english east indiamen usually ran between england, casa branca (modern –day casablanca), cape town and india, where their primary destinations were the ports of bombay (mumbai), madras (chennai) and calcutta (kolkata). the typical duration of the voyage was somewhere between 4 and 6 months depending on several factors such as time of year, significant weather events, ship repairs to be undertaken, and the occasional encounter with pirates (either off the barbary coast, or the south-western reaches of the african continent, or even north and east of madagascar). the return voyage sometimes included a stop in jeddah (now a city in the hejaz region of saudi arabia and the commercial heart of the region).
east indiamen carried both passengers and goods and were armed to defend themselves against pirates. initially, the east indiamen were built to carry as much cargo as possible, rather than for speed of sailing.[
life on board was highly ordered and passengers were merely tolerated, their interactions with sailors and other shipboard personnel being very limited unless they were personages of some note. likewise they were relegated to very specific precincts on board and didn’t have free rein to go wherever they wanted. during severe weather events or during encounters with pirates, they were generally commanded to shelter in place in their quarters which were usually rather spartan and confining.
maritime discipline was harsh and sometimes cruel depending on the captain’s nature. a sailor’s misdeeds could affect the success of an entire sailing venture and the captain had a mandate to mete out punishments that would act as a deterrent for sailors who were wont to consider running afoul of the captain’s orders or indeed against the accepted code of behaviour of the royal navy. punishments ran the gamut of missed shore leave, extra duties to perform on the ship, or in more serious situations receiving corporal punishment as from the devilish cat-o-nine tails (which could impose maximum pain but with minimal long-term bodily harm).
piracy on the high seas was a real danger to be faced. the heavier and often unwieldy indiamen were sometimes easy targets for sleeker and more agile craft. they were particularly plum targets on their return voyage to england, their holds filled to the brim with exotic materials, spices, and other valuables sourced from british outposts in india. pirates flying the jolly roger pennant were the most ruthless, and thought nothing of exacting as much damage to a vessel as possible and in killing as many people on board. they would plunder the disabled ship and carry off as much booty as was possible to their well-hidden lairs in some small bay or the other. other pirates, often flying white pennants (such as those from antongil bay on the north and west side of madagascar) would attempt to take hostages or impound a ship’s manifest until they could extract a hefty payment for the release of their prisoners or the valuable goods. what indiamen had going for them in these skirmishes was the number and size of their guns (cannon) placed in effective arrays on both sides of the ship and often on the rear transom. also, officers were chosen to captain the vessels who were not only capable sailors and navigators, but who as junior officers had gained valuable experience in the art of maritime warfare and were sound military tacticians.