The Company Men

Captain Hawkins was the father of all account managers. His expense account totaled an annual sum of £3,200 (~$0.5M in 2020 USD) paid from the treasury of the Mughal Empire. His knowledge of Turkish allowed him access to Emperor Jehangir’s intimate drinking circle, where, after several years, he succeeded in obtaining for his employers at the British East India Company the concession of a warehouse in Surat. In 1609, when Hawkins undertook his duties as account manager, the East India Company was still largely focused on the spice trade, particularly nutmeg from the Banda Islands in present-day Indonesia. The purpose of the concession was to exchange wool, iron, lead, and tin for cotton goods in India which could be traded for spices with the inhabitants of the ‘Spiceries’.

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The British East India Company had been granted a royal charter to monopolize the most profitable and dangerous trade of the 17th century: importing spices from the islands at the remote edge of Asia. All-out wars were fought between the Dutch, the English, and the Portuguese, and countless lives were lost. Forts went up all over the Indian Ocean, magnificent fleets of galleons prowled the seas and murder followed in their wake. And all because of spices.

Hawkins belonged to a generation of men who had emerged from England’s voracious maritime ambitions. He served under Francis Drake in his piratical circumnavigation of the globe, commanded the Griffon against the Spanish Armada, and achieved fluency in Turkish and other languages as a trader in the East. Any present-day organization would kill to have a man of Hawkins’ ability in its leadership. Yet, like many others of that generation, he died in obscurity — on the last leg of a return journey to England — survived by his wife, Mrs. Mariam Hawkins, a Christian Armenian he had married at the court of Jehangir who was left destitute with the passing of her remarkable husband.

What drove men like Hawkins to work for the British East India Company? Wages frequently went unpaid, and a third of crews would drop dead from scurvy before even passing the Cape of Good Hope? The simple answer is the possibility of extraordinary profits. Merchants in London were accustomed to making 60 000% returns on their spice expeditions. A small sack of nutmeg was enough to retire on. Ten pounds of nutmeg in Banda could be purchased for a penny and sold for £2.10 in London. The ability to amass a huge private fortune while at the service of the East India Company was a powerful motivator for a society that had overproduced mariner elites – and the honors showered on returning crews by the Crown was the icing on the cake.

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