Merchant Adventurers: The voyage of discovery that transformed Tudor England by James Evans - review by Giles Milton

Giles Milton

Route to Riches

Merchant Adventurers: The voyage of discovery that transformed Tudor England


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Early in the spring of 1554 a group of Russian fishermen chanced upon a wrecked vessel in the ice-littered White Sea in northwest Russia. There was no sign of life on board, no sound of human voices. The only noise to be heard was the ghostly moan of the Arctic gale. When the Russians clambered aboard and forced open the hatches they got the shock of their lives. The crew was still aboard the vessel, but frozen rigid into strange postures, hunched over tables and bent over the stoves. They broke open the cabin and found the captain, a tall, bearded individual, seated lifeless at his desk. He, too, was a solid block of flesh. Who were these men? Where did they come from? And how on earth did they die?

James Evans’s Merchant Adventurers is an entertaining and meticulously researched account of Sir Hugh Willoughby’s infamous expedition to China and Japan in 1553. It was a voyage that was both a catastrophic failure and an unexpected success. For while Willoughby and his crew met with an untimely death in the Arctic, the expedition’s number two, Richard Chancellor, found enduring fame.

Merchant Adventurers is much more than a reconstruction of one of the most fascinating voyages of the Tudor age. The author places the expedition in the wider context of global exploration, mercantile expansion and the establishment of the first joint-stock companies. Indeed he argues that the 1553 expedition anticipated the dawn of a new era, one that would see the formation of the East India Company and England’s fledgling empire.

The principal aim of Willoughby’s voyage was to discover a new route to the fabled East, whose gilded riches were already being exploited by the Catholic powers of southern Europe. London’s merchants stood in desperate need of a passage to the Indies that was not cluttered with Spanish and Portuguese galleons. Scholars, traders and voyagers (advised by such luminaries as Dr John Dee and Sebastian Cabot) hit upon a startling idea. Instead of steering a course through tropical waters, with its twin dangers of heat and Spaniards, why not head towards the north? According to the (woefully inadequate) maps, the northern route to China would be shorter and less dangerous than the traditional one across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

London’s merchants realised that such a potentially hazardous voyage exposed them to unacceptable financial risk. To reduce this risk, they formed themselves into what was effectively a joint-stock company. There was to be no individual trading, no personal gain. Everyone would receive a share of the profit in direct proportion to what they had put in. Nowadays, the joint-stock venture seems an obvious way to raise capital. But in Tudor times it was a revolutionary idea. Those canny merchants, decked in their lace ruffs and stove-pipe hats, were establishing a trading principle that was to endure and prosper.

So far, so good. But when the financiers came to choosing a commander, they settled upon a gentleman adventurer by the name of Sir Hugh Willoughby. It was a surprising choice. Willoughby had no experience of seamanship, navigation or cartography. His lack of expertise was to be compensated for by his deputy, Richard Chancellor, a man of learning and one who represented the new breed of skilled professional mariners.

So long as the three ships of the fleet stayed together, they had a reasonable chance of survival. But keeping a fleet together in the teeth of an Arctic storm is not, it would seem, particularly easy. It took just one tempest to scatter the ships: Sir Hugh and his men aboard the Bona Esperanza found themselves lost, adrift and eventually entrapped by ice.

Chancellor fared rather better. Abandoning hope of finding Willoughby, let alone China, he dropped anchor at Kholmogory and trudged off overland towards Moscow, arriving in the winter of 1553. And this is where the narrative takes an interesting turn. Chancellor’s encounter with the barbaric splendour of Ivan the Terrible’s imperial court makes for richly entertaining reading.

There were many ways it could have gone wrong, not least owing to the difficulties of communication, yet Chancellor handled himself with aplomb. Evans is particularly good at plucking colourful vignettes from the original texts. There’s the memorable moment when Ivan runs his fingers longingly through George Killingworth’s five-foot beard. And there are also the numerous all-night drinking binges – so many, indeed, that Chancellor concluded that all Russians were ‘toss-pots’, an expression best read in its Tudor context.

Chancellor’s voyage was to open regular intercourse between Moscow and London. More voyages followed and modest profits were made. But more important than the import of beeswax and sables was the realisation that the concept of a joint-stock company was a rather brilliant one. Before long the East India Company was born – and, with it, global trade and empire.

And what of Sir Hugh Willoughby and his men, freezing to death on the Bona Esperanza? When researching his voyage for my book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, I often wondered how the men ended up in their oddly lifelike poses.

James Evans offers an intriguing hypothesis. The men were probably keeping warm by burning sea coal, which releases large quantities of carbon monoxide. In an unventilated space and with the hatches battened, the entire crew must have drifted into death without even knowing.

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