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Towards the East Indies, Episode 13 - 12/10/05


Replica of English 16th century cargo ship (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Replica of English 16th century cargo ship (Getty Images)
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The important period of English voyages for trading and exploration during the crossover years of the 16th and 17th centuries were often recorded in the manuscripts of Richard Hakluyt (see below). However, these voyages and descriptions of the people ashore were more than travelogues.

The two great adventures, to the New World and to the Indies (the lands east of the Indus River) were also influential in attracting investors. Sometimes therefore, the records of sailors and merchants have to be read with caution. Apart from boosting their own images, some of the records were predictably embellished.

It is not enough to say that there were many witnesses other than the author. Even today a prospectus may be exaggerated. However, the proof of the investment pudding was in the returning cargoes and from the East Indies they almost immediately proved financially mouth-watering. Those from North America were less appealing. No gold was to be had in spite of earlier reports and no sugar nor spices were to be had.

Equally important in the Hakluyt documents were descriptions of hazards at sea because in spite of Drake's return with charts of south east Asia, the English were still very far behind the Dutch and Portuguese in sailing from Western Europe via the Cape to the Far East. So it became apparent that in the Hakluyt accounts, the logs of the voyages themselves were to be as important as the investment opportunities. In Hakluyt lie the beginnings of the adventure that would lead to Empire.

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Historical Figure

Richard Hakluyt, c.1522 - 1616

Hakluyt was the first ordained lecturer in geography at Christ Church College, Oxford. It was Hakluyt who, in 1582, published Walter Ralegh's suggestion that America should be settled as a base for exploring the imagined Northwest Passage to China. In 1584 Hakluyt became chaplain to the English mission in Paris and there wrote his now famous, Discourse Concerning Western Discoveries.

He is even better known for his three volumes (1598 - 1600) on the Principal Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation. No studies of the voyages and explorers of this period are complete without reference to Hakluyt. The Hakluyt Society founded for the keeping of records of expeditions and geographical writings exists to this day.

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Did You Know...

Richard Hakluyt made the first serious suggestion that globes should be used in all English schools in the 16th century for the teaching of world geography.

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Have Your Say

Events of this episode took place in the Far East region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

Comment on the Far East

More of a question than a comment. If one looks at the destruction which the British Empire brought with it, is it equal to the destruction of the Nazi regime? And if so why do we continue periodically to glorify it as some sort of historical event or events which is to be seen as inevitable and its excesses as less than the whole, so justifying its existance and allowing us to be jingoistic about it. We have monuments to the victims of Nazi Germany but none for the many more millions of victims of European Empire building! of which the UK was the largest and possibly the bloodiest!

John Henry
Could this program tell the truth? Or is it a case of history being written by the victor?

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Contemporary Sources

Letter by Thomas Stevens
Thomas Stevens in 1579 explaining the difficulties of trading in India in a letter to his father.

"You shall understand that once the Cape be passed, there be two ways to India; one which they take willingly because they refresh themselves at Mozambique a fortnight or a month, not without great need and thence, in a month more, land in Goa. The other which they take when they set forth too late and come so late to the point that they have no time to take the foresaid Mozambique, and then they go heavily, because in this way they take no port.

"And by reason of the long navigation, and want of food and water, they fall into sundry diseases, their gums wax great, and swell, and they are fain to cut them away; their legs swell and all the body becometh sore and so benumbed that they cannot stir hand and foot, and so they die from weakness; others fall into fluxes and agues and die thereby. And this way it was our chance to make, yet though we had more than one hundred and fifty sick there died not past seven and twenty, which loss they esteemed not much in respect of other times.

"The first sign of land were certain fowls which they knew to be of India. The second, boughs of palms. The third, snakes swimming on the water. These signs be so certain that the next day after, if the wind serve, they see land, which we did to our great joy, when all our water - for you know they make no beer in these parts - and victuals began to fail us. And to Goa we came the four and twentieth day of October, there being received with passing great charity. The people be tawny but not disfigured in their lips and noses as the Moors and Cafres of Ethiopia.

"Hitherto I have not seen a tree here whose like I have seen in Europe, the vine excepted, which nevertheless here is to no purpose, so that all the wines are brought out of Portugal. The drink of this country is of good water or wine of the palm or of a fruit called Cocos. From Goa, the tenth of November, fifteen hundred and seventy nine. Your loving son, Thomas Stevens."

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