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England in the Age of Discovery

England, which emerged from this first period of European expansion as the leading colonial and commercial state of the modern world, was but a small and weak country after its loss of the Continental territory until the time of Elizabeth. Her rising sea-power was based upon the naval training afforded her sailors by buccaneering expeditions against the Spaniards and was proved by the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The Dutch were vanquished in the middle of the 17th century and the duel of a hundred years with France for colonial supremacy began.

When Columbus became discouraged over his repeated failures to enlist the interest of the Spanish and Portuguese rulers, he sent his brother Bartholomew to seek the aid of Henry VII of England. Bartholomew, for several reasons, was slow in making his application to the British monarch, who responded at once, however, on being approached on the subject. He sent Bartholomew to Spain to bring his brother to England, but on the way thither Barthomew learned of the wonderful discovery made by Christopher, and of his return to the country of Ferdinand and Isabella. King Henry was deeply disappointed, for the grandest of all opportunities had slipped irrevocably from his grasp, but he quickly saw that if he could not be the first at the feast, he might share with others in the distribution of the good things to follow.

When John Cabot, a famous Italian navigator living at Bristol in 1496, asked permission for himself and his sons to explore the New World, it was readily granted, and Cabot, accompanied by his son, Sebastian, sailed from England in the following year, and saw the continent of America, in June 1497. Sebastian Cabot was a greater navigator than his father. King Henry fitted out two small vessels for him in 1498, and in May he sailed for the northern coast of America. The particulars of this remarkable voyage are not known, but there is little doubt that the younger Cabot coasted along New England, and New York. He, like those who preceded him and many that followed, was bitten with the chimerical notion of discovering a short route to India, which of course, he failed to find. He discovered Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador, and did not fail to note the immense number of codfish which then, as now, frequented those northern waters. Finding his provisions running short when off the Carolinas, Cabot returned to England.

In 1497 John Cabot said that the land he had visited and explored was the country of the Great Khan; but in explaining the project to Soncino in December of that year he expressed the belief that Cathay was on the other side of the newly discovered land. Cabot's failure to discover the elusive northwestern passage, or to bring back any gold, was a disappointment to the British monarch, and, for a long time, England took no further interest in the New World. England was tardy in moving, and allowed a hundred years to roll by after the discoveries of the Cabots before she made any serious attempt at exploration or settlement.

Henry Hudson was born about the middle of the sixteenth century. He made four voyages, two of which were to America. He was sent out on his first voyage in 1607 by a company of English merchants to search for a passage to India. Sailing to the coast of Greenland, in the hope that he could pass westward around the north end of America through the Arctic sea, he was turned back by the ice. He then tried to find an eastward passage to India, through the icy seas north of Europe. Again he failed, and he returned to England. In 1608 he tried again, and this time sailed as far north as Nova Zembla, but was again checked by the ice. Hudson left England, in her service, on his last voyage, in 1610. He sailed to the northwest and discovered Hudson Bay. He planned to spend the winter there, but his men would not obey him. He, with his son, and seven of his crew, were set adrift in a small boat, and the rest of the crew sailed for England. The English, learning of this cruel act from one of the men who came back, sent a vessel to search for the missing men. No trace of them was ever found.

It is not to be supposed that so enterprising a people as the English should have remained inactive spectators of the attempts of the Dutch to obtain a share in the commerce of the East. On the contrary, they were the very first people in Europe who had resolved to follow the Portuguese thither. So early as the reign of Henry VIII, on the representations of Robert Thorne, a merchant settled at Seville, of the advantages to be derived from the trade to the East, it was resolved to make an attempt to share in it. Owing to the respect then entertained fur the papal bulls, and to the rights supposed to be conferred by discovery, Thorne advised to try the north-west passage ; and accordingly two voyages were undertaken in that direction, of course without success, in the reign of Henrv. The first of these was as early as the year 1527.

In the reign of Edward VI a squadron, under Sir Hugh Willoughby, was sent out to try to discover a north-east passage. But it met with nothing but disasters. Willoughby's ship being driven on the coast of Lapland, he and his crew perished by the climate. Chancellor, the second in command, was more fortunate ; for he reached the port of Archangel in Russia, and he became the means of opening a trade with that country to the English merchants. Some further attempts were made to discover a north-east passage; and, on their proving failures, the north-west course was again resumed. Six efforts were made in the course of a few years, three of the expeditions being commanded by Martin Frobisher, and the others by John Davis, who gave his name to the strait which he discovered.

There being now little hope of making a way to India by the north, the English resolved no longer to respect the pretensions of the Portuguese, but to go thither by the Cape of Good Hope. Already (1577) Sir Francis Drake had circumnavigated the globe, and when in the Eastern ocean, he hod visited the isles of Ternate and Tidore and other of the Spice Islands, and also Java, in all of which he had met with the most friendly reception from the natives and the greatest encouragement to trade. Drake's success inflamed the spirit of adventure then so strong; and in 1586, Thomas Cavendish, a gentleman of a good family and estate in Suffolk, fitted out a squadron of three ships at his own expense, in order to perform a voyage similar to that of Drake, and to collect all the information requisite for a trade to the East. Like Drake, he passed through the Straits of Magellan,' and committed devastation on the coast of Spanish America. He visited the Philippine and Ladrone Islands, then the Moluccas, and finally Java; and he every where found the Spanish and Portuguese detested, and the people willing to trade with the English. The capture of some of the Portuguese Indiamen about this time, and the information obtained from the papers found on board of them, and a narrative published by one Stevens who had sailed with the Portuguese to India, made the English nation more fully aware of the value of the Indian trade and more anxious to share in it.

The boldness and success of the Dutch excited the emulation of the English merchants. In 1599, a company was formed, with a committee of fifteen to manage its affairs. The adventurers, as the shareholders were named, applied to the queen for a warrant, engaging to abstain from all places possessed by Spain or Portugal. But the court, afraid of embroiling itself with Spain, hesitated, and the charter was not obtained till the following year. The court proposed that the chief command should be given to Sir Edward Michelbourne ; the committee replied, that they were resolved not to employ any gentleman in any place of charge, as the very suspicion of such a thing would drive away a great number of the adventurers. The court gave way, and the chief command was given to Captain Lancaster.

One of the principal sources of wealth for English seamen was freebooting—or piracy, it might better be called. Noblemen like Lord Cobham did not deem it beneath them to equip vessels to rob impartially on the high seas those of all other nations. Elizabeth issued, for form's sake, many decrees against the practice, but never made any serious endeavor to repress it. She thought her subjects needed the wealth, experience, and naval training it gave them. Nay, more than once she shared in the cost of equipping freebooting vessels, and, needless to say, claimed her proportionate share of the profits.

Most of the early voyages were piratic as much as commercial, ships when met were plundered, or the goods were taken out of them at the captors' price, and merchants were forced to buy what they did not want, and pay what the sellers demanded. Each voyage was a separate adventure, and those engaged in it managed it as they pleased, and on their own account, subject to the control of the company. In January, 1613, the English obtained their first settlement on the continent of India, and what human wisdom could ever have foreseen the consequences.

About 100 years after the discovery of America the settlement of the eastern coast of North America began, which formed the foundation of the United States. First the London commercial company sent colonists to Virginia who founded Jamestown (1607). The colony was divided into several counties, and the people were allowed to elect two representatives from each county to a colonial assembly (1619 AD) In the same year the first representative assembly ever convened in America was held at Jamestown. The company further granted the Virginians a written constitution (1621). This secured them the privilege of electing their legislature, of trial by jury and other important rights, and was the foundation of civil liberty in Virginia. At this time (1620) the first African slaves were bought by the planters. Later their numbers greatly increased.

  • The early chartered companies (A.D. 1296-1858)
  • 1588 - Africa Company
  • 1585 - Barbary Company
  • 1612 - Bermuda Company
  • 1665 - Canary Company
  • 1635 - Cathay Company
  • 1600 - East India Company
  • 1579 - Eastland Company
  • 1581 - Levant Company
  • 1505 - Merchant Adventurers
  • 1556 - Muscovy Company
  • 1606 - Plymouth Company
  • 1606 - Virginia Company

  • 1885 - East Africa Company
  • 1886 - Niger Company
  • 1881 - North Borneo Company
  • 1889 - South Africa Company
  • Chartered Companies

    Under the Tudor monarchs a new life, a bold spirit of adventure seized English merchants and seamen. The so-called "Chartered Companies" or "Regulated Companies" organized in England in the sixteenth century are most memorable. The constitution of these Companies allowed any member to trade, within the sphere of the company's rights and privileges, on his own account. The Levant was the last of these important corporations, and the famous East India Company was the first of the great English Stock Companies. It dates its birth from the very last day of the sixteenth century. But all these corporations were trading, not colonization, companies.

    Especially prominent was the Company of Merchant Adventurers, an association which can be traced back nearly to the beginning of the fourteenth century. The first English royal charter, which cannot now be recovered, was given to the Merchants of the Staple, who received privileges in the year 1248 from John, Duke of Brabant, to trade in the Netherlands. The London Guild of Mercers, a company of English merchants who started the first woollen manufacture in England in 1296, and obtained privileges from John, Duke of Brabant, enabling them to settle in Antwerp in association with all other English merchants. These merchants were later amalgamated into the Fraternity or Brotherhood of St. Thomas a Becket, a society which was flourishing about the year 1358, when they are stated to have received ample privileges from Louis, Count of Flanders, for fixing their staple for the sale of English woollen cloth at Bruges.

    King Henry VII in 1493 banished all the Flemings out of England, and ordered all intercourse between the two countries to cease; on which the Archduke Philip, the sovereign of the Netherlands, expelled in like manner all the English subjects resident in his dominions. This embargo only lasted a few years, as Bacon noted, Henry VII was " ... a king that loved wealth and treasure, he could not endure to have trade sick, nor any obstruction to continue in the gatevein which dispersed! that blood."

    Trade was restored at the behest of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London, which a few years after this time (in 1505) was incorporated by royal charter under the title of The Merchant Adventurers of England. Presuming perhaps upon the aid they had afforded to the crown on this occasion, these London merchants appear to have now made an attempt to take possession of the whole foreign trade of the country. It was the Merchant Adventurers who, under the leadership of Sebastian Cabot, sent their vessels to the far East, sailed the Baltic, kept factors at Novgorod.

    Towards the close of the reign of Edward VI efforts were for the first time made to open direct trading relations with Russia (or Muscovy, as it was then more commonly called) by the route leading round North Cape to the White Sea. This route was already known in Anglo-Saxon times. The expedition of Sir Hugh Willoughby in 1553 was equipped by a number of gentlemen and merchants to cut out the Portuguese spice trade with the Moluccas by opening direct communication with Cathay (China) by the north-east passage. Richard Chancellor, Captain of one of Willoughby's ships, had reached Archangel on the White Sea, and had been well received by the Tsar. Chancellor reached the Dwina in 1564, and the Muscovy Trading Company was founded in 1556; obtaining from the Grand Duke of Moscow exemption from duty and safe conduct, it carried English goods — mostly cloth — as far as the Caspian Sea and Persia.

    The Baltic highway was already known to King Alfred from Ohthere's second voyage as far as Sleswig, and from Wulfstan's voyage into the 'East Sea' as far as Truso, near Danzig. These inland waters continued to be frequented from time to time by English skippers trading on their own account under charters from the Crown down to the time of Elizabeth, when the Baltic was constituted a closed sea in favour of an amalgamated English trading association, appropriately called the Eastland Company. This corporation received its first charter in 1579, being described as 'the Fellowship of Eastland Merchants.

    The trade to the Levant had been early cultivated by the English, and had been the subject of negociation and of treaties. A Turkish Company for trade in the Levant was founded in 1581, trading partly on a joint, and partly on a separate stock. Into this trade the English staple produce and manufactures had been received; and the returns were partly made up of assortments of the produce of the countries at the different ports in the Levant, and partly of Indian produce, which had been brought by the ancient routes of the Red Sea, and of the Persian Gulf, and by land carriage, to the Italian Republics.

    Noble seamen, like Frobisher, went in search of a northwest passage to the Pacific, and more than one of them found death instead. English commerce increased rapidly. In the year 1585, Drake introduced tobacco into England; the use of the weed soon became so general that cities counted as many tobacco shops as wine and beer shops.

    The Marocco or Barbary Company was established by Patent granted in 1585 by Elizabeth to the Earls of Warwick and Leicester, and to forty others, for an exclusive trade to the territory of Marocco for a period of twelve years. To the Emperor, Muley Hamed, the Queen sent her Minister (Roberts), who remained in the country three years, and obtained some privileges for the English, particularly that in future none of the English should be made slaves in his dominions.

    A London ship and pinnace having made a prosperous voyage to Benin in 1588, Elizabeth granted in that year a patent for ten years to two London merchants and to others of Exeter and other towns of Devonshire for an exclusive trade to the rivers Senegal and Gambia in Guinea, as all that region of West Africa was then called.

    Though France took the lead as a North American colonizer, England followed close on her track. She created in 1606 two companies whose representatives and successors were to exercise an incalculable influence over the destinies of mankind,—the South Virginia, or London Company, and the Company of Plymouth Adventurers. Neither was the actual corporation under which the Northern and Southern English colonies subsequently held title, nor were they really the first corporate bodies which tried, under English auspices, the experiment of combining trade and colonization on the East coast of North America.

    They were the offspring of the heroic but futile efforts made by Raleigh and his lieutenant in the previous century, to found a colony in Virginia. The provisions of the Charter granted Sir Walter in 1583-1584, expressed conclusively the spirit which even then guided England in her colonization schemes. The Charter grants to the colonists "all the privileges of free denizens and persons native of England, in such ample manner as if they were born and personally resident in our said Realm of England." And they were to be governed according to such statutes as shall be by him or them established, provided they do not contradict the law of the Realm. The same principles and powers underlie the constitutions of all the subsequent colonies. The contrast between these simple and liberal charters and the concessions, edicts, and ordinances, under which the neighboring French colony was governed, accounts for the opposite course followed by the respective nations from their birth until to-day.

    The colonization of both Virginia and Massachusetts was undertaken by trading companies, but the policy of these companies, however mistaken in many respects, was widely different from the purely selfish objects of the French companies. Moreover, they were popular in every sense, for the reorganized London Company enrolled as its shareholders 659 individuals and 56 trade guilds.

    The Guiana Company charter was issued about the year 1609, when letters patent were granted to Mr. djarcourt, of Stanton-Harcourt, and sixty others, who had founded a station on the river Weapoco. The first English settlement in Guiana was effected by Captain Ley in 1605.

    The Bermuda or Somers Isles Company of about one hundred and twenty members was incorporated by royal charter in 1612, when they purchased the islands from the Virginia Company, who, as first discoverers, claimed possession of them. The discovery, which, however, had been anticipated in the sixteenth century by the Spanish navigator Bermudez. The China Or Cathay Company charter was granted in 1635 by Charles I to Sir William Courten, Sir Paul Pindar, Captain John Weddel, and Endymion Porter to trade to China and Japan, as well as to any parts of India where the East India Company had not established themselves before December 12, 1635, but without prejudice to that company in other respects. A condition was that the grantees should, from the sea of China, Japan, or elsewhere, send one well-furnished ship to attempt the discovery of the North-West Passage. But the venture came to nothing.

    The Canary Company was created in 1665 by Charles II., who granted a royal patent to sixty persons therein named, and to all others of his subjects who had within seven years past traded to the Canary Islands to the value of £6,000 yearly. The company was to enjoy the exclusive trade to the Canary Islands, under a Governor, Deputy-Governor, and twelve assistants. Of all the historical corporate bodies, this company had the briefest existence, its charter having been withdrawn on a suit brought against it before Parliament in the year 1667.

    Considering the complete failure, from the point of view of colonization, of the chartered companies of the seventeenth century, the revival by England of this method of national expansion in the latter half of the nineteenth century may seem surprising. All the chartered companies of this day are, however, understood to be merely forerunners of Government, and speedily resign their charters for a pecuniary consideration, after giving the powers creating them a title to the district exploited.

    The first discoverers of the great goldfield in South Africa are reported to be the Brothers Struben, owing to whose perseverance and patience the Witwatersrandt became the Eldorado of speculators' dreams. In 1886 this locality was declared a public goldfield by formal proclamation, and the South African golden age began. In a little while the regions north of the Limpopo began to be investigated, and each in their turn to yield up their treasures. In 1888 a concession to work mineral upon his territory was obtained from Lobengula, the Matabele king. A year later the British South Africa Company was founded. The Company having obtained its charter, no time was lost.

    The British North Borneo Company, founded in 1881, gave place to a protectorate in 1888. The Royal Niger Company of 1886 sold its rights and territory to the British Government for £865,000 in 1900. The Imperial British East Africa Company, created in 1885, disposed of its possessions to the British Government in 1894 for £250,000. Cecil Rhodes' famous British South Africa Company remained longer in existence, but its powers as a governing body were very much crippled since the Jameson raid and the war against Lobengula. The German East Africa Company resigned its governing functions in 1890, and the German New Guinea Company followed its example in 1899.

    The British African Commercial Companies alone undoubtedly added to the Empire about 2,000,000 square miles of territory, whose value is by some belittled, even as the worth of Canada was depreciated by the statesmen of France, as it also was by those of England when they resigned Kirke's conquest without a murmur. The charters of the modern companies differed in many material respects from those of the seventeenth century, but they resemble strangely, in their essential features, those of France in the seventeenth century, in so far as they are endowed with political functions while organized as money-making corporations.

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    Page last modified: 26-08-2012 19:02:28 ZULU