Britain’s expansion beyond its own territorial waters is generally thought to have begun during the “Age of Discovery”, which is said to have started during the 15th century, most notably with the voyages of John Cabot in 1497 and continuing with the likes of Drake, Raleigh and Cook in the following centuries. The seaborne exploration of the globe was said to have been preceded by entirely land based expeditions, from Europe through to Asia, many of which were led by Italian explorers, who were often privately employed by the heads of the various medieval Italian city states. The most famous of these explorers, Marco Polo, was reported to have travelled throughout Asia during the 13th century and became a guest of the great Chinese leader Kublai Khan. His experiences, many of which were recorded at the time as personal travel logs were thought to have been read widely throughout Europe and helped to give impetus to other north European adventurers to explore the wider, but still relatively unknown world.
As an island kingdom, surrounded by water on all sides; and with no direct land route to the European continent, British exploration of the lands beyond its native shores was thought to have been entirely limited by the naval technology of the age. Unlike its foreign counterparts, many of whom had ready access to the profitable eastern trade routes first laid down by the Mongol traders of the 13th century, Britain was still thought to be a consumer of the rare and exotic products that originated in the far east, rather than a supplier; and it was only with development of bigger and faster ocean going vessels that finally allowed British merchants and traders to explore the wider world; and thus seek out new commercial opportunities. Another major factor that was said to have helped inhibit the widespread exploration of the Asian trade routes, was thought to be their domination by the emerging Turkish Ottoman Empire in the late 15th century, which was determined to protect its virtual monopoly of the valuable spice and silk trades, by preventing other competing trading nations from gaining access to these generally isolated manufacturing centres.
The first north European nation to attempt to break this Ottoman monopoly of the Spice and Silk routes were thought to be the Portuguese, who launched a number of sea-borne expeditions, most of which were said to have been authorised and financed by their Prince, Henry the Navigator, at the beginning of the 15th century. Prior to this, the Portuguese, in common with most other northern European countries were thought to have been limited to trading within their own territorial waters, as well as in the more northerly seas, which had been known to them and their predecessors for generations. However, with the ascendancy and insistence of their ruler Prince Henry, Portuguese seafarers were said to have pushed out from their traditional trading routes, discovering the Madeira Islands in 1419 and the Azores in 1427, both of which they subsequently went on to settle. Despite these new territorial acquisitions however, Henry’s main interest was thought to have been in gaining access to the highly lucrative slave and gold markets of West Africa, which were reported to have run through the western Sahara Desert and been controlled by a number of generally hostile Muslim states based in North Africa. By searching for alternative sea routes, Henry hoped to bypass these largely unfriendly Arabic tribes and still gain access to the lucrative markets of the Indian Ocean and the Far East. Having received permission from the Pope, to establish a trade monopoly on these newly accessed lands and market places, for his part, Prince Henry was said to have promised the Pontiff that he would ensure the spread of Christianity to the native peoples of these newly discovered lands, thereby helping to extend the church’s influence well beyond its traditional European kingdoms.
Within twenty years of having sent out his first ships, Henry’s explorers were said to have discovered a new sea route, which essentially by-passed the Arab Muslim states and created a new trade in both African slaves and native gold, bringing great wealth to their country and their royal rulers. Later, more extensive explorations by the Portuguese was thought to have seen them establish new trading posts in what is now both modern day Senegal and the Congo by 1482; and within another five years they were said to have discovered yet another trade route, this time around the southern tip of Africa, giving their country free access to the Indian Ocean and its limitless supplies of spices, silks and much, much more. Portugal’s Iberian neighbour, the kingdom of Castile, which later merged with the kingdom of Aragon to form what would later become modern day Spain, did not begin to explore the wider world until the latter part of the 15th century, although up until 1492 was regularly trading in African goods with the Moorish kingdom of Granada.
However, following the conquest of Granada by the merged Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, virtually all of this trade was reported to have been lost, leaving the rulers of Spain with little option but to begin looking for their own new trading opportunities, much the same as Portugal had done more than half a century before. As a result of their need to replace these earlier trading routes, the joint monarchs of Spain were said to have funded a number of expeditionary voyages, including that of Christopher Columbus, which they hoped might give them access to Asia from the west, rather than from the traditional eastern routes that were now dominated by their Portuguese neighbours. However, rather than discovering a new route to the well known Asian markets, Columbus ultimately discovered a “New World”, which eventually evolved into the modern day regions of South, Central and North America, which in later years would be fought over by most of Europe’s leading nation states.
The Portuguese too had begun to look west at around the same time; and in 1500 an explorer called Cabral was reported to have discovered and explored new lands in what is now modern day Brazil. With both countries seeking out new lands and trading opportunities to the west, there was always the possibility that conflicts might arise between Portugal and Spain, over who owned particular trading rights and lands, so in 1494 a Papal Treaty was agreed and signed between the two countries. Portugal was granted exclusive rights over Asia, Africa and Brazil, whilst Spain was granted control over everything to the west, much of which was still undiscovered, as well as the islands of the largely unexplored Pacific Ocean. Ultimately, the Spanish were probably the most fortunate of the two great explorer nations, as once they began to explore the interior of the Americas and most notably that of the modern day South America, they discovered a number of native Empires, including the Aztecs in Mexico and the Inca’s in Peru, both of which they exploited for their treasures and natural resources. In exchange the Spanish “conquistadors” were said to have given the people of these great native civilisations a number of European diseases, which ultimately devastated the indigenous tribesmen and led to their society’s almost inevitable collapse and destruction.
As for the Portuguese, in May 1498 their mariners were said to have reached India and within a decade were reported to have conquered the region of Goa. In the west, around 1500, their seafarers were thought to have sighted the coast of Brazil; and in 1501 a Portuguese ship was said to have discovered Madagascar, in 1506 Ceylon was reached and in 1507 Mauritius was first discovered by their seamen. Under the Portuguese monarch, Manuel I, they were said to have opened up new sea lanes and trade routes throughout Africa and the Far East, establishing trading forts and military outposts along the Gold Coast, Mozambique, Zanzibar, Mombasa, Calcutta, Goa, Bombay, Macau and Timor. Mainland China and Japan were also reported to have been reached by 1514 and in the following year they were said to have seized ports in the Persian Gulf region, thereby establishing a trading relationship with Persia, the historic name for modern day Iran. In 1521 the Portuguese were thought to have conquered Bahrain, beginning an 80 year rule there and in 1522 a ship commanded by one of Portugal’s most famous sons, Ferdinand Magellan, was reported to have been the first vessel to complete a voyage around the world.
It is worth pointing out however that Magellan himself was said to have been killed before this feat was accomplished and as he had previously taken on Spanish citizenship, he was therefore technically in the pay of the Spanish Crown, rather than in the employment of his native Portugal. These achievements by the two competing Iberian neighbours did not come without a cost however; and despite the terms of the Papal Treaty of 1494, the exploration of and discoveries made in the Pacific Ocean region was said to have led to almost a decade of squabbling and military skirmishes between the two nations, as they both fought for control of the newly discovered lands and the riches that they were thought to possess.
Although English merchant adventurers were thought to have been rather late in launching their sea-borne expeditions beyond their traditional home waters, the first of these journeys was recorded to have been commanded by the seasoned Italian seafarer John Cabot in 1497. Sailing west, Cabot was reported to have been searching for a fabled Northwest Passage that was said to link the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, but ultimately he only succeeded in discovering the east coast of the New World, at a place he chose to call “Newfoundland”. Despite his failure to find the elusive sea passage, linking the world’s two great oceans, this first voyage of Cabot seems to have given England’s merchant adventurers the necessary impetus to launch themselves and their ships into the vast expanse of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and to challenge the existing trading monopolies of their Southern European competitors, Portugal and Spain. Cabot was said to have been employed by King Henry VII of England in March 1496 and “given free authority, faculty and power to sail to all parts, regions and coasts of the eastern, western and northern seas under our banners, flags and ensigns, with five ships or vessels of whatever burden and quality they may be; and with so many and with such mariners and men as they may wish to take with them, in the said ships and at their own proper cost. We further charge them to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions and provinces of heathens and infidels in whatever part of the world, which before this time was unknown to all Christians”
According to some sources, Henry’s decision to employ men like Cabot was as a result of the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, which had been authorised by the Pope and that had divided the globe between Portugal and Spain. Having received his Royal Warrant, Cabot was said to have travelled to Bristol, at that time England’s second largest seaport, where he hoped to find additional financial backers for his expedition and by May 1497 was reported to have found a number of interested merchant adventurers and set sail with them on the ship “Matthew”. Sailing due west, past Ireland and into the Atlantic, the Matthew and its crew were thought to have encountered few real problems and according to most reports were thought to have reached land on June 24th 1497, although exactly where they landed is still a matter of some debate, more than 500 years later.
Depending on whose accounts you prefer, the Matthew was said to have landed its crew at St John’s in Newfoundland, in Nova Scotia, Labrador or possibly at Maine in the United States, although according to both Canadian and British official accounts, the crew first came ashore at Cape Bonavista in modern day Newfoundland. Whichever place is right however, most sources agree that this landing was thought to be the first time that North Europeans had set foot on American soil since the age of the Vikings. Landing only to take on fresh supplies of food and water, Cabot and his companions were said to have formally claimed these new lands for King Henry VII and the Holy See, before embarking aboard the Matthew once again to map the coastline of these new territories. Having completed this task, the crew were then reported to have set a course for home, content that their first expedition had been entirely successful, although poor navigation on the return leg of the journey resulted in them landing at Brittany in France, rather than their home port of Bristol, which they finally reached in August 1497.
Cabot was said to have undertaken a second maritime expedition in May 1498, this time with a fleet of five ships, although according to some sources, this journey was largely unsuccessful, with one ship damaged during a storm and forced into an Irish port, whilst the remaining four, including Cabot’s own vessel were reported to have been lost in the Atlantic. However, other reporters suggest that Cabot and his remaining ships actually did make a second successful landing in North America; and then spent the next year or so exploring the interior of the country, before returning home to England in 1499. Although there is some uncertainty as to whether or not Cabot actually returned to England in 1499, the fact that his pension was still being paid up until that year, suggests that he did indeed complete the return journey, but died in England a short time later. Although Cabot has long been credited with being the first Northern European to set foot in North America since the age of the Viking’s, the first Englishman to achieve that feat is thought to be a merchant adventurer called William Weston, a contemporary of Cabot’s, who was reported to have led an expedition to the Americas in 1499, once again supported by the English monarch Henry VII.
England was not alone is reaching out beyond its own shores, as the Age of Discovery also saw the emergence of both French and Dutch influence throughout the wider world, who like England, were equally anxious to acquire new lands and free access to the new foreign markets. As well as exploring the vastness of the largely undiscovered Pacific Ocean, these three leading European nations were said to have taken the lead in challenging Spain and Portugal’s trading monopolies in and around the Indian Ocean; and as they grew in strength and influence, so the former two trading superpowers saw their power wane. This was thought to have been especially true of the Portuguese, who found their historically valuable holdings constantly threatened and reduced by the growing maritime and military strength of the English, French and Dutch Empires.
England’s first steps towards what would later become a worldwide Empire is thought to have its foundations during the reign of King Henry VIII, the monarch who is widely credited with creating the basis for England’s first professional navy, which would ultimately play such a pivotal role in the early development of what would eventually become the all powerful British Empire. No doubt brought about by Henry’s own decision making processes, which were based almost entirely on his own personal whims and desires, he was thought to have had little choice, but to have his kingdom sink or swim in its dealings with the wider world and especially those countries that were allied to the church in Rome, most notably Spain and Portugal. Even after Henry’s own death, the antipathy between England and her two main European rivals, France and Spain, along with their mother church did not abate, but in fact worsened, following the execution of the Roman Catholic monarch Mary Queen of Scots, by the English Queen, Elizabeth I. This act alone was thought to have set the seal on centuries of conflict between the two states, which England would eventually win, but only by becoming the leading sea power of the age. It was also thought to be through this need for a strong naval deterrent, which saw the inexorable rise of the professional English seafarer, rather than the wealthy amateur, men who saw the world as a mysterious place; and were determined to discover its untold riches, for the good of England; and of course, for their own personal enrichment.
One of those early leading adventurers that helped to forge England’s maritime reputation during the 16th century was said to have been Sir Francis Drake, who was born at Tavistock in Devon in 1540 and who died off the coast of Panama in 1596. He has been variously described as a Sea Captain, Privateer, Explorer and Slave Trader, as well as being a leading political figure of the Elizabethan era. Regarded by the Spanish as little more than a common pirate, who regularly raided their treasure ships that were crossing the Atlantic, to and from the New World, Drake was generally seen by the English populace as a heroic sea commander, who was deservedly knighted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1581.
However, according to other sources, Drake’s military actions against Spanish interests were reported to be as the result of the personal antipathy he felt towards Spain generally, rather than the more obvious and far simpler patriotic fervour that has sometimes been attributed to him. According to some historic reporters, Drake had first visited the New World in 1563 and five years later, on an entirely separate raiding expedition, he and his men had been trapped by the Spanish forces that were stationed there. Although it isn’t entirely clear, exactly what happened to affect him so badly, it was said to be after this incident that Drake’s personal feelings towards his Spanish adversaries radically changed, turning from a simple dislike, to an intense burning personal hatred.
In 1572 Drake was reported to have led yet another raid against the Spanish Main, the historic name for modern day Panama, the place where the Spaniards loaded their looted gold, silver and other treasures onto galleons that were destined for Spain. His attack on the base was initially a success, but sheer bad luck, illness and bad weather all conspired to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, leaving Drake and a large part of his crew fortunate to escape with their lives, let alone a portion of the Spanish treasure. It was only through Drake’s daring leadership and natural seamanship that he and crew were able to rejoin their ship and sail back to England, with enough treasure to make them all wealthy men.
Five years later, in 1577, Drake was reported to have undertaken yet another naval expedition, this time against the Spanish holdings on the Pacific west coast of South America. Landing first at San Julian, now in modern day Argentina, Drake and his three surviving ships were thought to have remained ashore for a significant period of time, before setting out for the Magellan Straits at the southern tip of South America. However, by the time his small flotilla had made its way into the Pacific Ocean, only his own ship, The Pelican, was fit enough to continue the voyage and so, renaming it the Golden Hind, he sailed north along the west coast of the New World, attacking Spanish ports and bases along the way, relieving them of their stores and treasure. It was said to be during this particular raiding campaign that Drake attacked and sacked the Spanish port of Valparaiso in modern day Chile, capturing two Spanish treasure ships, one of which, the Caca Fuego, was reported to have been laden down with gold, silver and jewels destined for Spain’s national treasury.
With the Golden Hind loaded down with the stolen Spanish treasure, Drake was then said to have headed west across the Pacific, stopping first at the Molucca’s Islands, now Indonesia, before beginning the slow and exhausting journey towards the east coast of Africa. Having rounded the Cape of Good Hope, the Golden Hind was reported to have stopped once more, this time in Sierra Leone, where Drake and his crew were reported in July 1580. Within a matter of weeks however, they were said to have been back on English soil, with an enormous bounty for the Queen’s treasury, one that was said to have equalled the Crown’s entire income from all other sources and enhancing Drake’s personal reputation throughout the country. Awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth I, ostensibly for being the first English sea commander to successfully circumnavigate the globe, Drake was now such a wealthy and influential figure in England that he was thought to have purchased Buckland Abbey in Devon and settled down to become a leading politician of the age.
Unfortunately, despite his hopes for a much quieter personal life, in 1585 he was reported to have been drawn back to the sea, following the outbreak of war between England and Spain, which saw the highly experienced Drake returning to the Americas and attacking the various Spanish possessions there. He was reported to have sacked the ports of Santo Domingo and Cartagena and on his way back to England also captured the Spanish fort of San Augustin in Florida, actions which were thought to have encouraged the outraged King Philip of Spain to plan for the full-scale military invasion of England.
Elizabeth and her closest advisers were said to have been fully aware of the Spanish plans for the invasion of her kingdom by sea; and in a daring move Drake and his ships were reported to have sailed into both Cadiz and La Coruna, two of Spain’s main shipping ports and destroyed a large number of the military and supply vessels that were being prepared for the attack on England. Although these pre-emptive raids did not stop the Spaniard’s preparations for the invasion of England, they did however, delay the threat for well over a year, giving the English navy time to prepare for the battle that was to come.
In the meantime, English commanders like Drake were reported to have continuously patrolled along the Iberian coastline, seeking out, seizing and often destroying any Spanish controlled vessels that they happened to come across. The two fleets would eventually meet in battle in July 1588, with the English forces commanded by Lord Howard of Effingham and with Drake’s own ships in close attendance. Although there was no out-and-out sea battle as such, a combination of good fortune, poor weather conditions and the smaller, much more manoeuvrable English ships helped Elizabeth’s fleet to disperse the Spanish galleons, essentially putting an end to any invasion plans that King Philip may have held. In the year following the defeat of the Armada, Drake and Sir John Norrey’s were thought to have been ordered to hunt down and destroy any surviving Spanish ships that remained at sea, a task that they were more than happy to perform.
By 1595 Drake was said to have returned to the Americas, where once again he began raiding any and all Spanish interests that he came across in the region. Less successful than in earlier times, Drake was reported to have suffered at least two notable defeats during his final expedition, at both San Juan and Puerto Rico, which may have been as the result of his own failing health. In 1596, while his ship was anchored off the coast of Porto Belo in Panama, Drake was thought to have been struck down by a severe case of dysentery from which he subsequently perished. Perhaps typically of the man, before breathing his last, he was said to have insisted that he was to be buried at sea and in full fighting armour, with his body being placed within a lead coffin and buried off the coast of Panama.
Drake was also reported to have played a minor part in the first attempted British settlement of America in around 1585, although his role seems to have been limited to helping with the evacuation of the colony’s surviving settlers, during one of his intermittent raids against the Spanish ports and bases in the region. It was actually thought to be his fellow Englishman and explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, who was the main driving force behind the colonisation of Roanoke Island in 1585, a small islet located off the coast of modern day North Carolina. The man in overall charge of the expedition, Sir Richard Grenville, a relative of Raleigh’s, was said to have appointed a Master Ralph Lane to take charge of the new settlement, while he, Drake and the rest of the fleet returned to England. The intention seems to have been that Grenville and a supply ship would return on a regular basis to bring new settlers and provisions to the Roanoke Colony, but war with Spain had prevented this from happening and the colony was eventually abandoned by the English settlers. Fortunately for those that did manage to survive the fairly arduous conditions, Drake was said to have been campaigning in the region and was able to rescue them from their perilous situation and return them to England aboard his own ships.
However, despite the failure of this first English colony and the obvious hardships that future settlers were likely to face, in 1587 Grenville was said to have tried once again to establish an English colony on Roanoke, on much the same basis as the first. Sometime after this second colony had been established, a member of the community was said to have returned to England, with the intention of bringing back much needed supplies to the settlement, but once again their return was said to have been delayed by a shortage of ships, most of which were being used in the ongoing war with Spain, so no contact with the Roanoke colony was made until 1590, when the whole settlement was found to be deserted, with no trace of the inhabitants ever being found. Although it was suggested that the colonists may well have left the island through their own choice, no conclusive evidence of their fate was ever found and they eventually became known as the “Lost Colony” a title which continues through to the modern day.
Even though Walter Raleigh is often regarded as one of England’s most successful Elizabethan seafarers, in reality most of his naval expeditions ultimately proved to be failures and it was his own personal involvement in the courtly politics of the day that not only made him a leading figure of the age, but also led to his unpopularity and relatively early death. Born sometime around 1553 in Devon, Raleigh was said to have been the youngest of five sons born to Catherine Champernowne, who was also the mother of yet another notable Elizabethan mariner and explorer, Humphrey Gilbert, making the two men half brothers. Brought up as an ardent Protestant, Raleigh was said to have developed a hatred of the Roman Catholic religion during his formative years, creating a personal intolerance that would shape his future dealings with the majority population of Ireland during the latter part of the 16th century when Raleigh was posted to Ireland during the Desmond Rebellions of the early 1580’s.
He was alleged to have played a major part in the massacre of unarmed Italian and Spanish troops in Ireland following the Siege of Smerwick in 1580, where some several hundred papal soldiers and Irish Roman Catholics were systematically beheaded by English forces, before their decapitated bodies were thrown into the sea. As a reward for his service in Ireland, Raleigh was reported to have been granted several thousand acres of land in Munster, although his inability to attract sufficient numbers of English settlers there, was thought to have resulted in the property remaining unprofitable, to the point that in 1602, he was said to have sold the properties to Richard Boyle, the 1st Earl of Cork.
As previously mentioned, in both 1584 and 1587, Raleigh was said to have been the main driving force behind early English attempts to colonise the New World, specifically in the region that was then known as Virginia, now represented by the modern day American states of Virginia and North Carolina. Both of these unsuccessful English colonies were centred on Roanoke Island, off the eastern seaboard of North America, although each of them in turn were thought to have failed to survive, largely due to the hardship of the terrain, the ferocity of the local tribes and the inability of the settlers to fully adapt to life in the Americas. Ultimately, the failure of what later became known as “The Lost Colony” of Roanoke was said to have proved to be costly for Raleigh, not only financially, but also for his general reputation, although as a personal favourite of the English monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, the failure of these expeditions were not thought to have hurt his standing at court.
Awarded several titles by the monarch, Raleigh was said to have become a significant figure of the age, both as a Member of Parliament and as a military officer, being appointed as Vice Admiral in two separate counties, Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall and Warden of all the mines within Cornwall and Devon. No doubt as a result of his well paid and prestigious appointments, Raleigh was said to have personally commissioned the construction of a brand new warship called the “Ark Raleigh”, which was later purchased by the Crown and renamed as the “Ark Royal”, a famous name which has been carried by several vessels within the Royal Navy, from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, right through to the modern day.
In 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, unlike Drake, Frobisher, Newport and Adams, who were preparing to defend England at sea, Sir Walter Raleigh was reportedly ordered to organise the kingdom’s southern coastal defences, in readiness for the planned Spanish barges and ships that were expected to try and land on England’s shores. However, thanks largely to good fortune and bad weather the great Spanish fleet ultimately failed to safely navigate its way through the English Channel and collect the thousands of Spanish troops, which had been assembled to attack England. With Elizabeth’s kingdom safe; with the Spanish Armada largely dispersed and the English fleet victorious, at least in the short term, life in the English Court was reported to have returned to normal, with Walter Raleigh resuming his role as a favourite of the increasingly confident Tudor Queen.
Unfortunately for Raleigh, his later romantic entanglement with one of Elizabeth’s own ladies in waiting contrived to rob him of his most favoured status, especially after Raleigh secretly married, Elizabeth Trockmorton, without having first obtained the permission of the Queen, who was said to have been so outraged by the secret and unauthorised marriage that she dismissed Bess Throckmorton from her court and ordered Raleigh to be imprisoned for his deliberate transgression. Although he was subsequently released from prison on Elizabeth’s order, Raleigh remained out of favour at court and so contented himself with managing his vast estates and involving himself in English politics, as well as settling down to raise his and Bess’ two young sons.
However, in 1594, Raleigh was reported to have come into possession of a written account about a golden city called Manoa, which was said to have been located in the region of South America, now marked by the modern day states of Guyana and Venezuela, causing him to travel to the Americas in pursuit of this mythical “El Dorado”. Unfortunately, having spent some time there and uncovered no conclusive evidence relating to the mythical golden city, Raleigh was said to have returned home to simply write about his great adventures in these faraway lands, reportedly helping to create the myth of the city of El Dorada, which thousands of treasure seekers would pursue over succeeding centuries. Back in England though, he was said to have returned to royal favour, being appointed as the Governor of Jersey where he set about refortifying the island’s defences and building a new defensive fortress, Elizabeth Castle, although as his work there came to an inevitable end, Queen Elizabeth I was reported to have died, leaving Raleigh with little if any support in the English court and making him susceptible to the scheming of those courtiers who had envied him his apparent closeness to the former Tudor queen.
Elizabeth’s royal successor, James VI of Scotland, was the son of the Roman Catholic monarch Mary Queen of Scots, a choice of heir that Raleigh was said to be instinctively opposed to, given his own personal hatred towards Catholicism in general. Although the new James I of England had been brought up in the Protestant faith and vowed to protect it as part of his royal oath, the new king was thought to be far more forgiving towards the Catholic Church than men such as Raleigh and was therefore more likely to be less tolerant of the rabid anti-Catholic rhetoric as practiced by the likes of Raleigh and others. As a new Scottish born monarch, it was always likely that James would be suspicious of the English royal court and its officials, including those that had previously served, or who had found favour with Elizabeth and who James would almost certainly replace or displace, as soon as he took his rightful place on the combined English, Scottish and Irish thrones. According to most sources, James had always intended to try and reduce the historic and costly religious tensions that had previously existed between Protestant England and its main Catholic neighbours, France and Spain, a policy that did not find favour with the likes of Raleigh, who had spent much of their lives fighting against these two enemy European states.
It was thought to be because of his own personal antipathy towards King James that Raleigh’s enemies tried to implicate him in a number of plots against the new English monarch, the most serious of which was said to be the Main Plot of 1603, a conspiracy that was supposedly aimed at removing James from the English throne and replacing him with his cousin, the Roman Catholic heiress Arabella Stuart. Although the idea of the staunchly Protestant Raleigh becoming involved in a plot to put a Roman Catholic on the English throne would appear to be completely absurd, all the same, Raleigh was charged with being involved with the conspiracy and forced to defend himself against the accusations. However, despite the lack of any real evidence against him in terms of the Main Plot itself, it was thought to be Raleigh’s own personal dislike of James I and his public grumbling about the new king, which ultimately helped to convict him of the charges and led to him being sentenced to death.
Fortunately, King James I himself was not so convinced of Raleigh’s guilt and refused to confirm the death sentence passed by the court, although the nobleman was said to have been imprisoned for the next decade or more, during which time he remained in the Tower of London. It was only in 1616 that James I finally ordered his release and only then, so that he could lead a second English expedition in search of the fabled, gold rich city of El Dorado, which Raleigh still believed existed along the banks of the Orinoco River. However, before being despatched on his voyage to South America, Raleigh was said to have been given explicit instructions to avoid any sort of direct military conflict with Spanish forces that he and his men might encounter, thereby ensuring that the peaceful relations between the two countries, promoted by James himself, would remain undisturbed. With these instructions clearly understood, Raleigh and his English expedition, which included Raleigh’s own son, who was also called Walter, set out on their search for the mythical South American city, arriving in the region of Guiana later in the same year.
Unfortunately, having anchored off the coast of Guiana, Raleigh himself was reported to have been taken ill and was therefore obliged to allow one of his lieutenants, Lawrence Keymis, along with his son Walter to lead the English expedition upstream, requesting that they simply reconnoitre the region before reporting their findings back to him. As they made their way further into the hinterland, occasionally stopping to investigate particular sites that might be suitable for mining, the English party were thought to have found little of value, leading to a growing frustration amongst both the men and their leaders. At some point along the way the Englishmen were said to have encountered the Spanish held settlement of San Tome’ de Guyana along the banks of the Orinoco, where, for some unknown reason the two sides came into conflict with one another, resulting in Raleigh’s son Walter being killed, along with a number of other men, both English and Spanish. Eventually, Keymis was able to safely lead his party back to Raleigh’s headquarters, where he informed the English commander about the death of his son and the conflict with the Spanish outpost. For Raleigh personally, the expedition had proved to be a complete disaster, as he not only lost his eldest son, but his men had also engaged in combat with the Spanish, in clear defiance of King James’ instructions. Even though he had not been present at San Tome’, as the overall commander of the English expedition, it had been his responsibility to ensure that such an action did not take place and knew that he was certain to face the consequences upon his return to England. Things might well have been different, if Raleigh and his men had actually managed to discover the supposedly lost golden city of El Dorado, although given that no such place was ever thought to have existed, he and his men were subsequently forced to return to England with little to show for their endeavours, or indeed for their losses.
By the time Raleigh and his men returned to England in 1618, news of the attack on the Spanish outpost at San Tome’ had already reached Europe, with the Spanish Ambassador in London, Count Gondomar, angrily demanding Raleigh’s execution in reprisal for the unwarranted English attack on his country’s settlement. Unfortunately for Raleigh, the question of his own culpability in relation to the events at San Tome’ became a part of a much larger political intrigue, with Gondomar and the Howard family lobbying for a much more pro-Catholic approach to England’s European alliances, causing Raleigh’s fate to become inextricably linked to a continuing peace with Spain, something that James I was desperate to maintain.
Having previously and erroneously been found guilty of treason in 1603, Raleigh was said to have carried the suspended death sentence over his head for nearly thirteen years, before the Spanish Ambassador called for James I to implement the sentence, in response to the San Tome’ incident. Eager to ensure future peaceful relations between England and Spain; and no doubt at the instigation of his closest pro-Catholic advisers, eventually and perhaps a little grudgingly King James was said to have signed Raleigh’s death warrant, condemning him to be executed on 29th October 1618. According to legend, in the hours before his death on the scaffold at Whitehall, Raleigh was said to have been relatively calm about his impending demise, an attitude that was no doubt influenced by the earlier death of his eldest son in Guiana, a personal loss that was thought to have had a significant affect on the English nobleman’s character.
Following his execution, Raleigh’s decapitated head was reported to have been embalmed and presented to his wife, Elizabeth, who was said to have displayed it to the numerous friends, visitors and supporters who frequented her family home in later years. It was also reported that many influential people of the time were extremely unhappy about the way in which Sir Walter Raleigh had been dealt with, making their feelings known, especially to the likes of Count Gondomar and others who had actively lobbied for the nobleman’s death, with pamphlets and posters being produced, publicly condemning their actions. Nearly thirty years after his execution and following Elizabeth Frockmorton’s own demise, Raleigh’s severed head and body were finally reunited, being reinterred in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, where it remained as a site of special interest and religious pilgrimage. Somewhat interestingly, it was thought to be only after his death that Raleigh began to achieve the level of public recognition that has helped to turn him into something of a national icon, which in reality is probably undeserved, given that some of his credited actions and innovations had little to do with him in the first place.
Despite the earlier failures at colonisation in the Americas, English explorers and settlers continued to be carried across to the New World in the hope of finding new lands and trading opportunities, which might benefit not only themselves, but also the English Crown. The first successful English colony to be formally founded in these new lands was said to be Jamestown in Virginia, both of which were named after successive English monarchs, Virginia after the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I and Jamestown after King James I, Elizabeth’s royal successor. One of the men responsible for the discovery, establishment and ultimately the commercial success of Jamestown, was thought to be the English privateer and adventurer, Christopher Newport, the captain of the “Susan Constant”, one of the three English ships that carried these first permanent settlers to the New World.
Born in London in 1561, Newport was said to have spent most of his adult life as a sailor and privateer, primarily raiding the Spanish and Portuguese ships that regularly travelled between Europe and the New World, carrying supplies and treasures across the Atlantic, to and from Spain and Portugal’s far flung outposts. Although Newport was thought to have achieved some notable success in his role as English privateer, for the most part, many of the ships that he managed to capture were often carrying general cargoes, either supplies for the individual colonies, or commodities being sent back to Europe for sale. However, in 1592, Newport and his crew were reported to have captured the Portuguese treasure ship, the “Madre de Deus”, which was said to have contained one of the largest treasure cargoes ever seized by an English privateer, an estimated five hundred tons of valuables, including spices, gemstones and precious metals.
Even though his share of the treasure would have allowed Newport to retire in some comfort, given that he was still a comparatively young man, it was perhaps no surprise that he chose to continue his seafaring career, accepting a commission from the Virginia Company of London in 1605 to establish a new settlement in the Americas. Beginning their journey in December 1606, Newport and the crews of the “Susan Constant”, the “Godspeed” and the “Discovery” were reported to have set sail across the Atlantic and in April 1607 made landfall at what later became known as Cape Henry in the area of Chesapeake Bay. Over the next few weeks, Newport and newly appointed council member, Captain John Smith, along with a number of other English colonists were said to have set out to identify a likely spot for their new settlement, eventually choosing what later became known as Jamestown Island, although not for the most obvious reasons.
Initially choosing the site for its location, which was highly defendable, rather than for its more vital resources, such as a ready supply of fresh water, plentiful game and access to good growing land, ultimately the site chosen for the new settlement would prove to be an ill-fated decision for many of the early colonists. However, by June 1607 Newport and his ship “Constant Susan”, along with the “Godspeed” were reported to have departed for England, taking with them a cargo of various minerals that had been discovered in the area, including Iron Pyrite, or Fools Gold, a poor return for the financial investments and human losses that the venture would eventually cost before the settlement finally became a commercial success in later years. Over the next year and a half, Newport was said to have made two return journeys to the new English settlement, ostensibly to re-supply the colony, which was reported to have been struggling to survive in the generally harsh and unfriendly conditions. Newport’s third supply voyage to America in 1609 proved to be his most arduous and life threatening, as his fleet of nine ships was said to have been struck by an enormous tropical storm that not only dispersed his fleet, but also damaged his own ship, the “Sea Venture”, forcing the leader of the expedition Sir George Somers to order the ship grounded on the then uninhabited island of Bermuda. Despite attempts to repair the ship, Somers and Newport were compelled to cannibalise the “Sea Venture” in order to construct two smaller vessels, the “Deliverance” and the “Patience”, which were both subsequently used to carry the survivors onto Jamestown, where they found the settlement devastated by a shortage of food, disease and Indian attacks. With very few food stores between them, finally the decision was made to abandon the new settlement entirely and return to England onboard the two newly built, but generally unsuitable ships, the “Deliverance” and Patience”.
Fortunately, just as the ships were about to begin their journey downstream to the Atlantic Ocean, they were said to have sighted a supply fleet under the command of a new English Governor, Baron de la Warre, who was said to have been accompanied by more colonists, food supplies and a doctor, much to the enormous relief of Newport, Somers and the surviving Jamestown settlers. Although De la Warre’s carried a significant amount of stores to maintain his own ships crews and passengers, the additional demands of the Jamestown survivors and Newport’s own seamen meant that these supplies would not last for very long. Consequently, Newport and Somers were compelled to sail back to Bermuda where the supplies from the ill-fated “Sea Venture” were said to have been stockpiled immediately after the ship was beached on the local reefs. Somers was thought to have subsequently perished on Bermuda, reportedly as a result of eating too much meat, although Newport was still said to have recovered many of the much needed stores but also those few survivors from the “Sea Venture” who had been left behind on Bermuda, returning them all to Jamestown a few weeks later, thus ensuring the survival of the English colony there.
It has also been reported that one of the people that Newport rescued from Bermuda was a man called John Rolfe, a Norfolk businessman with a particular interest in tobacco, a crop that he intended to grow in the New World. Although Rolfe was said to have lost both his wife and baby daughter during the arduous journey across the Atlantic and been forced to bury them together on Bermuda, eventually he did continue his journey to Jamestown, carrying the vitally important tobacco seeds on which the colony would build its future prosperity. This journey to Jamestown, proved to be the final such voyage for the English seafarer Christopher Newport, who was said to have returned to England a short time later, never to visit the settlement again. However, he did return to the sea, taking employment with the emerging East India Trading Company, which had just begun regular trading expeditions to Asia and the Indian subcontinent, including the island of Java, where Newport was reported to have died in 1618, at fifty seven years of age.
At around the same time that Christopher Newport was involved in establishing England’s first colonial settlement in Jamestown, one of his contemporaries, Henry Hudson was said to be leading an expedition financed by the Muscovy Company to discover a northern route from Europe to the Pacific, allowing western sea traders to reach the Spice Islands, via what was commonly referred to as the North East Passage. Reportedly born in London sometime around 1565, Hudson was thought to have been born into a family of merchants, with his grandfather, who was also called Henry Hudson, said to have been a founding member of the Merchant Adventurers Company that was first established in 1551. Later evolving into the Muscovy Trading Company, this particular merchant company was reported to have been granted exclusive trading rights with Russia, under the terms of which, the company was said to have sought the elusive North East Passage that might link Europe with the faraway lands of China and Japan.
Although little evidence of his early life remains today, for most historians it seems likely that Hudson would have received a relatively good education and might well have spent his formative years working as a cabin boy on one of his family’s ships, learning his trade and working his way up to the rank of captain, following which he would have been given his own command. Certainly by 1607 he was reported to have achieved that rank, as it was in that year that Hudson was given the task of trying to find the passage, via the North Pole, to Japan and China, having been given command of the “Hopewell”, a relatively small vessel that was reported to be old by the time he received command of it. However, despite the age and condition of the ship, on 1st May 1607, Hudson and his ten man crew were reported to have left Gravesend, reaching Greenland in the following month. Sailing north towards the Arctic Circle, the “Hopewell” were thought to have encountered large numbers of whales on their journey, although the presence of heavy pack ice soon prevented them from travelling further north, forcing them to turn south and return to England, arriving in Tilbury in September 1607, some four months after they had left.
Despite failing to find the North East Passage, in the April of 1608 Hudson once again took command of the “Hopewell”, which was thought to have been re-provisioned and repaired for a new attempt to find the northern channel, with the ship reportedly departing from St Katherine’s Dock in London, in April of that year. Sailing northward, Hudson steered his ship past Norway and towards Russia, although increasingly severe weather conditions, which caused his crew to threaten mutiny, forced Hudson to abandon the attempt and turn south again, returning to Gravesend in August 1608. In spite of his earlier failures however, Hudson was determined to try once again to find the elusive northern passage, although by this time English financiers were said to be unwilling to back a further expedition, leaving Hudson with little option but to seek financial support elsewhere.
Fortunately for him, the Dutch were also said to be actively seeking a similar sea route to Asia, so in January 1609 Hudson was said to have signed an agreement with the Dutch East India Company, under the terms of which the English sea captain would supply them with full details of his expedition and any discoveries that he made during his journey. Unfortunately, the Dutch merchants were thought to have been as miserly, or as unconvinced about the expedition as their English counterparts, supplying Hudson with the “Half Moon” (or Halve Maen), an equally ancient and inappropriate vessel as the “Hopewell”. Sailing with a mixed English and Dutch crew, Hudson was reported to have sailed the ship northward towards Norway and Russia, but once again the bitter weather conditions and the crews growing antagonism over their perilous situation caused the English sea captain to abandon this attempt at finding the northerly route to Asia.
However, rather than face the ignominy of having to return home with little to show for his voyage, Hudson was said to have turned the “Half Moon” westward towards the marginally warmer waters of the North American territories of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. By July 1609 Hudson and his crew were said to have arrived off the North American coast, where he and his men went ashore to explore the region and to trade with the local Indian tribesmen, who Hudson later described as savages, despite there having been quite friendly negotiations between them. After a few days the captain and his crew were reported to have embarked on the ship once again, moving south towards the Delaware River, which Hudson attempted to explore but found some stretches too shallow to navigate. Moving on again the “Half Moon” and its crew proceeded to the mouth of the Hudson River, where they passed what would later become known as Statten and Coney Islands, claiming all these previously unknown territories for his new masters in Holland. Throughout much of September 1609 Hudson and his crew were reported to have continued upstream, navigating the river, surveying the lands and making occasional contact with the local Indian tribes, who for the most part he found to be friendly and trusting, although in one instance a skirmish was said to have ensued and one of his English crewmen was killed.
By the beginning of October 1609 and having logged an extraordinary amount of information for his employers back in Holland, Hudson decided to set course for home, but rather than sailing to a Dutch port was reported to have sailed the “Half Moon” back to the English port of Dartmouth, from where he sent a communiqué to his Dutch backers asking them to finance a second expedition. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Dutch East India Company were not so easily inclined to meet his request, but instead demanded that Hudson and his crew return to Holland immediately, but before he could respond to their message he had been arrested by the English authorities for sailing under a Dutch flag.
Charged with exploring to the detriment of his own country, although the “Half Moon”, its Dutch crew and Hudson’s logs were subsequently returned to Holland, the English sea captain himself was prevented from doing so and he never visited the country again. However, as a result of his reports and charts the Dutch East India Company were reported to have despatched more of their ships into the region and along the length of the Hudson River, eventually settling the lands that would later become known as New Amsterdam and later still, the British held territory of New York. Even though he was brought before the king, James I, for his seemingly unpatriotic behaviour, by 1610 Hudson’s personal reputation was thought to have been generally restored and the Muscovy Company once again decided to appoint him as Captain of one of their ships, the “Discovery”, which was to set sail in April 1610, departing from the River Thames. This time however, Hudson was ordered to search for a North West Passage to Asia, as opposed to the earlier North East channel which had previously eluded him, requiring the “Discovery” and its crew to travel north of Greenland, Iceland and into the perilous regions towards the Arctic Circle.
Having left England and travelled past Northern Canada, the ship and her crew were said to have become trapped in thick pack ice in Hudson Bay, a situation that resulted in their having to cope with some of the very worst winter conditions and creating a great deal of antagonism between Hudson and his crew. As the “Discovery” was finally released from the ice, the majority of the crewmen onboard wanted to return home, although Hudson insisted that they should continue on in search of the sea passage that they had been ordered to find. Perhaps recognising that mutiny was their only logical course, on the 22nd June 1911 the crew of the “Discovery” were reported to have cast Hudson, his young son John and eight loyal members of the crew into an open boat and cast them adrift, essentially condemning them to almost certain death. With their captain abandoned, the remaining crew were then reported to have set sail for England, where they arrived back in London in October 1611, although surprisingly there seems to have been little action taken against them, despite the best efforts of the Muscovy Company directors. It was only in 1618, some seven years after the event that the surviving mutineers were brought to trial on charges of murder, rather than mutiny, but with little evidence against them and any potential prosecution witnesses already dead, the trial was quickly done with and the men subsequently acquitted.
Whilst Christopher Newport and Henry Hudson were sailing north and west to settle the New World, or discover the almost mythical Northwest Passage, other English mariners, such as Sir James Lancaster were reported to be undertaking some of the earliest voyages eastward, taking the more conventional route around the southern tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. Although reportedly born in Basingstoke, for much of his early life, Lancaster was said to have lived and worked as a trader in Portugal, one of Europe’s main centres of exploration and international trade, which allowed him to gain significant experience in international trade. However, by the second half of the 16th century he was thought to have returned to England and served under Sir Francis Drake in his battle with the Spanish Armada in 1588, commanding the English ship the “Edward Bonaventure” during the conflict.
Three years later, in April 1591, Lancaster was said to have led a fleet of three ships, the “Edward Bonaventure”, the “Penelope” and the “Merchant Royal” on the first formal voyage to trade with the East Indies, an expedition that would last for some three years, from 1591 to 1594. However, having rounded the Cape of Good Hope an outbreak of sickness amongst the crews of all three English ships was said to have resulted in the “Merchant Royal” having to return to England with all of the incapacitated crewmen on board, leaving the “Edward Bonaventure” and the “Penelope” to continue on to their final destination. By February 1592, the two ships were said to have reached the island of Zanzibar, where they were able to refit and re-provision the vessels before continuing on with their journey. By May of 1592, Lancaster’s two ships were reported to have rounded the southern tip of India, arriving at Penang on the Malay Peninsula in the following month, where they began trying to trade with the local merchants.
Unfortunately, their main cargo of English Broadcloth, proved to be highly unpopular with the local population, who found it to be far too heavy for their needs, leaving Lancaster with little to trade with and facing the real possibility of the expedition turning into a complete commercial disaster. However, according to some sources the English sailors subsequently overcame this problem by raiding other European ships, such as Portuguese and Dutch vessels that were operating in the region, relieving them of their cargoes, which the English crews could then trade for various exotic goods that could be taken back to England. Having managed to complete a fairly successful trading expedition to the East Indies, Lancaster had intended to spend some more time in the region, although owing to the length of the voyage and the serious depletion of his crew due to sickness and disease, in September 1592 he was reported to have set sail for England, reaching his home port of Rye in May 1594. Opinions differ, as to whether or not Lancaster’s initial voyage to the East Indies was a financial success or not, given that he was said to have lost so much in terms of the expeditions actual monetary cost. However, from the point of view of establishing England’s first trading links with this largely unknown, but potentially valuable region, then James Lancaster’s original expedition proved to be highly successful, regardless of its initial financial outcome.
It was said to be almost entirely as a result of Lancaster’s voyage in the Edward Bonaventure that in 1596 another fleet of three English ships was despatched to the region, although all of them and their crews were subsequently lost at sea. Despite this catastrophe however, investors and merchants remained convinced of the potential riches that awaited them if they could establish regular trade routes between England and the East Indies. Consequently, two years later, in September 1598, English merchants and their financial backers once again raised a substantial amount of money in order to form a trade corporation that might finance future expeditions to the eastern regions. Convinced that their efforts would eventually prove to be successful, in December 1600, members of the new merchant company requested permission from the monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, to grant them a Royal Charter, guaranteeing them a trading monopoly in these new territories for a period of fifteen years. With little to lose and much to gain, on the 31st December 1600 the queen was said to have granted the new, Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies, their fifteen year patent, marking the birth of the trading organisation that would subsequently evolve into the British East India Company. With this new royal charter in their possession and having previously purchased more ships especially for the purpose, it simply remained for the company to provision and man their new vessels, as well as appoint their expedition’s leader, with James Lancaster, the only English navigator to have successfully performed the task, being assigned to lead this new naval expedition in April 1601.
Commanding the flagship, “Red Dragon”, Lancaster’s small trading flotilla was reported to have included the “Hector”, “Ascension”, “Susan” and a small supply ship called the “Gift”. The outward journey for the small fleet was reported to have been both harsh and slow, ostensibly because of adverse weather conditions and the regular occurrence of scurvy and other contagious illnesses amongst the crew, although Lancaster was said to have reduced the instances of scurvy amongst the crew of the “Red Dragon” by ensuring that they took regular doses of lemon juice. Having reached the southern tip of Africa, the fleet was said to have remained anchored there for several weeks, allowing the crew to acquire new supplies and to regain their strength after the arduous voyage, in preparation for the second half of the voyage to the East Indies. Even though a significant number of sailors were thought to have been lost during the first part of the journey, by the time the fleet left southern Africa the remaining crews were thought to have been reasonably well, having been allowed time to recuperate during their stopover in southern Africa, although Lancaster was forced to order yet another layover on the island of Madagascar in December 1601, after members of the crew began suffering from scurvy once again. Despite these unexpected delays however, by June 1602 the English fleet was reported to have arrived off the coast of Sumatra, where Lancaster began negotiations with the local native ruler, who agreed to waive all of the usual custom charges, although the region failed to offer sufficient goods for the English traders to fill their holds. Despite this, over the next few weeks Lancaster’s ships were reported to have acquired additional cargoes from waylaying passing Portuguese merchant vessels, transferring their goods to his own ships, before allowing the Iberian traders to go on their way. Having collected a sufficient amount of cargo, Lancaster then loaded it all aboard the “Ascension” which was then ordered to return to England, loaded down with its rich cargo of exotic textiles and spices. A short time later the “Susan” was similarly ordered to set sail for home, laden with a cargo of peppers and spices, whilst Lancaster took the “Red Dragon”, “Hector” and the “Gift” further north, towards Java.
Arriving at the Javanese port city of Bantam in what is now modern day Indonesia, in December 1602; Lancaster immediately presented himself to the local ruler who was said to have warmly welcomed the English traders, allowing them to trade freely and establish their first trading factory on the islands. Over the next few months the few remaining English goods brought with them from home were thought to have been exchanged for local produce, including bags of peppers and spices, which were subsequently loaded aboard the three remaining ships ready for their return journey. In February 1603 the three English ships began their homeward voyage loaded down with fresh provisions and their cargoes of exotic spices and peppers, as well as a letter of friendship from the ruler of Bantam to Queen Elizabeth I of England. Apart from the loss of a rudder, which might have resulted in the loss of Lancaster’s flagship, but which was subsequently repaired, the journey home was thought to have been relatively straightforward, apart from a stopover at the island of Saint Helena, where repairs were made to the ships and fresh provisions brought on board. Arriving back in England in September 1603, although the expedition was judged to be both a commercial and national success, in that the voyage had achieved all of its initial objectives, such was the volume of products brought back by the fleet that much of the cargo failed to sell, making the voyage a financial failure. For Lancaster personally, despite there being little by way of monetary reward for all of his efforts, such was the national acclaim that the journey had caused in England itself, he was subsequently knighted by Elizabeth I for his diplomatic and commercial endeavours. For much of his later life Lancaster was reported to have remained involved with the fledgling British East India Company, largely as a company director and as a proponent of future commercial expeditions, both to the East Indies and in search of the highly elusive Northwest Passage. At least one of these exploratory journeys, under the command of William Baffin resulted in the naming of the northern waterway, now known as Lancaster Sound, in celebration of the expedition’s supporter, Sir James Lancaster, in July 1616.
In the same year that Queen Elizabeth I had granted her royal charter to the Merchants of London trading with the East Indies, initiating the trade links that would ultimately lead to Britain’s control of the Indian subcontinent, another Englishmen, William Adams, was reportedly arriving in the relatively undiscovered island kingdom of Japan. Born on 24th September 1564, in Gillingham, Kent, Adams was reported to have been orphaned at a fairly young age and as a result was apprenticed to a shipbuilder, who trained the young William for a career at sea. At the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588, when he was around twenty four years old, Adams was said to have commanded a supply ship attached to Sir Francis Drake’s naval force and was a notable witness to England’s subsequent military victory over the Spanish fleet. For the next decade the young mariner was thought to have been constantly employed at sea, participating in various arctic expeditions in search of the fabled Northeast Passage and commanding vessels that were travelling between England and the northern states of Africa, for the English based Barbary Company. However, reportedly anxious to extend both his knowledge and his experience, in 1598 Adams was said to have resigned his position with the Barbary Company and accepted the post of Pilot Major with the Dutch East India Company, who were planning a five ship expedition to the Far East, a region that the thirty four year old English captain was eager to explore and experience. Embarking on the Dutch ship “Hoope”, Adams was said to have departed Rotterdam in June 1598, with the fleet sailing due south, along the west coast of Africa, where they were forced to take on fresh supplies from one of the outlying islands.
Crossing the Atlantic, the Dutch East India fleet was reported to have been scattered by a series of storms, so that by the time the first of the vessels reached the tip of South America, ready for their voyage through the Magellan Straits, only three of the five ships had managed to survive the journey intact. First discovered by the navigator Ferdinand Magellan in 1520, these straits were said to have offered the safest route between the world’s two great oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, as well as providing an alternative link between Europe and Asia. One of the Dutch ships was said to have been captured by the Spanish, whilst another was forced to return to Holland with a much reduced crew, the majority of its men having died through sickness and disease. Two of the ships, the “Hoope” and the “Liefde” were said to have anchored off the Chilean coast in the first part of 1599, whilst they waited for the other ships to arrive in the region, during which time Adams was thought to have transferred from the “Hoope” to the “Liefde”, a move that would later prove to be a lifesaver for the English mariner.
Despite losing a number of crewmen to native attacks on the outlying Chilean islands, the two vessels were thought to have continued with their voyage, navigating the Magellan Straits and entering the Pacific in the first half of 1599, from where they travelled to what were described as “certain islands”, where a small number of the crew were reported to have deserted the expedition. Having repaired and re-supplied the ships, the two vessels were then said to have sailed on with the intention of reaching Japan, where they hoped to sell their surviving cargo for silver, before moving on to the Spice Islands. Unfortunately, a severe tropical storm was thought to have caught the two remaining Dutch ships at sea, resulting in the loss of the “Hoope” and her entire crew, a disaster that caused Adams to give thanks for his earlier decision to swap ships before travelling through the Magellan Straits. However, even though the “Liefde” had managed to survive the tropical typhoon, it was thought to have not only sustained major damage, but also suffered substantial losses amongst its crew, with only a handful of them surviving through to April 1600, when the vessel finally anchored off the Japanese island of Kyushu.
For those Portuguese traders and missionaries who had already established themselves in Japan, the sudden and unexpected appearance of a Dutch ship, along with its small and bedraggled crew was generally seen as posing a real threat to their own positions, causing them to accuse William Adams and his surviving crewmates of being pirates, largely in the hope that they would then be executed by the local authorities. Fortunately for the English seafarer and his Dutch comrades, the Japanese authorities were thought to be curious about their new foreign visitors and rather than simply take the Portuguese word for their being pirates, arranged for Adams and his shipmates to be held in Osaka Castle where they might be questioned more thoroughly. Their principal inquisitor was reported to be Tokugawa Ieyasu, the royal guardian of Japan’s young ruler, who would seize control of the country later in the same year and who held power in the country right through to his death in 1616. Seemingly fascinated by Adams’ knowledge of navigation, mathematics and shipbuilding, Ieyasu was said to have ignored the Portuguese demands for Adams and his comrades to be executed, perhaps recognising that these calls were entirely motivated by personal antagonisms, rather than for any other rational or lawful reason.
Ordering that Adams’ ship be removed to Edo, which is now known as Tokyo, the capital of Japan, the “Liefde” was said to have barely survived her final voyage, as having finally been sailed into Edo harbour, the by now rotten and heavily damaged vessel was thought to have simply sank beneath the waters of the Japanese port. In the meantime, Adams and his comrades were thought to have become subjects of interest for the Japanese Shogun, Ieyasu, who saw the advantages of exploiting their knowledge and expertise, particularly in the areas of shipbuilding, navigation and seamanship, subjects that he was keen to develop amongst his own people, allowing Japan to become independent of other foreign traders, including the Portuguese. Finally, some four years after Adams and his few surviving comrades had come ashore in Japan; Ieyasu ordered the Englishmen and his shipmates to be taken to the port of Ito where they would help design and construct a new western style sailing ship, which could be employed by the Japanese navy. Although relatively small in scale, this first vessel was thought to have been such a success that the Shogun ordered a larger version to be built, which was also well received by the Japanese ruler, who subsequently came to regard Adams as a trustworthy adviser and confidante, whilst the other surviving members of the “Liefde’s” crew were also thought to have been treated extremely well by their Japanese hosts.
Clearly recognising Adams’ value, not only as a skilled navigator and shipbuilder, but also as an adviser on foreign affairs and trading matters, it was perhaps little surprise that Ieyasu was reluctant to allow the Englishman to leave, even though most of the Dutch crewmen had been given permission to leave the country by 1605. However, despite not being allowed to leave Japan, Adams was reported to have been treated extremely well and with great courtesy by the Japanese Shogun, who bestowed on the Englishman a number of titles and offices that gave him an elevated status within the native community. Having spent so many years at the royal court, Adams eventually became fluent in the Japanese language, becoming the Shogun’s official interpreter in matters of trade and foreign affairs and was often employed as Japan’s chief negotiator with various merchant companies that arrived in Japan to trade. It was also around the same time that Adams was said to have been elevated to the status of a Samurai, was granted substantial estates by the Japanese Shogun and even took a Japanese woman as his wife, despite already having a wife back in England, who he continued to support and communicate with up until his death in 1620. It was thought to be largely as a result of his high status and personal relationship with Ieyasu that Adams was able to contact agents of the Dutch East India Company in an attempt to develop Japan’s international trade, as well as reduce the influence of the Portuguese traders, who had previously controlled much of the country’s overseas trade, often to their own advantage.
Arriving in Japan in 1609 the Dutch agents had to negotiate with Adams for equitable terms, although in a short space of time the two sides were reported to have reached an agreement, which would allow the Dutch merchant company to establish their first trading post in Japan, at better rates than were being offered to the Portuguese, ostensibly because of Adams’ personal involvement in the negotiations.
However, even though Adams had arrived in Japan as a servant of the Dutch East India Company and therefore owed them his commercial loyalty and allegiance, he was first and foremost an Englishman and would therefore have been inclined to help his fellow countrymen to establish new trading links with his adopted Japanese homeland. According to some sources, it was said to be the presence of a formal English trading settlement in Indonesia that initiated contact between Japan and the British East India Company, after Adams had requested the English traders to pass along messages to his family in England, as well as advising them about the establishment of Dutch trading interests in Japan. As a result of his first communiqué, the British East India Company was said to have despatched one of their ships, under the command of Captain John Saris, to visit Japan and begin negotiations for trade between the two countries. Arriving at Hirado in Japan in 1613, Captain Saris’ initial impressions of Adams were thought to have been negatively affected by the Englishman’s decision to meet them wearing traditional Japanese clothing, his refusal to stay in English accommodations and his reported exaltation of everything “Japanese”, which Saris felt made Adams appear more native than European.
However, despite such early and plainly obvious reservations on the part of the English trade delegation, Adams was reported to have shown them every kindness and even took the time to show Saris and his officers some of the most notable sights in Japan, before accompanying them to a meeting with the Japanese Shogun, Ieyasu and his son Hidetada. As a result of these meetings, the British East India Company was said to have been granted significant trading rights in Japan, as well as managing to retain the services of Adams himself, which they were said to be willing to pay handsomely for, reportedly at twice the normal rate of pay. Despite the best efforts of Adams however, for the most part the British East India Company was said to have sent few commercial shipments to Japan and those that they did were reported to be of poor quality and of little interest to Japanese consumers, who preferred to trade with neighbouring China, leaving Adams to try and support the English trading post through his own commercial enterprise.
For the final few years of his life, Adams was reported to have spent much of his time trying to organise various exploratory expeditions, both for the British East India Company and for himself, although always with the interests of his adopted Japanese homeland in mind. Trading with Siam, China and other neighbouring Asian states, Adams continued to try and make the English trading post a success, although much of the profit generated by the company’s Japanese factory was largely the result of Adams and the resident English traders own efforts rather than through any help they received from England. When his employer and friend, the Japanese Shogun, Ieyasu, died in 1616, it was feared that much of Adams’ status and authority might disappear, but Ieyasu’s successor, Hidetada reaffirmed all of the Englishman’s earlier titles and offices, ensuring that Adam’s could continue with his commercial activities as before. However, at the age of fifty five and having lived a highly arduous life, in May 1620 Adams suddenly became ill and was reported to have died on the 16th of that month at Hirado in Japan. In his will, the English mariner, shipbuilder and royal adviser was said to have left his estate to be equally divided between his two families, the one in England and the one in Japan, with all of his Japanese trading rights being conferred on his son, Joseph, who was born out of Adams’ marriage to his Japanese wife Oyuki.
Read British Empire: Expansion & Exploration Part II HERE