The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

V. Seafaring and Travel

§ 6. Lancaster’s Expedition

So far we have dealt only with western explorations, but the literature of the seventeenth century is rich in narratives of travel and settlement in both hemispheres. The project of reaching China, the Spice islands and farther India by the north-west passage was destined to disappoint those who fixed their hopes upon it. Nor did much success attend the efforts to carry trade overland from the Levant, which was one of the objects of the Turkey company, established in 1581. The early efforts to wrest the monopoly from the Portuguese by the long sea route also met with disaster. Raymond’s expedition of 1591 suffered from sickness, tempest and mutiny, and its misfortunes made failure inevitable from the beginning. Still more disastrous was Benjamin Wood’s navigation of 1596, from which not one man of the company returned to tell the tale. Purchas deplores the double disaster of the loss of the ships, and of the record and history of the tragedy, upon which light is thrown by a Spanish letter found among the papers of Hakluyt. The Netherlanders were more successful than Englishmen in 1597 in their effort to break down the supremacy of the Portuguese; but quarrels among themselves deprived their expedition of commercial success, and the consequent rise in the price of pepper on the London market caused merchants to meet in 1599, thereby leading to the foundation of the East India company. The first enterprise was Lancaster’s famous expedition of 1600–2, which was equipped with every necessity of war, and carried greetings from Elizabeth “to the great and mightie King of Achem, etc., in the Island of Sumatra, our loving Brother.” Purchas has preserved a full narrative of the circumstances and events, with a copy of Elizabeth’s letter. Whatever is preserved of Lancaster’s writing shows him to have possessed in a marked degree the forcible style of the seaman. His brief letter to the proprietors of the East India company deserves to be quoted:

  • Right Worshipful, what hath passed in this voyage, and what trades I have settled for this company, and what other events have befallen us, you shall understand by the bearers hereof, to whom (as occasion hath fallen) I must refer you. I will strive with all diligence to save my ship, and her goods, as you may perceive, by the course I take in venturing my own life, and those that are with me. I cannot tell where you should look for me, if you send any pinnace to seek me, because I live at the devotion of the wind and the seas. And thus fare you well, desiring God to send us a merry meeting in this world, if it be his good will and pleasure.
  • The first real discouragement to those who looked for the success of the north-west route was Lancaster’s triumph, combined with Waymouth’s ignominious failure to find a way to “Cataya or China or ye backside of America” which became known before Lancaster returned. Hudson, Button, Baffin and a score of other hardy navigators followed Waymouth’s course, but merchants recognised that, long and perilous as was the route by the cape of Good Hope, it was preferable to the doubts and dangers of the north-west.

    The Dutch captured Amboina from the Portuguese in 1605, and burned their fleet at the Moluccas in the following year, and it was the strong trade rivalry between the English and the Dutch, leading to the massacre at Amboina, that ultimately caused our merchants to relinquish partially their attempts to establish themselves in the islands, and to devote their efforts to developing trade with India. Not, however, until the third East India voyage, in 1607, was any attempt made to establish trading ports on the Indian mainland. Purchas includes in his Pilgrimes a brief narrative of Middleton’s—the second—voyage to the east (1604–6), and a somewhat longer account of that of Keeling, which was the third (1607–10), as well as an extremely interesting narrative written by captain William Hawkins of his landing at Surat and his visit to the court of the great Mogul at Agra, with observations on life at the Mogul’s court, the custom of sati and many other matters. The Pilgrimes includes narratives of all later expeditions to the east, and a full account of our relations with the Dutch and the Portuguese up to the year 1613.