Review: Merchant Adventurers by James Evans

merchantsThis review appears in the current December/January issue of  Management Today.

The recent media coverage of the discovery of Sir John Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus, on the sea floor in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, is a reminder of the public’s abiding fascination with the Age of Exploration and of its huge cost, in terms of both blood and treasure. Neither the Erebus, nor HMS Terror, the other ship under Franklin’s command had been seen since 1845. A search party found three graves in 1850. The other 126 bodies have never been found.

With this in mind, James Evans’ new book Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage of Discovery that Transformed Tudor England seems particularly timely.

Franklin and his men were among the last to perish in the centuries-long quest for a North-West Passage over the top of the Americas to the rich markets of the east, and in particular to China, or Cathay as it used to known. While many books have been written about that quest, Evans has, quite literally, gone in another direction.

At the heart of his book is a 1553 voyage, seeking to find a North-Eastern route to China over the top of Scandinavia and Russia. It is one of the great untold tales of English exploration. Three ships sailed out of London on May 10th that year under the command of Sir Hugh Willoughby a soldier of great character but unremarkable achievements – and precious little knowledge of the sea. More vital to the expedition’s success was its pilot – and also captain of the largest ship – a young man fully versed in the nascent science of navigation named Richard Chancellor.

A year later just one ship returned. It was Chancellor’s. The three ships had become separated by a storm the previous July; no-one yet knew the fate of the others. Chancellor, however, had travelled inland to the court of Ivan the Terrible, initiating the first contact between England and Russia. It was, says Evans, in some respects a model for how England – and the future East India Company – would create an empire.

As for Willoughby, he and his men would die trying to see the winter out. Their bodies were discovered perfectly preserved on board their ships by Russian fishermen the following year. It is often said they froze to death, although Evans persuasively argues that they may have been died from carbon-monoxide poisoning as a result of burning sea-coal and closing all the vents to preserve the heat.

Where Evans’ triumphs is in the breadth of his interest: the story of the 1553 voyage is superbly told, drawing on Willoughby’s surviving logbook and accounts given by Chancellor and his men on his return. But, unusually for a maritime historian, Evans also has much to say on the less viscerally exciting material – the formation, structure and financing of the Muscovy company and, more generally, on the economic climate that made it an attractive investment. It is hard to say which he excels in most.

The Muscovy Company was the first joint-stock company in England. As such, Evans argues, its importance is hard to overstate. On previous international trading ventures, merchants might have come together to fund a voyage, their mutual interest was strictly limited to the period of the journey, and any goods their individual factors bought and sold were always held separately.

But the incorporation of the Muscovy company allowed no individual trading. All stock was held in common. Investors were asked to buy shares not just in the voyage, but in the ongoing trade that the voyage was intended to spawn. The company would exist in perpetuity.

It was certainly an innovative and influential model for England, although as Evans notes it seems to have been based on existing business practices in Italy and was likely introduced to the Company by one of its prime movers, the Bristol-born Venetian explorer Sebastian Cabot. It was also immediately successful: the company quickly found 240 investors at £25 a share.

Evans all this brings to vivid life: not merely the courage and peril of the men who risked and often sacrificed their lives at sea, but also the foment of political, economic and intellectual life. Importantly, he captures the sense of these great endeavours not merely as enterprises but first and foremost as ideas, as projects that grew of the new-born sciences of cartography and navigation, out of the daily reality of world’s map being redrawn, and of the need for men of commerce to adapt their own practices to these bewildering, exciting developments.

In that sense, the subtext of the book might be seen as the battle between traditional thought – the supposed givens of trade and travel – and newer empirical approaches. In their different ways all these men are battling to find a way forward at what Elizabeth I called the unknown limits of the world.

History Today column: Lost in translation

We are all familiar with the opening life of LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Like all elegantly expressed truths it quickly became a cliché. And, as such, like all clichés, it obscures as much as it reveals. It is difficult not to look on the alienness of the past as indiscriminately and equally estranged from us; just as the ancient Greeks were indifferent to the infinite distinctions among those they labeled barbaros, ‘barbarians’ – which in essence means ‘those who cannot speak Greek’ – so the past can begin to seem homogeneously foreign, lost in translation. Indeed, perhaps our search for continuities is in itself a tacit acknowledgement of the voids and spaces we try so hard to ignore as we peer behind us to the vanishing horizon.

But it is easy to forget that, for all but a handful of our ancestors, most of their world was no less foreign to them than it is to us, a place of wonder, discomfort and fear where misapprehensions could quickly proliferate like flies in the heat. This, at any rate, was the thought that occurred to me as I flicked through an example of one of the least explored literary genres of the early-modern and medieval world, the pilgrims’ travel guide.
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North, a film by Temujin Doran

Film-maker Temujin Doran contacted me in the summer of 2010 with the intention of making a film based on The Balloonist’s Tale in my book Impossible Journeys, which recounted the failed 1897 attempt by Salomon August Andrée to reach the North Pole by hot air balloon.

In the end, Doran decided to make a different film after his stay on Svalbard, and wonderful it is too: a fascinating and beautiful short documentary about the history and landscape of Svalbard and its role in the 20th century. Beyond the location, it has nothing to do with Andrée or Impossible Journeys, but for my part, I find it quietly moving.

Sir Walter Ralegh’s final voyage to El Dorado

Sir Walter Ralegh's map of El Dorado

Despite the great and humiliating failure of his 1595 voyage of exploration and conquest to El Dorado, the legendary golden city at the head of the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela, Ralegh never abandoned his faith in his vision. He may, perhaps, have privately doubted the existence of the golden city; he never seems to have doubted the gold. It represented everything he needed and wanted: renewed wealth and power, royal favour, a chance to bloody the nose of imperial Spain.

Indeed, just four months after Ralegh returned from Guiana, as that part of South America was then known, he sent his redoubtable, brilliant loyal lieutenant, Lawrence Keymis, back there. Keymis’ brief was to open a mine at a site called Caroni, where Ralegh had scrabbled with his men for gold in the dirt.

Keymis, however, brought back bad news. The Spanish had built a town named San Thomé upriver, blocking access to the headwaters. And even if men could be got past San Thomé, Keymis reported, the Spanish had stationed men at Caroni too.

Nevertheless, Ralegh continued to finance expeditions to the region. Indeed, he regarded it as territory which he had claimed for England – and in which it was the Spanish who were now interlopers. The Spanish, naturally, demurred from this position. Which would have mattered rather less if James I, on his accession in 1603, hadn’t shifted English foreign policy towards an accord with Spain.

If Ralegh had entertained hopes that his fortunes would revive their former glory under the new monarch, he was quickly, and brutally, disabused. By the end of 1603 he had been convicted of plotting James’ overthrow – ironically in collusion with the Spanish – and was lucky to escape execution. He spent the next 12 years in the Tower of London.

He was released on 19 March 1616, with James I’s approval, to lead an expedition to the region, known as Manoa, and locate the fabled gold. His conviction – and the attendant death penalty – still hung over his head, however. This was, to say the least, one last bold throw of the dice for Ralegh. More so, because the terms under which he sailed were impossible to comply with. James wanted Ralegh to avoid any conflict with the Spanish. Yet he was to sail with 1,000 men into territory which Spain had both claimed and garrisoned. The Spanish, not unreasonably, regarded this as something close to a declaration of war.
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Sir Walter Ralegh writing to his wife on the death of their son

Sir Walter Ralegh and his son, Wat, in happier times c.1602

I have blogged here about Ralegh’s disastrous return to El Dorado in 1617-18. Aside from the failure to find gold – a failure that Ralegh must have known might at best find him returned to the Tower of London when he returned home, and at worst cost him his head – he lost his young son there. Ralegh heard the news on 13 February 1618, but he couldn’t find the strength to write to his wife Bess for over a month. This is from the letter he eventually wrote, on 22 March:

I was loath to write because I knew not how to comfort you; and God knows, I never knew what sorrow meant till now. All that I can say to you is, that you must obey the will and providence of God; and remember, that the Queen’s majesty bore the loss of Prince Henry with a magnanimous heart, and the Lady Harrington of her only son.

Comfort your heart, dearest Bess, I shall sorrow for us both. I shall sorrow the less, because I have not long to sorrow, because not long to live… My brains are broken and ’tis a torment to me to write, and especially of misery… The Lord bless and comfort you, that you may bear patiently the death of your valiant son.

And from the postscript:

I protest before the majesty of God, that as Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins died heartbroken when they failed of their enterprise, I could willingly do the like, did I not contend against sorrow for your sake, in hope to provide somewhat for you; and to comfort and relieve you. If I live to return, resolve yourself that it is the care for you that hath strengthened my heart

The unstable sea and its secret sources: an 11th-century voyage of discovery

A few years ago I wrote a book called Impossible Journeys, which was a collection of travellers tales about journeys to places which do not exist. Some of those places are relatively well known; indeed El Dorado has passed into the language as the very definition of a chimeric destination. Others, such as Norumbega and Saguenay in the newly discovered Americas, or the Atlantic island of Buss, have been forgotten.

The idea came to me as I took my son on his umpteenth visit to the dinosaur rooms at the Natural History Museum. Wandering among the remains of these evolutionary cul de sacs, I idly began to wonder about other kinds of scientific dead ends, and started trying to conceive of what a map of the world would look like if it were wiped clean, with all the known points erased and replaced with the many speculative locations from the beginnings of cartography. It sounded like an interesting world to explore. I even coined a term for the exercise: counter-factual geography. (It has yet to catch on.)

Adam of Bremen

It’s a subject that continues to fascinate me, and one that I continue to research. One of the the things that makes it such a compelling subject is the courage and character of those people who were willing to travel into the blank spaces on the map, to risk their lives on hearsay and rumour. I came across this passage the other day, from the 11th-century writer Adam of Bremen. I think it captures very well the perilous idea of travel into what he calls ‘the misty darkness’ of uncharted seas. But more than that, it makes me wonder again about the risk-friendly worldview of men who might have read such an account, and think the dangers worthwhile. Was it really all about the money?
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