Hasekura Tsunenaga: 1571–1622?

A replica of the Japanese-built galleon San Juan Bautista, in Ishinomaki, Japan.

December 1613. A samurai retainer from northern Japan stands on the deck of his ship as it clips along, sails billowing in the wind. For centuries, craft of all kinds have ferried passengers, troops and trade goods around the Japanese archipelago. But the Date Maru is different. At 500 tons, it is enormous by the standards of most earlier vessels, requiring thousands of labourers to construct it. And where other ships cling to the coast, seeking out Japan’s great trading entrepôts, this one is way out in the mid-Pacific. Hasekura Tsunenaga is heading not for Osaka or Nagasaki – but for Acapulco, in the Spanish Empire.

From there, Hasekura will journey overland through the Empire’s Viceroyalty of New Spain, stopping off in Mexico City before departing from Veracruz to sail the Atlantic. This is the first official Japanese embassy ever to be sent to Europe. Its purpose is to establish relations between Hasekura’s lord – the daimyō of Sendai, Date Masamune – and two of the great global leaders of the day: King Philip III of Spain and Pope Paul V.

Lingering for a thousand years on one another’s imaginative peripheries – in myth, legend and rumour – East Asia and Western Europe have become far better acquainted in recent decades. The first known Europeans to set foot in Japan did so in 1543 – by mistake: a small group of Portuguese were forced to make landfall on the island of Tanegashima, just off the southern main island of Kyūshū, when their Chinese junk encountered stormy weather. Portuguese-style firearms, duly nicknamed tanegashima, were soon raising the volume and the body-count on Japanese battlefields. Oda Nobunaga was amongst the earliest and most effective adopters. European maritime technology has also made its way into Japan. The Date Maru was built on the design of a Spanish galleon, with Spanish assistance. It even bears an alternative Spanish name: the San Juan Bautista (St John the Baptist).

That name hints at a third European import, possessing the potential to strike far deeper than guns or ships into how a nation thinks about itself, organizes its affairs and deals with its neighbours. The responses of Japan’s leaders to the dilemmas posed by Christianity, across three decades from Nobunaga’s death to the launching of the Date Maru, are set to tax Hasekura’s talents as a diplomat throughout his epic seven-year journey. Trouble is already brewing below deck, where around 140 Japanese merchants and samurai are packed together unhappily with forty Europeans, mostly Spaniards. Hasekura perhaps takes these tensions as a sign of what awaits him: encounters with Europeans that are coloured by recent history and by conflicting ambitions. What do the Japanese aboard the Date Maru want from Europe? And what might Europeans want from Japan?

In the hours and days following Oda Nobunaga’s death, very little retribution came the way of his assailants. Akechi Mitsuhide’s forces proceeded unimpeded from Kyoto to Azuchi, where they looted Nobunaga’s splendid castle. Soon afterwards it burned to the ground, following its owner into oblivion. But then Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s men, pursuing Nobunaga’s planned campaign against the Mōri in western Japan, captured an Akechi emissary and learned of their overlord’s fate. Hideyoshi moved swiftly to claim his inheritance. He persuaded the Mōri to make a truce with Nobunaga, neglecting to mention that the latter was dead. And then he marched his men towards Kyoto, destroying Mitsuhide’s forces not far from the city in early July. The man Nobunaga called ‘that bald rat’ carried the traitor Mitsuhide’s head back to Honnō-ji, where he presented it to the spirit of his former master.

Justice done, coalition-building began. Hideyoshi made terms with Tokugawa Ieyasu. He began awarding fiefs to key allies. And he had himself adopted by a Kyoto courtier, so that he could accept the post of Imperial Regent. Hideyoshi then set out to extend his hegemony across the rest of the country, beginning in the south. Free of Honshū’s costly conflicts in recent centuries, many of Kyūshū’s leading families could trace their roots all the way back to service as warrior-constables and samurai estate-managers in the Kamakura era. The Shimazu clan was currently the paramount power, pushing for control over the whole island. Hideyoshi responded in late 1586 by moving an enormous force – around a quarter of a million men – from Honshū to Kyūshū, where they made short work of the Shimazu.

By 1590, Hideyoshi’s last remaining enemy was the Hōjō clan in eastern Japan. After their leader, Ujimasa, refused calls to submit peacefully, Hideyoshi launched one of history’s least hurried sieges, of the Hōjō stronghold at Odawara Castle. Starting in May, he invited concubines, musicians, dancers, merchants and tea ceremony specialists to provide entertainment for himself and the troops, while the enemy slowly starved. The castle finally surrendered in August, at which point Ujimasa was ordered to perform ritual suicide and his family’s vast holdings were confiscated.

Hideyoshi took the opportunity of the Odawara siege to require the daimyō of northern Japan to demonstrate their loyalty, backing him in teaching the Hōjō a lesson. The region had seen its fair share of intrigue and fighting since the authority of the Ashikaga bakufu broke down and Japan broke apart in the late 1400s. But its remoteness from self-consciously ‘civilized’ central parts of the country – notably Kyoto – had long garnered it a rather unfair reputation for equal parts barbarity and banality: of little political or cultural consequence, save as the wild natural setting for folk tales and travel poetry. Northern warlords had become accustomed to the role of semi-detached observers of events down south.

No longer. Amongst those who travelled to Odawara in 1590 to offer their submission to Hideyoshi was Date Masamune, a much-feared daimyō in the southern part of Mutsu Province, known as the ‘One-Eyed Dragon’ after losing his right eye to smallpox as a child. Confirmed in his fief by Hideyoshi, two years later Date found himself leading an army of retainers all the way down to Kyūshū. One of them was a teenage Hasekura Tsunenaga. Born around 1571 to a northern samurai family, Hasekura served Date as a valued spy, emissary and information-gatherer.

Date, Hasekura and the rest of their northern army joined around 160,000 warriors and supporting personnel mustering at a giant, purpose-built fortress on the north-western coast of Kyūshū. Hideyoshi had made himself master of all Japan. But his ambitions did not end at his own borders. It was time to carve out a place in the wider world for what he called the ‘Land of the Gods’. China would fall, and then India. The first stop along the way would be the peninsula just across the water from Kyūshū. Date and Hasekura were about to take part in a full-scale invasion of Korea.

The East Asian order that Hideyoshi was setting out to overturn had long been shaped by the Chinese concept of tianxia (‘all under heaven’): a physical and moral universe in which China was in every respect central. Successive Chinese dynasties established official tributary relationships with peripheral ‘barbaric’ peoples across East and South East Asia, India, the east coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf. Networks of Chinese traders and pirates played an important ancillary role, spreading Chinese culture far and wide. The Japanese understood themselves as part of this tributary system while at the same time forming the centre-point of their own tianxia. Kanmu’s old northern foes the Emishi were amongst those cast in the role of barbarian outsiders.

Japan’s original place in the European imagination was more impressive: it was Paradise. Working with the Book of Genesis and alighting on the line ‘Now the Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden’, writers and map-makers had begun in the early 600s to adapt conventional divisions of the world into the territories of Europe, Africa and Asia by marking out ‘Paradise’ at a location remarkably close to that of the Japanese archipelago. The country’s fall from grace began a few centuries later, with the Venetian traveller Marco Polo (1254–1324). Living at the court of Kublai Khan not long after the latter’s failed invasion of the Japanese islands in 1274, Polo claimed that ‘Cipangu’ was rich in red pearls and gold and that its people were ‘good-looking and courteous’. But they were also given to ‘outlandish and diabolical exploits’, including the killing, cooking and eating of prisoners, whose flesh they considered ‘the finest food in existence’.

The first European actually to set eyes on Cipangu was Christopher Columbus – or so he thought at the time. In fact, his search in 1492 for a lucrative westward sea-route from Europe to spice-rich Asia had led him to Cuba. It was one of a series of unexpected discoveries that persuaded Europeans to rethink their picture of the world and to begin dividing it up between them. The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) drew a line down the Atlantic, approximately halfway between the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa and the lands discovered by Columbus. The Spanish took everything to the west: much of the Atlantic, all of the Americas, a new ocean beyond – christened ‘the Pacific’ in 1520, for its preternaturally calm waters – and finally the Philippines, claimed and named for King Philip II. The Portuguese travelled in the opposite direction, employing a combination of deal-making and war-making to build a network of trading outposts as they went: the southern Indian port of Calicut (1500), Mozambique Island (1505), Goa (1510), Malacca (1511), Hormuz (1514), Colombo (1518), Bombay (1534) and finally Macau in southern China (1557).

Japanese met European visions of the world in 1543, with the forced landing of a small group of Portuguese at Tanegashima. Japan, for the Portuguese, was the ‘far east’; less rich in resources than many parts of their empire, but promising nonetheless. The chaos of the Sengoku (Warring States) era, and associated problems with piracy, had brought trading relations between China and Japan almost to a halt. Portuguese merchants were able to step in, carrying raw Chinese silk to Kyūshū – where it fetched up to ten times its value in China – and shipping Japanese silver and other goods back in the opposite direction.

The Japanese regarded the Portuguese, in turn, as ‘southern barbarians’ (nanban), since they sailed to Japan from the south-west. They were associated with trade and soon with Christian missionaries, the first of whom arrived in 1549: three Spanish Jesuits, Francis Xavier amongst them, reached the southern tip of Kyūshū in a Chinese pirate ship. Buddhist clergy were fascinated. The missionaries claimed to have come from India (blurring origins and way-points) and they talked about their God as ‘Dainichi’: the celestial Buddha central to Shingon Buddhism. It followed that they must be offering a new interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings. The missionaries soon realized their mistake, switching to the word ‘Deus’ and dismissing Dainichi as ‘an invention of the Devil’. Their disillusioned Buddhist interlocutors gave as good as they got, pronouncing Deus as ‘dai uso’, ‘great lie’.

The Jesuits had better luck with the daimyō, especially in Kyūshū, where enthusiasm for the missionaries’ message combined with interest in the influence they appeared to enjoy over Portuguese merchants’ choices of ports and business partners. By the time Hideyoshi arrived in Kyūshū in 1586, a striking new phenomenon was sweeping the island: Christian daimyō, some of whom were capable of compelling large numbers of their vassals to convert in turn.

A man so concerned with his image that he inked his scalp to approximate the hair that he didn’t have, Hideyoshi was an enthusiast for Kyūshū’s hybrid nanban fashions: Portuguese-style cloaks, worn over armour; helmets based on exotic hat designs; baggy breeches; rosaries, reliquaries and crosses, designed to be hung about the body. Hideyoshi was keen, too, on trade and the wealth it generated. Nor was he philosophically opposed to Christianity. But surveying the scene in Kyūshū, he was reminded of a phenomenon against which he and Oda Nobunaga had struggled hard just a few years before: the coming together of commercial with religious and political power in a way that threatened the project for a single, secular, unified rule in Japan.

Nagasaki provided the clearest, most egregious example of the problem. A small fishing village on Kyūshū’s western coast had gained favour with the Portuguese for its sheltered natural harbour. Beginning in the early 1570s, a ‘Great Ship’ had begun arriving there most years from the Portuguese base at Macau. The Jesuits helped to facilitate this trade, ploughing their share of its enormous profits into missionary work that soon included schools and a printing press. Then, in May 1580, something truly shocking transpired: the Christian daimyō in control of the area gave Nagasaki to the Jesuits. He ceded them control of its land, administration and trade. Barely a fortnight after Nobunaga had forced the Buddhist Patriarch Kennyo out of the Ishiyama Hongan-ji at Osaka, another religious domain had started to take shape in Japan, complete with influential warlord allies and its own burgeoning fortifications.

Elsewhere on Kyūshū, Hideyoshi heard of shrines and temples being attacked by Christian converts. One temple was repurposed as a boys’ prep school, while others had their precious artefacts sold off, thrown into rivers or used for firewood. There were rumours that some foreigners, quite possibly Portuguese, were involved in trafficking Japanese people to China and elsewhere as slaves. To top it all off, a missionary approached Hideyoshi in advance of his Kyūshū campaign, offering to intercede on his behalf with the island’s Christian daimyō – as if their loyalties lay within the Jesuits’ gift.

Here was sacrilege on so many levels, evidence of a changing world order over which Hideyoshi resolved to exercise some serious influence. He began in July 1587. In a rage apparently enhanced by imbibing a generous quantity of Portuguese wine, he produced an edict condemning the ‘pernicious doctrine’ of Christianity and giving the Jesuits twenty days to leave the country. He seized Nagasaki from their grasp the following year, taking over its trade directly. In the end, Hideyoshi let the Jesuits stay: their merchant allies were too important to Kyūshū’s economy. But European influence in Japan had been curbed and Christians put on notice.

Hideyoshi followed up with a flurry of inflammatory missives sent to foreign powers near and far. In 1590, he wrote to the King of Korea explaining that he had been invested by heaven with a unique will to rule in the region: he was the ‘Sun Child’, conceived when his mother dreamed that the sun had entered her womb. On this basis, he expected the king, as his vassal and ally, to assist him in subjugating China. The following year, Hideyoshi wrote to the Philippines, demanding that the (Spanish) nanban there likewise accept his suzerainty. He promised otherwise to attack and destroy their walled enclave at Manila. Similar messages went out to the Ryūkyū Islands, to Japan’s far south, to Taiwan and even to Goa.

Amongst the few to respond to Hideyoshi was the King of Korea, making it clear in 1592 that he would not let Hideyoshi treat his peninsula as China’s driveway. Hideyoshi duly sent his 160,000 men – Date and Hasekura included – into action. The invasion of Korea became one of the most vivid signs of the unprecedented global mixing and mingling taking place in the sixteenth century. A Japanese force crossed the sea to Korea, aboard ships built with European merchant help, and led by daimyō with names like Dom Agostinho Konishi, Dom Sancho Ōmura and Dom Protasio Arima.

Landing at Pusan under their Christian commanders, Hideyoshi’s troops chased the Korean king steadily northwards, out of Seoul and later out of Pyongyang. For a few short months, almost the entire peninsula was in Hideyoshi’s hands. Then the Korean navy, Korean guerrillas and Chinese troops belatedly sent south across the Yalu River began to push his men much of the way back. By early 1593, nearly a third of the Japanese force had been wiped out and the war was at a stalemate. Hideyoshi had remained in Japan all the while – in contrast with Nobunaga, he rarely led from the front. There he moved from planning the precise format of ceremonies for when the Japanese emperor relocated to China to commencing years of humiliating talks on the terms of a truce.

Relationships with Spain and the Philippines went little better. The Spanish hoped to temper Hideyoshi’s bellicosity, establishing friendly trading relations instead. But in 1596 a Spanish galleon called the San Felipe, in service on the Manila–Acapulco route, was wrecked on the Japanese coast. When Hideyoshi proved reluctant to return the cargo, the ship’s pilot intervened, foolishly harping on Spain’s imperial designs for Japan. Brandishing an up-to-date world map to illustrate Spanish in relation to Japanese power, he claimed that missionaries in Japan were spying for the Spanish and that the Christianization of the country – home to around 300,000 believers by this point – was part of a grand colonial plan.

Hideyoshi was at first so angry that he ordered every Christian in Kyoto to be killed. He was persuaded by the governor of that city to limit himself to just twenty-six. Six Franciscans (four Spaniards, one Portuguese and one Mexican), three Japanese Jesuits and seventeen Japanese Franciscan tertiaries were rounded up. Their ears were cropped – a sign of criminal status – and they were taken to Nagasaki, paraded along the way through Osaka. On 5 February 1597 they were led up a hill overlooking the former Christian stronghold of Nagasaki, and crucified.

Hideyoshi died the next year in his lavishly appointed Kyoto home of Fushimi-Momoyama Castle, his planned conquest of Asia stalled in Korea. Discovering in the course of negotiations with the Chinese that they still – after everything that he had achieved – regarded the Japanese as a tributary people, he had launched a fresh invasion of Korea in 1597, this one even more brutal than the first. Hopes of a smooth succession went similarly awry. Hideyoshi’s plan had been for a board of five regents to keep his seat warm until his young son Hideyori came of age. Instead, one of those regents, Tokugawa Ieyasu, began dealing with the other daimyō as though he were now in charge.

Two factions quickly formed amongst Japan’s warlords: one in the east, supportive of Ieyasu, and another in central and western Japan, protecting Hideyori’s claim. The two sides met in battle at Sekigahara in October 1600 and Ieyasu won an epoch-making victory. He bolstered his position by taking the title of shogun, in 1603, and by launching the largest redistribution of land in Japanese history. Eighty-seven enemy daimyō were deprived of their holdings. Others were moved around, in some cases to weaken their support base. Allies were meanwhile rewarded via the creation of brand new domains. One of the great beneficiaries was Date Masamune, receiving the large north-eastern domain of Sendai.

While Kyoto remained Japan’s capital, real power now shifted to the Tokugawa castle town of Edo on the east coast. There, a new bakufu (military government) was established. Ieyasu stepped down as shogun in 1605, determined to achieve the intra-familial transfer of power – to his son Hidetada – which he had so conspicuously deprived Hideyoshi. But he remained very much in charge, seeking to address the legacy of Hideyoshi’s disastrous foreign policy. Ieyasu made peace with Korea in 1605 and limited trade was resumed. In 1609, the recently established Dutch United East India Company (VOC) was granted permission to set itself up at the port of Hirado, near Nagasaki. Agreement was reached with the English East India Company in 1613.

Ieyasu negotiated with the Spanish, too, hoping to increase trade with Manila and to enlist the help of mining experts from New Spain in maximizing profits from Japan’s silver mines – over which Ieyasu exercised personal control. A Spanish explorer by the name of Sebastián Vizcaíno was appointed as New Spain’s first ambassador to Japan, arriving in 1611. Two years later, the privilege of ferrying him back across the Pacific was claimed by Date Masamune, who successfully applied to the bakufu for permission to build a ship. The new vessel would do double-duty: as ambassadorial transport and as the means for Japan’s first official diplomatic embassy to Europe – sorely needed in the aftermath of Hideyoshi’s provocations – to complete the initial leg of a pioneering voyage.

Hasekura Tsunenaga led a reasonably quiet life for a few years after the Korean war. Receiving a commendation from Date for his service in the conflict, he returned home to raise a young family and continue in the service of his lord. Life changed in 1612 when Hasekura’s birth-father was required to perform ritual suicide after charges of fraud were brought against him. Such were the standards of the day – linking suicide with atonement and father with son – that Hasekura should have been ordered to do the same.

But Hasekura was too valuable. Instead of putting him to death, Date put him to work, leading a maritime mission so risky that Hasekura would either disappear along the way or return suitably chastened. In addition to helping his country’s international relationships recover, Date had personal plans for the voyage. No more northern ‘backwater’: he would turn Sendai into a global trading hub, bypassing Nagasaki and Manila. To that end, Hasekura was charged with opening up trade negotiations with Spain and the Viceroyalty of New Spain. He was also to ask King Philip III and Pope Paul V to send Christian missionaries to northern Japan – a diplomatic sweetener for convert-hungry Europeans, and also a source of the kind of cosmopolitan culture that had marked Nagasaki out as special.

Hasekura’s guide and interpreter on the trip was the Spanish Franciscan missionary Luis Sotelo – and he too had his own agenda. There was at present just a single Catholic diocese for the whole of Japan, based at Nagasaki, under the control of the Franciscans’ Jesuit rivals. Sotelo hoped to turn Date’s domain into the centre of a new Japanese diocese. He even hoped one day to become Archbishop of Japan.

What became known as the ‘Keichō Embassy’, after the name of the current era in Japan, departed from Tsukinoura harbour aboard the Date Maru on 23 October 1613. They made it safely across the Pacific to Cape Mendocino on the west coast of North America, while the first English colonists were settling in on the continent’s far eastern fringe. From Cape Mendocino, the Date Maru tracked the coastline down to a port near Acapulco, docking there in late January 1614. An advance party proceeded north overland towards Mexico City, where a Nahua annalist known by the Christian name of Don Domingo de San Antón recorded their grand entrance:

The 4th of the month of March of the year 1614 … there arrived here and entered inside the city of Mexico these Japanese nobles. They came in on horseback at 12 o’clock noon. Their vassals came ahead of them, just coming on foot, holding high something like little long narrow black poles … perhaps that signifies royal leadership there in Japan. They came attired in the same way they go about and are attired back home: they wear something like a tunic, tied in the back, and they tie their hair at the backs of their necks.

Conspicuous by their absence from the annalist’s account were the incomers’ weapons. And for good reason. Tensions between Japanese and Spanish passengers during the Pacific crossing erupted into violence shortly after they landed near Acapulco, ostensibly over who had responsibility for looking after gifts brought from Japan – including a number of folding screens commissioned by Ieyasu. The New Spain ambassador Sebastián Vizcaíno was beaten and stabbed, prompting the Viceroy of New Spain to demand that, with the exception of Hasekura and a handful of others, the Japanese surrender their weapons. It made for an unfortunate first impression.

Hasekura arrived in Mexico City some three weeks after the advance party. He had taken a scenic route through the hills of New Spain, stopping off at a number of Franciscan monasteries along the way, including one at Cuernavaca. Making it to the city in late March, he handed the Viceroy a letter from Date Masamune. Luis Sotelo passed over a separate letter from Ieyasu and Hidetada. Meetings were held with the Franciscan Order, aimed at having missionaries sent to Japan. And over the course of the next month, around sixty of Hasekura’s retainers were baptized and confirmed, with Franciscan friars for their sponsors. Hasekura himself was persuaded to hold off. Baptism would be a diplomatic act as well as a religious one. Better, therefore, to wait until he reached Europe.

In May, Hasekura split his embassy into two groups. One stayed in Mexico City to trade, while the other went with Hasekura to Veracruz. From there, they sailed via Cuba across a stormy Atlantic, arriving at the south-western Spanish port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in early October and cruising up the Guadalquivir River to the town of Coria del Río. Changing into more formal attire, they continued their journey by road to Seville: Luis Sotelo’s home and, more importantly, the only town in Spain permitted to trade beyond Europe.

The mayor and senior dignitaries crowded on to the Triana Bridge to greet Hasekura’s party as they arrived. Locals found Hasekura ‘calm’, ‘humble’ and ‘reasonable’. The archbishop was impressed by the manner and dress of his men, who brought to mind for him the biblical Three Wise Men.

At a special meeting of the Seville Senate, Hasekura presented gifts from Date Masamune, including a sword and a dagger sheathed in silk. Then, unrolling a calligraphic scroll adorned with gold, with Sotelo’s help he presented and elaborated on a message from his lord to the leaders of Seville:

I have learned of the afterlife, after hearing the teachings of Deus. Owing to unavoidable reasons, I cannot yet accept these teachings for myself. But in order to spread the word in my land, I have asked Friar Sotelo for his assistance, and am sending a samurai by the name of Hasekura. I hope for the safe arrival of these two at the feet of the King and the Pope, and the passing on of my wishes. It is my intent, by asserting the viability of maritime travel between Japan and Seville, to begin annual sea voyages.

Such grand requests required ratification at a higher level. So, according to a plan worked out well in advance by Sotelo, Hasekura’s embassy headed north for Madrid. Their caravan of carriages, sedan chairs, guards, guides, patissiers and chefs made for such a spectacular sight that people crowded around them in villages and towns all along the way, slowing their progress and causing them to arrive in the Spanish capital nearly a month behind schedule, on a snowy late December day in 1614.

And there the trouble began. King Philip III’s chamberlain and chaplain came to meet them, assuring Hasekura of the King’s help and encouraging him to make the most of the Christmas season in Madrid. But two weeks went by and still an invitation to meet the King at his home in the Royal Alcázar of Madrid was not forthcoming. The Spanish were beginning to think twice about their guests.

European impressions of the Japanese had come to be dominated, in recent decades, by Jesuit accounts, coloured by their hopes that the conversion of Japan would make up for the Catholic Church’s losses in Reformation Europe. Francis Xavier described the Japanese as ‘the best who have yet been discovered’. They were well-mannered, honourable, educated and proud. They rarely gambled, swore or stole, and they didn’t eat animals – preferring a diet of fish, rice and grain for which Xavier personally had little appetite but which hardly constituted a vice. They were open to having their understanding of the world challenged, and they seemed interested in Christianity and the West. Other Jesuits found the Japanese naturally given to interiority – a compliment, given the Jesuits’ own deep interest in the inner life – and more encouraging of women’s literacy and freedom than was generally the case in Europe.

Shortcomings were relatively few by comparison. Some Japanese held their own country in such high regard that they tended to disdain foreigners as a matter of course. The men seemed overly fond of weaponry – and of one another. Widespread male homosexuality, the missionaries concluded, was the result of Buddhist influence and years of civil war: twin evils that also accounted for the inhumanity of ritual suicide and summary execution, heavy drinking and a tendency to dissemble when questioned. Such difficulties were not insurmountable, and in 1582 the Jesuit ‘Visitador’ to India and the Far East, Alessandro Valignano, had decided to show Europeans at first hand just what a promising place Japan was. He sent four young Christian nobles from Kyūshū on a mini-European tour between 1584 and 1586, where they met, amongst others, King Philip II – the present King’s father – and for a time generated quite a stir.

But then news of the twenty-six ‘martyrs’ of 1597 reached European ears, seeming to confirm some of the more negative Jesuit commentary on Japan. Accounts doing the rounds in Portuguese Macau that year told of Japanese onlookers throwing stones at the men as they made their way to Nagasaki, calling them beasts and stuffing weeds into their mouths. A procession was held in their honour in Macau in December, accompanied by paintings of the grisly events, copies of which were sent to New Spain, Spain and Rome. A sermon was preached in Mexico City the same month – one of the dead, Felipe de Jesús, was a son of the city and New Spain’s first martyr.

The Franciscan missionary Marcelo de Ribadeneira, present in Nagasaki at the time of the crucifixions, published a highly romanticized account of the events and accompanied the remains of the six dead Franciscan friars to Mexico City in December 1598, later travelling to Rome to seek their beatification. His writings eventually became the source for a series of large murals commissioned by the Franciscan Order for the nave walls of the very monastery at Cuernavaca through which Hasekura had recently passed. Cuernavaca was one of the places where Spanish missionaries to Asia would stop on their way to the western coast of New Spain, so here perhaps was a reminder for them of how much they were risking – and why. Hasekura’s men may even have played a part in the creation of the murals, whose detail suggests either that Japanese physiques were used as models or that a Japanese painter did some of the work.

By the time Hasekura arrived in Madrid, King Philip III had thrown his weight behind the martyrs’ claim to sainthood. He had also received disturbing updates about Japan and the Hasekura embassy from the Viceroy of New Spain and from the Council of the Indies, the latter administering the Spanish Empire from within the Royal Alcázar. Hasekura’s embassy, it turned out, originated not with Japan’s national ruler but with a mere regional lord. And though they professed a desire for missionaries, their main aim was trade. Meanwhile, Christianity in Japan was in serious difficulty, returning, it seemed, to the dark days of Hideyoshi.

Unfortunately for Hasekura, Spanish intelligence on this last point was entirely accurate. Ieyasu had initially tolerated Christianity for the same economic reasons as Hideyoshi. But it soon started to seem more trouble than it was worth. Spanish Franciscan missionaries and the Jesuits were constantly at each other’s throats, while Japanese Christians were rumoured to have responded to the execution of some of their number in 1612 by saying prayers, singing hymns and collecting relics of the dead. Here was a religious community, Ieyasu concluded, whose worship centred on a criminal lawfully executed on a cross many centuries ago, and which appeared to treat present-day criminals with similar reverence.

It was an intolerable challenge to the bakufu’s still-fragile authority. So in December 1613, while Hasekura was sailing the Pacific, Christians in Kyoto and Edo were forced to renounce their faith. Churches were destroyed and some of Ieyasu’s own Christian retainers were sent into exile. On 27 January 1614, two days after Hasekura arrived in New Spain, Ieyasu ordered the drafting of a document banning Christianity and expelling all missionaries. It was disseminated across Japan in February, so that while Hasekura was seeking new missionaries in Mexico City, Seville and Madrid, those already in Japan were either leaving or going into hiding.

Aware of much of this by the time Hasekura turned up requesting an audience, King Philip first made him wait and then treated him coolly when he finally granted the audience on 30 January 1615. Hasekura entered the audience room to find the King standing near his throne, leaning casually on a table, surrounded by ministers and nobles. He refused to be greeted in the traditional way, with a kiss on his hand, and instead ordered his guests rather curtly to state their purpose. Luis Sotelo, mindful of his own mission, did what he could to soften the King up. He offered a creative interpretation of Date’s wishes, adding to the latter’s request for missionaries and trade the laying at King Philip’s feet of his vast lands in Sendai, his title and his unstinting service.

This bought the embassy a little warmth. Hasekura’s wish for baptism was granted, at a ceremony conducted in the presence of the King and other members of the royal family, to the strains of a choir singing Laudate Dominum. Hasekura received ‘Felipe Francisco’ for his Christian name, and the powerful Duke of Lerma for his godfather, a man said to have amassed a personal fortune of some 3 million ducats while ruling the realm on behalf of his less-than-conscientious king. Hasekura told Philip how moved he was to be born afresh with the King’s own name. Philip gave him a hug and wrote a letter in support of his request for an audience with the Pope. Philip’s advisers argued that now was not the time for such a meeting. The King countered that now was precisely the time, if matters in Japan were to improve.

The final leg of Hasekura’s European voyage took place that autumn, passing through Barcelona and Saint-Tropez. The latter – unplanned – stop marked the dawn of Franco-Japanese relations. Townspeople marvelled at samurai solemnly attending Mass, eating with the aid not of cutlery but of ‘two sticks’ and blowing their noses into small pieces of paper which they then discarded on the ground – and which the curious of Saint-Tropez proceeded to pick up and claim as souvenirs.

Genoa and the port of Civitavecchia followed, before Hasekura’s party arrived on the outskirts of Rome, to be met once again by European emissaries expressing suspicions about Japanese intentions towards Christianity. Luckily, Hasekura had three things in his favour. One of Europe’s most powerful monarchs had written him a reference. His long journey from Japan was taken as evidence of Date Masamune’s sincerity. And, perhaps most important of all, the Pope had personal need of him.

Paul V, born Camillo Borghese and elected to the papacy in 1605, was acquiring a reputation both for looking after his own – the Borghese family was now far advanced on its journey from Siena elite to Italian aristocracy – and for seeking to promote the Catholic Church’s claims to global universalism. He beatified Ignatius of Loyola in 1609 and would do the same with the one-time Japanese resident Francis Xavier: two of the principal founders of a religious Order, the Jesuits, that was responsible for leading mission work beyond Europe – learning new languages, exploring new cultures and testing the limits of pragmatic accommodation with non-Christian ideas and ways of life. The Pope lent his support, too, to the case for sainthood of the Nagasaki martyrs: heroic advocates for a faith whose progress in the world, from the time of Peter and Paul onwards, had often been marked by tragedy and pain.

The city of Rome would gain a great artistic symbol of this global Church in 1651: Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, representing the Danube (Europe), the Nile (Africa), the Río de la Plata (the Americas) and the Ganges (Asia). Well in advance of that, Pope Paul V was pioneering the use of diplomatic pageantry and art to stake his own claim to centrality in a Catholic tianxia. He had already welcomed embassies from the Kongo (in 1608) and Persia (1609). Now it was the turn of the Japanese to play their part.

So it was that, after a brief informal audience with the Pope at the Quirinal Palace on 25 October, Hasekura was awarded the accolade of a formal entry into Rome. It began at 3 p.m. on 29 October at the Porta Angelica. Wearing a kimono of white silk threaded with gold and silver motifs of flowers, birds and animals, Hasekura set out in a carriage while his men rode in front of him on finely caparisoned horses provided by the Pope. They were joined by ambassadors and aristocrats from Rome, Spain and France, alongside Swiss guardsmen and cavalry. The sound of trumpets and drums resounded around the streets as the embassy passed through, briefly drowned out by welcoming cannon-fire in St Peter’s Square and then the Castel Sant’Angelo. The procession ended at the Capitoline Hill, where Hasekura descended from his carriage and was welcomed to his accommodation by the Pope’s chamberlain.

For all its splendour, this was the economy version of a papal welcome. Senior cardinals and papal aides stayed away, according to rules under which only an embassy sent by a Christian head of state had a claim on their presence. A few days later, Hasekura dressed in his best for his second audience with the Pope, only to find the Holy Father dressing down in simple red, and greeting him in the relatively low-status Sala Clementina, within the Apostolic Palace. It was an impressive occasion nonetheless, for the visitors: the Pope sat on his red-velvet throne, a golden canopy overhead, surrounded by cardinals, archbishops, bishops and secretaries.

Hasekura entered, knelt once in the middle of the room and then again three times at the Pope’s feet, kissing them before he arose. Greeting the Pope in Japanese, with Sotelo interpreting, he took Date Masamune’s letter – written in Japanese and Latin – from a silk bag and presented it to the Pope. He then knelt again, but the Pope motioned him to stand as an aide read the Latin portion of the missive. Date was asking for Franciscan missionaries, pledging to build churches and protect priests. He hoped, too, for a bishop, whom he promised to maintain in appropriate comfort. The Pope’s aide responded by expressing pre-scripted delight that the mission had come from so far away, adding that he hoped for Date’s baptism soon.

In keeping with the best traditions of diplomacy, what each side really wanted could not be included in official correspondence, nor articulated in public. The Pope’s hopes for the visit were made manifest in art a few years after the visit. The Sala Regia, a large audience chamber at the Quirinal Palace, was redecorated, turning the upper parts of the room’s walls into an imagined spectators’ gallery. There, looking down on the Pope’s visitors, was a Japanese samurai dressed in an embroidered kimono of white silk: Hasekura Tsunenaga, freeze-framed in a fresco. Joining him in the image were four of his retainers, along with Luis Sotelo, gesturing downwards as though explaining to the Japanese the meaning of events taking place below. Further along the walls, likewise surveying the scene, were groups of Persians and Kongolese, alongside Armenians and Nestorian Christians from central Asia – all of them based on embassies received by the Pope, and all of it an implied rebuke of Protestant parochialism.

The discerning of Hasekura’s hidden motives required a careful reading of the letter from Date. It contained a rather strange and nebulous line: ‘For all the rest I thoroughly rely on [Sotelo and Hasekura], and I shall ratify anything they may conclude and ratify in my name.’ The Venetian ambassador to Rome suspected that he knew what this meant. He reported back to his Senate that Hasekura had quietly put an additional request to the Pope: ‘to receive under his protection as a sovereign prince his king, Masamune, who is on the way to become Emperor of Japan’.

Bearing in mind European uncertainty around this time over the roles of emperors versus shoguns, the Venetian ambassador seemed to be saying that Date’s real aim in sending the Hasekura mission to Rome was to forge foreign friendships that would help him declare his independence from Ieyasu and Hidetada, and perhaps go after the latter’s job. This was early days for the Tokugawa bakufu, and with Hideyori still alive there was everything to play for. Date perhaps hoped that by bringing the Pope onside he could leverage the latter’s authority and exploit to his advantage Japanese Christian concern over Ieyasu’s hostility towards them.

Whatever the truth behind the Venetian ambassador’s claims, the Pope showed little interest in forming an alliance – or, indeed, in agreeing to anything that Hasekura asked for. He made clear that his jurisdiction did not cover the trade policy of European powers. Nor did he show any willingness to create a new bishopric or support the sending of missionaries, shifting responsibility for the latter back to King Philip. Everything else Hasekura received during his stay in Rome – from honorary citizenship to a papal gift of a thousand gold ducats – represented consolation prizes at best.

Hasekura left Rome in early January 1616, beginning a long and dispiriting journey home. He found himself unwelcome in Spain: King Philip had secretly written to the Pope advising him to refuse all Japanese requests, while the Council of the Indies now barred Hasekura from Madrid and bade him return directly home instead. Hasekura ended up back in Seville for a few months, deploying his newly minted European contacts to the best effect he could. The Duke of Lerma, Pope Paul V and the Senate of Seville all received requests for help in meeting Date’s demands, with Hasekura now claiming that the fate of Japan’s Christians depended on them.

It was all to no avail, and in the summer of 1617 Hasekura was effectively deported: forced to sail back down the Guadalquivir River and to recross the Atlantic to New Spain. From there, his embassy reboarded the Date Maru, arriving in Manila in August 1618. The ship soon ended up in the hands of the Spanish navy, either commandeered by the Governor-General of the Philippines for service in an ongoing war with the English and the Dutch or donated by Luis Sotelo for that purpose. While the Date Maru was refitted for war, Hasekura, Sotelo and the others waited for an alternative ride home.

Hasekura and Sotelo may well have welcomed the delay in their return to Japan; Sotelo perhaps even engineered it, by making a gift of the Date Maru. One reason was the failure of their mission, another the Tokugawa turn against Christianity. Sotelo finally made it back in 1622 disguised as a merchant, only to be discovered, arrested and then burned at the stake with other Christians in 1624. All were tied loosely in the pyre, so that their writhing bodies would impress upon people the pain in store for those who broke the law. Setting out to lead the Christian community in Japan, Sotelo had ended as a martyr. He would be beatified in 1867, the final full year of Tokugawa rule.

Hasekura returned to Japan two years before Sotelo, reaching Sendai in September 1620 with presents for Date Masamune that included a portrait of the Pope and one of himself kneeling at prayer. The one thing he couldn’t give his lord was good news. Having maintained his support for Christianity throughout the period of Hasekura’s voyage, angering the shogun in the process, Date now turned his back. He banned Christianity in his domain and ordered the missionaries out.

No one knows for sure what became of Hasekura after this. Some say that he renounced his Christian faith, others that he died for it, along with his wife, children and servants. The most interesting afterlife afforded Hasekura insists that his ‘death’ in 1622 was faked by his family: a ruse to allow him to escape into the mountains. There he lived on for another thirty years as a recluse, finally passing away in 1654, at the age of eighty-four or thereabouts.

By this time the waters of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers were flowing in Rome, while in Japan the Tokugawa bakufu had finished mopping up their enemies and were firmly in control of the country’s affairs. Ieyasu and Hidetada had defeated Hideyoshi’s son Hideyori and almost 100,000 of his supporters in 1614–15, besieging them at Osaka Castle and forcing Hideyori and his mother into suicide. Ieyasu had passed away the next year, leaving his successors to continue the arrest and execution of Christians all the way into the 1630s. A final armed stand took place in 1637–8 on the Shimabara peninsula near Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of disaffected samurai and Christian peasants battled the bakufu, but eventually went the way of Hideyori and his loyalists: besieged in a castle, and then wiped out.

If Hasekura was indeed still around in the early 1640s, he would have seen a century of Japanese contact with Europe – beginning with the first shipwrecked Portuguese in 1543 – come almost full circle. Alongside missionaries, Portuguese traders were banned from Japan. Only Nagasaki was open to foreign ships, and soon the only Europeans with whom the bakufu would do business were the Dutch. Japanese were meanwhile forbidden from leaving the country, on pain of execution when they returned. Issued across the 1630s, these rules were known collectively as the sakoku – ‘closed country’ – edicts.

Across the decades that followed, the ban on Christianity was enforced with the help of Japan’s Buddhists, recovered from bloody setbacks under Oda Nobunaga and once again hand-in-glove with the state. Shinran’s sect in particular was so powerful that in 1602 Ieyasu had decided to turn an internal split into a permanent separation of an Eastern (Higashi) Hongan-ji from a Western (Nishi) Hongan-ji. Buddhist temples now ran a nationwide system of compulsory registration, so that the country’s leaders knew who was who and where they lived. And they administered a method of anti-Christian surveillance known as fumi-e (picture-treading). People suspected of harbouring Christian sympathies were required, once a year, to tread on an image of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary, many of them wrought in copper by apostates, working from the heart and taking as their model the kind of art that Hasekura had found everywhere during his travels in Europe.

For that deeply divided continent, long years of bloody religious conflict lay ahead. Japan, by contrast, had brought its own to a close. Its global relationships had also been settled, according to a vision – a Tokugawa tianxia – that prioritized domestic unity and bakufu control over foreign ambitions or friendships. It may have been less than Hideyoshi hoped for the Land of the Gods, but Japan was at last entering an era of remarkable peace and prosperity.

Vitus Jonassen Bering I

RCHKG8 Fur Traders of the Russian-American Company. Museum: State Central Navy Museum, St. Petersburg. Author: Pshenichny, Igor Pavlovich.

On November 5, 1724, Peter the Great waded waist-deep into the icy waters of the Gulf of Finland to help rescue some sailors whose boat had capsized. Fever and chills followed, later developing into pneumonia; his friends and advisers gathered round. Yet even as he lay dying, he made one last grand gesture, which – in keeping with a monarch who seemed incapable of any inconsequential act – would lead to discoveries of imperishable renown. Andrei Nartov, an associate, recalled:

I was then almost constantly with the Emperor, and saw with my own eyes how eager this Majesty was to get the expedition under way, being, as it were, conscious that his end was near. When all had been arranged he seemed pleased and content. Calling the general-admiral (Count Apraksin) to him he said: “Recently I have been thinking over a matter which has been on my mind for many years, but other affairs have prevented me from carrying it out. I have reference to the finding of a passage through the Arctic Sea. On the map before me there is indicated such a passage bearing the name of Anian. There must be some reason for that. In my last travels I discussed the subject with learned men, and they were of the opinion that such a passage could be found. Now that the country is in no danger from enemies we should strive to win for her glory along the lines of the arts and sciences.”

On December 23, as the expedition assumed final shape in his mind, Peter drew up brief instructions to the Admiralty College for the selection of its chief personnel. He wanted geodesists with first-hand knowledge of Eastern Siberia, hardy shipwrights, experienced mariners, and, if possible, “a navigator and assistant navigator who have been to North America. If such navigators cannot be found in the [Russian] Navy, then immediately write to Holland via the Admiralty Post and request two men who are familiar with the sea north toward Japan.”

The Admiralty opted for their own and immediately settled on Vitus Bering, a Dane in Russian service, as the expedition’s commander. They assigned him two lieutenants: Martin Spanberg (also a Dane, who ran the packet boat that shuttled regularly between Lübeck and Kronstadt), and Alexei Chirikov, an instructor of cadets at the Naval Academy. None of these men had ever been to America, but Bering had been to the East Indies in his youth, and all three were exceptionally capable and expert seamen.

Bering hastened to the capital from Vyborg, where he had a small estate, and on January 26, 1725, Peter signed his orders and scrawled terse instructions to various officials to give Bering and his staff whatever help they required. The tsar’s instructions to Bering himself, however, though no less imperious and brief (according to his style), were cryptically phrased:

1. In Kamchatka or some other place build one or two boats with decks.

2. On those boats sail near the land which goes to the north which (since no one knows where it ends) it seems is part of America.

3. Discover where it is joined to America, and go as far as some town belonging to a European power; if you encounter some European ship, ascertain from it what is the name of the nearest coast, and write it down and go ashore personally and obtain firsthand information, locate it on a map and return here.

Two days later, Peter died. In his place, the empress Catherine I, his widow and successor, confirmed the orders and had them conveyed to Bering on February 5, 1725, inaugurating one of the most remarkable sagas in the history of exploration.

Born at Horsens, Denmark, in 1681, Vitus Jonassen Bering had joined the Russian Navy as a sublieutenant at the age of twenty-three, and had served in the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, and the Baltic with distinction during the Great Northern War. His direction of transport and logistical operations earned him steady advancement, and by the end of the conflict he had made captain of the second rank. Under the patronage of two fellow Danes with considerable standing in the Admiralty, Peter Sievers and Cornelius Cruys (both primary architects of Peter’s new navy), Bering’s future prospects seemed bright. But at the conclusion of the war he was unexpectedly passed over for promotion, a casualty of the developing struggle in the naval high command between a faction led by Sievers and another (momentarily favored by the tsar) headed by Thomas Gordon, a Scot. Gordon’s star subsequently waned, and that of Sievers rose, with the support of Admiral Apraksin. But meanwhile, in disappointment, Bering had retired from the navy and withdrawn to his Vyborg estate.

Eight weeks later he was recalled to active duty, elevated to captain of the first rank, and given the assignment that was to govern the remainder of his days. At the time, he was forty-four years old.

Bering departed St. Petersburg upon receipt of his instructions and hastened to catch up to an advance contingent of the expedition which had left the capital twelve days before. From Vologda, they proceeded together across the Urals to Tobolsk, before embarking down the Irtysh River in May 1725. After pausing at Yeniseysk, where the party grew to ninety-seven with the addition of thirty carpenters and blacksmiths, they worked their way up the shoals and rapids of the Yenisey and Upper Tunguska rivers to Ilimsk. There the party divided, Spanberg going overland with the heavier supplies to Ust-Kut, where he supervised construction that winter of fifteen barges for conveying men and supplies down the Lena River to Yakutsk; and Bering heading south to Irkutsk, to assemble provisions for the next stage of the expedition and to plot the best route from there to Okhotsk.

Thus far, over the course of a year, and in spite of transport difficulties and little or no cooperation from Siberian officials, Bering had managed to move his men and equipment across 4,500 miles of mountain, forest, and steppe. But a still more trying road lay ahead. In the spring of 1726, more carpenters, blacksmiths, and two coopers were added to the force, and the whole party (reunited at Ust-Kut) embarked down the Lena River to Yakutsk. They made good time with sails and sweeps, and when the wind blew against them used an ingenious device called the watersail, made of larch logs lashed together and sunk lengthwise under the boats where the current acted upon it like the wind upon a sail. At Yakutsk, it was agreed that Chirikov remain for the winter to collect additional provisions, while Spanberg conveyed the heaviest and most unmanageable materiel (like rigging, tackle, iron, and tar) by boat to Yudoma Cross (at the headwaters of the Yudoma River). Bering himself, with two thousand leather sacks of flour, among other supplies, was to proceed on horseback directly to Okhotsk at the head of a baggage train.

The Yakutsk-to-Okhotsk Track – a deadly obstacle course of forests, rapids, marshes, icefields, bogs, and crags – was the roughest in Siberia, and after a forced march in which most of his packhorses died and tons of flour had to be cached along the way, Bering barely reached his destination before winter set in. Meanwhile, in early November Spanberg’s boats became ice-bound near the mouth of the Gorbeya River, short of Yudoma Cross and 350 miles from Okhotsk. The men disembarked, built dogsleds to carry the most vital stores (which they had to haul themselves), and to fend off starvation “consumed not only their horses, but their leather harness, clothing and boots.” From the raw horsehide itself they made new coats and shoes, having first “burnt off the Hair from their Skins with Lime.” Even so, they survived only because they found the flour Bering had cached, and because, when Bering learned of their predicament, he immediately dispatched dog teams for their relief. Meanwhile, to make better time, Spanberg had stored his own supplies in four different locations along the uninhabited trail. “And during his whole Passage,” Bering later recalled, “the poor People had no other Relief in the Night-time, or when the cutting icy Winds blew, than to cover themselves as deep as they could in the Snow.” The following spring the stashed provisions were retrieved, but there was no way to salvage the materiel which had been left on the boats, despite all the effort it had taken to bring them 5,000 miles from St. Petersburg.

And there was no way to make up for them either in Okhotsk, which was a refuge only in name. Located on “a current-ridden, empty waste of water,” the settlement consisted of eleven huts housing ten Russian families, a meager stock of powdered fish, and no home-grown foods, for not even rye, it was said, could ripen on its damp and windy shores. The men managed to build their own shelters, but construction of a proper ship was difficult because no stout trees like oak or elm grew in the vicinity, and the whole remote area “lacked all marine and other stores.” As a result, the decked boat they built for themselves (the Fortuna) was tied or “sewn” together with leather strips instead of being hammered together with nails. Such makeshift craft were common enough in Siberia because of the scarcity of technical supplies, but it was not the kind of vessel the naval officers were used to, or in which they had intended to cross the Okhotsk Sea. Nevertheless, in two trips with full cargos in the hold, the Fortuna served to convey them in July 1727 safely across to Bolsheretsk, the “capital” of Kamchatka. Located on the north side of the Bolshaya River, Bolsheretsk itself was still scarcely more than a stockade, garrisoned with about forty-five troops. Outside the fort there was a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas, a lodging belonging to the church, and about thirty houses on the various islands of the delta, among them a saloon and a distillery. The settlement was no place for a dockyard, so with the help of natives impressed into transport duty with their sleds and dogs, the expeditionary force crossed the rugged mountains to Nizhnekamchatsk, 600 miles away, on the eastern coast. Furious blizzards beleaguered the operation and clouds of sleet “rolled like a dark smoke over the moors.” At night, “or when-ever they had a Mind to rest,” they slept in deep trenches without cover, which they dug in the snow.

At Nizhnekamchatsk, Bering paid off the surviving Kamchadals with a little tobacco and train oil extracted from a whale that had washed up on the beach.

After years of unrest, a period of calm had ensued on the peninsula. Government agents, furnished with comprehensive written instructions, annually came and went; priests arrived to provide spiritual guidance for the unruly Cossacks and to convert the heathen; attempts were made to regularize yasak collection; and a census was taken of the native population and their property. But resentment toward the Russians smoldered underneath, and order would not be completely established until the 1730s, after many of the Kamchadals and Koryaks had been decimated by epidemics and new insurrections crushed.

In 1726, Bering’s overwhelming impression of Kamchatka was of a “strange place, which lies so far out of the Reach of the rest of Mankind, that it could never have been visited, much less planted and possessed by any but the Russians.” He realized its potential strategic importance, but conceded it had little to attract colonists, and in a rather backhanded compliment supposed that “if a sufficient Number of People were sent thither to cut down the vast Forests with which it is incumber’d, and enabled to till, manure, and cultivate the Earth, it might be render’d a Place far enough from being despicable.” At the time, the Russian presence was still pitifully small. There were only seventeen dwellings in Verkhnekamchatsk, and fifty in Nizhnekamchatsk, the two main settlements after Bolsheretsk. During the whole time Bering was there, no more than 150 servitors lived in all three forts, and their primary function was not to colonize but to collect the fur tribute from the Kamchadals. Native and Russian alike lived on fish, roots, berries, and wild birds, and the only agricultural initiative Bering could discover was at a local hermitage, where monastics had managed to coax turnips, barley, radishes, and hemp from the soil. In the spring, after working all winter on a new seaworthy vessel for the voyage, his vitamin-starved workmen frantically scrounged for wild garlic beneath the melting snow.

To provision the expedition and meet its other needs, Bering had to improvise. Hauling lumber for the ship on dogsled, he made a tar substitute from the sap of the local larch, and “instead of Meal or Corn, he furnished himself with Carrots or other Roots. By boiling the Sea-water, he procured as much Salt as he wanted. Fish Oyle served instead of Butter, and dry and wet Salt-fish took the Place of Beef and Pork. Having collected a vast Quantity of Plants and Herbs, he also distilled from them a pretty strong Spirit, upon which he was pleased to bestow the Name of Brandy, and of this he laid in a plentiful Stock.”

Vitus Jonassen Bering II

Post-mortem reconstruction of Vitus Jonassen Bering’s face.

On July 14, 1728 – three and a half years after leaving St. Petersburg – Bering’s newly constructed ship, the St. Gabriel, stocked with enough food to sustain its crew of forty for a year, sailed from the mouth of the Kamchatka River. Following the coast of the peninsula northward for five days, Bering turned northeast, and on the next day encountered land again just above 60 degrees north latitude. This was the underside of the Chukchi Peninsula (not clearly delineated on his map), and with some perplexity he coasted along it for about two weeks. On August 1, he lingered to explore a bay, but a week later encountered eight Chukchi, who approached the ship in a hideskin boat. “When we invited them to come aboard,” recalled Bering, “they inflated the bladder of a large seal, put one man in it and sent him out to us to converse.” Later, the Chukchi brought their own boat alongside and through the two interpreters Bering had brought with him learned that the land, trending in a northeasterly direction, soon turned back to the west, and that there was an island nearby in the sea. On August 10, Bering sailed past it, noticing dwellings but no people, and named it St. Lawrence, “since it was his feast day.”

By August 13 the ship had rounded the southwesternmost point of the Chukchi Peninsula. A few days later, without realizing it, Bering passed through the narrow strait between Asia and America which now bears his name. Although in clear weather (at the strait’s narrowest point) it is possible to glimpse both continents at the same time, on that historic day fog hid the American coast, and as far as Bering knew, it was 1,000 miles away. Without pause he steered due north (into the Bering Sea), but after the Asiatic coast disappeared from sight on the 15th, he decided to consult with Spanberg and Chirikov as to whether to continue the voyage or return to Kamchatka before cold weather set in. It was Spanberg’s advice that the expedition sail on for no more than two days, “because we have reached 65 degrees 30’ of the northern region and according to our opinion and the Chukchi’s report have arrived opposite the extreme end and have passed east of the land.” And so, “what more needs to be done?” Chirikov, on the other hand, argued that they could not know with certainty whether America was separated from Asia unless they went “to the mouth of the Kolyma River,” or at least until their path westward around the peninsula was blocked by ice. So they ought to follow the land, if possible (and as their instructions required), to see if it led to America.

Bering agreed with Spanberg. The Chukchi had told him the coast turned north, then west, and was surrounded by the ocean – and in fact, as Bering could see, the coast bent away to the west as he proceeded farther north. It seemed pointless to him to verify the obvious, at mortal risk to his ship and crew. Further delay might oblige him to winter among the Chukchi on the peninsula’s forbidding coast, which, so far as he could tell, consisted of nothing but great ridges of snow-covered rocks quite bare of trees with which to build winter huts.

Bering turned south. Once again the coast of Asia came into view, but by an unlucky chance, as he threaded the strait, Bering failed a second time to see America through the mist, though he discovered one of the Diomede Islands. Four days later the crew bartered rather profitably with forty Chukchi who came out to the ship in boats – the Russians trading pins and needles for “a good Quantity of dry’d Flesh, Fish, Water contain’d in Whale Bladders, 15 Fox Skins, and four Narval’s Teeth.” Without further incident, on September 2, the St. Gabriel returned safely to port.

Despite apparent confidence in having accomplished his mission, Bering had misgivings, and throughout the winter he consulted with a number of Cossack veterans and others knowledgeable about the local geography. Advised by several that land was supposed to lie not far off the coast – as evidenced by birds flying eastward and unfamiliar trees floating in the sea – toward the end of June 1729 he steered the St. Gabriel due east from the mouth of the Kamchatka River, and explored the seas for a radius of about 130 miles. He might have ventured farther, but storms cut short his quest. That done, from Nizhnekamchatsk he sailed around Cape Lopatka at the peninsula’s southern tip – “which Thing was never done before” – crossed over to Okhotsk, and began the long overland trek back to St. Petersburg, where he arrived on March 1, 1730.

While bering and his men had been in Kamchatka, a companion expedition of sorts, with tasks resembling those given originally to the Great Kamchatka Command, had been authorized by the Senate and the newly created Supreme Privy Council. Led by Afanasy Shestakov, a Cossack leader based in Yakutsk, it involved an army of fifteen hundred men (huge by Siberian standards) in a bid to strengthen Russian control over the entire northeast. Part of the force was placed under the command of Dmitry Pavlutsky, captain of dragoons in Tobolsk and Russia’s foremost Chukchi fighter, but the results of the expedition were not commensurate with the efforts made. Quarreling between Shestakov and Pavlutsky hindered the operation, and Shestakov’s attempts to pacify the Koryaks ended in disaster when he was killed in a battle in March 1730, and a contingent coming to his support was wiped out. Shestakov’s dried head was preserved long afterward by the natives as a trophy of their victory.

Encouraged by these developments, some Kamchadal leaders also began to consider ways to drive the Russians from their land. Bering, it seems, had left Kamchatka just in time. Although the area had never been free of lawlessness and misrule, the transport burdens placed upon the native population by his expedition had certainly contributed to the unrest. In 1731, rebellions occurred in the vicinity of Bolsheretsk and Verkhnekamchatsk; and then, around Nizhnekamchatsk, the Kamchadals coalesced under a baptized native named Fyodor Kharchin and captured the fort. A few survivors managed to make their way to a Russian ship about to sail for the Anadyr, and the crew hastily disembarked and dragged their cannon to the fortress walls. When the Russians began blasting through, the defenders panicked, and Kharchin himself made his escape disguised as a girl. Others, however, fought on, until a shot ignited the powder magazine and the entire fort blew up. Enraged by the rape of their women (mostly native concubines), the Cossacks killed their prisoners to a man. A month later Kharchin himself was seized, but some of his accomplices and their families chose mass suicide rather than fall into Russian hands.

In St. Petersburg, the authorities decided that Kamchatka was too remote from Yakutsk to remain under its effective jurisdiction, and transferred responsibility for the peninsula to Okhotsk. An official was also dispatched from Tobolsk to restore order; after investigating the causes of the revolt, he executed and otherwise punished with impartial justice a number of Russians as well as Kamchadals.

Meanwhile, after Shestakov’s death, Pavlutsky had taken over the expedition’s command and had made Anadyrsk his base for a conquest of the Chukchi. Although the Russians defeated these indomitable warriors in several battles, they could not subdue them, and the most tangible (yet elusive) result of the expedition turned out to be geographical – the search for the “Big Land” supposed to lie opposite the East Cape of the Chukchi Peninsula. Pavlutsky organized an expedition to find it, and placed the expedition under the direction of Mikhail Gvozdev, a metallurgist, with Ivan Fedorov as pilot. They appropriated Bering’s St. Gabriel for the purpose and assembled a crew of thirty-nine. Sailing from the mouth of the Anadyr in July 1732, they paused briefly at one of the Diomede Islands, and then continued eastward, apparently coming within sight of Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska. Drawing near, they saw that it was quite large and covered with forests of poplar, spruce, and larch. After skirting the coast for several days, they found “no end to it in sight.” At one point, “a naked native paddled out to the vessel from shore on an inflated bladder,” and through their interpreter asked them who they were and where they were going. They replied that they were lost at sea and were looking for Kamchatka. The native promptly pointed in the direction from which they had come. They did not make a landing, however, and because after their return they failed to collate their notes and make an adequate map, their voyage did not come to official attention until a decade later, in 1743. By then the priority of their discovery had become a technicality, since far more momentous events had transpired.

Upon his return to St. Petersburg in March 1730, Bering had reported to the Admiralty. From that moment on, criticism of his voyage began. Until quite recently, the consensus of posterity was that he had failed, out of excessive caution bordering on cowardice, to fully carry out his instructions. He had found the strait he was supposed to find, but had not absolutely proved that Asia and America were not joined by land – as he might have had he followed Chirikov’s advice. The passions expressed on this point for many years reflected the intense interest of statesmen, merchants, and academicians in a Northeast Passage; but a reexamination of the fundamental documents suggests that a very different conclusion should be drawn. As a leading scholar points out, the orders Peter the Great drafted “say nothing about a strait or a search for one,” but rather in their own somewhat cryptic but definite fashion demand that Bering follow “the land that goes to the north,” which “it seems is part of America.” If it led to America, he was to proceed if possible to a European settlement, and also reconnoiter the coast. What land was Peter talking about? To fully understand his orders requires a map – the one, that is, that Bering was given on February 5, 1724.

In all probability, this was the so-called “Homann map,” created around 1722 at Peter’s request byjohann Baptiste Homann, a German mapmaker and copyist in his employ. It included the first printed presentation of Kamchatka as a peninsula, and two unknown lands (cut off by the frame) off the North Pacific coast of Asia. One was apparently meant to represent the “Big Island” in the sea of which the Chukchi spoke, the other “Juan de Gama Land,” sometimes portrayed as being linked to America. So, depending on how Peter’s orders were interpreted, “the land which goes to the north” could be the land off Kamchatka (Da Gama Land), the finger of land north of that off the Chukchi Peninsula, or the coast of Asia itself. Actually, no one knows for sure, but Bering seems to have tested all three hypotheses. He sailed north along the Kamchatka coast, then northeast in search of the Big Island (only to run into the Chukchi Peninsula, not known to project as far out into the ocean as it did), and then, the following summer, subsequently sailed east of Kamchatka where the other land was supposed to be.

In fact, the location of a strait (which Peter was already sure existed) was subordinate to his larger mission, which was to find the way to the western coast of America. Bering didn’t go to America because the coast he followed to the north didn’t lead there; and if he failed, it was because the cartographical information he’d been given was imprecise. Bering had followed the Homann map as best he could, but found it completely erroneous in placing the Chukchi Peninsula directly north of eastern Kamchatka, instead of projecting far to its east. In trying to make his experience fit with the map he had, which was supposed to guide him, Bering correctly assumed that he had passed the utmost part of East Asia and that the two continents were not joined.

“Having become a naval power,” as one authority notes, “Russia need no longer look on the ocean as a barrier to continued eastward expansion. Other powers had to sail halfway around the globe to reach the North Pacific. The Russians were already there.” Peter’s secret long-range intention was colonial conquest – to reconnoiter the American coast with a view to gaining a foothold (as the French, Spanish, and English had already done) in the New World. The supposed geographical objective, as publicized to foreign ambassadors, cartographers, and others (like Andrei Nartov, who dutifully spread the word), was part of what today would be called a disinformation campaign, designed to mislead other governments by appearing to pursue the question with which they were preoccupied. “There is no doubt,” remarks a student of Bering’s voyage, “that Peter looked upon the annexation of the unknown lands of the northwest coast of North America as a continuation of the colonization of Siberia.” Nevertheless, he had to proceed covertly, so as not to prompt other powers to block his designs.

Bering had explored and mapped the coasts of both Kamchatka and the Chukchi Peninsula, and he had confirmed the existence of a strait. Although criticized by some for not having rounded the Chukchi Peninsula westward to the Kolyma River (to prove a Northeast Passage did exist), and by others for not having been more venturesome in attempting to discover how far America actually was from Siberia’s coast, posterity’s grumblings have little to do with the Admiralty’s own estimate of Bering’s accomplishment, for he was promoted to the rank of captain-commander (the third highest rank in the Russian Navy) and given a 1,000-ruble reward.

A new map of the Siberian northeast prepared by his staff also more accurately depicted that corner of Asia as a large double-headed peninsula, shaped like a “bull’s horn.” As for the land he had conjectured slightly to the east of Kamchatka, and which he had sought in vain in the summer of 1729 – it was, in fact, there. But it was not the “Juan de Gama Land” of the speculative maps, nor the America of which he dreamed. It was a lonely, uninhabited little island. And it would be the land where he would die.

Muslims in the Indian Ocean I

The Dhow is not an Arab ship, it is a veritable family of vessels sharing common characteristics, such as the hull, large (about 4 to 1), with straight cut lines, with three masterpieces whose bow, long and the keel, and the stern, less inclined, and one or two masts carrying sails Latin-setie.

The smallest ones are only eight meters for 50 tons. The larger ones, like the Baghala, up to 500 tons and more. Their construction has not varied since their appearance, presumably in the late Middle Ages. Dams were rarely decked to maximize load carrying. It was a coaster, which could be stranded on the shore, and resume the sea with the tide every day, like the cargo ships of antiquity.

Indian Sailing Boats. New mount. Produced by Thomas Daniell (artist).

The rise of Islam in the Hijaz in the early seventh century affected the Indian Ocean in several important ways. Describing these changes will be the main concern of this chapter, which uses material from the period up to the end of the fifteenth century. In this period there was both continuity and change. It would certainly be incorrect to write of an Islamic period or ocean. Many others traded and travelled, and coastal routes remained relatively unchanged. However, over a few centuries most of the population of the coasts of the Indian Ocean became Muslims, so that a large share of both coastal and oceanic trade was handled by the adherents of this new religion. It was much more centralised than was either Hinduism or Buddhism. This was especially manifested in the requirement, one of the most basic tenets of the faith, that if at all possible Muslims should perform the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in a lifetime. A Muslim community developed around the shores of the Indian Ocean, linked by religion, whose commonality, while this must not be exaggerated, was created and reinforced by travelling scholars. Yet Islam’s success was to a large extent a result of its tolerance of local traditions, so that scholars distinguish between prayers and other religious activities in the mosque, and those performed outside it. Rather than the coastal populations converting to Islam, they accepted it.

What was the attitude of the new religion to sea matters and to merchants? As to the latter, the normative position was well set out by the great fourteenth century social scientist Ibn Khaldun. He claimed countrymen were morally superior to townsmen, with merchants lower again: ‘traders must buy and sell and seek profits. This necessitates flattery and evasiveness, litigation and disputation, all of which are characteristic of this profession. And these qualities lead to a decrease and weakening in virtue and manliness.’ Some claim that normative Islam had a similarly negative attitude to sea travel. The Arabs as men of the desert used to be the prevalent western stereotype: they rode camels, not ships. Today we realise that Muslims had an early and very successful interest in sea trade. The first Arab sea migration was to Abyssinia, in the time of the prophet. On several occasions in the previous chapter we described Arabs engaging in extensive sea voyages. This continued when Arabs became Muslims.

Authentic Islamic sources display a positive attitude to the sea. The Quran itself has several passages which speak approvingly of sea trade and maritime matters. As the Holy Book says, ‘And of His signs is this: He sendeth herald winds to make you taste His mercy, and that the ships may sail at His command, and that ye may seek His favour, and that haply ye may be thankful.’ And again: ‘your Lord is He who driveth for you the ship upon the sea that ye may seek of His bounty’ or ‘Allah it is Who hath made the sea of service unto you that the ships may run thereon by His command, and that ye may seek of His bounty.’ And again: ‘It is He who subjected to you the sea, that you may eat of it fresh flesh, and being forth out of it ornaments for you to wear, and thou may best see the ships cleaving through it, and that you may seek of His bounty, and so haply you will be thankful.’ Similarly, the Caliph Umar II was quoted as saying ‘Dry land and sea belong alike to God; He hath subdued them to His servants to seek of his bounty for themselves in both of them.’

We have seen that the Indian Ocean was already a place of movement, circulation, contacts and travel over great distances. It could be that Islam fits well into this sort of environment. Later Malay literature powerfully links notions of the sea, God, man and the transitory nature of the world. The sea is a trope for Islam. ‘O Seeker, this world is like a wave. God’s condition is like the sea. Even though the wave is different from the sea, it is in reality nothing but the sea.’

We now have much more detail on the ships venturing out over our ocean. At the most humble level, even today one sees coastal fishers, some merely astride a log, rising and falling, vanishing and appearing, in the swell. Coastal craft, used by fisherfolk, and as lighters to take people and goods to larger ships standing off shore where no harbour or estuary was available, were described in the previous chapter. These accounts related mostly to the east coast of India, where the lack of good harbours necessitated lighters. Over much of the rest of the littoral there were estuaries or harbours, and it was here that the famous dhows were found. These larger ships however had many of the characteristics of the coastal craft we have previously described.

The term ‘dhow’ is used by westerners for a variety of craft, large and small, which dominated most trade and navigation in the western Indian Ocean for centuries. There are many different types, depending on size and location, yet they did share enough common characteristics for us to use a generic term for them. The actual word is not Arabic. It probably comes from the Persian word dawh. They have attracted much attention from a truly international array of scholars. These ‘traditional’ dhows were found all over the western Indian Ocean, that is from east Africa around to south India, and at times much further east. This type of ship long-predates the arrival of Islam. It presumably has Gulf or Red Sea origins, but we know little about ships before Islam.

Marco Polo, writing about Hurmuz, left a detailed, accurate, and rather negative account:

Their ships are wretched affairs, and many of them get lost; for they have no iron fastenings, and are only stitched together with twine made from the husk of the Indian nut [coconut]. They beat this husk until it becomes like horse-hair, and from that they spin twine, and with this stitch the planks of the ship together. It keeps well, and is not corroded by the sea-water, but it will not stand well in a storm. The ships are not pitched, but are rubbed with fish oil. They have one mast, one sail, and one rudder, and have no deck, but only a cover spread over the cargo when loaded. This cover consists of hides, and on the top of these hides they put the horses which they take to India for sale. They have no iron to make nails of, and for this reason they use only wooden trenails in their shipbuilding, and then stitch the planks with twine as I have told you. Hence ’tis a perilous business to go a voyage in one of those ships, and many of them are lost, for in that Sea of India the storms are often terrible.

A Muslim pilgrim in the Red Sea in the late twelfth century left a rather similar account. Ibn Jubayr wrote:

The jilab that ply on this Pharaonic sea [that is, the Red Sea from Aydhab to Jiddah] are sewn together, no nails at all being used on them. They are sewn with cord made from… the fibre of the coconut and which the makers thrash until it takes the form of thread, which then they twist into a cord with which they sew the ships. These they then caulk with shavings of the wood of palm-trees. When they have finished making a jilabah in this fashion, they smear it with grease, or castor oil, or the oil of the shark, which is best. This shark is a huge fish which swallows drowning men. Their purpose in greasing the boat is to soften and supple it against the many reefs that are met with in that sea, and because of which nailed ships do not sail through it. The wood for these parts is brought from India and the Yemen, as is the coconut fibre. A singular feature of these jilab is that their sails are woven from the leaves of the muql tree [a kind of gum-tree], and their parts are conformably weak and unsound in structure. Glory to God who contrives them in this fashion and who entrusts men to them. There is no God but He.’

What then are the main characteristics of these craft? As these contemporaries pointed out, teak from Malabar in southwest India was used almost universally, for this was highly resistant to decay, and provided it was treated properly, along the lines suggested by Ibn Jubayr, it would not split, crack or shrink in salt water. This wood was used to make a hull using the carvel method: that is, the wooden planks of the hull were laid edge to edge, not overlapping as in western ships. They were held together by coir fibre stitching which passed through holes in the planks. There was no iron or bolts, and no ribbing or framework. However, wooden dowels were used, at least on the bigger boats, for strength. The hull was made watertight by inserting resin or other materials between the planks. This has to be differentiated from the European practice of caulking, which was done after the ship was assembled. They had no keels, but instead used either sandbags, or heavy parts of the cargo, as ballast in the bottom of the hold. These dhows had stern post rudders, with ropes attached, not a tiller. One pulled on ropes to steer the vessel. Most had only one mast, and a sail made of matting, though late in our period cloth was also beginning to be used.

The hulls were double ended rather than having square, transom, sterns. On the largest dhows there may have been a raised poop deck, with cabins underneath, but most often the holds were open and there was no deck. As Correia observed in Cannanor around 1500:

in lieu of decks, the hold was built up with huts and compartments for merchandise, covered with plaited palm-leaf thatch, acting as a roof; the water would flow down to their sides, then along the hull and gather at the bottom of the hold where it could be bailed out, thus not wetting the merchandise which was kept well packed into these compartments. On top of these thatched roofs, they would dispose strong cane lattice-work, on which one could walk without damaging the huts below…. People have their lodgings on top, for nobody stays below, where the merchandise is found.

Remarkably heavy cargo, camels, horses, even elephants, could be carried.

The lack of metal in the construction excited much comment, most of it negative, from European observers, such as Marco Polo who we quoted above. The fabulist Sir John Mandeville claimed they did not use nails as there were magnetic islands which would draw to them any ship which contained metal. At first glance the lack of metal condemns dhows as primitive craft indeed, yet their method of construction was well suited to conditions in the Indian Ocean. As Ibn Battuta wrote, ‘The Indian and Yemenite ships are sewn together with them, for that sea is full of reefs, and if a ship is nailed with iron nails it breaks up on striking the rocks, whereas if it is sewn together with cords, it is given a certain resilience and does not fall to pieces.’ In Cambay he wrote of the Gulf that ‘it is navigable for ships and its waters ebb and flow. I myself saw the ships lying on the mud at ebb-tide and floating on the water at high tide.’ Their flexibility, thanks to the coir, meant that they were well adapted to the sandy shores of large parts of the Indian Ocean littoral. They could be driven ashore by storms, or deliberately to unload cargo or undergo repairs or careening, and even in the breakers off the Coromandel coast their flexibility enabled them to ‘give’ and survive, where a more rigidly built ship would have shattered.

A considerable quantity of coir thread or rope was needed: Tim Severin built a quite small replica dhow, yet it used up about 400 miles of rope! The coir had to be kept in salt water to prevent deterioration, as Bowrey noted:

The Cables, Strapps, &c. are made of Cayre, vizt. the Rhine of Coco nuts very fine Spun, the best Sort of which is brought from the Maldiva Isles. They are as Stronge as any hempen Cables whatever, and much more durable in these hott climates, with this provisor, that if they chance to be wet with fresh water, either by raine or rideinge in a fresh River, they doe not let them drye before they wett them well in Salt water, which doth much preserve them, and the Other as much rott them.

The coconut tree was a great provider of useful products. Indeed, in the Maldive and Laccadive islands ships were built entirely from this tree: the hull, masts, stitches, ropes, and sails. As noted, most other areas used teak for the hulls, but the sails were usually woven from the leaves of palm or coconut trees; cotton sailcloth apparently came in later, though possibly before 1500.

These sails were the famous triangular lateen sails so evident even today in the Indian Ocean. The name is a misnomer, as it comes from the time of the Crusades, when western Europeans first saw them, and called them the Latin sail, from the French une voile latine. They had been used by the Arabs for some centuries before the Common Era, and were the first sails which allowed a ship to beat into the wind. As compared with European square sails, a lateen rigged ship can sail well with the wind abeam, that is 90° against the direction of travel, and even reasonably well with the wind forward of the beam, at 50° or even 60° off the bow. Some authorities say dhows tack straight across the wind as a modern yacht does, but in fact they changed course by wearing around, stern to wind, instead of tacking.

Lateen sails are often described as a ‘gift of the Arabs’ to western sailors. However, Campbell claims that they developed independently in several places. Their origin may be from Persia, rather than pre-Islamic Arabia, and it could be that they reached the Mediterranean via Persia. They were found in the Mediterranean from the beginning of the Common Era, and he suggests that Arabs then learnt to use them from earlier users in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Very similarly shaped sails evolved independently in eastern Indonesia and were used in the great voyages in the Pacific by Austronesian peoples which we mentioned in the previous chapter (page 60). Campbell claims that they are not particularly effective sails anyway, though this obviously raises the question of why they were used for so many centuries.

To make the dhow watertight was only one reason for treating the wood. Equally important was to deter the accumulation of barnacles and other growths on the hull. Of these, the most dangerous was teredo, or shipworm, a ravenous mollusc which wreaked havoc in tropical waters. Severin described their rapid penetration. He found that if it was not treated, the timber in his replica dhow was nearly destroyed after two months. Even after this short time wormholes as big as knitting needles appeared, and one could snap with bare hands panels 2½ inches thick.

The traditional solution was to smear the hull every two months or so with a combination of boiled animal or fish fat and crushed lime. In the absence of dry docks this required running the vessel aground, but thanks to the flexibility of the construction this could be done easily and safely. There were two processes involved. The carvel method of construction meant that resin was used to fill gaps between the planks while the boat was being built, but then the process of greasing and smearing was done routinely during the life of the vessel.

The navigator of the dhow in our period, such as the famous fifteenth century sailor Ibn Majid, was the mu’allim, who sailed the ship and was responsible for what happened on board. He checked the fitting out, stores, gear, and loading. He was in charge of the crew and passengers, looked after their safety and health and solved their quarrels. All this was laid down in the contract drawn up before the ship left. It was required to take a set number of passengers, and a set quantity of their effects. There were also bills of lading governing the cargo. His duty of care ended when he got the ship back to its home port. Ibn Majid also advised the captain to

Be quick to make a decision…. It is necessary when you sail to be clean…. Forbid all those who sail from making fun of others on the sea; it will only result in evil, hatred and enmity and he who does this continually will not be spared from grudge or hatred or contempt…. Consult other people and improve your own opinion.

Dhows of one sort or another were the dominant form all over the western Indian Ocean. Their sizes covered a wide range, from less than 50 tons up to perhaps 500. Different sizes had different names. A major variation was the ships built in Gujarat, which in the period before Europeans were the largest in this region, being up to 800 tons, and on average 300 to 600 tons. By contrast, when Magellan set off to sail around the world he had five ships, the largest of which was only 120 tons and 31 metres long. In 1577 Drake sailed out of Plymouth with three ships. One was a bit over 100 tons, the other two only 80 and 30 tons. The early Portuguese found these Gujarati ships to be formidable indeed: ‘these ships are so powerful and well armed and have so many men that they dare to sail this route [from Melaka to the Red Sea] without fear of our ships.’ While these large Gujarati ships still usually had no deck, their construction was different, as a process called rabetting, rather like tongue and groove, was used to join the planks together. An English traveller around 1750 praised these ships highly:

Surat ships last much longer than Europe ships, even a century, because they are so solidly built, the planks in their bottom and sides being let into one another in the nature of rabbet work. The knees are natural shape not warped, or forced by fire. Teak is as good as oak, and bottoms rubbed with wood oil keep planks from decay.

Muslims in the Indian Ocean II

Piri Reis’ Book on Navigation (Kitab-i Bahriyye)

Grose also approved of the coir rigging: ‘more harsh and intractable than what is produced from hemp’, but they lasted longer than hemp in salt water. Even the cotton sails were fine: true, they were not as strong as European canvas, but they were less liable to split.

Barbosa’s account of Calicut very early in the sixteenth century seems to point to another regional variation, that is the use of keels. He wrote of the pardesi Muslims, those from the Red Sea and Egypt, that

In the days of their prosperity in trade and navigation they built in the city keeled ships of a thousand and a thousand and two hundred bahares burden [about 250 tonnes]. These ships were built without any nails, but the whole of the sheathing was sewn with thread, and all upper works differed much from the fashion of ours, they had no decks.

Once we round Cape Comorin and enter the Bay of Bengal we encounter very different ships. Some of them were great Chinese ships, which sailed in the Bay of Bengal and around to Malabar until the mid fifteenth century. We have a charming account of Song sailing from a Chinese source:

The ships which sail the southern sea and south of it are like houses. When their sails are spread they are like great clouds in the sky. Their rudders are several tens of feet long. A single ship carries several hundred men, and has in the stores a year’s supply of grain. Pigs are fed and wine fermented on board. There is no account of dead or living, no going back to the mainland when the people have set forth on the azure-blue sea. When the gong sounds at daybreak aboard ship, the animals can drink their fill, and crew and passengers alike forget all dangers. To those on board, everything is hidden and lost in space – mountains, landmarks, and foreign countries. The pilot may say, ‘To make such and such a country, with a favourable wind, in so many days, we should sight such and such a mountain, [then] the ship may steer in such and such a direction.’ But suddenly the wind may fall, and may not be strong enough to allow the sighting of the mountain on the given day. In such a case, the bearing may have to be changed. Then again, the ship may be carried far beyond [the landmark] and lose its bearing. A gale may spring up, blowing the ship off course, or the ship may encounter shoals or hidden rocks and be broken apart to the roofs [of the cabins]. A great ship with heavy cargo has nothing to fear in high seas, but in shallow water it will come to grief.

Two foreign travellers, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, left more detailed descriptions. Marco Polo described the ships he saw in the thirteenth century on the Fujian coast. They had only one deck,

though each of them contains some 50 or 60 cabins, wherein the merchants abide greatly at their ease, every man having one to himself. The ship hath but one rudder, but it hath four masts; and sometimes they have two additional masts, which they ship and unship at pleasure. Moreover the larger of their vessels have some thirteen [watertight] compartments or severances in the interior, made with planking strongly framed, in case maybe the ship should spring a leak, either by running on a rock or by the blow of a hungry whale…. The fastenings are all of good iron nails and the sides are double, one plank laid over the other, and caulked outside and in. The planks are not pitched, for those people do not have any pitch, but they daub the sides with another matter, deemed by them far better than pitch; it is this. You may see them take some lime and some chopped hemp, and these they knead together with a certain wood-oil; and when the three are thoroughly amalgamated, they hold like any glue. And with this mixture they do paint their ships.

Each of these great ships carried 200 or 300 sailors. If the wind dropped sweeps were used, each taking four sailors to row. They also each had two or three large tenders attached, with 50 or 60 sailors on each, and ten smaller boats to catch fish, bring supplies, and lay out anchors. These were slung to the side of the big ship, and put in the water as needed. Repairs were easy: they merely nailed another layer of planks over the existing ones.

Ibn Battuta found a vast array of vessels in Calicut in the early fourteenth century, from Java, Ceylon, the Maldives, Yemen and Fars. However, the greatest were thirteen Chinese vessels. His eyewitness account is of very large ships indeed. He wrote that they were called junks, and had up to twelve sails, and 1,000 men on board, 600 of them sailors and 400 archers and other soldiers. All this may sound incredible, yet Ibn Battuta has a reputation for veracity, and he did travel on one of these ships himself. The oars were as large as the masts on the dhows with which he was familiar, and each was worked by ten or fifteen men. His ship had four decks,

and it has cabins, suites and salons for merchants; a set of rooms has several rooms and a latrine; it can be locked by its occupant, and he can take along with him slave-girls and wives. Often a man will live in his suite unknown to any of the others on board until they meet on reaching some town. The sailors have their children living on board ship, and they cultivate green stuffs, vegetables and ginger in wooden tanks. The owner’s factor on board ship is like a great amir. When he goes on shore he is preceded by archers and Abyssinians with javelins, swords, drums, bugles and trumpets.

These great Chinese ships sailed south through the Malay world and on to India, and sometimes even beyond this. However, this was a rather temporary presence. They came south to the Malay world only from the twelfth century, and may have been displaced for a time in the mid fourteenth century when the powerful Javanese state of Majapahit was at its height. Under the Ming, from 1368 Chinese ships re-entered southeast Asian waters, reaching a massive peak with the Zheng He expeditions of the early fifteenth century. Soon after this, long-distance Chinese voyaging in these monsters ended.

In the Malay world most of the local craft were small craft, capable of sailing between the myriad islands. As elsewhere, the vast majority of boats were humble things used by fishers, or for short fair-weather voyages using the monsoons. However, Manguin claims that from the early first millennium of the Common Era maritime powers in the region, that is especially Srivijaya and later Majapahit, built, owned and operated ocean-going ships of considerable size, up to 700 tons burthen and carrying up to 1,000 people. These were not exactly junks, for while Chinese ships had used nails for centuries, these ships did not. Nor were they sewn; rather they were held together with dowels. There was, following Chinese practice, multiple sheathing of the hull. The steering gear was different from dhows, for they had double quarter-rudders, and two to four masts and sails. Manguin claims, controversially, that these large ships were distinctively southeast Asian. This statement is to be seen as part of the general historiographical tendency to see this region as having a creativity and culture of its own, not as a passive recipient of high culture from the north or the west, that is from China or India. Rather mysteriously, these ships vanished in the later sixteenth century, possibly because they could not stand up to Portuguese cannon.

How did captains find their way over the ocean? There is a contrast here between blue water sailing and finding one’s way in more restricted waterways. In the treacherous Red Sea, Ibn Jubayr was very impressed with the navigational skills of sailors in these confined waters: ‘We observed the art of these captains and the mariners in the handling of their ships through the reefs. It was truly marvellous. They would enter the narrow channels and manage their way through them as a cavalier manages a horse that is light on the bridle and tractable.’ It was a matter of the run of the water, experience, birds, seaweed, fishes, and sightings of known areas of land. Experienced navigators often wrote down what they had learnt. The most famous was Ibn Majid, who in the following passage, just like the Song source we quoted earlier, is using land sightings for guidance. When approaching Calicut, he says, ‘look out for the hill between the mountains which are above the coast and there is no other such hill in these places and nothing so useful as a guide especially in the dark and its sides slope steeply.’ When one is approaching from the north the ship should stay in about four and three-quarters fathoms of water until this hill is north-north-east of you, then approach the coast until the water is four and one-half fathoms and the hill becomes north by east and then north, and so on.

Ibn Majid’s work is an example of the pilot guides and navigational literature which were commonplace in the ocean. This geographical literature, from both the Chinese and the Arab side, showed that both knew the whole ocean, though Arabs found a limit at Madagascar. Ibn Majid wrote that ‘to its south is the sea known to the Greeks as Uqiyanus which is known to the Arabs as the ‘Ocean which encircles the world.’ Here is the beginning of the southern Dark regions to the south of this island.’ Tibbetts claims that there really was no exclusivity in nautical knowledge. Rather there was a common body of knowledge shared by Arabs, Chinese, Indians and Malays. It may be that practical navigational charts were not known before the Europeans, but there certainly were maps, as we will see. Charts may not have even been necessary, for navigation, apart from the use of wayfaring techniques, was done by observing the sun and the stars. In this the Arabs were simply following tradition, for the Beduin had long done this to find their way across the desert.

Again Ibn Jubayr tells us about this use. He was going on pilgrimage to Mecca, and embarked at Aydhab bound for Jiddah. They left on their jilabah, and on the evening of the second day there

rose a storm which darkened the skies and at last covered them. The tempest raged and drove the ship from off its course and backwards. The fury of the wind continued, and the darkness thickened and filled the air so that we knew not which way lay our course. Then a few stars appeared and gave us some guidance. The sail was lowered to the bottom of the mast, and we passed that night in a storm which drove us to despair….

More usually either the North or Pole Star or the sun was used as a referent, and latitude was worked out from their height, measured in finger widths. The compass was apparently already known, as it had been long used by the Chinese, but it seems not to have been very widely used. In any case, it has been claimed that Arab empirical methods were more than adequate to determine latitude quite accurately. Based largely on a technical analysis of Ibn Majid’s famous work, Clark claimed that the methods he describes compare well with modern stellar methods using spherical trigonometry, the navigational triangle and data from nautical publications. In sum, we can perhaps claim that during this period Arab navigation was a mixture of a craft mystery, based on accumulated oral tradition, and an applied science, the latter being the dominant technique today. In Europe the latter was becoming dominant in the sixteenth century.

While Arab navigation may ideally have served the sailors well, contemporary accounts do not always give an impression of ‘scientific’ exactitude on board ship. One tale from the first half of the tenth century, no doubt based on real experience but with some embroidery, concerns a man called Allama, who was going from India to China. It came the time for the dawn prayer, so he went to the lavatory to do ablutions. Then he looked at the sea and was terrified. He forgot his ablutions and prayers, and instead rushed up on deck and got the men to lower the sails, and throw overboard all the cargo. Then he got everyone to purify themselves and pray. Sure enough, a huge storm came up that night, and only this ship survived. A similar account tells of Captain Abhara, a native of Kirman, where he was a shepherd. Later he became a sea captain, and went to China seven times, which was unheard of as it was so dangerous. ‘If a man reached China without dying on the way, it was already a miracle. Returning safe and sound was unheard of. I have never heard tell of anyone, except him, who had made the two voyages there and back without mishap.’ Other similar tales make Arab navigation sound very ad hoc indeed. The same Abhara knew that on the way to China on each thirtieth day the water went down very greatly and ships ran onto rocks, especially as a violent gale would come up at the same time. Another captain proffered that ‘if you want to know whether or not you are near land or a mountain, look out after the afternoon prayer, when the sun is going down. At that time, if you are opposite a mountain or an island, you will see it distinctly.’

European map making was revolutionised following Marco Polo’s journey to and from China in 1271–92. Drawing on this, Europeans produced two famous maps, greatly in advance of what they had done before: the Catalan map of 1375, and especially Fra Mauro’s map of 1458. East Asia had relatively sophisticated charts and maps by at least the fifteenth century. Mills has discussed in detail the Mao K’un map, which refers to the time of Zheng He’s voyages. He considers it to be far superior to European maps of the same time, when the Portuguese had just started voyaging down the west African coast. This Chinese chart goes all the way from East Asia to India, and on to Persia, Arabia and East Africa. Mills’ claim is that obviously Europeans did better in mapping the west, and Chinese the east; Chinese superiority is seen in their much better attempt to map the area in between, that is Arabia, India, and East Africa. This Chinese map showed a more accurate knowledge over a much larger area of the world than was available to Europeans at the same time. Several of their accounts depict a western and an eastern ocean, with the division at the Straits of Singapore. This is seen most clearly in the account by Wang Dayuan, who travelled extensively in the 1330s. My own brief to a large extent follows this division, for most of the time I also stop around these straits.

Even more extraordinary is the Korean Kangnido Map of 1402, which seems to draw on earlier Chinese and Arab works. It has clear delineations of Africa and the Arabian peninsular, and a recognisable outline of Europe, though India is submerged in the Chinese continent. Not surprisingly, Korea is shown as very large indeed, as large as all Africa. At a time when Europeans knew almost nothing of East Asia, this map has a clearly recognisable Mediterranean Sea, and Iberia, Italy and the Adriatic Sea. There are some hundred as yet unidentified place names in the Europe area, and about thirty-five in Africa, most of them on the southern Mediterranean coast.

Another example of sophisticated map making comes from Java, and like the previous two shows that there was a large degree of interaction and exchange of knowledge between map makers at this time. In 1512 the Portuguese captain Albuquerque was shown a Javanese chart which delineated the Cape of Good Hope, Portugal, Brazil, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the country where the gold is (Minangkabau in Sumatra), the clove islands, the Malukus, Java, the Banda islands, Siam, the navigation of the Chinese, and the courses followed by their ships. All the names are marked in Javanese script. This sort of interchange extended in some surprising directions. The Chinese, even if they did not travel, certainly picked up much information at second or third hand. One eighth-century Chinese author described the people of Bobali, which is somewhere in northern East Africa. They ‘eat only meat. They often stick a needle into the veins of cattle and draw blood which they drink raw, mixed with milk.’ Intriguing to find that this is clearly a description of the same people whom a sixteenth-century Portuguese cleric found. He wrote of the Segeju that ‘They own much cattle, the milk and blood thereof being to them as food; they eat the flesh raw without any other manner of ordinary food, as it is said, and they bleed the oxen every other day.’

Finally, another Muslim example, this time the Turk Piri Reis and his magnificent Kitab, completed in 1521 and now available in a stunning four volume facsimile edition with translation. He wrote of the ‘great sea’, that is the all-encircling sea:

All the others are united with the Bahr-Azam. The Ocean is the sea into which they are all collected. It encircles the world. It is the head of all the seas; from it all seas emerge and to it all return. As I have told you, the fact is that all the other seas are but gulfs of the Ocean. The sea is like a tree that spreads everywhere left and right. The source of them all is the Ocean, of which they are the branches and twigs.

He described the Portuguese voyages to India, and among other places identified Madeira, Cape Verde, Brazil, Abyssinia, and Mogadishu, which he says is near the entrance to the Red Sea. Below 55° S all is Darkness, and similarly above 55° N. He has a brief account of China, which he says is based on what the Portuguese say, and then a fabulous account of an island with all sorts of monstrous people, based on ‘those who voyaged there’. His account of India is rather vague, and he thinks it is winter in India when it is summer in Europe. A few years after this Kitab he drew a map of the Atlantic which included the North American coast from Greenland to Florida, and was quite accurate.

Military Uses of the American Space Shuttle

There was originally supposed to be a “blue” (Air Force) Shuttle. Military missions benefit from retrograde orbits, so there was originally supposed to be a west coast launch facility (Vandenberg) as well.

The shuttle was saddled with large cross-range landing requirements which were entirely due to the DoD’s involvement (and never used). The STS was used for several DoD payloads as well.

The cross-range requirement was particularly damaging to the whole system’s life span. It drove the size of the aerosurfaces — which were already much larger than they had to be due to the uncertainty of the flight regime when they were designed. The vertical stabilizer alone on the shuttle is probably twice as big as it needs to be to provide the control authority needed by the Orbiter.

Based on what appeared in the media at the time, the shuttle’s military tasks were all related to satellites for observation, monitoring, communication tasks – nothing with an offensive capability. The only U.S. space launches capable of or purposed for an offensive role would have been a few satellite killers which were all air-launched (Pegasus).

There were shuttle launches which had military tasks:


    24 Jun 1982, Columbia

    Crew: Thomas K. Mattingly II, Henry W. Hartsfield, Jr.

    Payload: Classified US Air Force payload of two missile launch-detection systems


    24 Jan 1985, Discovery

    Crew: T. Mattingly, L. Shriver, E. Onizuka, J. Buchli – all military and G. Payton – military engineer (his name was a secret for 2 years).

    Payload: Magnum satellite – radio intelligence


    3 Oct 1985, Atlantis

    Crew: K. Bobko, R. Grabe, D. Hilmers, R. Stewart – all military and W. Pailes – military engineer.

    Payload: Two military communication satellites – DSCS-3


    1 Dec 1988, Atlantis

    Crew: M. Mullane, R. Gibson, J. Ross, W. Shepherd

    Payload: Lacrosse satellite – radar intelligence (maybe?)


    Aug 1989, Columbia

    Crew: B. Shaw, R. Richards, J. Adamson, D. Leestma, M. Brown.

    Payload: photo intelligence satellite – Key Hole or SDS-2 (maybe?)


    23 Nov 1989, Discovery

    Crew: M. Carter, S. Musgrave, K. Thornton, F. Gregory, J. Blaha.

    Payload: Magnum(Orion) (maybe?)


    28 Feb 1990, Atlantis

    Crew: J. Creighton, J. Casper, D. Hilmers, P. Thout, M. Mallein.

    Payload: AFP-731 satellite (maybe stealth satellite)


    15 Nov 1990, Atlantis

    Crew:R. Covey, F. Culbertson, C. Meade, R. Springer, C. Gemar.

    Payload: AFP-658 satellite or SDS-2 satellite


    28 Apr 1991, Discovery

    Crew: M. Coats, B. Hammond, G. Harbaugh, D. McMonagle, G. Bluford, L. Veach, R. Hieb

    Payload: AFP-675 satellite


    24 Nov 1991, Atlantis

    Crew: T. Henricks, J. Voss, M. Runco, T. Hennen.

    Payload: DSP satellite (rocket attack alarm)


    2 Dec 1992, Discovery

    Crew: D. Walker, R. Cabana, M. Clifford, G. Bludford, J. Voss.

    Payload: SDS-2 (retransmission satellite)

This is from one Russian magazine. So I cannot say this is all true.

Classified Shuttle Missions: Secrets in Space

By Elizabeth Howell October 26, 2016

The space shuttle was NASA’s primary option for transporting astronauts to Earth orbit between 1981 and 2011. The five shuttles that went into space flew 135 missions. Crews deployed satellites, conducted experiments and studied the Earth. A handful of the missions were classified, and little is known about these secret missions, even 30 years after the fact.

Joint operations

In the early days of the space shuttle program, some of the missions were run jointly by NASA and the military. This was in part because the National Reconnaissance Office had successfully requested the shuttle’s payload bay — the part of the shuttle that carried satellites be carried into space — be enlarged to accommodate large military satellites,  according to Air & Space Magazine.

NRO also wanted polar shuttle missions, since polar missions make it possible to see the Earth’s entire surface below (as opposed to equatorial missions, which are limited.) The Air Force went so far as to create a launch pad in Vandenberg, California for polar-orbiting space shuttle missions, but after the Challenger incident, plans to use the pad were permanently mothballed.

After the Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986, U.S. policy changed to allow the Department of Defense to use expendable, uncrewed rockets again. Classified shuttle flights continued with payloads that could not be shifted to the Titan IV rocket, the magazine added. The astronauts encountered considerable challenges in keeping information secret since the shuttle did not have secure information channels, and their movements and training operations had to be somehow kept separate in a normally open public agency.

Here is some of what we know about the missions with DOD.

STS-4 Columbia (Launched June 27, 1982)

The classified payload was known as Cryogenic Infrared Radiance Instrument for Shuttle (CIRRIS), which was supposed to test infrared sensors for a future surveillance satellite called Teal Ruby, according to America Space. The lens cap on CIRRIS failed to open, and the experiment failed. America Space added that Teal Ruby ended up being cancelled after the Challenger incident, which delayed shuttle flights by several years.

“Teal Ruby was first shifted onto STS-39 and finally cancelled,” the publication said. “By the time STS-39 lifted off in April 1991, it carried not Teal Ruby … but an updated version of CIRRIS. Apparently, by the time it would have been ready to launch, the Teal Ruby technology — considered ‘advanced’ in the late 1970s — would be virtually obsolete, because sensor technology was advancing rapidly.”

STS-51C Discovery (Launched Jan. 24, 1985)

Little is known about STS-51C’s payload officially besides this terse line on the NASA website: “The U.S. Air Force Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster was deployed and met the mission objectives.”

Multiple sources suggest that the satellite deployed was called Magnum/ORION ELINT, a signals intelligence program about which little is known. Before launch, no pre-flight commentary was available until nine minutes before liftoff — a first in the shuttle program.

STS-51J Atlantis (Launched Oct. 3, 1985)

Two Defense Satellite Communications System satellites were released on this mission, according to NASA. The system is intended to support secure data and voice transmissions for military users from across the globe.

STS-62A Discovery (Cancelled)

This mission was supposed to be the first one using the Air Force pad in Vandenberg, Calif., but it was cancelled after the Challenger explosion. Its main mission was to put Teal Ruby into orbit, according to NASASpaceflight.com.

STS-27 Atlantis (Launched Dec. 2, 1988)

It’s probable that the crew released a satellite called ONYX, which had radar on board capable of observing targets on the ground through any kind of weather or cloud cover. According to Air&Space Magazine, one of the satellite’s antenna dishes did not open and the crew possibly — although it’s not confirmed officially — did a spacewalk to fix the issue.

STS-28 Columbia (Launched Aug. 8, 1989)

Air & Space Magazine reports that STS-28 hauled the Satellite Data System spacecraft into orbit; SDS was supposed to relay imagery from other military satellites. The magazine got confirmation on this from an Air Force officer, who was not named in the story.

STS-33 Discovery (Launched Nov. 22, 1989)

NASA’s website simply says this was a Department of Defense mission. The payload has not been confirmed.

STS-36 Atlantis (Launched Feb. 28, 1990)

There are many theories as to what STS-36 carried, but nothing has been officially confirmed. The shuttle’s ground track took it as high as 62 degrees, which is a record for the shuttle program.

STS-38 Atlantis (Launched Nov. 15, 1990)

NASA’s website only says that this was a Department of Defense mission. No confirmed information about the payload is available.

STS-39 Discovery (Launched April 28, 1991)

The Air Force partially declassified this mission before launch. The unclassified payload was known as Air Force Program-675 (AFP-675), which was an updated version of CIRRIS. According to NASA, the classified payload “consisted of Multi-Purpose Release Canister (MPEC),” but no further information appears to be available.

STS-53 Discovery (Launched Dec. 2, 1992)

The main payload for this mission remains classified, with little information about what it could be.

Viking Exploration and Colonization

Exploration and Colonization in the North Atlantic (870–1000)

At about the same time that Alfred was beginning his heroic defence of Wessex against the great army (c.870), intrepid Norwegian mariners began exploring the ‘islands’ of the North Atlantic known to the ancients and contemporary historians like Bede as Thule – basically the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and eventually Newfoundland. The first known Icelandic historian, Ari Thorgilsson, wrote in his early twelfth-century Íslendingabók (‘Book of the Icelanders’) that ‘Iceland was first settled in the days of Harald the Fine-Haired … 870 years after the birth of Christ’. Another Icelandic source, the Landnámabók (‘Book of Settlements’) written around 1100, purported that the motivation for such extreme emigration was the desire to escape the tyrannical rule of Harald Finehair, the first king of a united Norway who reigned from 872 to 930. Tradition has it that Harald won suzerainty over all Norway by defeating a coalition of Viking chieftains from the southwest, principally Rogaland, in the Battle of Hafrsfjord (near Stavanger) in 872. According to Snorre Sturlason, who wrote the Heimskringla, a history of the Norse kings, the decisive moment in that encounter came when Harald’s longship overwhelmed that of Tore Haklang, ‘a mighty berserk’. From then on, Harald imposed his will on the whole land, taxing everyone – a condition considered intolerable by many: hence the great exodus.

In all probability, however, the real reason was much more pragmatic: the sparsely inhabited islands of the North Atlantic offered Norwegian farmer-hunters unexploited lands similar to their own with little or no competition. The soil was virgin and such sought-after fauna as whales, walruses, seals and reindeer were abundant. Hence these Norse adventurers were willing to dare the savage seas of the North Atlantic in ships which provided little shelter. To be sure, they almost certainly disdained the slender, light longships used for raiding in favour of more stoutly built cargo ships designed to carry their livestock and household goods through the high sea states of what Norwegian mariners called the ‘North Way’. The most plausible vessel for these kinds of voyage was the knarr, best represented by the Skuldelev 1 ship found at Roskilde. Measuring 16.3m (53ft 6in) long by 4.5m (15ft) wide by 2.1m (7ft) deep, it was of sturdy construction with a relatively broad bow and a high freeboard, giving it a capacity of around 24 tons. Equipped with a few oars, it was primarily designed to be sailed by a crew of only six to eight men. The Saga Siglar, a reconstruction of the Skuldelev 1 ship, reached speeds of up to 10 knots in ‘extreme weather conditions’.

The first man to have made the voyage to Iceland was supposedly a Norwegian named Ingólfr who settled at Reykjavík on the island’s southwest coast. Ari Thorgilsson stated that ‘Iceland was fully settled in sixty years, so that no further settlement was made after that’. This implies that the best plots of land were all taken by 930, about the time the first Althing, a general assembly of freemen for legislation and adjudication, was convened at Thingvellir (‘Thing Plain’) just outside Reykjavík – the island’s first permanent settlement. A dispute in 962 prompted the partitioning of the island into four well defined territories called ‘quarters’, each with its own intermediate assembly. Clearly, arable land was becoming a limited commodity, fostering further exploration and emigration. Consequently, Ari related how in around 985 a certain Erik the Red discovered, on a voyage from Iceland, a land to the west which he named ‘Greenland’ to entice others. The objective was obviously colonization, because the sagas stated that he thoroughly explored it. On his second expedition he led a fleet of twenty-five ships, presumably carrying whole families with all their belongings for settlement. The fact that only fourteen of these vessels actually arrived in Greenland is grim evidence of how perilous such voyages were, even in the summer months with ships built for the purpose.

The foregoing makes the sagas’ version of the subsequent discovery of Vinland (North America) all the more credible. Both sagas which described the event, the Grœnlendinga saga (‘Saga of the Greenlanders’) and the Eiríks saga rauða (‘Saga of Erik the Red’), said that it occurred when ships bound from Iceland or Norway to Greenland around the turn of the millennium veered off course. The former saga gave credit for the discovery to a certain Bjarni Herjólfsson, while the latter claimed Erik’s son Leif the Lucky was responsible. Leif was certainly involved in the handful of voyages that followed. The exact location of Vinland remains uncertain, but the only archaeological evidence of these expeditions to date is the small cluster of turf-walled structures located at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland.

No permanent Viking presence was apparently ever established on Vinland due to an inimical environment populated by a hostile indigenous people. Nor did any of the Norse settlements on Greenland persist into the modern era. Given the state of maritime technology and navigation at the time, both these colonial experiments were simply too isolated to survive in such forbidding surroundings. Iceland, on the other hand, converted to Christianity in 1000 and gradually became reabsorbed into Norway’s sphere of influence, beginning with a treaty with King Olaf Haraldsson in 1025 which confirmed the rights of Icelanders in the realm in return for a tariff. Iceland officially accepted the king’s authority around 1262.

Expansion Eastwards through Trade (750–989)

Just as the Norwegians led the way westwards, the Svear of what would become modern Sweden spread eastwards along the great rivers of European Russia. The incentive for them was not new farmland, but slaves, furs and Arabian silver – items they acquired by mercantile means, for raiding was not as profitable an option as it was in western Europe. Initially at least, there were few monasteries and wealthy towns along the waterways of eastern Europe to victimize. Moreover, riverine travel was difficult, often requiring the negotiation of rapids and rushing currents in small, light craft (probably monoxyla), which occasionally had to be portaged for substantial distances over rough terrain. ‘In European Russia, by contrast,’ notes Thomas Noonan of the University of Minnesota, ‘the Scandinavians had to organize local systems to collect the natural wealth, and then establish trade centres and trading routes to market these goods.’

The first of these trading centres was founded around 750 at Staraja Ladoga near the north end of the Gulf of Finland on the Volkhov river about 13km (8 miles) from where it joins the massive Lake Ladoga. Called Aldeigjuborg by its Norse founders, it was the gateway to a set of river routes which flowed across the Eurasian landmass all the way to the rich markets of Byzantium and the Islamic Caliphate. From trading entrepôts such as Birka on Björkö (‘Birch Island’) in Lake Mälaren of modern Sweden, Scandinavian merchants like the Svear would sail across the Baltic into the Gulf of Finland, then row up the river Neva to Lake Ladoga. At the southern end of the lake they would find the mouth of the Volkhov and a short distance upriver on the left bank lay Aldeigjuborg. From there, the Varangians, as they were known to the Greeks and Slavs, had a choice of two basic routes, depending upon their intended destination. Those wishing to reach Constantinople would normally head for the Dnieper river by rowing south along the Volkhov to Novgorod at the north end of Lake Ilmen. From there, they would travel down the Lovat river and the Western Dvina to the headwaters of the Dnieper river, which flowed past Kyiv into the Black Sea, and finally, of course, via the Bosporus to Constantinople. Those Varangians journeying to the Caliphate made their way via the mighty Volga. They joined it from Lake Ladoga either by the rivers Sias and Mologa north of Rostov or via the river Svir to Lakes Onega and Beloya to the river Syeksna and finally to the Volga, which flowed into the Caspian Sea at Itil.

The most often travelled, and thus the most lucrative, route seems to have been the Dnieper. Its terminus was the wealthiest city of the western world at the time: Constantinople. The Annals of St-Bertin revealed that the Varangians had been journeying there since before 839, when Swedish envoys sent by the Emperor Theophilos arrived in the court of Louis the Pious at Ingelheim. Moreover, the southern end of the Dnieper route could be used to connect to the Volga route. The Varangians naturally sought to control it, particularly the major trading settlements of Novgorod and Kiev. Their desire for domination revealed itself as early as 859, when the Rus Primary Chronicle (a twelfth-century history of Kyiv) noted, ‘The Varangians from beyond the sea imposed tribute upon the Chuds, the Slavs, the Merians, the Ves, and the Krivichians [basically the Finns and East Slavs of northwestern Russia].’ But according to the Rus Primary Chronicle (also known as Nestor’s Chronicle or ‘The Tale of Bygone Years’), their first opportunity to extend rule over the region came in 862. The Finns and East Slavs threw off the yoke of their foreign oppressors, but found it difficult to govern themselves, so they invited a group of Varangians led by a certain Riurik and his brothers to rule over them. They called them the ‘Rus’, a name believed to have been derived from the Finnish word for the Svear, Ruotsi (meaning ‘rowers’). Hence the realm of the ‘Rus’, which would eventually give its name to modern Russia, came into being.

Riurik based himself at Novgorod. His two brothers passed away shortly thereafter, leaving him to rule alone. Thus was born the Riurikid dynasty of the Rus. After consolidating his hold on the northwest, Riurik dispatched two of his followers, Askold and Dir, to Kyiv, which was ruled by the Khazars at the time. The two eventually assembled enough Varangians to assume control of city and the surrounding territory. Within a few years they felt strong enough to challenge the Byzantine empire itself. In the early 860s they ravaged Greek possessions on the Black Sea with a fleet of 200 ships and even engineered an abortive assault on the environs of Constantinople itself. Riurik died in 879, entrusting the realm to his kinsman Oleg while his own son Igor remained a minor. By 882 Oleg had slain Askold and Dir, setting himself up as the ‘prince of Kyiv’. At this point the Riurikids ruled what Noonan calls a ‘tributary domain from the Polish frontiers to the upper Volga’. The Rus of Kiev then shifted their covetous gaze to the riches of Constantinople.

The Varangians of Kyiv soon began to menace the Byzantines. The Rus wanted to increase trade with Constantinople, but the imperial court, wary of Varangian intentions ever since the raid of the early 860s, resisted. Oleg was not to be deterred. He ravaged the environs of the capital in 907 with a huge fleet. (The Rus Primary Chronicle gave the extravagant estimate of 2,000 ships.) The assault ultimately failed, but Oleg kept up the pressure until Emperor Leo VI finally agreed to a treaty in 912, granting the Rus access to Constantinople. His successor Igor, having come of age, returned in 941 evidently bent on conquest. The ‘Grand Prince of Kyiv’ was said by both the Rus Primary Chronicle and John Skylitzes to have brought a gargantuan armada of some 10,000 vessels with him. Liudprand of Cremona gave the less outlandish figure of 1,000 and indicated that the ‘Rusan ships’ were quite small so that they could ‘move in very shallow water’ – like the river Dnieper linking Kyiv to the Black Sea.

Whatever the exact number of their fleet, the Varangians soon learned the horrible efficacy of ‘Greek fire’. While the Rus ravaged the littorals of the Black Sea, Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos commanded the Protovestiarios Theophanes to equip what vessels he could find in the harbour of Constantinople (‘fifteen old battered galleys’ – probably dromōns) with ‘fire throwers’, i.e., ‘Greek fire’ siphons. The rest of the Byzantine fleet was elsewhere dealing with the empire’s Muslim adversaries. Theophanes met the Rus in calm seas at the northern entrance to the Bosporus. Liudprand of Cremona described what happened next: ‘As they lay, surrounded by the enemy, the Greeks began flinging their fire all around; and the Rusi seeing the flames threw themselves in haste from their ships, preferring to be drowned in the water rather than burned alive in the fire.’ John Skylitzes confirmed the rout of the Rus: ‘Many of their vessels were reduced to cinders with Greek fire while the rest were utterly routed.’ And the Rus Primary Chronicle gave grim testimony to the profound impact the episode had on the Kyivan Rus: ‘When they [the Rus survivors] came once more to their native land, where each one recounted to his kinsfolk the course of events and described the fire launched from the ships, they related that the Greeks had in their possession the lightning from heaven and had set them on fire by pouring it forth, so that the Rusi could not conquer them.’

Despite some militant posturing by Igor in 944, relations improved appreciably in the aftermath. The Byzantines and the Rus confirmed their commercial ties with a new treaty in 945. Following Igor’s death while trying to collect tribute from a tribe of East Slavs called the Derevlians, his widow Olga came to Constantinople and converted to Christianity in 948. Varangians of various sorts began hiring themselves out to the Byzantine court in ever greater numbers. They were probably among the formidable forces that Nikephoros Phokas used to reclaim Crete for the empire in 961. In 988 Grand Prince Vladimir accepted baptism and the hand of the emperor’s sister, Anna Porphyrogenita. The following year he sent several thousand Varangians to his new brother-in-law Basil II to aid him in his struggle to suppress the rebellion of Bardas Phokas. Within a decade the famed Varangian Guard had become a well-established institution of the Byzantine court. One of its most renowned members, Harald Sigurdsson (known as Hardrada or ‘Hard Ruler’), the future king of Norway, was among the Varangians who accompanied Giorgios Maniakes on the abortive Byzantine invasion of ‘Saracen’ Sicily in 1038.

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.