Mutiny on the Madagascar

The Blackwall Frigate Madagascar (lithograph, c. 1853)

The most mysterious mutiny of them all – motivated, it must be presumed (in the absence of any real evidence), by a lust for rich pickings – occurred aboard the Madagascar in 1853. The ship was one of a thoroughbred type of sailing vessel known as ‘Blackwall frigates’, from the famous yard on the Thames. These fast cargo and passenger ships serviced the gold fields and bore the growing number of emigrants to Australia, making rapid passages in which the public began to take an interest. Their masters became household names and their passage-times were followed in the newspapers, but they mostly attracted attention when they were lost, homeward-bound, laden with gold and with happy and successful prospectors. One such was the Madagascar.

She was due to leave Port Philip, near Melbourne, in July 1853, under Captain Fortsecue Harris, a competent and popular master who was well regarded by his passengers. Just before the sailed, police officers arrived and apprehended two of the passengers in connection with a recent robbery. A great deal of gold dust was discovered in their baggage but this, the men claimed, was the fruit of their labours at the diggings. More to the point, the protracted delay to the Madagascar’s sailing resulting from the consequent legal proceedings caused Harris a further problem. Harris had fully manned his ship, but the lure of the gold fields led to desertions. Finding himself in a common predicament, Harris sent his officers to recruit any likely hands from among the unemployed men ashore – men who had tried their luck in the gold fields and failed, men who might have thought easier money lay aboard the delayed Madagascar than at Ballarat.

As she lay at anchor awaiting the resolution of her problems, an outward-bound vessel, the Roxburgh Castle, arrived with a lady passenger, her three children and their nurse. Mrs de Cartaret was intending to join her husband, a prominent member of the Melbourne Bar. Sadly, as she read the Melbourne papers which came aboard with the pilot, Mrs de Cartaret learned she had been recently widowed; she immediately asked the Roxburgh Castle’s master to arrange for her to transfer to the next homeward-bound ship – the Madagascar – and this was duly accomplished.

Captain Harris finally sailed towards the end of July. Thereafter he, the Madagascar, her crew, her passengers and her cargo vanished. Weeks later she was posted missing at Lloyd’s, and there the matter rested. More than thirty years later a persistently enduring rumour surfaced: a dying woman in New Zealand who sent for a clergyman had told how she had been a nurse and had taken passage aboard the Madagascar. After the ship passed into the South Atlantic, the woman stated, a savage mutiny took place during which most of the crew and a few of the passengers seized the ship, murdered Harris and all his officers, and confined all but the youngest and most attractive women below. The boats were then lowered, all the gold found aboard the ship was put into them, along with water and provisions, and the Madagascar was set on fire. After a protracted and difficult passage, only one of the boats, bearing five men and six women, reached the Brazilian coast, where it capsized in the breakers and the conspirators lost most if not all the gold. The survivors struggled ashore and were swiftly reduced by yellow fever to two men and herself, who had been Mrs de Cartaret’s children’s nurse. What happened in the intervening years, and how the woman reached New Zealand, was never made clear. That the poor creature had been obliged to live a degraded life was hinted at by a further revelation that one of the survivors was later hanged in San Francisco for murder; beyond that – nothing.

It was not unknown for ships to be overwhelmed and founder in the Southern Ocean, or to run into icebergs and sink, but there was usually corroborative, albeit circumstantial evidence, of other ships having experienced heavy weather or ice in the estimated position of the lost vessel which had been posted missing. It is more likely that the Madagascar was overwhelmed not by the forces of nature but by the malice of man. If so, the rising was comparable with the horrors aboard several slavers, such as the Amistad or the Creole, or convict ships like the Lady Shore, and may not have been mutiny, pure and simple. The horror and indignity of the young woman is only to be guessed at, but the burning of the ship and her passengers is equally dreadful – if that is what took place. The obscurity of the fate of the Madagascar simply emphasizes the isolation of a ship at sea, where the rule of law, howsoever arbitrarily administered, is preferable to the rule of lust and disorder.

The mystery is compounded and the waters muddied by another version of the story which places the death-bed revelation in Brazil in 1883 – a more credible location, given the alleged position of the Madagascar at the time of the mutiny. However, the focus returns to New Zealand with yet another account which states that a Maori reported witnessing the loss of a Blackwall liner on Stewart Island. This version is accepted in New Zealand as the real account of the loss of the Madagascar. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between: the position of the ship has been mixed up, and the old woman did die in New Zealand and had been badly used by some survivors. That undesirable characters were on board Harris’s ship is entirely probable, as is the likelihood of their trying to seize any available gold. While one can speculate on what happened, any of these resolutions seems plausible, and all offer insights into the curious nature of shipboard life, with its necessary hierarchies and its carefully contrived social checks and balances. The end of the Madagascar has a metaphorical quality which stands for all mutinies. In the end, despite any provocations, the greater good is achieved in standing by the ship, since the artificial constructs of order and discipline are not conceived for the aggrandisement of the commander but for the survival of the entire company embarked.

A similar rising occurred the following year when her crew was seduced by the amount of gold in the lazarette of the Sovereign of the Seas. Built in the United States, she had been the largest merchant ship in the world and flew the American flag, but by 1853 she had been chartered by the Black Ball Line of Liverpool for the Australian emigrant trade. It was when she was homeward bound from Melbourne on her first voyage under the British ensign that the mutiny attempt was made. Captain Warner was equal to the occasion, however, and quickly mastered the situation and confined the mutineers to irons, where they were kept during the greater part of the vessel’s remarkable 68-day passage to Liverpool.

Occasionally a political motive might influence a crew, especially in time of hostilities when allegiances were tested. On 29 December 1856, during the Second Opium War, the Chinese crew of the British-registered coastal steamer Thistle mutinied while the vessel was on a passage down the Pearl River from Canton to Hong Kong. Eleven European officers and passengers were decapitated by the Chinese crew, who wore the badge of Imperial Commissioner Yeh, the Emperor’s Viceroy and a man opposed to the British insistence on their right to import opium into the Middle Kingdom.

The gold rushes subsided but a steadier emigrant trade continued, and was taken over by steamships. Steam power, with its augmentation of a ship’s crew by firemen and engineers, and the establishment of regular, scheduled passenger routes, increased the numbers of people aboard a merchant ship. This in turn had implications for the social order on board, and for the job of a master and his officers.

Huáscar in Peruvian service before her foremast was removed in June 1879

In times of dissent, one thing a ship-master could rely upon was the presence of a Royal Naval ship in most waters of the world: if he could contact her, he could demand assistance to quell any crew trouble. As the century progressed and more nations joined the imperial camp it was a duty assumed by most national navies, and provision was made in the emerging internationally agreed codes of flag signals for a ship’s master to summon help if his crew was mutinous. Having offered armed assistance to quell mutiny, even a junior commander of a minor warship was empowered to convene a Naval Court. This, calling on the help of any other independent British master in port, could try and condemn mutineers, though its powers of sentence were limited. Indeed in 1877, when the crew of the Peruvian man-of-war Huascar were caught up in a revolution, took control of their ship and raided trading vessels in the Pacific, HMSs Shah and Amethyst engaged the rebel warship. Although the Huascar escaped, later to be taken by the Chileans, her piratical activities were thereby curtailed.

Martial Merchants of the Baltic

The German Hanse, the loose association of German merchants which operated in the Baltic and North Seas from the middle of the twelfth century to the mid-seventeenth, is often referred to in modern historical surveys as the ‘Hanseatic League’. It was no such thing. The term ‘league’ implies a well organized structure which it simply did not possess. It had no charter, no sovereign territory, no corporate treasury and no standing military; it did not even have a permanent governing body. Its only legislative assembly was the Hanse Diet, called the Hansetag, which met infrequently amid sparse attendance. It had neither a seal nor even an official title until the mid-thirteenth century, when its members adopted the name Hansa Teutonicorum, dudesch Hense. Even the heading ‘Hanse’ is somewhat amorphous. It was derived from hansa, the Latinized version of a word found in the fourth-century Gothic translation of the Bible by the missionary bishop Wulfila, meaning ‘troop’ as in a ‘warrior band’. It eventually came to be applied to groups of travelling German merchants who banded together for mutual protection and increased profit, as in a ‘guild’. Aside from ethnicity, the only traits they had in common were language (Middle Low German) and commercial enterprise. The Hanse itself provided perhaps the most precise definition in a 1469 missive to the English Privy Council:

The Hansa Theutonica is … a firm confederatio [confederation] of many cities, towns and communities for the purpose of ensuring that business enterprises by land and sea should have a desired and favourable outcome and that there should be effective protection against pirates and highwaymen, so that their ambushes should not rob merchants of their goods and valuables.

Accordingly, Philippe Dollinger, the doyen of Hanseatic historians, determined that the German Hanse should more appropriately be labelled the ‘Hanseatic Community’, a confraternity of German merchants who cooperated in matters of common commercial interest. The venerable French scholar was, however, quick to point out, ‘This did not prevent it from replacing the feeble imperial authority and thus becoming a front-rank political power in northern Europe, capable of conducting victorious wars against neighbouring states, though these always served economic objectives.’ It has been estimated that by the end of the fifteenth century the Hanse controlled, in the aggregate, a fleet of around a thousand vessels (excluding coastal lighters), boasting some 60,000 tons, making it Europe’s leading naval power of the period. It used this power to dominate the Baltic for nearly two centuries.

Foundation and Expansion (1159–1356)

The German Hanse began with the rebirth of Lübeck as a Baltic trading centre in 1159 at the behest of Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony. Its location in the Trave estuary on the southwestern shores of the Baltic made it the perfect port for German merchants to partake in the rich eastern trade which the Frisians and Scandinavians had exploited for centuries. Merchants flocked to Lübeck from Westphalia, Saxony and the Rhineland. Henry the Lion amplified the community’s commercial prospects by negotiating a trade agreement with the Scandinavians of Gotland Island in 1161. Gotland, located in the central Baltic, was the gateway to lucrative trade routes through European Russia to the East, so German merchants from Lübeck soon thronged there, setting up their own community at Visby on the island’s west coast. These German merchants then travelled with their new-found Gotland trading partners down the Neva river to Novgorod, where in 1189 they won a trade treaty (their first) with Prince Yaroslav III Vladimirovich. This led to the establishment of their own community near the Novgorod market, called Peterhof, which Prince Konstantin Vsevolodovich officially recognized around 1206 as the first Kontor (‘counting house’) or merchant quarter of the Hanse. Other major Kontors would eventually blossom in Bruges, Bergen and London.

Through the Peterhof Kontor, these German merchants acquired coveted commodities such as furs, wax, tar, honey, flax and oriental luxury goods. Moreover, their community in Gotland enabled them to tap into the rich herring fisheries of Skania as well as the copper and iron mines around Falun in eastern Sweden. It also facilitated the establishment of outposts in ancient Livonia on the northeastern shores of the Baltic, where Albert of Buxhoeveden’s crusading Brothers of the Sword founded such towns as Riga (in modern Latvia) in 1201, Reval (now Tallinn in Estonia) in 1219 and Dorpat (Tartu, also in Estonia) in 1224. From Livonia the merchants procured timber, amber and resins. The southeastern Baltic was subsequently opened to the Hanse by the Teutonic Knights. In the 1220s Herman von Salza, Grand Master of the Teutonic Order of St Mary’s Hospital in Jerusalem (the Teutonic Knights), set about conquering Prussia from the indigenous Slavic pagans at the invitation of Duke Konrad of Masovia (east-central Poland). Operating from Kulm on the east bank of the river Vistula, the Teutonic Knights eventually succeeded with the result that Danzig (modern Gdańsk in Poland) became a vital German port on the Pomeranian coast. It adopted Lübeck law around 1235 and merchants of the Hanse began shipping wheat, rye and barley from its harbour shortly thereafter.

In exchange for all these eastern goods, the merchants of the Hanse imported textiles from Bruges in Flanders, wine from Cologne in the Rhineland and metalworks from Goslar in the Harz Mountains of Lower Saxony. By the second quarter of the thirteenth century the merchants of Lübeck had mastered this lucrative synthesis of land–sea commerce, so aptly symbolized on their 1224 town seal which shows two men on a cog – one a land-based merchant from Westphalia, the other a seafaring trader from Schleswig – swearing an oath to one another. In 1226 Lübeck became a freie Reichstadt (‘a free imperial city’), governed by a constitution that catered to its commerce. Called ‘Lübeck law’, this maritime mercantile code became the template for the charters of Hanseatic towns all along the shores of the Baltic.

As the marriage of land and sea trade routes grew more profitable, the need to protect it from brigands and pirates became more acute. In an age of waning imperial power, the merchants assumed greater responsibility for their own safety through cooperative action. This inevitably led to an alliance of mercantile cities. Lübeck and Hamburg were the first of these. The road between them was one of the most critical commercial arteries in northern Europe. Goods brought from the British Isles and southern Europe by way of the North Sea were transhipped at Hamburg for overland carriage to the Baltic by way of Lübeck. The reverse was true for merchandise from the Baltic bound for the North Sea. This was because the sea passage around the Skaw (Cape Skagen) of the Jutland peninsula through the Skagerrak Strait was notoriously long and treacherous. (Records from the late nineteenth century show that 125 modern ships ran aground on well marked Anholt Island in the adjoining Kattegat in a 23-year period alone.) Accordingly, the citizens of the two cities concluded a pact in 1241 to secure the land route between them. This was the beginning of what Dollinger deemed the ‘Hansa of the Towns’.

By 1265 other Wendish cities had joined – most prominently Kiel, Wismar, Rostock and Stralsund.16 As the Hanse network of towns grew, more opportunities manifested themselves. Hamburg controlled the road to Lüneburg and its saltworks, which the Hanse used to supply the saltfish fairs of Skania. It has been estimated that such herring markets sold 200,000 to 300,000 tons of fish every year at their peak. As demand for saltfish increased, Hanse vessels began bringing additional salt shipments from the Bay of Bourgneuf south of the Breton peninsula. Cargos of wine from Bordeaux naturally followed. Wool came from Yarmouth, Hull, Lynn (King’s Lynn), Boston and London in eastern England to feed the textile mills of Flanders by way of Bruges and Ghent, while cod came from Bergen on the southwest coast of Norway to expand the saltfish market. Inevitably, more permanent enclaves were needed in the major market towns to handle the burgeoning volume of merchandise. In 1252 and 1253 Margaret, countess of Flanders, ceded the Hanse a number of commercial privileges which led to the establishment of a Kontor in Bruges, integrated into the merchant community. In 1266–7 Henry III of England granted the merchants of Hamburg and Lübeck privileges equal to those of Cologne, who had traded in the realm under royal protection since 1157. By 1281 the traders of the three towns had formed a single German Hansa in London with its own Kontor. It became known as the Stalhof or ‘Steelyard’. The last of the four key Kontors to be founded was the Tykebrygge (‘German Quay’) of Bergen, the statutes of which were blessed by King Magnus VII Eriksson of Norway in 1343.

As the route structure and volume of commerce expanded, so too did the membership of Hanse towns. By the middle of the thirteenth century the Hanse controlled a highly profitable trade axis extending from Novgorod through Reval, Lübeck, Hamburg and Bruges to London.By the time the association reached its zenith in the mid-fifteenth century some 180 to 200 towns from the English Channel to the Gulf of Finland belonged to it. About seventy to eighty of these were active members or ‘towns of the Hansa’, who sent delegates to the diets. The rest were considered passive or ‘associate towns’ (Beistädte). Many, particularly the coastal cities, were further linked through the adoption of some form of ‘Lübeck law’. They came to be arranged in three basic geographic units called ‘thirds’: the Wendish–Saxon towns, the Westphalian–Prussian and the Gotland–Livonian. The confederation of Hanse cities was more or less officially consummated in 1356 when it held its first Hansetag in Lübeck, which confirmed the subordination of the four principal Kontors to the combined will of the Hanseatic towns. By then, corsairs and competitors were already posing serious challenges to the trading alliance.

Cogs, Hulks and Caravels: the Ships of the Hanse

The seafaring tradition of the Hanse began with the launch of its leading city in 1159. ‘Lübeck had been founded essentially with seaborne commerce in the Baltic in view,’ writes Dollinger, adding, ‘Its inhabitants began immediately to build ships, so that its merchants, and also those from the interior, might sail for Gotland and Russia.’ And their ship of choice, almost from the start, was the Kogge (cog) which they constructed right in the harbour. English economic historian T.H. Lloyd concurs, saying of the city, ‘It was settled chiefly by west-German merchants who immediately took to the sea in cogs.’ Other coastal communities of the Hanse soon built them as well, often in shipyards along riverbanks called Lastidie. After all, cogs were much better suited than their Scandinavian predecessors for hauling the bulk commodities of the Baltic trade. Based on earlier Frisian precedents, the cog was broad at the beam with a flat bottom, which increased cargo capacity. The Bremen cog of the late fourteenth century (discussed in the previous chapter) was 23.3m (76ft 5in) long and 7.6m (25ft) wide with a capacity of around 80 tons. Boasting a high-sided, box-like hull with nearly perpendicular stem- and sternposts, the clinker-built version of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries was ideal for the coastal carriage of incipient Hanseatic commerce. As a result cogs were depicted on numerous Hanseatic town seals of the era.

The primitive state of navigation at the time dictated that ships be sailed within sight of land. With no compasses and no charts, the most important navigational tool for the early medieval mariners of the region was the lead-line for determining depth (as illustrated in the 1350 town seal for Elbing), which made it possible to hug the low shorelines of the North Sea as closely as possible without running aground. This was particularly true for the shallow tidal waters of Waddenzee, where maritime historians believe the sea-going cog was first developed. The vessel’s low draught and flat bottom allowed it to sail among the sandbars and shoals of this intertidal zone. It could even navigate up coastal rivers like the Eider of Schleswig-Holstein. Since the ninth century, or perhaps even earlier, cogs or similar ships were brought up the Eider and the Treene rivers from the North Sea as far as Hollingstedt and hauled the 16km (10 miles) to Hedeby on the Schlei Inlet leading to the Baltic. Moreover, when the cog reached its destination, which usually lacked sophisticated port facilities like a pier, its nearly level underside permitted it to be beached in shallow waters without heeling over, so that it could be easily offloaded.

The other major advantages the ship offered the merchants of the Hanse were ruggedness and simplicity. Nautical historian Timothy Runyan called the cog ‘a durable carrier in the cold and rough waters of the northern seas’. First of all, it was very solidly built. ‘The strakes of the Bremen cog are over twice the thickness (5cm or 2in) and three times the width (60cm or 24in) of the strakes on a Viking ship,’ notes Runyan. The transverse beams which pierced the hull were a massive 40 x 40cm (about 16 x 16in) and it was all held together with what Kasimiers Slaski of the Poznan History Institute characterizes as ‘big, iron, curved end nails’. Its high sides and broad beam enabled it to endure high sea states while the rounded bilge at the edge of the flat bottom gave it an easier ride with better stability. With a square sail on a single mast stepped slightly forwards of amidships, the vessel performed well in a following wind, but could also work to windward if necessary. Initially steered with a side oar attached to the port side, the cog gained significantly improved handling with the addition of the sternpost rudder sometime before the mid-thirteenth century. The vessel proved not only more seaworthy than its Scandinavian precursors, but also more economical and easier to construct. Planks were sawed rather than split, meaning shipwrights needed less wood and fewer skilled craftsmen to produce a ship. Lastly, all the required materials from timber for the planks to iron for the nails were in ample abundance in the Baltic region.

A critical side benefit of the cog was its ready convertibility from commercial to martial purposes. Their high hulls already made them seem like waterborne fortresses to vessels with lower freeboards, such as galleys and other oared ships. The Hanse enhanced this inherent advantage in the late thirteenth century by adding temporary castles fore and aft, following English precedents. Later, the crenellated castles were made integral to the ship’s construction. Thus, ordinary merchantmen could easily be transformed into formidable men-of-war, which the Hanse euphemistically referred to as vredenschepe (‘peace ships’). All that was necessary was to embark ample men-at-arms along with the appropriate engines of war like arbalests and crossbows. By the fourteenth century it had become common practice for Hanseatic ships transiting the Danish Straits to or from the North Sea to proceed in convoy, escorted by at least two such vredenschepe carrying around eighty men-at-arms.

As the fifteenth century opened, commercial traffic had increased to the point that Hanse merchants began seeking a craft with greater cargo capacity. They settled upon an updated version of the hulk shown on the 1295 seal of Shoreham. The Hanseatic hulk of the early fifteenth century (as depicted on the 1400 town seal of Danzig) retained the characteristic banana-shaped hull of clinker construction, but had adopted the keel of the cog, as modified by a curved bottom and rounded bilges. It was broader at the beam with a fuller bow and stern, allowing for larger loads. Also, the crenellated fighting platforms which topped the fore- and aftercastles appear to have been integral to the hull structure. The hulk was still propelled by a single, square sail, but a sternpost rudder had replaced the side oar for directional control. While no hulk has ever been discovered, its design evidently lent itself to enlargement. These vessels grew progressively bigger and more numerous so that by the middle of the century they had almost entirely supplanted the cog.

The final stage in the evolution of Hanse shipping was introduced slightly thereafter. In 1462 a French caravel named the Saint-Pierre de La Rochelle, which had apparently carried a cargo of salt from the Bay of Bourgneuf, suffered storm damage in Danzig harbour. Local shipwrights repaired the damage but in the interlude its owner passed away, causing proprietorship to devolve to the city of Danzig. Re-christened the Peter von Danzig, the huge ship served as a model for Hanseatic shipwrights for decades to come. Sometimes called Das Grosse Kraweel (‘The Great Caravel’), the vessel was immense, measuring 45.2m (148ft) long, 12.2m (40ft) wide with a draught of 5.33m (17ft 6in) giving it a capacity of about 833 tons (though one source estimates as much as 1,225 tons). It owed its size to the skeleton-first, carvel-style of construction in which hull planks were fitted flush to one another and nailed directly onto a prefabricated frame. Contemporary sources considered it a caravel, but its size and rigging (a foremast and a main mast bearing square sails, along with a mizzen mast carrying a lateen sail) suggest a ship more like a carrack. Whatever its precise nomenclature, Hanseatic shipwrights continued to replicate such multi-masted mammoths until the end of the era.


Portuguese outpost, Aden, 16th century. Historical artwork of the Portuguese trading post in Aden, Yemen. Portuguese trading posts were founded across Asia during the 16th century after the 1497-9 voyage by Vasco da Gama that opened the way for European maritime commerce. This artwork is from ‘Lendas da India’ (Legends of India) by the Portuguese historian Gaspar Correia (c.1496-1563). This book, one of the earliest works about Portuguese rule in Asia, existed in manuscript form until it was published in the 19th century by the Royal Academy of Sciences of Lisbon.

Five hundred years ago, when the Ottoman Turks sailed into the Red Sea to secure the precious Muslim Holy Places of Mecca and Medina and see off the Portuguese ‘Frankish’ threat, the Tihamans welcomed them in much the same open-hearted manner as my kind host had welcomed me.

Unlike the Zaydi Shiitei northern highlanders who make up perhaps a quarter of Yemen’s population today, Tihamans are Shafai Sunnnis. Weary of exploitation by those hungry northern tribes led by a Zaydi Shiite priestly caste of descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, rulers known as imams, it was only to be expected that Tihamans would welcome Sunni Ottoman influence. But the Ottomans – intent on uniting the entire Muslim umma, Sunni and Shiite, under their caliphate – were not content with going where they were wanted. Penetrating inland towards those northern highlands, they soon encountered Zaydi resistance. Imam Sharaf al-Din and his tribes may have been too weak at the time to expel the Turks from Aden and the coastal regions, but he would not surrender his southern highland stronghold of Taiz, barely an hour’s drive inland from Mocha today, let alone his northern highland capital of Sanaa.

Nevertheless, during that first decade of Ottoman presence in Yemen, the 1540s, it looked as if the Turks would be able to complete their conquest. Not until 1547 was their progress halted by Imam Sharif al-Din’s son Mutahhar who, having retreated to Thula – a rocky highland fastness to the north of Sanaa – managed to withstand a forty-day siege there. At last accepting there was no dislodging him, the Turks acknowledged his dominion over swathes of the northern highlands and a gentlemanly truce was agreed when Mutahhar pledged a nominal obedience to the Ottoman Sultan. He could congratulate himself on having achieved what all future imams and the Zaydi highlanders would achieve up to and even beyond the formal abolition of the imamate four centuries later: the exclusion of any foreign invader – whether Muslim or infidel – from most of their northern highlands. He was to accomplish a great deal more than that over the next twenty years, largely thanks to the Ottomans’ waning interest in their distant and irritatingly inhospitable acquisition.

Increasingly preoccupied with the conquest of central Europe and especially Vienna, the Ottomans allowed South Arabia to slip down their list of priorities. With its ferociously hostile northern tribes and equally repellent terrain – craggily mountainous and cold inland, oppressively hot on the coast – the region had nothing whatsoever to recommend it except its strategic position at the lower opening to the Red Sea and its proximity to Islam’s Holy Places. The Sublime Porte would maintain a military presence there and collect as many taxes as possible rather than attempt to establish a full-scale occupation. Despite having subjugated much more than Tihama and Aden and all the southern highlands, the Ottomans were soon gladly delegating the tax farming and administration to local sheikhs. Naturally, for those sheikhs to agree to collect taxes to enrich the Sultan ‘it was necessary’, as a French historian puts it, ‘to constantly shower them with gifts’. The sheikhs commanded a higher and higher price for their loyalty, which meant there was less and less profit to be made by a succession of pashas who bemoaned their miserable lot and pined for plum postings in places where the living was easier and the pickings far richer – Cairo, Damascus or Basra. They vented their spleen and frustrated ambition in savage over-taxation of the natives. Swathes of fertile land in the southern highlands were deserted by peasants fleeing taxes too punitive to pay. In this way, portions of the population who, like the Tihamans, had at first been amenable to Ottoman rule, were needlessly alienated.

A desperately greedy Mahmud Pasha meddled with the mint, devaluing the coinage by tampering with its gold content and pocketing the spare gold himself. Soon noticing that their local currency salaries were not buying them nearly as much as those of their peers in Anatolia or Egypt, Ottoman soldiers fell to making up the shortfall by extortion from the locals. When that resource ran dry they began flogging off their personal possessions and even their weapons. Mahmud Pasha bled Yemen as dry as he could for seven years before bribing his way into a posting to Cairo. His departure in February 1565 was a memorable enough affair to have warranted recording; his entourage comprised a personal guard of a hundred slaves and his luggage included a throne and many chests of treasure. A side effect of an Ottoman decision to divide the province of Yemen in two after his complaint that its extent and terrain made communications too slow, was that his successor’s opportunities for personal gain were dramatically restricted. The fiefdom of Ridvan Pasha who took charge of the north-western half of the province – in effect the fortified towns of Sanaa and Saada – was not half as rich a prize as the peacefully prospering Tihama with its Red Sea ports, and the central southern highlands where a promising export commodity, coffee, was starting to thrive.

Dissatisfied, Ridvan Pasha lost no time in trying to improve his situation. Insisting on a renegotiation of the thirteen-year-old truce with Mutahhar al-Din, he sent a tactlessly high-handed qadhiii to open talks, with predictably damaging results. Deciding that he was no longer bound by the truce, Mutahhar began to foment fresh trouble for the Turks and Ridvan Pasha’s determination to extend taxation to Mutahhar’s northern highlands gave him the perfect casus belli. He fired the first shot, at a Turkish tax collector. What followed was the steady reconquest of the country by and for Mutahhar’s Zaydi highlander tribesmen, beginning with the capture of the fortress at Saada, the only stronghold north of Sanaa that the Ottomans controlled. By January 1567 all the northern highlands except for Sanaa and Amran were under his control, with Ridvan Pasha suing for peace before being recalled to Constantinople to be punished for his incompetence with three years in jail. While besieging Sanaa, Mutahhar ensured that the southern and western routes to the capital were closed to prevent any Turkish reinforcements under the pasha of the south, Murad the One-Eyed, coming to Sanaa’s aid.

When Murad the One-Eyed did belatedly stir himself to relieve Sanaa, Mutahhar was ready for him. In June, in a narrow defile, Muttahar’s Zaydi fighters managed to ambush a hundred Ottoman horsemen and slaughter every one of them. Playing on mounting popular hatred of the Turks, Mutahhar then called for a general uprising against Ottoman domination, whipping up righteous outrage at the Turks’ lax standards of Muslim observance: ‘So where is the fury? Where has the passion gone? While these men [the Turks] degrade women of high status, taking them off to evil haunts where they can take their pleasure … you eat, drink, dance and play music.’

Soon even the Sunni southern highlands and coastal regions were heeding the Zaydi call to rise and throw off the Ottoman yoke. After guaranteeing its Turkish garrison’s safe passage back to Taiz, the southern highland town of Jiblah took a gleeful revenge by slaughtering every Ottoman soldier as soon as they left their fortress. Abandoning Sanaa to its fate, desperate to return to the southern highland town of Taiz where the Ottoman treasury was kept, Murad the One-Eyed risked relying on a local tribesman to guide him back south. Immediately, he was double-crossed. In a narrow mountain pass, his cavalcade was bombarded by boulders hurled by tribesmen infesting the mountains. In a valley transformed into a mud bath after tribesmen had flooded it by diverting a stream, his soldiers blundered about helplessly, sitting ducks for the enemy above them.

Sanaa fell to Mutahhar in the summer of 1567 and the new pasha who arrived to take up his post in the south was appalled to discover how little land there was left for him to squeeze for taxes. Encircled by hostile tribes, Taiz and its treasury was perilously isolated and nearby Zabid overrun with Turks who had fled there from every other part of the province. No wiser than any of his predecessors, the newcomer delegated the job of raising more taxes to an unscrupulous qadhi from Mocha. By October 1567 he had lost Taiz and his treasury. To the south in Aden a tiny 200-strong Turkish garrison surrendered without a fight, its Ottoman governor fleeing by sea.

Only then did alarm bells start clanging at the Porte. In the words of one contemporary Turkish writer, it was only the loss of one of the world’s finest natural harbours that finally awakened a terror in the Ottomans. They feared ‘the cursed Franks’ would seize Aden. They knew that the Europeans’ superior ‘knowledge of artillery and cannon fire and their care for ports and castles’ would make it hard to recapture again and they trembled at the prospect of losing their Holy Places. Only a massive task force, mustered in Egypt, could save the situation, they believed, but, despite an Ottoman chronicler’s proud boast that every Egyptian, ‘save the useless, such as a very old sheikh, or child, or the like’ rushed to sign up for the Yemen campaign, inefficiency and power struggles delayed its departure for nine months. Not until December 1558 did a fresh pasha cross the Red Sea with an army of 3,000 to start the reconquest, and it was not until spring the following year that the Ottomans turned the tide in their favour with the overland arrival of the then Ottoman ruler of Egypt, Sinan Pasha, at the head of a main force that rejoiced in 4,000 horses, 10,000 camels, ‘great pavilions, pedigree horses dressed in gold with bridles of gold and silver, weapons, armour and helmets’, to say nothing of the heavy guns and supplies sent by sea.

Naturally biased in favour of the Ottomans, the main Turkish chronicler of the reconquest refers to Imam Mutahhar’s forces as heretic Zaydis and takes cheap shots at the lame Imam himself by referring to him as a ‘cripple’ and emphasising his pathetic inability to ride anything but a donkey. But there is much that rings thrillingly true and vivid in his description of the miseries the Turks faced in recapturing Yemen. The appalling harshness of so much of the highlands struck the chronicler again and again: ‘there was nothing human or friendly there: the land was lost only to gazelle and camels the colour of the desert: behind every rock lurked a pack of monkeys or a pride of lions … nothing but the howling of jackals, the hooting of owls and the sound of crows.’ Oxen could pull their heavy gun carriages on flat land, but only manpower could heave them over mountain passes too steep and narrow for wheeled transport. The author complains of a wadi that ‘curves like a snake and anyone who takes it would risk being poisoned by the string of vipers coiled in its dangerous crannies’, where ‘horses would wade up to the belly and stirrup’. He describes a place whose mountains ‘pierce the clouds, a place where there was only pain’. He also details an engagement in which Zaydi tribesmen ‘of extreme coarseness’ were occupying a mountain top, ‘spreading out behind the rocks like cockroaches and beetles’ and rolling giant boulders down onto the Turks, who responded with great blasts from their cannons, ‘throwing up sparks like castles’.

The Zaydi tribes were no match for the Ottomans’ determined assault with their new-fangled artillery. Imam Mutahhar, who had fled to Kawkaban, another rocky mountain-top fastness not far from Sanaa, was forced to descend to parley with Sinan Pasha, an occasion apparently ominously marred by his donkey transport breaking wind on departure. Sinan Pasha graciously granted Mutahhar the governorship of the area around Saada, but the Ottomans were back in charge by 1571, reunited in a single vilayet under his firm rule. Imam Mutahhar’s death the following year spelt the end of his dynasty. Rival families disputed the succession until, in the closing years of the sixteenth century, a new dynasty of imams emerged, the al-Qasim, to trouble the Turks again. Yet another 8,000-strong force of Egyptians was mustered, but only with great difficulty. Many soldiers had to be forced on board ship at Cairo and the army was soon decimated by casualties, desertion and disease.

This third and final effort to secure Yemen for the Ottoman caliphate lacked conviction. The Porte was losing interest in holding Yemen. With the golden prize of Vienna still untaken, the vilayet of Yemen was judged just too costly in manpower and materiel to be bothering with any longer. With Portuguese power in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean waning, the Turks’ terror of Franks capturing the Muslim holy places was also fading, especially as they were on better terms with the latest Frankish powers to take an interest in the region – the British and the Dutch – than they had ever been with the Portuguese. Mocha, their last toehold, was growing rich by its coffee trade and already home to both the British and Dutch East India companies’ trading posts by 1636, when the last Ottoman governor of the port acknowledged the obvious, gathered up his tiny remaining garrison, and boarded a ship for Egypt.

Yemenis were slow to realise it, but the British and Dutch vessels crowding into Mocha to buy coffee in the early seventeenth century represented a far greater long-term threat to their prosperity and independence than any Ottoman army intent on subjugating their precious highlands. English East India Company merchants had first put in to Ottoman Mocha in January 1609, twenty-three years before the Turks abandoned Yemen. In spite of finding it ‘unreasonable hot’, a merchant named John Jourdain had judged the port ‘a very plesaunt place to bide in, were it not for the Turkes’ tyrannie’. He had soon been disappointed to discover that he would need special permission from the Sultan in Constantinople if he wanted to set up a ‘factory’ (trading post) there and begin buying a commodity he called ‘cohoo’.iii Coffee’s special stimulating effects were a secret known only to the Muslim world at the time, so the plant intrigued Jourdain. On his trek inland into the mountains to Sanaa to parley with the pasha, he had noticed how jealously the Yemenis guarded their lucrative export, wrapping it in mystery and wonder – ‘it is reported this seede will growe at noe other place but neere this mountaine’, he wrote.

Ever interested in turning a profit from their troublesome southernmost province, the Ottomans had been encouraging coffee production and, with it, Mocha’s prominence. The southern highlands behind the Red Sea coastal plain, through which Jourdain must have passed en route for Sanaa, had experienced the equivalent of a Gold Rush. Its mountainsides had been transformed by an intricate lacework of terraces designed to take maximum advantage of the flash flood monsoon rains. A French visitor noted admiringly that ‘the greatest piece of husbandry that belongs to them [Yemenis], consists in turning the course of Rivulets and Springs, that descend from the Mountains into their Nurseries, conveying the Water by little Canals to the Foot of the Trees’. Those patterned mountainsides where a little coffee but more qat is grown these days remain one of the most beautiful and impressively workmanlike features of western Yemen, a startling testament to the people’s ingenuity and fortitude.

Back in the early seventeenth century, detachments of Ottoman soldiers guarded the precious coffee plantations and anyone apprehended in the act of trying to smuggle coffee seedlings out of the country was heavily fined. It was a disincentive that failed to deter the first Dutch visitor to Mocha, a merchant named Pieter van der Broeck, from removing a few to the Dutch Republic in 1616 and planting them in a greenhouse. That theft enabled a group of Amsterdam grandees to present the king of France with a single coffee sapling, a curiosity for his own Paris greenhouse. Yemenis were about to learn that if the Muslim Turks had come to their country to fight and steal, the Christian Franks who had come to trade and steal were not so different.

In 1618, the Porte had granted permission to both the English and Dutch to establish their ‘factories’ in Mocha. By the middle of the century, with the Turks gone, the port’s coffee trade with Europe was expanding fast and Yemen thriving. By the century’s end Mocha was reportedly exporting some ten million kilos of coffee a year. However, the effect of that first Dutch theft was about to be sorely felt. Yemenis were soon to lose their world coffee monopoly. In European colonies in south-east Asia, and South America and Africa, the precious plant could now be grown more cheaply thanks to colonised slave labour. The growing failure to compete would lead not only to the decay of Mocha and the southern highlands, but also to the impoverishment of the northern highlands that had so richly benefited from the trade since the Turks’ departure.

But Mocha has furnished Yemenis with some small consolation for their loss in the form of another plant – qat (catha edulis). A Koranically permitted stimulant derived from chewing the evergreen qat shrub’s tenderest top leaves for up to six hours a day, qat has long been as emblematic of Yemeni culture as the wearing of the jambiyah or the futa. Yemenis believe the life-enhancing properties of both coffee and qat were discovered at precisely the same time by a fourteenth-century Sufi named Ali Ibn Umar al-Shadhili who, while residing as a hermit in the vicinity of Mocha for twenty years, nourished himself and his meditations on both substances. There was a time, probably as far back as the sixteenth century, when coffee and qat vied for pole position in Yemenis’ hearts, a state of affairs reflected in this imagined debate between the two substances:

Qat says: they take off your husk and crush you. They force you in the fire and pound you. I seek refuge in God from people created by fire.

Coffee says: A prize can be hidden in ritual. The diamond comes clear after the fire. And fire doesn’t alter gold. The people throw most of you away and step on you. And the bits they eat, they spit out. And the spittoon is emptied down the toilet.

Qat scoffs: You say I come out of the mouth into a spittoon. It is a better place than the one you will come out of!

Qat has the last ribald word here, but its high standing did not stop Imam Mutahhar’s father, the great Sharaf al-Din, issuing a fatwa against it in 1543, commanding that all qat trees in his domains be immediately uprooted and burnt. He had taken fright at the reported ill-effects of the plant after discovering some of his closest entourage stumbling around his palace, slurring their words, claiming that halal [permitted by the Koran] qat, rather than haram [forbidden by the Koran] wine, was to blame. The chronicler of this tale piously protests the Imam’s harsh outlawing of his people’s main solace, noting that ‘God, realising that qat was utterly blameless, allowed some qat shoots to survive under the earth until the downfall of this dynasty, when they shot forth again, by means of his Grace. He the Creator par excellence!’

Qat has had the whip hand over coffee ever since in Yemen, but it was never and will never be the enriching export commodity that coffee once was. Its defenders will point out that it is neither as mind altering nor as harmful to the health as alcohol, and forcefully argue that if not for its nation-wide popularity, if not for the fact that one in every seven Yemenis is involved in the cultivation, distribution and sale of qat, much of rural Yemen would be deserted. Its more numerous detractors will contest that it is both disgraceful and dangerous for Yemenis to be growing so much qat, that it represents a ruinous waste of money and time and, most importantly, water. There are those, however, who quietly reason that, if not for the passive consolations of qat, many more young Yemeni males than is presently the case would be eagerly resorting to the more active consolations of jihad.

London: The Medieval Port

Alfred was already a battle-hardened young man when he succeeded his father to the throne of Wessex in 871 at the age of 21, having spent much of his teenage years fighting the Vikings on land and sea. Following his victory at the Battle of Edington in 878, the Viking forces, under their leader Guthrum, retreated eastwards. King Alfred began a policy of creating defensive ‘burghs’ (fortified towns) in the areas he controlled, which is the origin of the word ‘borough’ and of town names ending ‘bury’. The following year Alfred and Guthrum reached an agreement that created a border between Wessex (in the south and south-west) and the Viking territory (to the north, north-east and east). It formally recognized the area west of the River Lea as belonging to Alfred and to the east as Guthrum’s territory of Danelaw. Alfred re-founded the former Roman capital as ‘Lundenburg’, now a strategic border town. In constant danger of attack, it needed to be more defensible than the early-Saxon settlement of Lundenwic so the old walls and riverside quays of the former Londinium were rebuilt and repaired and, despite occasional Viking attacks during the following century, it once again began to thrive as a port.

In order to revitalize London, Alfred granted sections of land – yokes – to important allies. Two charters dated 889 and 898 provided a yoke each to two of his closest advisors, Plegmund, Archbishop of Canterbury and Waerferth, Bishop of Worcester:

Alfred, king, and others to Plegmund, archbishop, and to Christ Church, and to Wærferth, bishop, and the church of Worcester; grant of 2 yokes of land at Ætheredes hyd on the Thames. One to each.

The purpose was to create a point on the river within Lundenburg where vessels could land and a market could be held for goods to be bought and sold. The King collected tolls for boats arriving on the ‘ripa emptoralis’ (trading shore). By the time the Saxons once again began to populate the old walled city in the ninth century the former Roman timber quays and jetties would have long ago rotted away and they reverted to berthing their boats on sloping beaches. The location of Aethelredshithe (named after Alfred’s sonin-law) was probably dictated by the lie of the Roman wall at that point and provided a convenient foreshore up onto which vessels could be pulled. Thus Aethelredshithe (renamed Queenhithe in later times) became the first part of the late-Saxon port of London.

By the tenth century two more ‘common quays’ had joined Aethelredshithe on the waterfront. The newly rebuilt London Bridge formed a barrier through which larger vessels coming upriver had difficulty passing and the response was the creation of new landing places at St Botolph’s Wharf and Billingsgate. They probably each began as small, prepared beaches on which a boat could be berthed.

To travel downriver to the sea in the late ninth and early tenth centuries involved passing Viking Danelaw territory so trade tended to be with villages upriver rather than the east coast or overseas, but international trade gradually increased. The fourth law code of Ethelred II (‘the Unready’), issued around 1000 AD, details the various berthing tolls at Billingsgate due to the monarch. A small boat was to pay a half penny and a larger ‘keel’ four pence. Tolls were payable on certain days of the week for those carrying cloth; a ship carrying planks paid one plank and tolls were set for boats arriving with fish. By then ships were arriving from the Continent and they are dealt with in the law code. Those from Rouen, Flanders, Ponthieu in Normandy, Huy, Liège and Nivelles in Flanders had specified tolls, whereas men of the Emperor – Germans – were to be treated as locals, except to additionally supply specified provisions to the king.

The town’s importance as an international port continued to grow because of its proximity to the Continent and, in particular, being directly opposite the mouth of the Rhine, the gateway to the heart of Europe. Pottery, jewellery and other items of the late-Saxon period from the Continent have been found in London. There is further evidence in the form of coins of that period from Belgium, Normandy and Norway found along the Thames. In 1016 the Danish leader Cnut inherited the throne, uniting Wessex and Mercia as well as bringing an end to Viking hostility. During his reign England became part of a kingdom that included Denmark and Norway, thus stimulating trade with Scandinavia and the Baltic. English coins unearthed in Continental towns during the eleventh and twelfth centuries indicate the spread of London’s trade during those times. Many from the early part of that period have been found in Scandinavia. Later coins have been discovered throughout the Baltic coast, Germany, Normandy and Flanders.

The Walbrook stream flowed southwards through the centre of the city and in London’s early history was possibly navigable for a short distance upstream from its confluence with the Thames. On the eastern side of that junction, a short distance above the bridge, foreign merchants set up their base, perhaps as early as the reign of King Edgar in the mid-tenth century. A landing place was created some time before the mid-eleventh century when the ‘port of Duuegate’ was referred to in a charter from Edward the Confessor. (In the late sixteenth century John Stow names it as ‘Downgate’ and in more recent times it has become known as ‘Dowgate’).

There is archaeological evidence, dating from the late tenth or early eleventh century, of a jetty extending into the river slightly downriver of London Bridge (the modern-day New Fresh Wharf). This would indicate the earliest example in medieval London of the development away from hauling vessels up onto a beach.

The Normans could be more confident in their safety and the ancient Roman riverside wall was not replaced as it was gradually undermined by the river. For them the greater priority was trade along the waterfront and the wall was an obstacle to the construction of warehouses and wharves. Where the wall had previously stood, a new street was created running parallel with the river, known today as Upper and Lower Thames Street. The sloping beaches used by the Saxons were gradually replaced by timber jetties and wharves at which ships could berth. The stretch downriver of the bridge where larger ships moored was already then known as ‘the Pool of London’.

Roads throughout Europe deteriorated throughout the Middle Ages whereas water transport gradually developed. Former established major towns such as St Albans and Colchester, without a major river, would never again compete in importance with London. By the middle of the twelfth century the city, abandoned after the Roman occupation and re-established by Alfred the Great, was once again one of England’s major towns, although not yet its capital. The rebuilt bridge formed a barrier past which the largest seagoing ships could not easily pass, creating an additional need to unload at London. The creation of new wharves by the Norman riverside landowners, as well as the ever-increasing size of ships arriving to unload, was turning London into a major port. Foreign merchants had established riverside bases for the importing and exporting of goods and London merchants had obtained charters from the monarchy that put them in a favourable position relative to other ports in England.

London Bridge

London Bridge, which was the only crossing over the Thames in the immediate London area until the construction of Westminster Bridge in 1750, was, and remains, the limit of navigation for larger vessels. At some point in time the last Roman bridge must have collapsed and for around 600 years thereafter the river could only be traversed by boat. It was during the late tenth century that a new wooden structure was built. Its purpose was probably as much to do with creating a barrier preventing the passage of invading Vikings as to provide a crossing. Perhaps it had a drawbridge to allow boats to pass upstream to the dock at Aethelredshithe.

The tenth century bridge was severely damaged by a flood in 1097, and again in the great fire of 1136, and was probably repaired enough that it could continue to be used. Between 1176 and 1209 a replacement was built slightly upstream to the west, in line with Fish Street Hill, in the position it occupied for the following 700 years. It was built under the supervision of a parish priest, Peter of St Mary Colechurch.

The foundations of the new stone bridge were constructed by ramming wooden stakes into the river bed and infilling with rubble. With 19 broadpointed arches, ranging from 14 feet to 32 feet in width, it was for many years the longest stone bridge in England. It was 926 feet in length, 40 feet in width, and stood 60 feet above the water level. London Bridge became an impressive sight, the most magnificent such structure in Britain.

The bridge was erected on piers that in turn stood on starlings that protected the piers from the flow of the water. Set close together, the starlings formed a barrier to the incoming and outgoing tides, creating a weir effect that was a continuous force against the fabric of the bridge. Taking a boat through while the tide was flowing was described as ‘shooting the bridge’ and could be very dangerous. In his Chronicle of London, William Gregory describes an incident in about 1428:

The vij [7th] day of Novembyr the Duke of Northefolke wolde have rowed thoroughe the brygge of London, and hys barge was rentte agayne the arche of the sayde brygge, and there were drowned many men, the nombyr of xxx [30] personys and moo of gentylmen and goode yemen [yeomen].

A drawbridge between the sixth and seventh piers from the southern end could be raised twice each day, when the tide was high, to allow for the passage of ships. It was operated from a stone tower on its northern side, variously known as the ‘Great Gate’ or ‘Traitor’s Gate’. The drawbridge could also be raised as a defensive measure on the occasions that London came under attack by road from the south.

In the centre of the bridge was a chapel dedicated to Thomas Becket, a twelfth century parishioner of St Mary Colechurch, who had been canonized only three years before construction began. It was soon joined by shops with accommodation, something that was not unusual across medieval Europe. The bridge became an extension of the city and a busy and colourful commercial street as much as a river crossing. In 1460 the bridge wardens were receiving rents from around 130 properties. Over the centuries these structures were rebuilt as they decayed.

Since the Norman period, London Bridge (and then later other public bridges connecting to the City) has been maintained on behalf of the Corporation of London by the Bridge House Trust, which throughout the Middle Ages was located adjacent to the Southwark end of the bridge. Bridge House was headed by wardens who were initially appointed by the king, but later chosen annually by the City’s Common Council. They were citizens of substance, often with interests in waterborne trade or riverside parishes. The Trust employed a full staff to maintain the bridge and collect rents and tolls and the senior officers comprised the Clerk of Works, Renter and (from 1496) the Comptroller. Others included the clerk of the drawbridge, numerous carpenters, masons and various labourers and servants. The bridge also owned several ‘shoutes’ (barges) in order to transport materials, with ‘shutemen’ to operate them. A substantial part of the income for maintaining the bridge came in the form of rents derived from numerous properties in the City and elsewhere, as well as the City’s Stocks market.

In 1460 the toll for a ship to pass through the drawbridge was between one and two pennies. Three years later it had increased substantially to six pence. Fewer vessels therefore passed through to dock there and the drawbridge seems to have been raised less frequently. It began to fall into decay and after 1476 no income was being received for the passage of boats because it was in such a poor state and dangerous to lift. In 1500 workmen were required to work night and day for the repairing of the ‘full rynous drawbridge and thereof making sure to be drawen alle redye for the Kinges berkis [barques] to have hadde passage’. That seems to have been an exceptional occasion however, and thereafter any contemplation of raising the bridge was for defence rather than the passage of ships.

London: The Romans and Early Saxons I

At the end of the last Ice Age the world warmed and the glaciers melted. Large volumes of water flowed from Britain, south and east, through what is now the London area, which at times would have been completely submerged by a very wide river. The rising water level formed the English Channel, separating Britain from the Continent. The wide, slow-moving Thames deposited gravel at its edges. As it narrowed and became smaller over thousands of years, its gravel-depositing edges moved inwards in an ever-lower series of terraced banks, and thus the youngest layers lie closest to the current banks of the river and the oldest further away on the valley sides. Many rivers and streams flow into the Thames from the higher ground to the north and south and erosion from those during the past 50,000 years created the many valleys around which London was later built.

In 54 BC Julius Caesar led his army across the Channel to Britain to subdue the native Catuvellaunian tribe. Yet having beaten them back he decided there were more pressing issues and swiftly returned to Gaul. Back in Rome, he later recorded his campaign against the British ‘whose territories a river called the Thames separates from the maritime states at about eighty miles from the sea’. We therefore have the earliest record of the river, written long before the establishment of the city through which it now flows.

Tiberius, a strong military leader, secured the Roman Empire’s northern Continental borders. After his death the nobles who controlled the Senate in Rome became tired of their new young Emperor Caligula’s pleasure-seeking and longed for imperial glories such as the legendary exploits of Julius Caesar ninety years earlier. Caligula thus attempted an invasion of Britain in 40 AD but his troops, assembled at Boulogne, had other ideas, and it seems they threatened to mutiny. Britain, to the ordinary soldier, was a mysterious place at the far edge of the world, where boats carried the souls of their dead crews. The British were to be left alone for another three years.

Following the assassination of Caligula, his uncle, Emperor Claudius, felt the need to spread and reduce the power of the armed forces by sending 40,000 soldiers to the mysterious island, so the Romans finally arrived and conquered Britain. It took Commander Aulus Plautius and his troops a short while to actually find any Britons with which to engage but once located they were pursued across the Thames. Having taken the south-east corner of Britain, Plautius set up a ‘marching camp’, probably on the north bank of the river at Cornhill, waiting for the Emperor to arrive with reinforcements. Claudius came with a large reserve force, together with elephants (according to a later Roman account) that no doubt gave the natives a huge fright. The imperial army moved on to the main Catuvellaunian stronghold at Colchester, which the Romans took without too much difficulty. Claudius received oaths of loyalty there from eleven tribal kings and then returned home after just sixteen days, leaving his troops to set up the capital of the new Province of Britannia.

For the Emperor and so many troops to reach Colchester, as well as maintain supply lines back to Gaul, a bridge was required across the Thames. The first crossing was most likely a temporary pontoon structure put in place by army engineers. The Romans found the best location was just downriver from where the Thames was joined by the River Fleet. The banks of the Thames were quite marshy and the chosen site probably the most easterly, or downriver, point at which the river was sufficiently narrow, with solid land on either side.

When the Romans arrived, what is now central London was an area of small hills surrounded by marshy land that was often flooded by the incoming tides. The Thames was then the border between different warring tribes. The wider London hinterland, with its poor clay soil, remained forested and largely unpopulated, being far from each of the main tribal capitals. The thick forests and marshes on each bank made the river a natural barrier between the different groups of people that lived to its north and south but also a better means of transport and trade than overland.

Despite there being surprisingly little contemporary written evidence of the Roman city of Londinium, much has been pieced together by historians. There was a great deal of uniformity across the Empire, which allows an understanding of Londinium through discoveries made elsewhere. More locally, the remains of a Roman ship were discovered on the Thames in 1910 and two more in 1958 and 1962. After the Second World War many of the buildings in the City of London, particularly along the riverfront, were redeveloped and this gave the opportunity to delve below, before the replacement buildings were constructed. In the early 1970s a systematic programme of archaeology started and discoveries began to be made. Gradually, piece by piece, an understanding of the Roman Port of London emerged. Similarly, the existence of the Saxon town of Lundenwic was only revealed following excavations at Jubilee Market at Covent Garden in 1985.

The foundation and growth of Londinium

As the Romans established a new provincial capital at Colchester their forces moved northwards to continue the advance through Britain. In order to hold the areas they had conquered, one of their first priorities was to build wellengineered roads so that troops could move swiftly and have a means of supply. By the time they arrived in Britain the Romans were masters of rapidly building good roads and in the first years of occupation they constructed a network in the south east of Britain, partly based on native tracks that existed before their arrival.

A number of those roads connected at points to the north and south of the Thames bridge. The original temporary military crossing was probably soon replaced by a more permanent structure, thought to be located in line with the modern Fish Street Hill, slightly downstream of the current bridge. Such an important point required a military guard and a certain amount of management to supervise traffic and make repairs, so a small settlement was established on Cornhill. It soon became clear that a larger presence, formally constituted, was required on the site. The decision to build the new town of Londinium on the north side of the bridge was taken in around 47 AD and building works started the following year. A commercial district of shops and workshops evolved along the Via Decumana, the modern-day Cheapside. It quickly grew into a busy conurbation, home to people from all parts of the Empire but probably mostly from Gaul. The population increased rapidly and by 60 AD it is estimated to have been in the region of ten to twenty thousand people.

Londinium enjoyed a favourable location. A long navigable tideway brought vessels fifty miles from the North Sea, providing relatively easy access from Continental Europe. There was fresh water, fish stocks, and rich agricultural land further upriver. The first town lasted for little more than a decade before being destroyed and reduced to ash during Queen Boudicca’s rebellion. It had by then become an important and strategic place so had to be restored. Its destruction gave the Romans the opportunity to rebuild on a grander scale. During that same period a decision was taken that Londinium should become the capital of Britannia in place of Colchester. In the latter first century a vast basilica, the administrative centre, was constructed. Various government and public buildings were established, many in Kentish ragstone brought up the Thames by boat from a quarry near the River Medway. By the end of the century Londinium was beginning to look like the type of Roman town we would usually imagine. At some time between 85 and 90 AD a new bridge was built over the Thames, constructed of wood. The city continued to evolve and expand in the second century, particularly at the time of the visit of Emperor Hadrian in 122. Many public buildings were rebuilt for the occasion, including the amphitheatre, and a forum (marketplace) was created adjoining the basilica.

At some point during the period between 190 and 210 a semi-circular wall was constructed around the land-facing sides of Londinium. It was a massive undertaking, requiring around 1,300 barge-loads of ragstone from the Medway. It was not put up in haste, probably taking around two years to construct, and did not protect the vulnerable riverside, indicating that the city was not under immediate threat of attack. The existence of the wall thereafter created a barrier to further outward expansion of Londinium, which remained the case until the Middle Ages.

Initially many of the town’s daily requirements were imported but as time went on workshops were established to produce goods for the resident population. The remains of mills, slaughter houses, and a glassworks have been discovered as well as many tools for metal-working, carpentry, engineering, building and shipping. Britain was a major source of wool and it is most likely that the city was a centre of textile and leather industries.

The staple food of Roman times was cereals and bread, which depended on the seasonal harvests. Occasionally riots occurred in various parts of the Empire when availability was scarce and prices high, so each town arranged warehouses where grain could be stored in plentiful years. Londinium had the disadvantage of being surrounded by poor farmland so grain had to be transported lengthy distances, much of it arriving at the Thames quays by boat from Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and along the River Lea.

Fish was plentiful and could be caught in the river and estuary. Varieties included herring, cod, sprat, eel, carp and bass. Oysters were a staple diet of both the wealthy and working people. The largest oyster beds in Britain were in the Thames Estuary and the shellfish were either brought upriver live in barrels of sea-water or pickled and stored. Fish and shellfish were usually eaten with garum, a sauce made by boiling down whole fish until it became a paste, after which it could be stored in jars and sold in shops. A factory where it was made seems to have operated close to the Londinium waterfront. British oysters were exported to other parts of the Empire and their shells have been found in excavations of Rome. Salt was brought to Londinium from inland mines or by boat from around the coast, particularly from Essex where it was extracted from water using pans.

By the third century the population of Londinium is estimated to have been at least 50,000 and perhaps as much as a 100,000 people, a number that would not be achieved again until the fourteenth century.

The main Roman trade routes from the Mediterranean to Londinium

The port of Londinium

Even before Londinium had been established, the invading army created a supply base at Richborough in Kent, north of modern-day Sandwich, which in those days was a natural harbour. Its closeness to the coast of Gaul ensured that Richborough continued as a port throughout the Roman period, particularly for larger vessels from southern Europe. From the first until the late third centuries it was, along with Dover and Boulogne, a base of the Classis Britannica, the division of the Roman navy entrusted with the security of the English Channel.

Roman ships generally only sailed to Britain in the calmer weather of the summer months. The open sea was avoided whenever possible, with ships hugging the Continental coast until able to take the shortest possible route across the Channel. Goods from the Mediterranean were generally shipped to Britain via the inland Rhône-Rhine route, rather than around the more exposed Iberian Peninsula, and transhipped at Domburg in the Netherlands. From there the sea journey from the Rhine estuary to Londinium was around thirty-six hours so, with turn-around time, a ship could make three or more voyages each fortnight. An alternative route, particularly for goods originating in central Gaul, was along the Rhône and Loire rivers and up the west coast of Gaul.

Navigating up the Thames from the North Sea was always slow and difficult for sailing ships. First they had to negotiate the many sandbanks along the north and south shores of the Estuary, then wait for incoming tides to sweep them up to Londinium. The prevailing wind is more often westerly than from the east and thus the going could be slow as the crew tacked their way upstream along the winding river. It was therefore more convenient for goods arriving on larger vessels to be reloaded onto smaller vessels at Richborough. From there they were brought up the Thames to Londinium or transported by road.

In the first decade or two of the settlement of Londinium boats, were most likely berthed on a sloping prepared beach. The first attempts at establishing a harbour were probably not made until the rebuilding of the town following the Boudicca rebellion. In around 62 AD new timber quays and warehouses were constructed, perhaps at the same time as a new bridge. They included a landing stage for small vessels, parallel to the bank. The work was almost certainly a public, not private, initiative and probably undertaken or supervised by military engineers. To the west of the bridge the waterfront buildings seem to have been residential whereas those to the east formed commercial wharves. Quayside warehouses of timber may have been constructed in the first century and later replaced by others built in stone.

By the end of the first century the original quays and landing stage had been replaced. In those times the Thames was much wider than today, possibly as much as one kilometre across at Londinium, with marshy islands on the south bank that became submerged by high tides. The quays were built out into the river, gradually advancing the waterfront terrace by around fifty metres in various stages of development between the first and third centuries. This advancement would have provided berthing in deeper water for larger vessels.

Initially Londinium probably acted as a supply hub for Roman Britannia, with goods and equipment passing through for the military campaign and the first wave of Roman occupiers. As Londinium grew, other towns were also established, with over forty Roman coastal harbours known to have existed to which goods could be shipped. Food, manufactured goods and luxury items continued to be imported into the capital from all parts of the Empire but by the early second century produce arriving was simply to meet the daily needs of the city and its immediate hinterland. The harbour was to remain relatively small compared with the great ports of Portus and Ostia that served Rome.

Many goods landed at Londinium came from northern and central Gaul, the Rhine ports and Bordeaux, but there were also some from Spain and Mediterranean harbours and North Africa. Certainly sculptures, bronzes, household goods and foodstuffs that have been unearthed in Londinium were of Italian, Spanish or Mediterranean origin. Olive oil for cooking and lighting came from Spain, wine from Gaul, the Rhine and Moselle areas, Italy and Spain. Other imports included textiles, silk, linen, quernstones (millstones), timber, pottery, samian crockery, glassware, lamps, jewellery, fish, fruit, honey, grape-syrup and salt. Garum came from Gaul and Spain, at least until it was manufactured in Londinium. Most cargoes arriving from long distances would have been transhipped several times through the extensive Roman entrepôt network on their journey. Ragstone and other kinds of stone were quarried locally in Britain and shipped to Londinium by river or around the coast, as were locally produced ceramics and roofing slates in the second and third centuries. There is less information regarding exports from Londinium but they are known to include capes, rugs and lead ingots. Most likely other exports were wool, grain and slaves.

As is known from other parts of the Empire, goods were carried in sacks and barrels. Liquids, such as olive oil, were transported and stored in pottery storage vessels known as amphoras that could be stacked upright or horizontally. Unloading a Roman vessel was labour-intensive and, as it was seasonal work, probably required a casual workforce. It is possible that lifting mechanisms were used to unload larger items but there is so far little evidence. As boats arrived, some goods were probably sold directly to the public on the quayside while others were put into transit buildings or stored in warehouses.

Sea levels in the first century were about three to four metres lower than today. There is evidence that the Thames was then tidal perhaps as far upriver as Westminster, but may have gradually receded during the Roman period in one of the world’s slow cycles of climate change. If that is the case, vessels could no longer be swept up as far as Londinium on an incoming tide. That would be a significant factor in the decline of the city in the late Roman period.

London: The Romans and Early Saxons II

Roman ships

When Julius Caesar’s fleet took part in a battle against the ships of the Veneti tribe of Brittany in 56 BC he noted how their vessels were better than his own for the conditions of the Atlantic coast. The Veneti ships had shallower keels that were more suited to tidal waters, solidly-built of oak, seams between planks caulked with moss, reeds or hazel shavings, with higher prows and sterns, and sails of leather that could withstand Atlantic storms. Thereafter Roman-era ships generally divided into either those of the Grecian/Roman tradition, suited to tideless Mediterranean conditions, or those for northern European seas based on Celtic designs. Goods arriving from the Mediterranean were generally transhipped several times throughout their journey, those ships arriving at Londinium would normally have been of the latter type.

Some Roman cargo ships are known to have carried loads of over 1,000 tons but it is unlikely that such large long-distance vessels ventured up the Thames. Those to be found in Londinium were more likely to be either smaller round-bottomed river and coastal boats, which were unable to beach at low tide and therefore anchored in mid-stream to load and unload, or flat-bottomed barges.

Importation and exportation was a precarious business, with large investment in the vessel and its cargo, financial risk and high reward. Much of the cost was raised in the form of syndicates of wealthy men who would not be ruined in the event of a ship being lost at sea. At first, cargo ships arriving were owned by traders from other parts of the Empire but there is evidence of later shipbuilding at Londinium, which indicates ownership by locally-based traders.

A typical Roman ship or barge was propelled by a single sail, mounted towards the front of the vessel. The centralized sternpost rudder had not yet been invented and thus direction was achieved by a large oar protruding from the right-hand side of the stern – the steer-board or ‘starboard’ side of the boat – or oar rudders on each side.

The decline of the Roman Empire

Roman civilisation reached its zenith during the mid-first century, at around the same time that Londinium was being established. While the city matured and grew on the western extremity of the Empire through the second and third centuries it was protected, and occasionally prospered, from troubles in Rome and elsewhere.

During the 170s victorious troops arriving back from battles in the east carried with them a plague that had a devastating effect on the Roman people. It wiped out about 5 million people, perhaps between 10 and 25 per cent of the entire population of the Empire. Garrison towns were particularly affected by the plague, leaving the Empire’s border vulnerable. At around the same time, the Langobardians invaded from Northern Germany, causing a war that lasted for seventeen years, during which they captured areas as far south as northern Italy; the first time Italian soil had been occupied for three centuries. A peace treaty was signed in 181 and the border was restored along the line of the River Danube but it was clear to the northern barbarians from that time on that Rome was not invincible.

To the north of the Continental Empire new nations formed, with the Goths, Franks and Alamanni becoming a major threat in the third century. The Franks, based in the lower Rhineland areas, began making raids on the wealthy and vulnerable east coast of Britain and the Thames estuary, while inland agricultural areas prospered and large mansions were built. People of wealth abandoned the coasts of East Anglia, the Thames Estuary, Kent, the south and the Severn Estuary, where they were vulnerable from raids by the Franks or Irish. A significant factor was the disbanding of the Classis Britannica fleet in the late third century. Long-distance voyages in and out of Londinium were unlikely to have been affected but coastal shipping was probably in greater danger. By the mid-third century the population of Londinium had reduced, as had the amount of imports arriving. As Londinium declined in importance and fewer ships arrived and departed, the timber quays and jetties along the river began to decay, probably from around 250 AD. Riverside warehouses were converted for residential use as trade diminished.

Londinium went into a long, slow decline during the fourth century. It had become successful partly because it was the most convenient port from which to trade with the Rhineland and near Continent. As the Roman armies lost control of the northern Continental areas it became safer to ship goods to and from Boulogne to the ports on the south coast of Britain. By the end of the fourth century Venta Belgarum (Winchester) overtook Londinium as Britain’s leading commercial centre.

When the east coast of Britannia came under attack from Germanic raiders a riverside wall was built to complete the enclosure of Londinium. Unlike the first three sides, the riverside section was certainly erected in haste and with far less care taken in its construction, using whatever materials were to hand. We can therefore be sure that it was constructed when the city was under immediate threat of attack. With the town almost cut off from the river by the wall, the timber quays had largely been dismantled by the fourth century. Despite its defensive wall, Londinium was overrun in 367 by an alliance of Picts, Irish, Franks and Saxons and had to be retaken by Roman forces.

In the early fifth century Visigoths invaded the Italian peninsula. Rome no longer had the ability to defend Britannia and the province became independent from what remained of the Empire. The population of southern England had been shifting more to the West Country and Londinium gradually dwindled until, at the end of the fifth century, it was most probably largely deserted. For a period of time life continued in Britain as it had done previously, with the Romano-British choosing their own leaders and prospering. In order to repel attacks by Picts from the north they enlisted Saxon men from the area around the mouth of the River Elbe in what is now northern Germany, as well as Jutes and Angles. The Romano-British began to squabble amongst themselves, however. During the first half of the fifth century the immigrant fighters rebelled against their Romano-British paymasters, slaughtering many of their leaders in about 459. In the following decades England was gradually divided into a number of tribal kingdoms.

The site of Lundenwic, showing the locations of the modern-day Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross Station.

Some of the ports known to have traded with Lundenwic.

The Saxon port of Lundenwic

When Londinium was abandoned, the Thames and its tributaries continued to be used for carrying and communication. The early Saxons were seafarers and did not possess the knowledge of how to maintain roads to a Roman standard. Yet they also initially lacked the skills to build sophisticated ships, and even their largest vessels were designed to be pulled up onto a beach.

Saxons began to berth their boats at low tide on the sloping foreshore two miles to the west of the deserted Londinium, where the river suddenly swings southwards in a large curve near the modern-day Charing Cross station. A new community known as Lundenwic began to grow there from the mid-seventh century. From a simple start of pulling boats onto the sloping bank, a market and trading port developed in the area of modern-day Covent Garden. ‘Wic’ was the Saxon word for market, indicating that Lundenwic developed for the purpose of trading, and is still remembered in the modern street name of Aldwych (‘old market’). At the early stages in the life of the community there was no need for shops, stalls, warehouses or quays. Traders could arrive from along the river or around the coast, moor up and, as the tide went out, allow the boat to berth on the muddy bank, selling goods directly from the vessel. Evidence indicates that a planned town grew rapidly in the 670s, which would be during the reign of the Mercian king Wulfhere. From the late seventh century a wooden embankment was constructed along and out into the river, perhaps with jetties.

Many artefacts of the time have been discovered around Covent Garden and therefore the limits of the settlement of Lundenwic can be defined. The line of the north shore was about 100 metres south of, and roughly parallel to, the old Roman road that was still in use. (By the late twelfth century the road was known as the Strand, Germanic for bank or shore). Lundenwic stretched from there northwards to around where the street Shorts Gardens now runs. The east side was approximately along Kingsway, stretching westwards to Trafalgar Square, a distance of over a kilometre. Its centre is now the site of the Royal Opera House. Within that area a permanent community developed, living in small wooden homes. The population consisted of farmers and smallholders, fishermen, traders and craftsmen dealing in bone, antler, metal and cloth. On the town’s fringes were gravel pits and horticulture, with some farms between Lundenwic and Thorney Island (modern Westminster) further along the river, including one at modern-day Downing Street. Northwards, towards the Roman road of Holborn/New Oxford Street, there was boggy ground.

The early Saxon period was an age when any form of transport other than boats was rare, with very few people owning a horse and cart. As a result, beach markets developed at locations along the river at Woolwich, Greenwich, Twickenham and Hampton Wick. Other port markets that developed around the same time included Sandwich, Hamwich (Southampton) and Gipeswic (Ipswich).

There is a written reference from around 672, in a grant by Frithuwold, sub-king of Surrey: ‘by the port of London, where ships come to land, on the same river [the Thames] on the southern side of the public way [the Strand].’ The historian Bede wrote in the early eighth century of a Frisian trader buying a Northumbrian slave at Lundenwic back in 679. In 731 he described London as ‘an emporium of many nations who come to it by land and sea’.

Saxon period trading markets existed by royal charter, with revenue collected by port-reeves on behalf of the king or landowner in the form of tolls on boats that berthed to trade. Extant documents from around 680 state the trade regulations to be observed by the men of Kent when they bartered at Lundenwic. At that time King Hlothere of Kent appointed a royal official, or reeve, to administer local wics and by at least the 730s the kingdom of Kent was levying tolls on boats using the market of Lundenwic. A document dated 734 refers to ‘the remission of all dues … which are exacted by the tax-gatherers in the port of London’ and from that time the king gave the bishops of Rochester and Worcester and the abbess of Minster in Thanet the right to levy tolls on certain ships at the port.

The lack of exotic items found in excavations shows that during the early stages of the development of Lundenwic, from around 630 until the mid-eighth century, trade was quite local in its nature. Most goods brought to the beach market were perhaps produce from further along the river or nearby coastal villages. The inhabitants probably survived mainly on grain, meat, hay, timber and wool from the immediate hinterland. Local farmers visited the market from up and down the river to buy and sell produce, arriving in small punts that were dug out from the trunk of a tree, between two and four metres in length. They were sufficient to carry up to about four people or several animal carcasses and were propelled by a pole or paddle. Long distance traders arrived in ships made from oak planks of between 20 and 30 metres in length, powered by a sail and steered by an oar, probably of clinker construction. Excavated fishbones and shells include freshwater species, as well as marine varieties such as cod, haddock, herring, whiting, bass, plaice, flounder, whale and oysters.

Money was required in order to easily buy and sell goods. Seventh century gold coins known as thrymsas have been found at other places bearing the name ‘LONDVNIV’, showing that a mint had already been established. During the late eighth century silver penny coins were being minted for the Mercian kings bearing the name ‘LUNDINIA’.

By the eighth century the population of Lundenwic had grown in size and goods were being traded with ports such as Gipeswic, Eorforwic (York) and Hamwic. The greatest international trade was with settlements around the mouth of the Rhine and the north-west coast of what is now France, and Lundenwic was frequented by Frisian and Frankish traders. Ships sailed to and from the ports of Dorestad (Wijk-bii-Duurstede in the Netherlands), Sliaswich (Schleswig in Germany), Quentovic (near Boulogne), and even as far as Norway. Wine, quernstones, pottery and luxury goods were imported and ships returned with wool or cloth. Dried figs and grapes indicate trade with places even further afield.

Lundenwic was a relatively large community of perhaps six to seven thousand people by its heyday in the mid-eighth century, by then within the kingdom of Mercia on the border with Essex. Excavations show a settlement at that time of around sixty hectares, laid out in a grid pattern, similar to earlier Roman towns. Although never as large as the old Roman city, it was nevertheless probably the largest Saxon settlement in England. On several occasions, between 764 and 801, the town suffered from fires from which it may never have fully recovered. It went into decline during a period of unrest in the Carolingian kingdoms in France and Germany in the late eighth century, suffered from rivalry between the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, and the added threat of attack from Vikings from the early ninth century. Lundenwic, like its Roman predecessor, was thereafter abandoned by the Saxons, having flourished for less than a century.


The Phoenicians were the first to build proper ships and to brave the rough waters of the Atlantic.

To be sure, the Minoans before them traded with great vigor and defended their Mediterranean trade routes with swift and vicious naval force. Their ships—built with tools of sharp-edged bronze—were elegant and strong: they were made of cypress trees, sawn in half and lapped together, with white-painted and sized linen stretched across the planks, and with a sail suspended from a mast of oak, and oars to supplement their speed. But they worked only by day, and they voyaged only between the islands within a few days’ sailing of Crete; never once did any Minoan dare venture beyond the Pillars of Hercules, into the crashing waves of the Sea of Perpetual Gloom.

The Minoans, like most of their rival thalassocracies, accepted without demur the legends that enfolded the Atlantic, the stories and the sagas that conspired to keep even the boldest away. The waters beyond the Pillars, beyond the known world, beyond what the Greeks called the oekumen, the inhabited earth, were simply too fantastic and frightful to even think of braving. There might have been some engaging marvels: close inshore, the Gardens of the Hesperides, and somewhat farther beyond, that greatest of all Greek philosophical wonderlands, Atlantis. But otherwise the ocean was a place wreathed in terror: I can find no way whatever of getting out of this gray surf, Odysseus might well have complained, no way out of this gray sea. The winds howled too fiercely, the storms blew up without warning, the waves were of a scale and ferocity never seen in the Mediterranean.

Nevertheless, the relatively peaceable inland sea of the classical world was to prove a training ground, a nursery school, for those sailors who in time, and as an inevitable part of human progress, would prove infinitely more daring and commercially ambitious than the Minoans. At just about the time that Santorini erupted and, as many believe, gave the final fatal blow to Minoan ambitions, so the more mercantile of the Levantines awoke. From their sliver of coastal land—a sliver that, in time, would become Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel, and can be described as a land with an innate tendency toward ambition—the big Phoenician ships ventured out and sailed westward, trading, battling, dominating.

When they came to the Pillars of Hercules, some time around the seventh century B.C., they, unlike all of their predecessors, decided not to stop. Their captains, no doubt bold men and true, decided to sail right through, into the onrushing waves and storms, and see before all other men just what lay beyond.

The men from the port of Tyre appear to have been the first to do so. Their boats, broad-beamed, sickle-shaped “round ships” or galloi—so called because of the sinuous fat curves of the hulls, and often with two sails suspended from hefty masts, one at midships and one close to the forepeak—were made of locally felled and surprisingly skillfully machined cedar planks, fixed throughout with mortise and tenon joints and sealed with tar. Most of the long-haul vessels from Tyre, Byblos, and Sidon had oarsmen, too—seven on each side for the smaller trading vessels, double banks of thirteen on either side of the larger ships, which gave them a formidable accelerative edge. Their decorations were grand and often deliberately intimidating—enormous painted eyes on the prow, many-toothed dragons and roaring tigers tipped with metal ram-blades, in contrast to the ample-bosomed wenches later beloved by Western sailors.

Phoenician ships were built for business. The famous Bronze Age wreck discovered at Uluburun in southern Turkey by a sponge diver in 1982 (and which, while not definitely Phoenician, was certainly typical of the period) displayed both the magnificent choice of trade goods available in the Mediterranean and the vast range of journeys to be undertaken. The crew on this particular voyage had evidently taken her to Egypt, to Cyprus, to Crete, to the mainland of Greece, and possibly even as far as Spain. When they sank, presumably when the cargo shifted in a sudden storm, the holds of the forty-five-foot-long galloi contained a bewildering and fatally heavy amassment of delights, far more than John Masefield could ever have fancied. There were ingots of copper and tin, blue glass and ebony, amber, ostrich eggs, an Italian sword, a Bulgarian axe, figs, pomegranates, a gold scarab with the image of Nefertiti, a set of bronze tools that most probably belonged to the ship’s carpenter, a ton of terebinth resin, hosts of jugs and vases and Greek storage jars known as pithoi, silver and gold earrings, innumerable lamps, and a large cache of hippopotamus ivory.

The possibility that the Uluburun ship journeyed as far as Spain suggests the traders’ ultimate navigational ambitions. The forty ingots of tin included in the cargo hints at their commercial motive. Tin was an essential component of bronze, and since the introduction of metal coinage in the seventh century B.C., the demand for it had vastly increased. It was known anecdotally to the Levantines that alluvial tin was to be found in several of the rivers that cascaded down from the hills of central southern Spain—the Guadalquivir and the Guadalete most notably, but also the Tinto, the Odiel, and the Guadiana—and so the Phoenicians, at around this time, decided to move, and disregard the legendary warnings. For them, with the limited knowledge they had and the jeremiads on daily offer from the seers and priests, it was as audacious as attempting to travel into outer space: full of risk, and with uncertain rewards.

And so, traveling in convoy for safety and comfort, the first brave sailors passed beneath the wrathful brows of the rock pillars—Gibraltar to the north and Jebel Musa to the south—made their halting way, without apparent incident, along the Iberian coastline, and finding matters more congenial than they imagined—for they were in sight of land all the time, and did not venture into the farther deep—they then set up the oceanic trading stations they would occupy for the next four centuries. The first was at Gades, today’s Cádiz; the second was Tartessus, long lost today, possibly mentioned in the Bible as Tharshish, and by Aristophanes for the quality of the local lampreys, but believed to be a little farther north than Gades, along the Spanish Atlantic coast at Huelva.

It was from these two stations that the sailors of the Phoenician merchant marine began to perfect their big-ocean sailing techniques. It was from here that they first embarked on the long and dangerous voyages that would become precedents for the following two thousand years of the oceanic exploration of these parts.

They came first for the tin. But while this trade flourished, prompting the merchantmen to sail to Brittany and Cornwall and even perhaps beyond, it was their discovery of the beautiful murex snails that took them far beyond the shores of their imagination.

The magic of murex had been discovered seven hundred years before, by the Minoans, who discerned that, with time and trouble, the mollusks could be made to secrete large quantities of a rich and indelible purple-crimson dye—of a color so memorable the Minoan aristocracy promptly decided to dress in clothes colored with it. The color was costly, and there were laws that banned its use by the lower classes. The murex dye swiftly became—for the Minoans, for the Phoenicians, and most notably of all, for the Romans—the most prized color of imperial authority. One was born to the purple: only one so clad could be part of the vast engine work of Roman rule, or as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, of the “emperors, senior magistrates, senators and members of the equestrian class of Ancient Rome.”

By the seventh century B.C., the seaborne Phoenicians were venturing out from their two Spanish entrepôts, searching for the mollusks that excreted this dye. They found little evidence of it in their searches to the north, along the Spanish coast; but once they headed southward, hugging the low sandy cliffs of the northern corner of Africa, and as the waters warmed, they found murex colonies in abundance. As they explored, so they sheltered their ships in likely-looking harbors along the way—first in a town they built and called Lixus, close to Tangier and in the foothills of the Rif: there remains a poorly maintained mosaic there of the sea god Oceanus, apparently laid by the Greeks.

Then they moved on south and found goods to trade in an estuary close to today’s Rabat. They left soldiers and encampments at still-flourishing coastal towns like Azemmour, and then, in boats with high and exaggerated prows and sterns, decorated with horses’ heads and known as hippoi, they pressed farther and farther from home, coming eventually to the islands that would be named Mogador. Here the gastropods were to be found in suitably vast quantities. And so this pair of islands, sheltering the estuary of the river named the Oued Ksob, is probably as far south as they went, and this is where their murex trade commenced with a dominating vengeance.

What are now known as Les Îles Purpuraires, bound inside a foaming vortex of tide rips, lie in the middle of the harbor of what is now the tidy Moroccan jewel of Essaouira. This town is now best known for its gigantic eighteenth-century seaside ramparts, properly fortified with breastworks and embrasures, spiked bastions, and rows of black cannon, and which enclose a handsome cloistered medina. The walkways on top of the curtain walls are the perfect place to watch the ever-crashing surf from the Atlantic rollers, especially as the sun goes down over the sea. The Phoenicians found that the snails gathered in the thousands there, in rock crevices, and they scooped them up in weighted and baited baskets. Extracting the dye—known chemically as 6.6′-dibromoindigo, and released by the animals as a defense mechanism—was rather less easy, the process always kept secret. The animal’s tincture vein had to be removed and boiled up in lead basins, and it would take many thousands of snails to produce sufficient purple to dye a single garment. It was traded, and the trade was tightly controlled, from the home port of the sailors who harvested it: Tyre. For a thousand years, genuine Tyrian purple was worth, ounce for ounce, as much as twenty times the price of gold.

The Phoenicians’ now-proven aptitude for sailing the North African coast was to be the key that unlocked the Atlantic for all time. The fear of the great unknown waters beyond the Pillars of Hercules swiftly dissipated. Before long a viewer perched high on the limestone crags of Gibraltar or Jebel Musa would be able spy other craft, from other nations, European or North African or Levantine, passing from the still blue waters of the Mediterranean into the gray waves of the Atlantic—timidly at first maybe, but soon bold and undaunted, just as the Phoenicians had been.

“Multi pertransibunt, et augebitur scientia” was a phrase from the Book of Daniel that would be inscribed beneath a fanciful illustration, engraved on the title page of a book by Sir Francis Bacon, of a galleon passing outbound, between the Pillars, shattering the comforts and securities of old. “Many will pass through, and their knowledge will become ever greater,” it is probably best translated—and it was thanks to the purple-veined gastropods and the Phoenicians who were brave enough to seek them out that such a sentiment, with its implication that learning comes only from the taking of chances and risk, would become steadily more true. It was a sentiment born at the entrance to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Hanseatic League

Soldiers of the Hanseatic League, 15th Century.Map of the Hanseatic League, showing principal Hanseatic cities.

The Hanseatic League, originally an ad hoc association of traveling merchants, had since the thirteenth century developed into a mighty alliance of cities, which for about 300 years largely controlled trade, shipping, and politics in the North Sea and Baltic regions. The Old High German word Hanse meant “crowd” or “community,” and in the twelfth century it designated a cooperative association of long-distance traders who mostly came from the same region or town. Many local Hanse associations existed before the German Hanseatic League of the thirteenth century made its first appearance on the political stage. Merchants from Cologne who operated a branch in London were the first to join together as an association. Their London branch, the Guildhall, and the goods they traded in, were granted a special privilege by the king in 1175. But perhaps more important for the history of the Hanseatic League were the processes that began to play themselves out in the Baltic region during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These included the founding of Lübeck and many other cities in the Baltic region as Germans settled there and the founding of the Gotlandfahrergenossenschaft (German company of merchants traveling to Gotland).

The founding of Lübeck (1143–1159) provided German long-distance Baltic traders with a headquarters and enabled more local merchants from Lower Saxony and Westphalia to access markets in the Baltic region and Russia without having to trade through Scandinavian or Slavic middlemen. For many years, for example, the farmer-merchants on the island of Gotland had dominated trade with Russia. Lübeck, and the advantages it provided for German long-distance traders, represented a real challenge to the Gotlanders. The German merchants were better financed, better trained in the techniques of trade, and better organized, and they possessed a boat—the cog—with a larger carrying capacity than the Gotlanders had at their disposal. In 1161, Duke Henry the Lion permitted the Gotlanders to trade in his Saxon domain under the condition that German merchants be granted the same privilege on Gotland. This greatly stimulated German trade on the island. A document from 1252, a privilege granted by Countess Margaret of Flanders (died 1285), contains the first mention of a Gotland Travelers Association (“universi mercatores romani imperii gotlandiam frequentantes”). It acknowledged visitations by an association of merchants from the “Roman Empire” on Gotland that pursued trade both in the east and in the west and that increasingly used its branch in Visby to gain a foothold in the Novgorod market. Like the Gotlanders before them, they erected a trading center in Novgorod, the Peterhof, which became the Kontor (trading outpost) for the developing Hanseatic trade with Russia. Because of its enormous hinterland, which extended all the way to the White Sea, Novgorod became the center of the pelt trade. Trade with Novgorod was controlled from Visby, on Gotland, and this was where the surplus money was brought at the conclusion of the trading season. However, since the late thirteenth century, Lübeck had begun to vie for control of the Russian trade, and with the support of other cities it successfully argued that legal disputes in Novgorod could be appealed both in Visby and in Lübeck. With that right, Lübeck’s future role as “protector” of the Russia trade was more or less preordained.

A major contributor to their subsequent success was the Lübeck law with its attendant rights that served as the inspiration for other cities. Riga, for example, which had been founded in 1201 at the mouth of the Daugava by a former canon from Bremen, became a long-distance port serving Lübeck. Riga was joined in the thirteenth century by a string of trading cities along the southern Baltic coast, arrayed like pearl necklace: Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, Greifswald, Elbing, Königsberg, and Reval. German traders had also settled in the Scandinavian kingdoms. In Denmark, schools of herring off the coast of Scania lured German traders; the same was true for southern Sweden, where German traders and artisans became commonplace in the cities, especially in Lödöse, Kalmar, and Stockholm. German miners could be found throughout the iron and copper mining districts as well. Norway was another important trading partner because it was dependent on grain imports to feed its population. Merchants from Lübeck supplied this commodity in exchange for dried cod (stockfish), which was caught in Norwegian waters and dried on wooden racks. The most important trading center was Bergen, where another Hanseatic Kontor was erected, the so-called German Bridge (Deutsche Brücke). From here the Lübeckers controlled trade with the Scandinavian kingdoms.

But Russia, Scandinavia, and the adjacent areas along the Baltic were not the only centers of German trade. At first, with Cologne taking the lead, they also traded with England and then Flanders. After the special privilege of 1175, the 1303 “Carta mercatoria” of Edward I promised foreign merchants, among other things, an exemption from all levies, settlement rights, legal protection from encroachment by royal officials, and the renunciation of new levies in the future—in exchange for an increase in tariffs. This last provision, the renunciation of new levies, would turn out to be the core of the privilege. When Edward III placed a duty on cloth exports in 1337 to finance the Hundred Years’ War, the Hanseatic League successfully gained exemption from this levy by arguing the “Carta mercatoria.” English merchants and other foreigners were forced to pay. With that exemption, the “Carta mercatoria,” which originally applied to all foreigners trading in England, became a privilege of the Hanseatic League alone. They used the Guildhall as their Kontor and then built up the adjacent Steelyard grounds for the purpose of further exploiting their privilege.

The final, and in fact most important, trade region in which German merchants were active was Flanders, where high-quality textiles were produced in large quantities. At first, the German merchants acquired these textiles at markets in Champagne and later primarily in Bruges, which because of its central location developed into the most important commodity market in western Europe. In 1252, Countess Margaret privileged the German merchants by granting them relief from customs duties. One year later, they were exempted from trial by combat, liability for the debts and transgressions of others, and from strand law and other encumbrances, which greatly bolstered the legal underpinnings of their trade. Nonetheless, conflicts between the city of Bruges and the German merchants were frequent, largely for reasons of restraint of trade. In 1280–1282, the merchants reacted by moving temporarily to the neighboring city of Aardenburg, as a result of which Bruges reaffirmed its privileges. Then in 1347, the German merchants devised a Kontor system of their own, which was supposed to consolidate their interests vis-à-vis the city of Bruges and the Duchy of Flanders. They did this because trade with Flanders was a matter of life and death to them; this was where they acquired the textiles that they then sold in the markets of Germany, the Baltic region, and Russia.

To successfully counter further infringements on their privileges in Flanders, in 1356 they placed the hitherto independent Bruges Kontor under the authority of an umbrella institution, the Hanseatic Diet, which was usually but not always held in Lübeck. From then on, the Hanseatic Diet, representing the “cities of the Hanseatic League” (first mentioned in 1358), and not the Hanseatic merchants at the various trading outposts, determined trade policy. It soon became clear that the Hanseatic League as a whole was more adroit and powerful in pressing its interests than were the groups of Hanseatic merchants, each pursuing its own special interests in its foreign trading centers. The creation of the Hanseatic Diet representing all of the Hanseatic cities marked the end of a process that had begun in the thirteenth century, when the cities began to exert an ever-increasing influence on the cooperative associations of their merchants abroad. The cities had supported them in acquiring privileges, created the necessary legal structure for their trade, and granted them legal protection. From now on, the cities of the North Sea and Baltic region that were represented in the Hanseatic League would control trade and trade policies in this region. The representatives of these cities gathered as needed in the Hanseatic Diet, which made all of the important decisions. As a result, Lübeck became the de facto capital of the Hanseatic League.

New challenges in the Baltic region began to confront the Hanseatic League during the second half of the fourteenth century, which forced the new confederation of cities to prove its mettle. In 1360, King Valdemar IV (ca. 1320–1375) began to pursue a policy of Danish hegemony in the Baltic Sea and conquered not just Scania, which it had earlier lost to Sweden, but Gotland as well. Denmark raised duties and other levies for Hanseatic merchants, encumbering trade with Scania, which represented a casus belli for Lübeck and the eastern Hanseatic cities. After the Hanseatic League suffered an initial defeat at sea, Denmark made life difficult for the Hanseatic cities of the Zuiderzee and cut off passage through the Øresund to the Dutch cities that were loosely associated with the league. These actions struck a vital nerve. As a result, all of the Hanseatic cities from the lower Rhine to Reval joined forces with the cities on the Zuiderzee in the Confederation of Cologne. In concert, they militarily restored their privileges in the Treaty of Stralsund (1370), especially the right of unimpeded access to Denmark by land and by sea. They also received reparations stemming from the war. The Treaty of Stralsund marked the apex of power of the Hanseatic League; the supremacy of the Hanseatic cities in the Baltic trade was now uncontested. However, it remained a community of interest exclusively for merchants, who used political and military means to secure only their trading privileges.

Hanseatic trade proceeded from east to west along a line dotted with their trading centers in Novgorod, Reval, Riga, Visby, Danzig, Stralsund, Lübeck, Hamburg, Bruges, and London, and its existence was based on the trade between the suppliers of foodstuffs and raw materials in northern and eastern Europe and the commercial producers of finished products in northwestern Europe. The merchants, however, went well beyond their function as middlemen between east and west, first by trading in the products manufactured by the Hanseatic cities themselves and then by penetrating deep into the Baltic hinterlands south of the coast. As a result, not only did they open up trade with Bohemia and Silesia by way of the Elbe and Oder Rivers, they also followed the Vistula through Cracow to the copper mining districts of upper Hungary (Slovakia) and connected with trading partners in the Black Sea via Lemberg (Lviv).

The regions visited by these merchants depended on local demands and production. They had a large assortment of products, both mass-produced goods for daily life and luxury products for a small, wealthy clientele. The most important products were wool, woolen and linen textiles, pelts and furs, herring and dried cod, salt, wax, grain, flax and hemp, wood and forestry products (ash, pitch, tar), and beer and wine. Pelts, wax, grain, flax, wood, and beer flowed westward, where they were exchanged for needed textiles, salt, wine, metal products, spices, and other luxury goods. Fish was sold throughout the Hanseatic region.

We may have identified two interconnected economic regions in the east—on the one hand, the Russian trade region, centered in Novgorod with its pelts and furs, and on the other the Livonian urban region around Reval, Dorpat, and Riga along with the Daugava hinterland, which supplied mainly flax and hemp. Demand for furs—from expensive sable to cheap squirrel—and wax for illumination, was heavy throughout Europe. Hemp was needed for rope and flax for linen in all ports of the Hanseatic region. In eastern Europe, Flemish textiles and sea salt were in high demand. Another trade region south of Livonia was controlled by the state of the Teutonic Order and the Prussian Hanseatic cities of Danzig, Elbing, and Thorn. They made available to Hanseatic trade the products of the Lithuanian and Polish hinterland by way of the Vistula and Memel Rivers. The Lithuanian regions contributed wax, pelts, wood, and flax; Poland produced mainly grain and timber products. The latter supplied shipbuilders with wood for masts and planks; herring fisheries, breweries, and salt works needed wood for barrels, while numerous manufacturers were dependent on steady supplies of pitch, tar, and ash. The primary export product from the Prussian Hanseatic cities, however, was grain, which nourished the population living in the highly urbanized centers of western Europe. Not to be forgotten are luxury products like amber, which was gathered along the Sambian coast of the Baltic. The Teutonic Order had a monopoly on the amber trade, and they exported amber to Lübeck and Bruges, where amber turners worked them into luxurious rosaries. Salt, herring, and textiles were the most important Prussian imports.

In the western part of the Baltic, Sweden contributed iron, copper, butter, and cattle and cowhides to the Hanseatic trade, although, with the exception of metals, Sweden stood in the shadow of Denmark. Since the fifteenth century, Denmark had become an important exporter of horses, oxen, and butter. Prior to this time, Hanseatic trade with Denmark had primarily concentrated on Scanian herring, schools of which were in the fourteenth century said to be so thick that the fish could be caught by hand. During the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the decline in Baltic and North Sea herring increasingly amplified the importance of Dutch herring fishers. The other important fish supplier, Norway, which at the time belonged to Denmark, was profoundly dependent on Hanseatic imports. Hanseatic merchants supplied grain, flour, beer, malt, hops, salt, and linen, and they exported primarily dried cod and small quantities of cod liver oil, walrus tooth, skins, and other goods. When, toward the end of the fifteenth century and during the sixteenth, consumers came to prefer Icelandic dried cod, Hanseatic trade with Norway receded in importance.

Trade with England, the original domain of Hanseatic merchants from the Rhineland and Westphalia, continued to be brisk. They exported Rhine wine, metals, and the dyes madder and woad to England and imported tin and English wool for the textile industry in Flanders and Brabant, and later also English textiles. The Hanseatic cities of the Baltic coast, in turn, provided wares typical of the east, including pelts, wax, grain, and wood as well as Scandinavian fish and metals. The most important market in western Europe, however, was the Netherlands. Flanders and later Brabant were not only important textile producers, they also established key trade connections with the Mediterranean basin. The Hanseatic merchants bought goods in Flemish and Brabant cities, primarily woolen textiles of high and medium quality, as well as trousers from Bruges. They also acquired spices, figs, and raisins from southern Europe. France contributed oil and wine as well as bay salt. This sea salt, harvested from the Atlantic, became increasingly important as a preservative. Prussian and especially Netherlandish ships made regular bay salt runs, then used it as ballast on the way to the Baltic, where they traded it for grain and wood for the western European market. By doing so, they undermined Lübeck’s monopoly as an intermediary in trade. The Hanseatic presence in southern Europe was sporadic, except for the wine trade with Bordeaux, although the Veckinchusen family did attempt to establish trade in pelts with Venice.

In addition to products from distant trading partners, goods produced in Hanseatic cities played a key role in domestic as well as foreign trade. Products that flowed east included colored metallic goods from Aachen; Rhine wine; tools from the Westphalian lands of Mark, Berg, and Siegerland; ceramics from the Rhineland; Westphalian textiles and linen; brassware from Braunschweig; salt from Lüneburg; and beer from Hamburg.

The Hanseatic trade was organized by merchant trading companies. The most common model was the free type, in which two partners invested capital and split the profits according to the capital invested and the profits realized. Such organizations generally lasted for one to two years. The large-scale international merchants were generally involved in several companies at a time. This decreased their overall risk and increased the assortment of goods in which they traded. Relatives were often brought in as partners because they were more likely to be trustworthy, especially when it came to long-distance east-west trade. Unlike in Italy or in southern Germany, large, centrally controlled trading companies extending over several generations and including a large number of participants did not exist in the Hanseatic trade. As a result, the Hanseatic companies saw no need to introduce the double bookkeeping that was standard in Italy.

The four Hanseatic Kontore in Novgorod, Bergen, London, and Bruges formed a sort of higher-level trade organization. Here, German merchants lived in specially demarcated areas such as the Petershof, the German Bridge, or the walled Steelyard. Only in Bruges did Hanseatic merchants live with local hosts. Each Kontor was tightly structured, with aldermen (literally, older men) elected annually; firmly established statutes; and its own legal jurisdiction, counting house, and seal. The Kontore were important in terms of acquiring trading privileges because, with cover provided by the Hanseatic cities, they represented the interests of merchants in their dealings with the ruling elites and cities in the foreign countries in which they traded. But the Kontore also facilitated everyday trade by establishing a regular news and messenger system with their home cities, and the attendant correspondence, certification, and bookkeeping also helped them to raise credit. But above all, the reporting requirements regarding the Hanseatic merchants active in any given area encouraged a certain uniformity in the buying and selling of goods, which tended to limit competition among Hanseatic members.

Toward the end of the fifteenth century, Hanseatic trade experienced setbacks on all fronts. The old trading system based on privileges proved inadequate in the face of growing competition and the consolidation of the European powers. For example, the Scandinavian kings now attempted to limit Hanseatic trade for the benefit of their own merchants. At the same time, these kings played the Hanseatic merchants off against their Dutch competitors. As a result, the Hanseatic cities were drawn into Scandinavian power struggles by backing privateers in hopes of retaining their privileges. The closing of the Novgorod Kontor in 1494 by Ivan III was another blow, although much of its trade had already shifted to the Livonian port cities of Riga and Reval during the fifteenth century, as a result of which these cities experienced a significant upswing.

Matters were changing in England as well, where imports and exports of textiles were at the center of disputes. Internal conflicts within the Hanseatic League undoubtedly played a role, because Lübeck stubbornly demanded that England recognize its old privileges, whereas Cologne and the Prussian trading cities were ready to come to an accommodation. Be that as it may, the 1474 Treaty of Utrecht ratified an understanding with England that restored the Hanseatic privileges. As a result, Hanseatic trade in England enjoyed a final phase of prosperity up to the middle of the sixteenth century.

The Dutch and the Zeelanders were locked in competition with Hanseatic cities such as Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, and Greifswald because the latter saw their position as middlemen in the east-west route threatened. However, Lübeck was unable to limit Dutch access to the Baltic Sea, either by peaceful or by military means. In fact, the Prussian Hanseatic cities of Danzig, Elbing, Thorn, and Königsberg were largely dependent on Dutch freight capacity. As a result, in 1475–1476, a quarter of Danzig’s shipping relied on Dutch ships, an advantage that the Dutch continued to expand and exploit.

The Bruges Kontor had de facto been located in Antwerp since 1460 because merchants attended the Brabant trade fairs there and in Bergen op Zoom. By the time the Hanseatic merchants set about building a Kontor in Antwerp, in 1563, Antwerp’s trade had already reached its zenith. Other Hanseatic cities like Hamburg and Bremen contributed to the decline of the German Bridge Kontor in Bergen by increasing their trade with Iceland and the Shetland Islands in the late fifteenth century.

Signs of Hanseatic decline were rife in the sixteenth century. Historians have cited a number of causes for this decline, including the increasing vigor of the German territorial states and the Nordic kingdoms as well as overwhelming competition from southern German trading houses and the Netherlands. Nonetheless, this picture of decline contrasts markedly with the general upswing in European trade in the sixteenth century. Although the Hanseatic cities took part in this growth, a traditional trading system based on privileges proved no longer tenable. Neither Bruges, Bergen, Lübeck, nor Novgorod were the beneficiaries of this new expansion in trade, however; the future belonged to Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Danzig. Just as innovations in shipping and trade had once given the Hanseatic League an edge over the peasant-merchants from Gotland, new types of ships and the expansion of commission trade and cashless instruments of payment now overwhelmingly favored the Dutch.