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.