Tuesday, February 04, 2014
Book Review: James Evans's Merchant Adventurers
Ok, enough of being sick, time to review a good book to read in these dark months (north of the equator).
I really enjoyed James Evans's Merchant Adventurers. As well as being a well written story of exploration in the age of sail it also describes one of the pivotal moments in English history that laid the foundation for what would become the British Empire.
In the mid 16th Century Spain and Portugal were building colonies around the world and England wanted in. It employed Sebastian Cabot (son of the more famous John) to recruit and train sailors and captains with the skills needed for deep ocean sailing and navigation.
Their mission: to find a short cut to the riches of Cathay and the far east by heading north, what would be called one day the north-east passage.
It's not giving the game away much by saying they failed, but in connecting to the Russia of Ivan the Terrible they discovered something better - trade.
The title "Merchant Adventurers" sums up much about this voyage. It was financed by nobility but also merchants, and to ensure an equitable framework a new concept was brought to London: the "joint stock company". It would revolutionise business practice laying a foundation on which much later the industrial revolution could build.
Led by Sir Hugh Willoughby and the highly able Richard Chancellor, the working practices of the expedition were also different from those of (say) the Spanish and Portuguese fleets. They didn't sail to conquer but to trade, believing that both parties can gain that way, and they also employed empirical methods, with strict instructions to record all they observe so that future missions could learn in what we'd now call a scientific method.
Strongly recommended for anyone interested in the history of sail and the early European voyages of exploration.