In the 17th and 18th centuries the East India companies of western Europe devoted themselves to exploiting the wealth of South and Southeast Asia. Their home governments granted them the exclusive rights to import goods, such as spices, silks, precious stones, and arts and crafts, from India, Japan, China, Indonesia, and the Malay Peninsula. The most successful of these companies reaped immense profits, year after year, for more than two centuries.
East India companies carried riches between Asia and western Europe in ships called East Indiamen. These huge, three-masted merchant ships measured 800 tons or more and were armed with cannons on two gun decks to protect their valuable cargoes from piracy. In many cases, East Indiamen served as monuments to the power and riches of the companies that owned them and the countries from which they hailed. The massive ships were decorated with ornate, gilded carvings, and the interiors boasted luxurious wood and fabric finishes.