Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Book Review Merchant Adventurers by James Evans – Kindle Edition Completed 25 August 2014

Today Britannia may no longer rule the waves but even so the English are proud of their Maritime Heritage so much so that it is easily forgotten that not too long ago England was a maritime minnow when compared to other European Nations. Spanish, Venetian and Portuguese naval and trading fleets all easily surpassed those of England in the mid-16th century and it was not until over a century later that (by then) Britain’s naval ascendancy commenced.


This book recounts the story of how in the early 1550’s the English started to look beyond their shores and near neighbours to the global opportunities that would eventually lead to an outward facing great maritime trading empire. The book opens with the account of how in early 1554 Russian fishermen in the White Sea discovered 2 great ships whose crews had appeared to have frozen to death and how the fishermen recovered the log of Sir Hugh Willoughby (a relation to short time Queen Lady Jane Grey). Evan’s uses this log later in the book to trace the voyages of Willoughby’s 2 ships (of the 3 which set out from London in the Spring of 1553) postulating that they approached as far as the western coast of the islands of Novaya Zemlya –possibly the 1st to do so.

Sebastian Cabot

Why on Earth were English merchant ships this far North in winter? The answer is provided in the 1st part of this excellent tale. The rise of Spanish and Portuguese hegemony over the Atlantic (supported by Papal Authority) had left few trading opportunities to other Nations and indeed the English under Henry VIII were more interested in naval campaigns against the French than voyages of Exploration. Nevertheless in the 1490s John Cabot (of Venice and latterly Bristol) had sailed a Bristolian vessel across the Atlantic – probably to Newfoundland where there was no Spanish commercial competition. After this voyage he returned to the Mediterranean along with his son Sebastian who would in the eventually become the Chief Pilot of Spain. Sebastian Cabot would return to England from Spain in 1547 and would be the main champion and driving force for what would become the Joint Stock Company (an innovation at this time) of ‘Merchant Adventurers for the discovery of regions, dominions, islands and places unknown’.

Cabot and John Dee postulated, without evidence, that there was a North East Passage that would allow ships that could clear the North Cape to then turn South East and reach China. This staggering , lack of geographical knowledge seems odd to modern readers but shows just how poorly the globe was understood just a few hundred years ago. Cabot thought that England’s northern position would give her a clear run to access this route and secure fabulous wealth through trade with the Cathay. Economic impetus for the English was provided by Henry VIII’s wars against Scotland and France during the 1540s which had been funded on credit: by loans and by repeated debasement of the currency. When attempts were made to restore the coinage, exchange rates shot up and the demand for English cloth in Europe collapsed. ‘Our chief desire, is to find out ample vent of our woollen cloth, the natural commodity of this our realm.’ The best places, he concluded, would be ‘the manifold islands of Japan and the northern parts of China and the regions of the Tartars next adjoining’ wrote Richard Hakluyt.

To such an end the Merchant Adventurers were set up and built 3 high quality ships at great expense – even including defences against the tropical Toredo worm that they expected to encounter once the North Cape had been rounded. The ships – the Bona Confidentia, Bona Esperanza and Edward Bonaventure (named after the King Edward VII) – set out with Royal blessing in spring 1553 just days before the death of the King. The fleet Admiral was Sir Hugh Willoughby but the chief Pilot was the hero of this book and the protégé of Cabot himself –Richard Chancellor.


The routes of these 3 ships – which became separated in a storm off Norway is retraced using the logs of Chancellor – who returned safely to England the Next Year having agreed favourable trading rights with not the Chinese but with Russia’s Ivan the Terrible, and Willoughby whose fate as mentioned above was not so kind. The whilst Edward, captained by Richard Chancellor, sailed into the White Sea and dropped anchor by the Dvina River, its sister ships, the Bona Esperanza and the Bona Confidentia, were some 200 miles to the north-east and became trapped on a deserted part of the North coast of Russia by the onset of winter.

Richard Chancellor at the court of Ivan the Particularly Unpleasant

Evans recounts the experiences of Chancellor at the Russian Court in the winter of 1553/4 and the safe return of Chancellor and the hope that Willoughby had managed to sail beyond Russia to China (until his log books were returned to Chancellor on his second mission to the court of Ivan in 1555. In addition to the fascinating tales of exploration, Evans reminds us of the turbulent political backdrop of England at the time. Having sailed under the rule of the Protestant Edward, Chancellor returned to the new Catholic Regime of Mary Tudor, several investors in the company had been executed for their part in the attempt to place Jane Grey on the throne and now England’s King (though not Regnant) was Spain’s Phillip II – Regnant king of a trading rival and global superpower.

The latter part of the book records Chancellor’s second visit to Russia, sadly ending the wreck of Chancellor’s ship and the loss of both Chancellor himself (whilst successfully saving the ambassador from the Russian court) and his oldest son as well as most of the crew. The stay of the ambassador in London is recounted and the setting up of further profitable (though not the expected fabulous ) trading relationship with Russia is also recounted but in less detail towards the end of the book.

This is a story of Exploration and dashing bravery; of technological improvement and diplomacy but also of commerce and the drive that commercial motives can provide to all of the above. It is the story of how the English first lifted their trading eyes to see ‘over the near horizon’ and is a previously untold story deserving of greater recognitioin. The subjects of this book deserve to be much more famous. Many fine men are featured here but the hero of the book is undoubtedly Richard Chancellor, the first Englishman to master the techniques of ocean-going navigation and one so valuable that in the words of Haykluyt:

‘the company’s loss of a ship and its goods was ‘a Trifle, compar’d to that of Richard Chancellor, worthy of Immortal Memory’.

Evans is right I think to claim that had he not died when he did, the Chancellor would surely have gone on to greater achievements and fame – ‘Where he led, others, like Sir Martin Frobisher or Sir Francis Drake, more famous and more celebrated, followed.’ A fantastic tale of derring do well worth reading.