Thursday 20 August 2015

North-East Passage - by Ann Swinfen

In the early summer of 1553 three ships – the Edward Bonaventure, the Bona Confidentia and the Bona Esperanza – set sail from London on a voyage into the unknown. As they sailed past Greenwich Palace, the young king Edward VI, an enthusiastic supporter of the venture, lay dying, too ill even to look out of the window and see them pass. Of the three ships, only one would return.

The voyage had been several years in the planning, and its purpose was kept secret. Chief instigator was Sebastian Cabot, now an old man, who, at the age of fourteen in 1497 had returned with his father John Cabot from an expedition to the Americas. Like Columbus five years earlier, Cabot senior had hoped to reach the fabled lands of the Indies. Instead he planted the English flag on the rather bleaker terrain of Newfoundland.

The Cabots were an Italian family and, although raised in Bristol, Sebastian spent much of his adult life outside England, which did not offer him the opportunities for exploration which he craved. His exceptional talents were recognised in Spain, however, where he was for many years Pilot Major, in overall charge of all Spain’s maritime expeditions.

In 1494, under the aegis of  the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, the Treaty of Tordesillas had arbitrarily divided the newly discovered areas of the globe into two sections, one to be ruled by Spain, the other by Portugal. England never entered the equation. However, stirrings of the same excitement about world exploration had begun in England as in the Iberian peninsula. This was well before the days of the piratical Drake, but it did not require a genius to see how well Spain in particular was doing out of the gold and silver it was looting from South America.
Sebastian Cabot
As early as 1538, Cabot was making approaches to England for a return from Spain, but was not encouraged under Henry VIII’s regime. After Henry’s death in 1547, however, circumstances changed. The boy King Edward and his advisors were keen to develop English exploration and later that year Cabot was in England, allegedly on a brief leave of absence from his service to the Spanish king. He never went back.

Although Cabot had served a monarch whose interest was in conquest and exploitation of newly discovered lands, Cabot’s own views were quite different. He wanted to establish peaceful trading links with other countries, with respect for their culture and religion – a novel attitude for the time. Moreover, knowing that Spain and Portugal had an iron grip on southern routes to the fabled rich lands of the far east, he realised that English expeditions via these southern routes would risk attacks from the Iberian nations.

England lay in the north. Why not attempt to find a route to the north-east, the north-west, or even over the North Pole itself, as by far the shortest route to faraway Cathay?

It was a daring – some said insane – concept.
An optimistic view!
But Cabot and his fellow enthusiasts were not deterred. Many of his supporters were merchants, and they had good cause to be interested in new trade routes. Henry VIII had destroyed England’s economy by a series of pointless and disastrous wars in France. Having spent the loot he had seized from the monasteries, he had debased the coinage to pay for his misguided exploits. The new government had to rescue the economy and started by restoring the value of English currency. Worryingly, almost the whole of the country’s overseas exports depended on a single commodity, woollen cloth. The trade had flourished throughout the European continent, as the quality of English woollen cloth was second to none, but the restoration of the currency made it suddenly much more expensive and exports crashed. The merchants were desperate for new markets and the far east seemed promising.

To send an expedition over the top of the world where no one had ever ventured before was very risky and expensive, far too expensive for a single merchant or even the Crown to undertake. Cabot and his colleagues came up with a novel idea. They would set up a company – a “mystery” as they called it – to which many would contribute capital. This company would employ its own staff who would trade on behalf of the company, not individual merchants. Those who had invested would take a share of the profits in proportion to their investment. And so the first joint stock company was born, financed by stockholders.

There was some debate as to whether the expedition should travel east or west, but on the advice of the best geographers and cosmographers of the time (including a young John Dee), it was decided that a north-east route around the top of Europe and down into the China seas offered the most promising prospect.

At the time it was customary to allocate the senior position in major undertakings to a gentleman, since it was felt that such a person would possess the requisite authority and qualities of leadership. The man chosen as Captain General was Sir Hugh Willoughby, a courageous and successful military leader, but a man with no maritime experience whatsoever. Each ship had an experienced captain. However, the “experience” of English captains at the time was not extensive. They were accustomed to sailing the main routes to Continental Europe and to the Mediterranean. A few had ventured along the west African coast, despite harassment from other nations, but few had sailed far out of sight of land.
Sir Hugh Willoughby
Second in importance to Willoughby, as Pilot Major of the voyage, was a young man called Richard Chancellor, one of the new breed of intelligent men who studied geography and cosmography (including celestial navigation). He had been trained by Cabot and probably had a much clearer idea of what the expedition entailed than Willoughby. He would have known how ignorant Europeans were about this area of the globe and how severe the weather would become if the ships did not either break through to the warmer waters around Cathay or return to England.

The largest ship was the Edward Bonaventure. On this Chancellor sailed, with Stephen Borough as captain, at twenty-seven already an experienced seaman. The middle ship, the Esperanza, was regarded as the flagship, as it carried Willoughby, and was captained by William Gefferson, while the smallest ship, the Confidentia, was commanded by Cornelius Durforth. Gefferson and Durforth were experienced, but only within the contemporary parameters of experience.
Tower of London 1554
Heavily loaded with cargo which the sponsors considered suitable for trade and for gifts to monarchs in the unknown lands which lay ahead, the three ships set sail from the shipyards at Ratcliffe, just downstream from the Tower, on 10 May, 1553. They made their way in a somewhat leisurely fashion down the Thames estuary and out into the North Sea. The plan was to sail across to the coast of Norway, then follow it north until it veered east. Thereafter, they would be sailing into unknown territory. Unfortunately, bad weather drove the ships back to the east coast of England. The first three weeks of June were lost, frustratingly, confined to English ports.

Not until 23 June was the expedition able to sail forth at last into the North Sea. Worryingly it was already past the summer solstice. They were full of confidence, however, and Chancellor, who was extremely skilled in the use of the latest navigational instruments, recorded their position meticulously. When they reached the rugged and unfamiliar coast of Norway, Chancellor even landed when they were about halfway up the Norwegian coast and took further measurements. For the moment all seemed to be going well.

Amongst the scattered islands further north they were again delayed by unfavourable winds. It was the end of July by the time they neared the top of Norway’s west coast and Willoughby called a conference of the expedition’s leaders. Once they rounded Finnmark, the northernmost portion of Norway which wraps around northern Sweden and Finland, they would enter uncharted waters. There was, however, one safe port here, Vardøhus (Wardhouse to the English). Cabot had instructed the small fleet to stay together, but if anything should happen to separate them, it was agreed now that they would make for Wardhouse and wait till all were reunited.
Vardøhus today
It was a wise plan, for once they rounded the North Cape, a terrible storm blew up, accompanied by thick mist. Chancellor and Borrough immediately reduced the canvas on the Edward, but to their horror they watched the other two ships racing away from them under full sail. They never saw them again.

Once the storm had eased, the Edward made for Wardhouse and waited for the Esperanza and the Confidentia. When Chancellor felt he could wait no longer, he set sail once more along the unfamiliar coast, heading east. It was now into August as the sole remaining ship sailed along a barren and unpopulated coast until it reached a wide opening into a huge gulf – the area now known as the White Sea. To their immense relief, the Englishmen found human habitation at last, as they dropped anchor near the Orthodox monastery of St Nicholas, close to where Arkhangelsk was later founded. To their astonishment, they learned that this was Russia, ruled by Tsar Ivan IV, or Ivan the Terrible as he has come to be known.

The Englishmen knew there was a backward and barbarous country called Russia or Muscovy, somewhere vaguely to the east of Poland in Continental Europe. They had no idea that it reached so far north. Indeed the young and warlike Tsar had been busy defeating his neighbours and extending his territory ever since he had come to the throne. Chancellor carried a warm and friendly letter from young King Edward to any ruler who might be met with, and he was anxious to travel to Moscow to meet and treat with this ruler. However, although the local people received the travellers kindly, they were clearly terrified of Ivan. The Englishmen could not travel through the country until Ivan granted his permission.

As the waiting extended into weeks, the Edward was sealed in by the ice, the river Dvina which led into the interior froze solid, and the winter snows of Muscovy covered the land. At last a small party led by Chancellor was able to set out, and discovered that travel in these northern lands was much easier in winter. Bundled in furs they skimmed across an ice-bound land in horse-drawn sleighs.
Ivan the Terrible
In Moscow they were well received by Ivan, who had his own reasons for welcoming an alliance with England, and before long he agreed to grant free-trading rights to the merchants of the new company, although the formalities would not be completed until the second expedition. Far from being a primitive country, despite the violent and tyrannical rule of its Tsar, Muscovy was rich (at least in the palace) in gold and silver dishes, rich clothing and tapestries, abundant food and drink. (Rather too much drink.) The Russians also considered themselves to be the true Christians, heirs not only of St Peter’s Rome but of Constantinople, now fallen to Islam. The Catholic church was a mere upstart, and the strange Protestant sects quite beyond the pale.

When Chancellor and his small party returned north to the White Sea they were relieved to find that the Edward had not suffered from its icy winter. As soon as the sea was clear, they set out for home, an eventful voyage, including a skirmish with pirates.

They were to discover an England profoundly changed since they left. King Edward was dead. The brief attempt to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne (in accordance with Edward’s wishes) had ended in mass executions, including that of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, a major patron of the expedition. Queen Mary was on the throne, busily turning England back into a Catholic country and executing as heretics any who opposed her.
Mary Tudor
But what of the two missing ships? During the spring of 1554, as the Edward sailed home, a group of Russian fishermen discovered the ships anchored in the mouth of the river Varzina. All those on board were dead, yet curiously they seemed to be reading or engaged in games of dice or cards. Willoughby was slumped at his desk in front of his papers, including his log of the voyage. This log revealed that the two ships had sailed before the storm away to the north-east, probably as far as Novaya Zemlya. When they realised they had far overshot Wardhouse, they turned back, following a zigzag course westwards, some distance off the north coast of Russia, by-passing the White Sea, where the Edward lay at anchor. When they discovered the Varzina estuary, they took refuge there from the increasingly bad weather, planning to overwinter in its sheltered waters.

The area appeared bleak and uninhabited, but according to the log Willoughby sent out three scouting parties to attempt to contact any human habitations. They found no one. The mystery was: How had they died? For a long time it was assumed they had died of cold or starvation, but that coastal area is not as cold as many parts of Russia. Besides, they had plenty of warm clothing. There were still plentiful supplies of food on board. Recently, another theory has been put forward, which seems convincing. The bare tundra supports no trees, so once the men exhausted their supplies of firewood, they would need to look elsewhere. The beaches in the area provide ample amounts of sea coal washed up from coastal seams, a fuel familiar by now in England. On board the ships every hatch and door was kept tightly closed against the cold. If the men burned sea coal on their stoves to keep warm, it is likely they died of the insidious effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.

However, the fate of the two ships remained for the moment unknown as the Edward reached an England so very different from the one they had left the year before. Was this first attempt to sail eastwards around the top of the globe successful, or would the whole enterprise be abandoned?

They had failed to find the north-east passage.
Seal of the Muscovy Company
What they had succeeded in doing was to lay the foundations of a trading agreement for the first joint stock company, the Muscovy Company, which would survive until 1917 and which provided the structure for the many trading companies which followed, including the most famous, the East India Company. They also laid the groundwork for all future joint stock companies, whatever their business, and for the British Empire, which was to stretch across the globe, following in the wake of its merchant adventurers.

More voyages of the Muscovy Company were soon to follow, marked by both success and disaster, including one remarkable journey 500 miles east of the White Sea.

But that is another story.

Ann Swinfen

1 comment:

Spade and Dagger said...

Interesting - I'm eager now for the next installment of exploration.