Early English adventurers in the East (1917)/Chapter 1

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


The Dawn of the Empire

Drake's circumnavigation of the globe—The defeat of the Invincible Armada and its effects—Fenton's disastrous enterprise—Cavendish's voyage round the world—Expedition to the East commanded by Raymond—His ship founders in a storm off the Cape—James Lancaster succeeds to the command—His career—He visits Penang—Raids Portuguese shipping in the Straits of Malacca—He returns to England—Subsequent expedition to Brazil—Ralph Fitch and others proceed to the East overland—Fitch's account of his travels—The Dutch admiral, Houtman, conducts a voyage to the East—Its effect on English enterprise.

WHEN the long reign of Elizabeth was drawing towards its splendid close there was planted in the minds of Englishmen a mighty idea. Their conception was of an England no longer self-centred and self-contained—no mere "sceptred isle" seated in splendid isolation upon the inviolate sea, but of a power which, bursting the artificial bonds imposed by an arrogant foreign domination, would make its commercial frontiers, co-terminous with the utmost limits of the known world. Many causes contributed to produce this awakening of the national consciousness to the country's higher destinies. The voyages of the early navigators, by lifting the curtain upon the realities of that mysterious outer world which had existed hitherto to a large extent only in the imagination, created an interest in strange peoples and unfamiliar lands. The stream of wealth which flowed into Spain and Portugal from their distant possessions also acted as a powerful stimulus to the policy of adventure. But undoubtedly it was Drake's circumnavigation of the world in 1577 which gave the first direct impulse to the national desire for a "place in the sun," to use a modern phrase. That wonderful achievement, by its incomparable audacity as an essay in seamanship, not less than by its brilliant success as an exercise in the everpopular process of "singeing the Spaniard's beard," had thrilled the imagination of the people to an extraordinary degree. It was the electric spark which set aflame the smouldering ambitions of the nation and brought to life schemes of commercial aggrandisement which had hitherto been mere vague aspirations. It was realized that where Drake and his little handful of men had gone, and where Cavendish had followed, others equally brave and resolute could go. The Eastern seas were wide, the markets there open to all who were adventurous enough to resort to them; the native populations were not unkindly disposed. Nothing, in fact, but the barrier of an insolent claim to monopoly was interposed to the creation of wide and lucrative new openings for trade. The barrier, it is true, was a substantial one—nothing less than the armed might of the two greatest naval powers then existing; but the nation was in the mood to take whatever risks there might be in challenging this powerful combination.

Accurately interpreting the national will Elizabeth issued her defiant replies to the Spanish protests. In burning words she declined to accept the limitations by which his most Catholic Majesty sought to keep English ships from trespassing upon his Eastern preserves. Her spirited assertions of English independence of the famous decree of Pope Alexander VI dividing the world between the Spanish and the Portuguese were amongst the most potent of the causes which led to the despatch of the Spanish Armada in 1588. And the defeat of the Armada in its turn was another important link in the chain of circumstances which associates Drake's adventure with the establishment of British power in the East. For the victory not only freed England from a foreign religious despotism, but it threw open the seas of the world to her trade. The influence which for nearly a century had made the whole of the opulent markets of the Orient a close preserve for Spain and Portugal was, in fact, fatally undermined by the three days' struggle in the English Channel and the subsequent chase. The bleaching timbers of the Spanish galleons on the Irish and Scotch coasts were the monuments of a dead era. From that time England set her face towards the East, never again to turn from it.

Though the defeat of the Spanish Armada was the real turning point in the history of English expansion overseas the keen spirit of adventure which had been aroused by Drake's circumnavigation of the world found active expression in several directions prior to the great sea victory. One enterprise which grew out of the enthusiasm of the period was an expedition organized by the Earl of Leicester under the direct patronage of Elizabeth for purposes of trade with the East by way of the Cape. To disguise the real purpose of the voyage it was given out that its object was the discovery of the North-West passage to India—that will o' the wisp which in the earlier period of the century then closing had lured so many intrepid English and Dutch navigators to splendid failures in the icy regions of the Arctic Circle. Two ships, the Bear, galleon of 400 tons, and the Edward Bonaventure, of 300, were contributed by the Queen, and two smaller craft, of 60 tons and 40 tons respectively, furnished by private enterprise, constituted the fleet.

The command was entrusted to Edward Fenton, a scion of a well-known Nottinghamshire family, who with a spirit common in that age had abjured the easy life of a country gentleman for a career of adventure. He had sailed in Frobisher's second voyage for the discovery of the North-West passage in command of one of the vessels of the fleet. But apart from this he had had little experience in seamanship. What he lacked in this respect was supplied by the second in command, Wm. Hawkins, a member of the famous Plymouth family, who had all the genius of his race for navigation.

Unhappily, from the outset of the expedition a keen rivalry arose between the two commanders as a result of the superior attainments of the subordinate. Fenton was domineering and headstrong, and he was altogether lacking in the steadfastness which was necessary to bring to a successful conclusion so arduous and even perilous an enterprise as a voyage to the East then was.

When the fleet reached St. Helena at the end of September the eccentric admiral was seized with the fantastic idea of annexing the island and proclaiming himself king of it. The little Atlantic islet, to be rendered famous more than two centuries later by Napoleon's incarceration upon it, is an agreeable resting-place after a long voyage, but it was then far too isolated and exposed to be held for a year by any power that did not possess absolute mastery at sea. This truth was ultimately realized by Fenton, but in abandoning his mad purpose he took up with another scheme equally futile and in its results more mischievous, Instead of prosecuting the voyage to the East he conducted a semi-piratical raid along the coast of Brazil One of his smaller vessels suffered shipwreck off the mouth of the River Plate, and the crew manning it were seized and sent prisoners to Lima. The remaining vessels, after a brush with a Spanish fleet, directed their course to England, which they reached on June 27, 1583. When the fleet dropped anchor in the Downs Hawkins was a close prisoner in irons. He afterwards gave out that Fenton had attempted his life to prevent the exposure of his folly. Fenton's own story, of course, was different; but the fiasco in which the enterprise had resulted was too complete to be explained away by any failings of a subordinate. Fenton, after the facts had been investigated, dropped into obscurity. What became of Hawkins is an interesting problem of history. He is identified by some authorities with a notable commander in the employ of the East India Company who will be met with further on in this narrative. But the connexion has by no means been satisfactorily established. The strong probability appears to be that he shared the disrepute which attached to the expedition to the extent of not again being entrusted with an important command at sea.

In the year following Fenton's fruitless essay in exploration Raleigh conducted the first of the series of memorable expeditions which resulted in the foundation of the Colony of Virginia and the establishment of the English connexion with the North American Continent. His achievements in that region constitute a brilliant page in English history. But more to the immediate purpose of this work was the voyage undertaken by Thomas Cavendish in 1586 to the East. Following closely the course steered by Drake nine years previously Cavendish proceeded by way of the Straits of Magellan to the Moluccas and thence home round the Cape of Good Hope. The enterprise was not less successful than was its earlier prototype. Attacks on Spanish shipping in the Eastern seas yielded a rich harvest of spoil which returned to the promoters of the enterprise a handsome dividend on their capital outlay.

Cavendish's success wiped out the effect of Fenton's failure. People once more turned their thoughts to the possibillty of opening up a trade with the East. When the country had fairly settled down after the excitement of the defeat of the Armada a further adventure, having for its object the exploitation of Eastern markets, was floated. It brought to the front, in the person of James Lancaster, a man who was destined to leave his mark on the history of the development of the British Empire in the East.

Lancaster was a typical specimen of the Elizabethan sea dog. His place of birth and his ancestry are obscure, but his early years of manhood appear to have been spent in roving after the approved manner of his class. From his own statements we gather that he was brought up amongst the Portuguese, that during this period of youth he "lived among them as a gentleman, served them as a soldier, and associated with them as a merchant." He acquired a perfect knowledge of their language and as complete an insight into their character. Familiarity, in his case, markedly bred contempt. He described them as a people without truth or faith, who if they could not prevail by force would strive to win an advantage with their "deceivable tongues." His feeling was something more than the common prejudice of the period against the two great colonizing races. It was a passion which savoured of revenge for some dire injury done. As a mental equipment for a leader in an enterprise such as that to which we have referred, the mere despatch of which gave a direct challenge to Portuguese supremacy in the East, it was not to be equalled in stimulative force. Only the burning memory of wrongs suffered could, perhaps, have carried forward to a successful issue the great movement for widening the bounds of England's commerce of which Lancaster may be said to have been the pioneer. Another qualification of value in this connexion to which Lancaster could lay claim was the fact that he had served in the Armada fight directly under Drake. What that meant to a man of the Elizabethan adventurer class we cannot perhaps at this distance of time adequately realize. But by analogy drawn from the events of a more recent period it is possible to believe that the heroes of the classic contest carried with them in their undertakings a prestige which had its influence on friend and foe alike.

Lancaster in the expedition with which we are now dealing served as second in command under George Raymond, whose appointment as "General"—to adopt the phraseology of the time—had been secured by influence amongst the little coterie of London merchants who supplied the funds. There were three ships in all equipped for this formidable task of driving a wedge into the Portuguese Eastern trade monopoly. Raymond hoisted his flag on the Penelope, a vessel of somewhat over 300 tons burthen; Lancaster brought to the rendezvous the Edward Bonaventure, the ship of 300 tons which he had commanded in the Armada conflict; while a third craft of about tons, the Merchant Royal, was in charge of Samuel Foxcroft. It will thus be seen that the united tonnage of this fleet, as it was grandiloquently called, did not exceed that registered for a good sized pleasure yacht of our day.

The expedition sailed from Plymouth on April 10, 1591, touched at the Canary Islands about a month later, and in August dropped anchor off Saldania, in the modern Table Bay. Although the voyage had thus far not been an unduly protracted one "the disease of the sea," the terrible scurvy, had worked havoc amongst the crew. The ravages of the malady were so great that Raymond decided to send back the Merchant Royal with the worst of the sick cases in order that his further operations might not be hampered, and the safety of the fleet possibly imperilled by the presence of these miserable human wrecks in his vessels. The voyage was resumed by the Penelope and the Edward Bonaventure on September 8. The Cape was doubled on the following day, and almost immediately the ships fell in with one of those hurricanes which have given unenviable distinction to the great South African promontory in the annals of navigation.

In the whole range of natural phenomena there is, perhaps, nothing more awe-inspiring than one of these Atlantic tempests. Immense waves fifty or sixty feet high, whose white tip of foam accentuates their inky blackness, sweep in majestic grandeur along, conveying in their irresistible might a sense of power which seems to reduce to absolute nothingness the puny human efforts to avert the calamity which each mountainous mass of water appears to threaten. The sky overhead, thick with sombre masses of cloud, is gashed with great streaks of lightning which, playing about the masts of the labouring ship, form from time to time balls of fire whose radiance suffuses the scene with an unearthly brilliancy. All the time the wind howls through the rigging with a shrieking noise which deafens the ear and adds another element of horror to impressions already fully charged with fateful significance.

It was into such a scene as this that the two ships were hurried on that eventful September day in 1591. For a time they kept company, but on the evening of the fourth day after leaving Table Bay those on the deck of the Edward Bonaventure saw an immense wave engulf the Penelope. As from that moment her lights were no longer visible, they drew the inference—correct as it proved—that she had foundered with all on board. The Edward Bonaventure continued to battle with the storm for four days. Then an appalling catastrophe occurred which seemed for the moment to have sealed the vessel's fate. About ten o'clock in the morning a flash of lightning, accompanied by a deafening crash of thunder, struck the ship. Not a single soul on board escaped the shock. Four men were killed outright, "their necks being wrung in sonder without speaking any word," as the graphic narrative of the historian of the expedition puts it. As to the other members of the crew, "some were stricken blind, others were burned in their legs and others in their breasts so that they voided blood; while others, again, were drawn out at length as though they had been racked."

Happily this was the dying effort of the storm. In a few days the conditions had so much improved that the crew were able to rest and recover from the effects of the lightning. A call at Zanzibar enabled Lancaster to take on board a pilot who knew the East Indies. He is described in the narrative of Edmund Barker, Lancaster's subordinate, as a "negro," but in all probability he was of the same race as the Indian seamen who in this era compose the lascar crews of many of our ocean-going steamers in the East. Such have for ages navigated the Indian ocean, and they no doubt constituted a numerous community at Zanzibar at the end of the sixteenth century as they do to-day.

Whatever his nationality the pilot must have proved of great service to Lancaster. Drake and Cavendish's expeditions had not touched at any part of India, nor had they utilized in their passage from the China Sea to the Atlantic the Straits of Malacca, which now are almost invariably traversed by vessels proceeding to or coming from the Far East. The pilot's local knowledge enabled Lancaster not only to test the value of the great strategic waterway which we command by the possession of Singapore, but, what for him at the time was of more moment, to make personal acquaintance with the natural advantages of Penang.

When the Edward Bonaventure got into the Indian Ocean the old enemy, scurvy, reappeared in an aggravated form. The crew in time was so reduced that it became imperative that a rather prolonged stay should be made in some salubrious locality. After touching at the Nicobar Islands, Lancaster sailed for Penang where he arrived at the beginning of June with his men in the last stages of weakness. The excellent air of the island was a tonic which had its effect on the enfeebled constitutions of many; but Penang then was an uninhabited waste devoid of the fresh food supplies which were so essential to the invalids. Twenty-six of the unfortunates died in a short time, amongst them Mr. Rainold Golding, "a merchant of great honesty and much discretion." He and his fellows were the first of British birth whose bones were laid to rest in Malaya. The survivors in the Edward Bonaventure numbered thirty-three men and one boy, and of these "not past twenty-two were sound for labour and help and not past a third part sailors."

Serious, even desperate, as the condition of the expedition was Lancaster did not abandon hope. On the contrary he made his departure from Penang at the end of August, 1592, the starting-point of some rather audacious freebooting. Espying three ships in the Straits one morning he gave them chase and eventually overhauled them. Two, which were native craft laden with merchandise, belonging to Pegu traders, were allowed to continue their voyage; but the third ship, proving to be Portuguese owned, was confiscated. Afterwards a further small capture was made and a large vessel of 400 tons, the St. Thomé, only missed becoming a prize by reason of the fact that the Edward Bonaventure was too shorthanded to spare men to sail her. The same considerations did not prevent Lancaster from attacking a great galleon of 700 tons which a day or two later appeared on the scene, to his immense gratification. The Portuguese captain, after a show of resistance, hauled down his colours. When the ship was searched it was found to be laden with wine and a miscellaneous cargo of silks, velvets and haberdashery. It was a prize rich enough in the eyes of Lancaster to compensate for all the perils of the voyage. He now determined to retrace his course homewards. Early in December he arrived off Ceylon, and rounding the Cape in March, 1593, he dropped anchor at St. Helena in the first days of April. There he found a poor wretch named Segar, who had been put ashore in an apparently dying condition by the captain of the Merchant Royal, on the rather heartless assumption that the man's chances of life were greater on land than on board ship. For eighteen months the unfortunate fellow led a Crusoe-like existence on the island, seeing no human being. When he was found he was apparently in good bodily health, but long isolation from his fellow-men had so weakened his faculties that he was unable to bear the strain of association with his old messmates. Within a month of leaving St. Helena he died, a victim to excessive joy, if Barker's theory is correct.

The history of the Edward Bonaventure after leaving St. Helena was unfortunate. Lancaster, instead of proceeding home, went off to the West Indies in search, it would seem, of further adventures. His crew, who had had more than their fill of this roving life, mutinied, but were afterwards brought sufficiently into submission to enable Lancaster to go on a cruise off the Gulf of Mexico. In November, 1593, the Edward Bonaventure was driven ashore on one of the islands in that region, and was there abandoned. Lancaster and his principal lieutenant. Barker, took passage home in a French ship which, fortunately for them, was anchored at one of the islands in the vicinity of the wreck. Ultimately they landed at Rye on May 24, 1594, after an absence from their native country of more than three years.

To a great extent the voyage had been a disastrous one. Two of the largest vessels were lost, only a miserable remnant of the crews originally embarked on the fleet lived to return to England, and apart from a comparatively small sum which Lancaster obtained by trafficking in the West Indies with the despoiled cargo of the captured Portuguese galleon there was nothing to show for the considerable outlay on the venture. The only substantial asset was a fund of experience of Eastern navigation, which, however valuable from the larger standpoint of national commercial development was of small account in the calculations of merchants seeking a profitable new field for the utilization of their capital. Still, the spirit of enterprise in England at that period was such that men were found ready to employ Lancaster afresh in a speculative undertaking overseas. Only five months after he had returned from the Eastern voyage we find him once more on his native element, the commander of a new fleet of three vessels equipped for a perilous foray on the Portuguese possessions in South America. The aggregate tonnage of this little squadron did not reach 500, yet such was the spirit of the man and his fine contempt for the Portuguese that he made directly for the Brazilian port of Pemambuco, which was then one of the chief centres of Portuguese trade in the West and as such heavily fortified. By a display of cool daring and resourcefulness which was proof alike against the feeble defensive measures and the crooked diplomacy of the local Portuguese authorities he compelled the submission of Recife, the port of Pemambuco, extracted a heavy ransom in the shape of treasure and goods, and with heavily laden ships made for home, arriving at Blackwall in July, 1595. It was a purely piratical expedition which cannot be justified on any modern principle, but the Elizabethan age was not a fastidious one in these matters. In the then near past the country had suffered grievous wrongs at the hands of both Portugal and Spain. For long years the nation writhed under them with only occasional opportunities for reprisals. Now that the opening of the seas had given the opportunity of hitting back effectively neither the Government nor the common people was disposed to look too critically upon exploits which, besides paying off old scores, brought a refreshing stream of wealth in their train. So the indignant protests which in due course came from the peninsula were drowned in a chorus of popular acclamation amid which Lancaster retired for a period to the background to enjoy a well earned respite from active command.

Meanwhile, the old idea of commercial expansion in the East was quietly fermenting in the mind of the merchant class, which in the closing years of the sixteenth century had become perhaps more powerful than at any previous period in English history. The formation of the English Turkey Company in 1579 had opened up an avenue of independent trade with the near East, to the immense widening of the knowledge of the countries of Asia.

Constantinople was then one of the principal emporiums of the globe. Into its portals came caravans from all parts of Asia, bearing the products of the looms of Persia, India and China, and the spices of the remoter regions of the Eastern seas. The great world of the Orient, which had hitherto been known in Britain mainly through the refracted medium of Venetian, and Spanish and Portuguese eyes, now became more or less familiar by the direct narratives of Englishmen who had entered the East by its Mediterranean door.

As early as 1583 five Englishmen, Ralph Fitch, James Newberry, J. Eldred, W. Leedes, and J. Story, started out from Tripolis in Syria on a tour in Asia, which even to-day would be considered remarkable. From Tripolis they proceeded to Aleppo and thence by caravan to a town on the Euphrates. They travelled down the Euphrates to the head of the Persian Gulf, where Eldred left the party.

Fitch, with his three companions, afterwards went to Ormuz, where the Portuguese, who wanted no poachers on their preserves, promptly clapped the party in prison. Eventually they were shipped off to Goa to be dealt with by the Viceroy, whose seat of authority was at the Western India port. They continued in captivity until the end of the year when Story, having appealed to the local authorities in a tender place by turning monk, secured the release of the entire party. Two sureties had to be found for the good behaviour of the wanderers, and these were forthcoming in the persons of two Jesuits, one of whom, it is interesting to note, was Thomas Stevens, of New College, Oxford, who arrived in Goa by way of the Cape in 1579, and consequently was probably the first Englishman who ever visited India.

Newberry settled down in Goa, but Fitch and Leedes, finding the life of the Portuguese city irksome, contrived to escape into native territory. After various vicissitudes Leedes took service under the Great Mogul and disappears from history at the court of that monarch. Fitch continued his travels, visiting in turn Ceylon, Bengal, Pegu, Siam, Malacca and other parts of Malaya. He returned home overland in April, 1591, after an odyssey which had brought him into contact with many of the centres of Eastern life from the Mediterranean to the China Sea.

An account written by Fitch of his prolonged wanderings is to be found in the useful pages of Hakluyt. It is a matter-of-fact narrative in which the utilitarian rather than the romantic side of the tour is presented. As a merchant Fitch wrote for merchants, and he did not write in vain. His information about the trade of the many Asiatic lands that he had visited aroused an interest in commercial development in the East which penetrated to every class of Society.

Fitch himself must have been an interesting figure in the little world in which he moved in the years immediately following his return from his travels. It is quite conceivable that at some time or another he met Shakespeare on terms of friendly intimacy. London then was quite a small place, not much more extensive than the "one square mile" which constitutes the City of London as we know it to-day. At its wine shops over the cup of sack or Gascony the citizens of the time were wont to discuss the latest news which filtered in from abroad and to listen to the experiences of those who had first-hand knowledge of foreign lands. The great dramatist, ever on the look-out for local colour, would have quickly discovered Fitch and drawn upon his vast store of out of the way knowledge for those wonderful studies of human nature which still hold a unique place in the world's literature. There is, at all events, a direct suggestion that Shakespeare was well acquainted with Fitch's story in the passage in Act I, scene 3 of Macbeth, where a character is made to say "Her husband to Aleppo gone, master of the Tiger." It was the Tiger on which Fitch and his companions voyaged to the Eastern Mediterranean, and it was at Aleppo, as has already been stated, that they disembarked preparatory to commencing their Asiatic wanderings. The commercial significance of Fitch's travels, however, completely overshadows any literary interest that they may possess. His narrative lifted the veil on the mysterious East, if less dramatically than Drake and Cavendish's voyages had done, with far greater effect. The best markets were indicated, the profits to be made there were set forth with the precision of an expert, and, above all, the truth was emphasized that to the bold and strong there were great possibilities in the regions in which the Portuguese and the Spaniards and, as regards Persia and the nearer East, the Venetians had previously exercised a practical monopoly.

Lancaster's unfortunate voyage, which followed almost immediately upon Fitch's return, rather damped the ardour of the mercantile classes for Eastern adventures, more especially as an expedition sent out to China in 1596, under the command of Captain Benjamin Wood, also ended in disaster; but the setback was only temporary.

As time went by, interest was re-kindled by evidence which came to hand, notably from the English ambassador at the Spanish Court, of the splendid field which was ready for the occupation of English merchants in the countries of the Orient. A decisive turn was given to the arguments in favour of a further effort to tap the Eastern markets when the news reached England in 1597 of the remarkable success of the voyage made to the East by a fleet of Dutch ships under the command of Cornelius Houtman. This expedition, which laid the foundation of Dutch power in the Eastern Archipelago, carried a warning for England which was not to be disregarded. On all hands it was recognized that the time had come for English merchants to secure a share of the Eastern trade if they were not to be altogether supplanted by their energetic Dutch rivals. The closing years of the sixteenth century were a period of energetic preparation and eager anticipation in London mercantile circles. Out of this travail was born with the new century the historic East India Company, an institution which, beyond any other purely private organization, in the centuries following moulded the destinies of the British Empire.