built on the River Thames in 1796, probably at Blackwall. Her fatal voyage was her fifth to the east. She was named after Alan Gardner, the first Baron Gardner (1742–1809), who had a distinguished naval career until he became a Member of Parliament in 1796.

For most of the trading life of the East India Company, the ships were between 300 to 800 tons, although there were some larger vessels employed at the very beginning in the early 1600s, such as the Trades Increase and the Royal James, which were about 1000 tons, and very much later, when some vessels of 1200 tons were used, mostly for the China trade.

However, the sailing qualities of these sometimes proved to be difficult, so the tonnages reduced to about 500 tons by the 1640s and continued about this level until around 1700. From about 1708 the majority were between 300 and 400 tons, but new vessels taken on were larger as the trade grew more lucrative and more cargo space was needed.

However it is often difficult to assess what the true size of an EIC ship was, due to the company practice of "taking up" a ship at a tonnage of 499 tons, even if it was technically larger. This was a money-saving "fudge" to avoid the legal requirement to carry a chaplain on vessels of 500 tons and over! The records of the EIC, therefore, show an amazing number of vessels of exactly 499 tons for many years, and it is only by examining such documents as survive from the shipbuilders themselves that we are able to establish how large the ships actually were.

Unlike the VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Companie – the Dutch East India Company), the English company did not, for the most part, build its own ships. It chartered them on long term contracts from shipbuilders and shipowners. The role of what we would call today the Principal Managing Owner (the person who looked after the ship's interests, arranged the terms of its charter and fitting out) was called by the seemingly quaint name of Ship's Husband. The Admiral Gardner's husband was John Woolmore, who had risen from the ranks of seaman to captain in the service of the East India Company.

Acknowledgements & CREDITS:
The material on this page is summarised from Chapter 3 of Lords of the East by Jean Sutton [London, Conway Maritime Press, 1981]
The illustration here is a detail adapted from the book jacket which is F J H Gardiner.