Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

How the Dutch and the English Set Forth to India

The Dutch, like the Portuguese, were a sea-going people. For many years they had been the carriers of Europe. Every year their ships came to Lisbon, there to buy the goods which the Portuguese brought from India, and from Lisbon they carried them to every port in Europe.

At that time the Dutch were under the rule of Spain, but in 1572 they revolted, and in 1580 they declared themselves free. In the same year King Philip II. of Spain made himself King of Portugal too, and soon afterwards he ordered that all Dutch ships found in Spanish waters should be seized, and that all Spanish and Portugese ports should be closed to them. In this way he hoped to ruin the trade of the rebellious Dutchmen. But they, finding that they could no longer trade with Lisbon, resolved to seek the way to India for themselves and trade direct.

Just as the Moors had tried to keep the Portuguese out of India, so now the Portuguese tried to keep out the Dutch, and there was much fighting both by land and sea. Even after the Dutch reached India the Portuguese tried to make mischief between them and the natives. These were no true traders, they said, but spies come to view the land, and later they would return in force to conquer it.

But the Dutch were hardy and brave, and not easily discouraged. In 1588 the Spanish Armada was defeated by the English, and after that Spain had few ships and men to spare for fighting in distant seas. So by degrees the Dutch drove the Portuguese out of their colonies and took them for themselves. They founded a Dutch East India Company, which grew wealthy and powerful, and soon all the trade of the East was in their hands. Holland had more ships than all the kingdoms of Europe put together. The Dutch ruled the sea. Dutch harbours and colonies were scattered over all the globe, and Holland became the market of the world.

The spice trade especially, the Dutch were determined to keep in their own hands. And in order to make this easier, they destroyed whole plantations of spice and pepper trees. For that and other reasons the price of pepper was soon doubled. At one bound it rose from three shillings to six and eight shillings.

Up to this time the English merchants had been content to buy from the Dutch as the Dutch had before been content to buy from the Portuguese. But now they were angry, and resolved in their turn to go to India direct for what they wanted.

So it was in a tiny matter like the price of pepper that the seeds of our great Indian Empire were sown.

On the 22nd September 1599 the Lord Mayor of London with the aldermen and merchants met together and resolved to form an East India Company. "Induced thereto," the old paper says, "by the successe of the viage performed by the Duche nation," they to resolved "to venter in the pretended voyage to the Easte Indias, the whiche it maie pleased the Lord to prosper."

But although meantime there were several meetings "annent the said viage," it was not until about a year and a half later that the first ships set out. Fot there were many preparations to make, the Queen's consent (it was Queen Elizabeth who ruled England in those days) had to be given, money had to be found, ships had to be bought and fitted out, and even the fact that we might be going to make peace with Spain had to be thought about.

But at last, on the 13th of February 1601, five ships set sail from Woolwich. They were named the Red Dragon,  the Hector,  the Ascension,  the Susan,  and the Guest.  Although they set sail in February, there was so little wind that they did not reach Dartmouth until Easter. But at length a fair wind blew, and the bold adventurers sailed out into the ocean and were soon beyond sight of land.

Many adventures befell them; storms and calms, sea-fights and sickness they endured. At last so many of the men were ill with scurvy, that on reaching Table Bay they resolved to land. Scurvy is brought on by eating salt meat and no fresh vegetables. It was a new disease, having never been heard of until Vasco de Gama took his first voyage to India. In those days they had not found out how to carry fresh food on ships. The men had to live for the most part on salted meat and biscuits, and they nearly always fell ill.

So now Captain James Lancaster, who was in charge of the expedition, thought that if he could land and find fresh food for his men, they would soon be better. The people who lived in Africa were all black savages. When they saw these strange ships come into the bay they gathered round to look and wonder. Then James Lancaster made signs to them to bring him sheep and oxen. "He spake to them in the Cattels Language, which was never changed at the confusion of Babell, which was Moathe for Oken and Kine, and Baa for Sheepe. Which language the people understood very well without an Interpreter," says an old writer. "The third day after our coming into this Bay the people brought downe Beefes and Muttons, which we bought of them for pieces of old Iron hoopes, as two pieces of eight inches a piece for an Oxe, and one piece of eight inches for a Sheepe, with which they seemed to be well contented."

For seven weeks the Englishmen stayed in Table Bay. By the end of that time nearly every one was well again, and they sailed on their way once more. After passing through more adventures and dangers, and seeing many strange and wonderful sights, they at length came to Achin in the island of Sumatra.

Queen Elizabeth had sent a letter to the King of Achin, and now Captain James Lancaster went on shore to deliver it. He was received with great honour and was led to the King's court riding upon an elephant, while a band marched in front of him making a fearful noise with drums and trumpets.

After Lancaster had presented his letter there were banquets and cock-fights in his honour, with much present giving, without which no Eastern could do any business. Then after a great deal of talking the King wrote an answer to the Queen, and a treaty of peace and agreement to trade was made.

Although the Eastern kings were heathen, they were not wild savages like the people of Africa. This king was a Mohammedan, and when the Englishmen came to take leave of him, he turned to Captain Lancaster and asked, "Do you know the Psalms of David?"

"Yes," replied Lancaster, greatly astonished, "we say them every day."

"Then," said the King, "I and these nobles about me will sing a psalm to God for your prosperity."

So very solemnly this heathen king and his nobles sang a psalm. It was a curious sight. There in the gorgeous heathen palace stood the few rough English sailors. Around them singing crowded the dark-faced Indians, clad in brilliant dresses of red and yellow, glittering with jewels and gold.

When the psalm was ended, the King again turned to Lancaster. "Now," he said, "I would hear you too sing a psalm in your own language."

So in turn the Englishmen sang. And the psalm being finished, they took their leave.

From Achin Lancaster sailed on to other places, for he had not enough goods yet to carry home. And he felt that it would be little to his credit did he sail back with empty ships, when all the Indies lay before him from which to gather precious stores.

Like the Dutch, the English had to deal with the Portuguese, for they "had a deligent eye over every steppe we trode," and by force and treachery they tried to keep the English from trading with the Indians.

The Englishmen, however, got the better of the Portuguese, and at last, well laden with spices, they sailed homeward. But on the way they met with great and terrible storms, so that "the ship drave up and downe in the sea like a wrake" and "Hayle and snow and sleetie cold weather" took the heart out of them, until the master and crew were in despair, and gave up hope of ever returning home.

But at length the sea grew calmer, and after months of toil and peril they reached the safe shelter of the Downs, and gave thanks to God for all the perils and dangers passed.

Such were the beginnings of British trade with India. And although some of the ships and many of the men had been lost on the voyage, the Company had made much money. King James of Scotland was now upon the throne. He made Captain Lancaster a knight as a reward for the brave way in which he had steered his ships and led his men through storms and dangers.

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