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A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge


 

 

SEARCH FOR A NORTH-EAST PASSAGE

[235] ENGLAND was now awaking from her sleep—too late to possess the Spice Islands—too late for India and the Cape of Good Hope—too late, it would seem, for the New World. The Portuguese held the eastern route, the Spaniards the western route to the Spice Islands. But what if there were a northern route? All ways apparently led to Cathay. Why should England not find a way to that glorious land by taking a northern course?

"If the seas toward the north be navigable we may go to these Spice Islands by a shorter way than Spain and Portugal," said Master Thorne of Bristol—a friend of the Cabots.

"But the northern seas are blocked with ice and the northern lands are too cold for man to dwell in," objected some.

"There is no land uninhabitable, nor sea unnavigable,"  was the heroic reply.

"It was in this belief, and in this heroic temper, that England set herself to take possession of her heritage, the north. But it was not till the reign of Edward VI. that a Company of Merchant Adventurers was formed for the discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and places unknown," with old Sebastian Cabot as its first governor, and not till the year 1553 that three little ships under Sir Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor [236] were fitted out for a northern cruise. They carried letters of introduction from the boy-king of England to "all Kings, Princes, Rulers, Judges, and Governors of the Earth in all places under the universal heaven," including those "inhabiting the north-east parts of the world toward the mighty Empire of Cathay."

Sir Hugh Willoughby, "a most valiant gentleman," hoisted the English flag on the Bona Esperanza, a good little ship of one hundred and twenty tons. The next in command was Richard Chancellor, "a man of great estimation for many good parts of wit in him," who sailed the Edward Bonadventure, which though not so fast as the flagship, was slightly larger. So certain were the promoters that the ships would reach the hot climates beyond Cathay that they had them sheathed with lead to protect them from worms which had proved so destructive in the tropics before.

The account of the start of these first English Arctic explorers is too quaint to be passed in silence. "It was thought best that, by the 20th of May the Captains and Mariners should take shipping and depart if it pleased God. They, having saluted their acquaintance, one his wife, another his children, another his kinsfolk, and another his friends dearer than his kinsfolk, were ready at the day appointed. The greater ships are towed down with boats and oars, and the mariners, being all apparelled in sky-coloured cloth, made way with diligence. And being come near to Greenwich (where the Court then lay), the Courtiers came running out and the common people flocked together, standing very thick upon the shore: the Privy Council, they looked out of the windows of the Court, and the rest ran up to the tops of the towers, and the mariners shouted in such sort that the sky rang again with the noise thereof. But, alas! the good King [237] Edward—he only by reason of his sickness was absent from this show."

The ships dropped down to Woolwich with the tide and coasted along the east coast of England till "at the last with a good wind they hoisted up sail and committed themselves to the sea, giving their last adieu to their native country—many of them could not refrain from tears." Richard Chancellor himself had left behind two little sons, and his poor mind was tormented with sorrow and care.

By the middle of July the North Sea had been crossed, and the three small ships were off the shores of Norway, coasting among the islands and fiords that line that indented kingdom. Coasting still northward, Willoughby led his ships to the Lofoten Islands, "plentifully inhabited by very gentle people" under the King of Denmark. They sailed on—

"To the west of them was the ocean,

To the right the desolate shore."

till they had passed the North Cape, already discovered by Othere, the old sea-captain who dwelt in Helgoland.

A terrible storm now arose, and "the sea was so outrageous that the ships could not keep their intended course, but some were driven one way and some another way to their great peril and hazard." Then Sir Hugh Willoughby shouted across the roaring seas to Richard Chancellor, begging him not to go far from him. But the little ships got separated and never met again. Willoughby was blown across the sea to Nova Zembla.

"The sea was rough and stormy,

The tempest howled and wailed,

And the sea-fog like a ghost

Haunted that dreary coast,

But onward still I sailed."

[238] The weather grew more and more Arctic, and he made his way over to a haven in Lapland where he decided to winter. He sent men to explore the country, but no signs of mankind could be found; there were bears and foxes and all manner of strange beasts, but never a human being. It must have been desperately dreary as the winter advanced, with ice and snow and freezing winds from the north. What this little handful of Englishmen did, how they endured the bitter winter on the desolate shores of Lapland, no man knows. Willoughby was alive in January 1554—then all is silent.

And what of Richard Chancellor on board the Bonadventure?  "Pensive, heavy, and sorrowful," but resolute to carry out his orders, "Master Chancellor held on his course towards that unknown part of the world, and sailed so far that he came at last to the place where he found no night at all, but a continual light and brightness of the Sun, shining clearly upon the huge and mighty Sea." After a time he found and entered a large bay where he anchored, making friends with the fisher folk on the shores of the White Sea to the north of Russia. So frightened were the natives at the greatness of the English ships that at first they ran away, half-dead with fear. Soon, however, they regained confidence and, throwing themselves down, they began to kiss the explorer's feet, "but he (according to his great and singular courtesy) looked pleasantly upon them." By signs and gestures he comforted them until they brought food to the "new-come guests," and went to tell their king of the arrival of "a strange nation of singular gentleness and courtesy."

Then the King of Russia or Muscovie—Ivan Vasiliwich—sent for Master Chancellor to go to Moscow. The journey had to be made in sledges over the ice and snow. A long and weary journey it must have been, for his guide lost the way, and they travelled nearly one thousand five [239] hundred miles before Master Chancellor came at last to Moscow, the chief city of the kingdom, "as great as the city of London with all its suburbs," remarks Chancellor. Arrived at the King's palace, Master Chancellor was received by one hundred Russian courtiers dressed in cloth of gold to the very ankles. The King sat aloft on a high throne, with a crown of gold on his head, holding in his hand a glittering sceptre studded with precious stones. The Englishman and his companions saluted the King, who received them graciously and read the letter from Edward VI. with interest. They did not know that the boy-king was dead, and that his sister Mary was on the throne of England. The King was much interested in the long beards grown by the Englishmen. That of one of the company was five foot two inches in length, "thick, broad, and yellow coloured." This is God's gift," said the Russians.


[Illustration]

IVAN VASILIWICH, KING OF MOSCOVIE.

To Edward VI. of England the King sent a letter by the hands of Richard Chancellor, giving leave readily for England to trade with Russia.

Master Chancellor seems to have arrived home again safely with his account of Russia, which encouraged the Merchant Adventurers to send forth more ships to develop [240] trade with this great new country of which they knew so little.

To this end Anthony Jenkinson, "a resolute and intelligent gentleman," was selected, and "with four tall, well-appointed ships he sailed on 12th May 1557 toward the land of Russia." He reached Cape North on 2nd July, and a few days later he passed the spot where Sir Hugh Willoughby and all his company had perished. Anchoring in the Bay of St. Nicholas, he took a sledge for Moscow, where he delivered his letters safely to the King. So icebound was the country that it was April 1558 before he was able to leave Moscow for the south, to accomplish, if possible, the orders of the Merchant Adventurers to find an overland route to Cathay. With letters of Introduction from the Russian King to the princes and kings through whose dominions he was to pass, Master Jenkinson made his way to the Volga, whence he continued his voyage with a Russian captain who was travelling south in great style to take up a command at Astrakan with five hundred boats laden with soldiers, stores, food, and merchandise.

After three months' travelling, and having passed over some one thousand two hundred miles, the Englishman reached the south. The city of Astrakan offered no attractions and no hope of trade, so Jenkinson boldly took upon himself to navigate the mouth of the Volga and to reach the Caspian Sea. He was the first Englishman to cross Russia from the White Sea to the Caspian. Never before on the Caspian had the red cross of St. George been seen flying from the masthead of a ship sailed by Englishmen. After three weeks' buffeting by contrary winds, they found themselves on the eastern shores, and, getting together a caravan of one thousand camels, they went forward. No sooner had they landed than they found themselves in a land of thieves and robbers. Jenkinson hastened to [241] the Sultan of these parts, a noted robber himself, to be kindly received by the Tartar Prince, who set before him the flesh of a wild horse and some mare's milk. Then the little English party travelled on for three weeks through desolate land with no rivers, no houses, no inhabitants, till they reached the banks of the Oxus. Here we refreshed ourselves," says the explorer, "having been three days without water and drink, and tarried there all the next day making merry, with our slain horses and camels." For a hundred miles they followed the course of this great river until they reached another desert, where they were again attacked by bands of thieves and robbers.

It was Christmas Eve when they at last reached Bokhara, only to find that the merchants were so poor that there was no hope of any trade worth following, though the city was full of caravans from India and the Far East. And here they heard that the way to Cathay was barred by reason of grievous wars which were going on. Winter was coming on; so Jenkinson remained for a couple of months before starting on his long journey home. With a caravan of six hundred camels he made his way back to the Caspian, and on 2nd September he had reached Moscow safely with presents of "a white cow's tail of Cathay and a drum of Tartary" for the King, which seemed to give that monarch the greatest pleasure. He evidently stayed for a time in Russia, for it is not till the year 1560 that we find him writing to the Merchant Adventurers that "at the next shipping I embark myself for England."

While Jenkinson was endeavouring to reach the Far East by land, a Portuguese named Pinto had succeeded in reaching it by sea. The discovery of Japan is claimed by three people. Antonio de Mota had been thrown by a storm on to the island of Nison, called by the Chinese Jepwen—Japan—in the year 1542. Pinto claims to have [244] discovered it the same year. It seems that the Japanese were expecting the return of a god, and as the white men hove in sight they exclaimed: "These are certainly the Chinchi cogies spoken of in our records, who, flying over the waters, shall come to be lords of the lands where God has placed the greatest riches of the world. It will be fortunate for us if they come as friends."

Now men of the time refused to believe in the travels of Mendex Pinto. "He should be called Mendax Pinto," said one, "whose book is one continued chain of monstrous fiction which deserves no credit," while a hundred and fifty years later Congreve wrote—

"Ferdinando Mendez Pinto was but a type of thee,

Thou liar of the first magnitude."


[Illustration]

ANTHONY JENKINSON'S MAP OF RUSSIA, MUSCOVY, AND TARTARY, PUBLISHED IN 1562: PART 1


[Illustration]

ANTHONY JENKINSON'S MAP OF RUSSIA, MUSCOVY, AND TARTARY, PUBLISHED IN 1562: PART 2


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