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England's mighty trading fleet

Pepper created the English East India Company - the price of black pepper, that is. When Portuguese traders raised the price of pepper from three shillings to eight shillings a pound, English merchants were outraged. So 80 of them formed a group to go get the pepper themselves.

On Dec. 31, 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a royal charter to the merchants. Members had the exclusive right, or monopoly, to trade with India and the Spice Islands (Indonesia).

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Other European countries followed suit, forming trading companies of their own. The next most powerful one was the Dutch East India Company. Its primary outpost was in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia). The English had three fortified headquarters in India (Bombay, Madras, Bengal), and later one in Canton, China.

Under England's Charles II (he reigned from 1660 to 1685), the company had the right to lead armies, wage war, make treaties, acquire territory, and even coin its own money.

Ships used for the 18-month round-trip voyage to Asia were called East Indiamen. They were the combination freighters, battleships, and passenger liners of their day. No vessels were larger than these proud, ornately decorated three-masted ships.

Asia-bound ships carried woolens, metals, and massive amounts of coinage. The money was used for operating expenses and to buy goods. The spices, silks, porcelain, and tea that the Indiamen brought back made fortunes for their owners.

The company lost its Indian trade monopoly in 1813 and its China monopoly in 1833. The company ceased to exist in 1873.