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Book Review: James Evans’ “Merchant Adventurers”

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Merchant Adventurersby Steve Eastman, WaitTilYouHearThis

There was a voyage taken back in 1553 that shook England out of its medieval mind-set and prepared the way for her to pursue what she considered her divine destiny.  BBC producer James Evans tells us this forgotten story in his book Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage that Launched Modern England.  He speaks to us today from London.


Steve:  James,  it was a little over 100 years since a Chinese fleet had sailed around the world.  Span and Portugal had started to accumulate great wealth by traveling both East and West. How prepared was England to enter the competition for world trade?

James EvansJames:  Not very! Most English people tend to assume now that because we were always an island we had always been sailors — always ‘ruled the waves’ so to speak. But it simply isn’t true. England was rather a backward place.

It was towards the end of the 16th century that Richard Hakluyt, an English historian, gathered together records of England’s maritime triumphs and disasters, and he was shocked by what he called our former ‘gross ignorance’ in matters of the sea. Most merchants in England were foreigners: ‘stranger merchants’ as they were called. English captains were largely illiterate and stuck-in-the-mud, not likely at all to look for new trading routes over the oceans.


Steve:  In your blog you mention how the dying King Edward VI gave his blessing to the voyage to discover a Northeast passage from England to China. Tell us a little about his vision for trade and commerce.

James:  Well he was only a boy, dying from tuberculosis as he was. He loved ships, guns, and daring voyages. So when the three ships involved in the great venture of 1553 rowed in procession past Greenwich Palace where he lay, it was a crying shame that he, almost alone, was not able to see them — because he was too ill to leave his bed.

No doubt the chief organizer of the expedition, a man called Sebastian Cabot, actually wrote much of the letter signed by Edward, but it obviously did reflect what the young king believed: and it was a hymn to the virtues of trade as God’s way of bringing all people, ‘all over the world’, together.

There was a reason, he argued, that all the commodities men needed, or wanted, did not naturally occur in one place, because this forced men to travel, and so to learn about the world and about each other. It was a very positive picture and is worth remembering for all that the Empire which gradually ensued had examples too of much less exemplary behaviour.


Steve:  Three ships departed on this voyage, one of which had a new kind of navigator – Captain Richard Chancellor. What made his qualifications so unique?

James:  I think that there is no question Richard Chancellor should be much more famous than he is. He was (is) the hero of my story and it is very hard to imagine the stirring stories of maritime adventure which ensued in the Elizabethan period without him.

Here, for the first time, was someone who was very practically experienced at sailing ships, who was very educated, very interested in mathematics and astronomy (the sciences which one needed to understand in order to navigate using heavenly bodies like the sun and the stars), and who also built his own instruments with which to measure his ship’s position on the earth’s surface.

Great men of the time, like John Dee, the famous Tudor mathematician and scientist, remembered Chancellor in the most glowing terms imaginable — as ‘incomparable’ and so forth. Many in England knew how important he had been and it would be a gross injustice were he not remembered in the same breath as Sir Francis Drake and others.


Steve:  You give a very telling statement from one of the captains. It went something like this — “The land did not lay as the globe made mention.”  Can you expand on that a little bit?

James:  That’s right. It is a line uttered in frustration in Sir Hugh Willoughby’s ship’s log, which was found by Russian fishermen the following spring. And the land didn’t, of course, lie at all as the globe made mention. For someone like me dependent on google maps and GPS technology it is difficult to imagine a world in which maps were simply not to be relied upon.

Remember: the maps which Europeans had made thus far of northern Scandinavia and Asia were hopelessly inaccurate. Some, indeed, did not bother plotting these northern parts at all, but just left them blank. Europeans had travelled a lot around Europe. They had been a fair amount to Africa and to the eastern seaboard of America. But they had no idea at all what the northern coast of Asia looked like.

So while some hoped that there was a passage this way to the riches of eastern Asia, no one really knew.


Steve:  How did the voyage end?

James:  Well, how it went depended a great deal on which ship you happened to be sailing on. The three ships tried to sail together, but a great storm off the Norwegian coast caused them to separate.

While Richard Chancellor’s ship (and it wasn’t a coincidence) succeeded in following the coast around and into the White Sea, where they met local Russians and were taken overland on sledges to the Moscow of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, the two other ships, led by Sir Hugh Willoughby, became hopelessly lost.

They flailed around the Arctic Ocean and ended up, as the year advanced, battening the hatches against the cold and trying to see out the winter. Tragically they never saw the spring. For a long time it was assumed that the men had all frozen to death, though I have my doubts about that, as I explain in the book.


Steve:  It’s been called “a voyage of triumph and disaster.”  It was disaster in part because there was no Northeast Passage at the time, but changes in climate seem to promise a practical route in the future. What about the triumph?  What were the lasting benefits for England?

James:  It certainly was both. Disaster, of course, if you sailed with Willoughby. No one on his ship lived to tell the tale. But a triumph too, because Richard Chancellor and his men returned to England the following year.

They had negotiated with Ivan the Terrible and his merchants, and the leaders in England set up a company – the ‘Muscovy’ or ‘Russia’ company as it soon became popularly known – to trade with Russia along this new northern route.

It didn’t make vast wealth. Russia didn’t have the piles of silks, jewels and spices about which English merchants had dreamed. But those involved in it learned the value of regular trade in useful, low-cost articles which could undercut the market price in England: oils, rope, tallow, skins and so on. It was a vital lesson, and much better for England in the long run than the discovery of vast and easy wealth like the silver and gold plundered by the Spanish.

Crucially, also, it was the first company in England set up on what was known as a ‘joint stock’ basis. Its investors in other words were merchants but they were also important men at court and even quite ordinary people, who were not involved in the day-to-day running of the business in any way.

This was a fundamentally new way of managing risk (and there was plenty of risk involved in a large scale exploratory venture like this). No one put up lots of the money. It was ‘crowd-sourced’, if you like. This was a brilliant and influential idea, no less so because with hindsight it seems rather obvious. Companies have worked this way ever since. And it began here, in 1553!


Steve:  Thanks for talking with us James.

James:  A pleasure!


James Evans is the author of Merchant Adventurers:  The Voyage that Launched Modern England (Phoenix £9.99).

If you live near London, be sure to check out the related exhibition at the British Library about the many brilliant but flawed attempts made by England over a 200 year period to discover new sea routes to trade with the rest of the world.

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