Honourable East India Company Mutinies

The East Indiaman Repulse (1820) in the East India Dock Basin.

During the latter half of the eighteenth century and up to its loss of the monopoly of trade between Britain and the East in 1813, Britain’s greatest private merchant-owners were the Honourable East India Company. Mortality was a greater danger aboard an East Indiaman than mutiny, so their commanders – for so the captains of East Indiamen were styled – were compelled to make good the losses of British sailors by the employment of Indian or Chinese, or by picking up indifferent seamen in odd locations. Discipline sometimes broke down when they were wrecked, which was not infrequently in consequence of the poor charts then available, the lack of knowledge of the natural dangers strewn across their route and the lingering difficulties of establishing longitude. As a precaution, and for their passengers’ comfort, East Indiamen invariably shortened sail at night, which made their voyages tediously protracted. This measure did not always work – the grounding and subsequent loss of the Hartwell, Captain Edward Fiott, on Boa Vista in the Cape Verde Islands in August 1787 being a case in point. The wreck was not attributed to poor navigation, however, but blamed on ‘the bad discipline of the crew, who four days before had behaved in a most extraordinary manner’. Quite what this constituted is now uncertain, but a similar example is provided by the fate of the Fame, a chartered ship which on a homeward voyage from Calcutta to London was cast ashore and lost in Table Bay. The ship ‘was standing out of the Bay [when] the wind fell light; the ship’s company refused to make sail, and, in consequence of this dastardly and villainous conduct, the ship drove on shore and was wrecked. Mrs Mills, a lady passenger, of Calcutta, was drowned. These scoundrels declared [in court] the ship should not leave the port, and many of them are now watermen at the Cape of Good Hope’ – which, since it was known as the ‘Tavern of the Seas’, was probably where the mutinous sailors most wanted to settle.

Personality clashes were not uncommon on these long voyages, and frequently boiled over when the ship was anchored off a port. In such circumstances matters could be dealt with ashore, where the charge of mutiny was ambiguous. In 1798 Second Officer Reid assaulted Commander Colnett of the East Indiaman King George when both were ashore at the Cape of Good Hope. Reid was arrested and court-martialled aboard the naval guardship, HMS Stately, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Had the same incident occurred afloat he would have suffered death.

The quasi-naval nature of the East India Company’s service in distant waters made it possible for courts of inquiry composed of its own officers to sit and hand out sentences. In 1787 the East Indiaman Belvidere, part of the so-called ‘China Fleet’, lay anchored off Whampoa, some miles below Canton in the Pearl River. Her commander was sick ashore with dysentery and the ship was in the charge of her first officer, Mr Dunlop; he found himself confronted with a major uprising by his crew, who it seems were demanding the release of a man confined for insubordination. There may also have been a grievance that the crew had been refused leave to go ashore at Canton (invariably denied because of difficulties with the Chinese authorities, though several sparsely inhabited islands in the river were made available for recreational purposes). Dunlop summoned help from the other Indiamen at anchor and fought off the mutineers with his sword. Commodore Dundas, the senior captain present, convened a court of inquiry which sentenced the ring-leaders to be flogged round the fleet, and others to severe floggings. When Dundas was himself subjected to a civil action on the return of the fleet to London, the Company paid his expenses; he was not only acquitted, but praised by the judges.

Prompt action by East India commanders seems frequently to have put paid to the eruption of small mutinies among disaffected seamen. As in the Belvidere, the spark of solidarity was often kindled by the apprehension of a known trouble-maker. In 1804 Commander Timins extinguished such an insurrection aboard the Royal George with his pistol. The ship was off the coast of Sumatra and had experienced a tropical thunderstorm during which fierce squalls had laid the ship over and ‘the fore topgallant mast [had been] shivered with lightning’. Next morning the crew refused to come on deck. Timins having armed all his officers, brandished a pair of pistols and confronted the crew. They were brought to heel, Timins promising to redress a minor grievance which had been exaggerated into a major issue.

Aboard the Minerva Commander Kennard-Smith used his sword to similar effect when the crew rushed the quarterdeck where a man was about to be flogged, and in 1823 Commander Mitchell of the Bridgewater found himself in similar circumstances. This mutiny appears to have arisen from the insubordinate behaviour of one man, Thomas Jones. Jones had been insolent to the Bridgewater’s fourth officer, but had so worked upon the men’s fears that his arrest brought the entire ship’s company to his support, confronting Mitchell and his officers with a wholesale breakdown in obedience. With his officers in support, Mitchell drew his sword and waded in, cutting three of the ring-leaders down and seizing a fourth, whereupon the rest fled and later returned to their duty sufficiently contrite to mollify Mitchell. One possible cause of these almost casual mutinies may be revealed in a letter written in 1830 by the first officer of the East Indiaman Susan, Mr Henry Hyland. Hyland signed on an able seaman named John Murray, and he deliberately provoked trouble by inciting his fellow shipmates to refuse to obey orders while the Susan lay at anchor off Port Louis. In the ensuing days Hyland ‘observed Murray to be active in stirring the sailors up to disobedience of orders, asserting that he did not go to sea for wages, but that he depended upon getting damages in law, by provoking the captain and officers to strike him; and that he generally got from £50 to £100 damages’. Such trouble-makers were justifiably known as ‘sea-lawyers’. Murray suborned two other men, who gave Hyland such trouble that he ‘was obliged to keep them in irons until I got into St Helena, and I then delivered them over to the civil power.’ Murray himself dodged such a fate, but equally failed to provoke Hyland or his fellow officers during the rest of the voyage. In a last desperate throw, however, he waited until the Susan was working her way up the Thames with a pilot on board before confronting Hyland on the quarterdeck. Shouting abuse, Murray shook his fist in Hyland’s face and claimed that as they were in pilotage waters he could not be charged with mutiny. Busy with working the ship, Hyland had ‘to pass over such conduct in the best manner I could, and would subsequently have had him committed for trial, was it not for the excessive trouble, expense, and loss of time attending such a prosecution’.

Commander Christopher Biden, who commanded the East Indiamen Royal George and later the Princess Charlotte of Wales, collected a large body of evidence, including Hyland’s, adding to the sorry tales of insubordination aboard East Indiamen further incidents on the British-flagged and -officered ‘country ships’, often Parsee- or Anglo-Parsee-owned, which traded between India, the Malay peninsula and China.

Although a High Tory and typical of his generation and type, who enforced obedience to lawfully appointed masters irrespective of grievances, Biden was not insensible to the plight of the common sailor, particularly his vulnerability to licensed abduction by the naval press-gang. The purpose of his endeavours was to promote a proper code of regulation for the merchant service in order to improve its general quality, and he began to attract a number of like-minded reformers to his cause. As he ably adumbrates, most mutinous conduct arose not from any deep-seated tyrannical cruelties but from trivial causes, the malevolence of individuals, or the deprivation of reasonable liberties. Others were quick to point out that the commanders of Indiamen were not themselves free of blame, for by and large merchant seamen were not actually averse to discipline itself – though the justice of its dispensation was another matter. Aside from mutiny on board ship, merchant seamen had struck for better wages when ashore, notably in the English north-east coast ports in 1792, 1806 and 1815. These incidents have a curious similarity to the naval mutinies of 1797, in that the seamen were conscientious about their own discipline. Biden recounts how in 1815 the ‘seamen in the ports of Newcastle and Sunderland preserved the most systematic order and very severe discipline. Any seamen of their party who missed muster (which took place twice a-day) was paraded through the principal streets of the town, having his face smeared with tar, and his jacket turned inside out. He was afterwards mounted on a platform attached to poles set up in triangles for the purpose, where he remained at the mercy of the mob.’

The removal of the East India Company’s monopoly in 1813 was followed by other major changes in the maritime world. The first was a new method of measuring tonnage which gradually transformed sailing ship design, greatly improved speed and opened the way for innovation; the second was the repeal of the British Navigation Acts in 1826, which rapidly opened up the world’s trade to competition. It was this expansion that had stretched British resources and led to the decline in the old Honourable Company – a term now used with the utmost irony. A corresponding invigoration and expansion of the British Admiralty’s Hydrographic Department also brought about a swift improvement in charts, with a corresponding improvement in the safety of navigation. But this general air of technical progress did not extend to the area we should today call Human Resources.

It is clear that insofar as crew discipline was concerned, by the 1830s matters had slid from bad to worse and the East India Company in particular had seriously degenerated. Neither commanders nor their crews were, it was asserted, up to the mark. The former were often guilty of a ‘supercilious pomposity’ and treated their crews ‘like animals’. The crews, on the other hand, showed evidence of ‘insolence, drunkenness and negligence’. However polarized this point of view, one commander at least seems to have been from the same mould as Pigot and Slidell Mackenzie, and generated a tirade of criticism. A naval officer, having studied the events aboard the East Indiaman Inglis in June 1829, opined that ‘The India Company are the shabbiest set of shipowners whose vessels traverse the oceans.’ This was strong stuff, but the Inglis’s captain, a Commander Dudman, was a foul-mouthed bully who verged on sadism, sanctioning ‘some disgusting occurrences’ aboard the Inglis. When his crew remonstrated with him over their brutalized existences, he saw fit to flog them without mercy. Matters came to a head when Dudman ordered a ship’s boy to attend to duty better suited to an able seaman, forcing the reluctant youth to go out on a spar from which the lad fell into the sea and drowned. Once again the troubles of a single individual provided the spark to dry tinder: the crew rose against Dudman. In due course, although brought to justice and found guilty, the mutineers were given lenient sentences, and the case brought the plight of seafarers generally into the public arena. It soon became clear that it was not just among the prestigious Indiamen with their traditional place in the British public’s imagination, that matters had deteriorated, but that things were rotten elsewhere in the British merchant fleet. The debate spread beyond the courts and the waterfront, bringing in an era of reform that began with the first of a series of regulating Merchant Shipping Acts of Parliament – the provision of proper wage-scales, victualling allowances and standards of competency, administered by the Board of Trade and Plantations – and culminated with the prevention of excess profits being made from overloaded and unsafe ‘coffin’ ships, provided for by the Act of Parliament sponsored by Samuel Plimsoll in 1876.

Under the new conditions that emerged after the end of the ‘Great War’ against Napoleonic France the United States merchant marine expanded alongside the British and, as will be seen, both suffered from similar malaises. As the dynamic nineteenth century unfolded, mutinies became increasingly common aboard merchant ships other than East Indiamen, both British and American. In the large mercantile marines, possessed by these nations at the time, the hierarchy was flatter than that in men-of-war, making confrontation with authority easier. Merchantmen had always suffered from the curse of occasional disorder but usually the matter was smoothed over or solved by quick, summary intervention, often by the master himself but usually by the mates. In the absence of proper regulation a master dominated a fractious crew or an incorrigible individual by sheer force of personality; on occasion, a mate would lay out a rebellious crew-member, scotching incipient mutiny before it had gathered any momentum. Often this was taken too far by tough young officers being over-zealous and over-bearing with members of a crew, dominating them with pre-emptive violence for the smallest infraction of conduct. ‘The second mate struck the man at the wheel in the face because he was half a point [about 5.6°] off the course . . .’ was how an old shell-back recalled one circumstance in the steady disintegration of discipline aboard a sailing ship. ‘The helmsman knew better than to do it, but he let go of the wheel and she came up all standing and shook the main and fore topgallant masts out of her. Hell broke loose . . .’

During this vigorous age of expansion and exploration a crew often had cause to complain about poor food, overloaded ships, or lack of faith in the master and mates. Often a ‘hard-case’ mate would terrorize a crew simply to keep them jumpily obedient, a practice known as ‘hazing’. The same old seaman told how ‘The third day out [from New York] we went aft in a body and complained about the food, which was the very worst any of us had ever had. The Captain told us the food was good enough for a bunch of wharf-rats, and he said some other things that I cannot put on this page, ordered us forward, and as we did not move fast enough to suit the mates, they waded into us with belaying pins and beat us up plenty. If we hit back, that would be mutiny, of course.’

In addition to the old problems always associated with sailing ships, early steamships also bred anxiety. Their boilers had a disturbing propensity to explode, while the gangs of ‘firemen’ signed-on to tend their voracious appetites for coal were drawn from the roughest fringes of waterfront society. These men often feuded among themselves or sought to terrorize the remaining crew, presenting their officers with intractable problems. Equally, masters and mates were sometimes driven to ruling their crews with extreme vigilance, most especially after the discovery of gold in California, Australia and New Zealand in the mid-nineteenth century, events that dramatically increased the number of passengers travelling the seas. As ships arrived in ports near the gold fields with excited ‘diggers’ and prospectors eager to get ashore and make their fortunes, it was often the case that among those landing were the entire crew. In response to this crisis, masters often forced the local constabulary to lock up their crews on trumped up charges for safe keeping, the men being released to sail the ship away after she had completed cargo-work.

The Manila Galleons

The replica of the Galeon Andalucia visits the Philippines in celebration of the Dia del Galeon Festival, a commemoration of the 16th century galleon trade. Video by Yahoo! Southeast Asia sports producer Izah Morales. Photos by Voltaire Domingo/NPPA Images.



Pacific Routes-Manila Galleons

They sighted Cape San Lucas on 2 November 1709 and took up their stations. They spread out so that between them their lookouts could spot any vessel which appeared between the coast and a point some sixty miles out to sea. The Marquiss was stationed nearest the mainland, the Dutchess in the middle and the Duke on the outside, with the bark roving to and fro to carry messages from ship to ship. Sir Thomas Cavendish had captured the Manila galleon on 4 November 1587. Cavendish had two relatively small ships, the 18-gun Desire of 120 tons and the 10-gun Content of sixty tons. The Manila galleon that year had been the Santa Anna, a much larger ship of 600 tons, but she had no carriage guns because the Spanish were not expecting a hostile attack. When Cavendish moved in to attack, her crew had to resort to hurling javelins and throwing rocks on to the heads of the English sailors. Thanks to the massive construction of the galleon her crew battled on for five hours but suffered such heavy casualties that her Spanish commander was forced to surrender. Many of his seamen were Filipinos and among his many passengers there were women and children. The total value of the galleon’s cargo was reckoned to be around two million pesos.

The annual voyage of the Manila and Acapulco galleons across the Pacific was the longest non-stop passage made by any ships in the world on a regular basis. The westbound voyage from Acapulco took between two and three months and was made easier by a call at the island of Guam towards the end of the voyage, but the eastbound voyage took a gruelling five or six months and sometimes as long as eight months. This put a considerable strain on food and water supplies and inevitably resulted in deaths from scurvy. The track of the galleons was determined by wind and weather patterns and by ocean currents. The shorter and quicker westbound voyage taken by the Acapulco galleon took advantage of the north-east trade winds and a westerly current in the region of latitude 13 degrees north, known as the North Equatorial Current. The eastbound Manila galleon had to follow a curving track some 2,000 miles to the north which took her past the islands of Japan with the help of the Kuro Siwo Current, then across the Pacific with the aid of the westerly winds and then south-east to Acapulco assisted by the California Current which flows along the coast of North America.

It took some years of trial and error before the winds and currents were worked out and the situation was complicated by the typhoons – the cyclonic storms which sweep across the Philippines with a destructive power similar to the hurricanes of the Caribbean region. To take advantage of prevailing winds and avoid the typhoons it was reckoned that the Manila galleon must set sail in May or June, which meant that she could be expected to arrive off the coast of California at any time between October and December unless delayed or blown off course by storms – and many of the galleons had to endure a succession of violent storms during the voyage. In 1600 the Santa Margarita was so disabled by months of heavy weather that she was driven south and wrecked on the Ladrones Islands (Islas Ladrones), off the coast of Panama. Only fifty of the 260 men on board survived the shipwreck and most of the survivors were then killed by the native islanders.

The annual crossings of the Pacific had begun in 1565 and over the following 250 years more than thirty galleons were lost in storms or wrecked. Since no more than one or two galleons made the crossing each year this was a heavy toll in lives, ships and treasure. ‘The voyage from the Philippine Islands to America may be called the longest and most dreadful of any in the world,’ wrote Gemelli Careri, an experienced traveller, ‘… as for the terrible tempests that happen there, one upon the back of another, and for the desperate diseases that seize people, in 7 or 8 months, lying at sea sometimes near the line, sometimes cold, sometimes temperate, and sometimes hot, which is enough to destroy a man of steel, much more flesh and blood …’

Lend-Lease to the USSR

American Lend-Lease supplies to the USSR 1941–45.

Soviet historiography is mocked in the West, where it is seen purely as a propaganda exercise. By way of example, take Lend-Lease. Soviet texts downplay its importance, if they mention it at all. English-language histories credit it with saving the Soviet Union from defeat, bandying about words like “decisive” and “critical”. The truth lies in between these extremes — in the fighting in late 1941, the presence of British-supplied Hurricanes and Tomahawks made a difference around Leningrad and Moscow. The presence of Spitfires and Airacobras helped the VVS defeat the Luftwaffe over Kuban. The Studebaker truck was an important tool for the Red Army. The aluminum and other alloys, the metallurgic technology, the locomotives, the radios and other smaller items, the foodstuffs, all these items helped to strengthen the USSR in their struggle against Germany and her Allies. There is no question. But to state bluntly that without them the USSR would have collapsed is simply untrue, and this is the perspective most often put forward in English-speaking lands. The USSR is/was a great country, with enormous resources, and the Russian people are among the most resilient in the world. With or without Lend-Lease, Germany would sooner or later have been defeated, simply because such a small country could never sustain a war against one so large and so wealthy. The Second World War was a war of attrition, and Germany simply did not have the resources to outlast the USSR. Once German troops were stopped before Moscow, it was only a question of time.

In the final phase of the war, however, the Soviet army was able to move to a conduct of operations that was very close to the concepts that had been defined in P.U. 36: Soviet Field Regulations. It was able to do so for one basic reason the mechanization of the logistic facilities of its seven armored and mechanized armies. This was made possible by U.S.  Lend-Lease, U.S. factories and shipping being responsible for the supply of some 420,000 four-wheel-drive trucks, which put the Soviet army on wheels. The scale of this effort can be understood when it is remembered that this total was greater than the number of motor vehicles in Britain in 1939, and the United Kingdom was second only to the United States in terms of automobile production. Where, however, the concept of Deep Battle continued to elude the Soviet army was in the lack of overall mechanization, since the vast majority of Soviet infantry remained on foot and hoof, of a genuine deep-strike air force, and of adequate airborne forces. As a result the Soviet army, like the German army, was unbalanced, with quality concentrated and narrowly based. Its success in the final period of the war was much to do with superiority of numbers and technique.

The most serious gap in the Soviet armoury at the start of the war was in radio communication and intelligence. In the early months of war there were desperate shortages of radio equipment, which made effective command and control of large numbers of aircraft and tanks impossible and made it difficult to hold together a regular infantry division. And when radio was used German interceptors caught the messages and dispatched air or tank strikes against the unfortunate command post that had relayed them. Soviet commanders soon grew uncomfortable with using radio once they realized it could betray their whereabouts. The system was disrupted in the fast-moving defensive battles of 1941 and 1942, as one communications post after another was overrun by the enemy. The effort to provide effective communication in 1942 was central to the final successes of Soviet mass operations in 1943 and 1944.

It could not have been achieved without supplies from the United States and the British Commonwealth. Under the Lend-Lease agreements drawn up with America and Britain in 1941, the Soviet Union was supplied with 35,000 radio stations, 380,000 field telephones and 956,000 miles of telephone cable. The air force was able by 1943 to establish a network of radio control stations about one and a half miles behind the front, from which aircraft could be quickly directed to targets on the battlefield. Tank armies used the new radios to hold the tank units together, increasing their fighting effectiveness by the simplest of innovations. Finally, the Red Army began to organize its own radio interception service in 1942. By 1943 five specialized radio battalions had been raised; their function was to listen in on German radio, jam their frequencies and spread disinformation over the air waves. In the battles of summer 1943 the battalions claimed to have reduced the transmission of German operational radiograms by two-thirds. In the last years of the war Soviet signals-intelligence underwent an exceptional and necessary improvement. The systems for evaluating intelligence from radio interception, spies and air reconnaissance were overhauled by the spring of 1943, and a much clearer picture of German dispositions and intentions could be constructed. Moreover, radio came to play a major part in the evolution of sophisticated tactics of deception and disinformation, which on numerous occasions left the enemy quite unable even to guess the size, the whereabouts or the intentions of Soviet forces.

It was true that the quantity of armaments sent was not great when compared with the remarkable revival of Soviet mass production. The raw statistics show that Western aid supplied only 4 per cent of Soviet munitions over the whole war period, but the aid that mattered did not come in the form of weapons. In addition to radio equipment the United States supplied more than half a million vehicles: 77,900 jeeps, 151,000 light trucks and over 200,000 Studebaker army trucks. One-third of all Soviet vehicles came from abroad and were generally of higher quality and durability, though most came in 1943 and 1944. At the time of Stalingrad only 5 per cent of the Soviet military vehicle park came from imported stocks. Imports, however, gave the Red Army supply system a vital mobility that was by 1944 better than the enemy’s. The Studebaker became a favourite with the Soviet forces. The letters ‘USA’ stencilled on the side were translated as ‘Ubit sukina syna Adolfa’ – ‘to kill that son-of-a-bitch Adolf!’ The list of other supplies, equally vital to the Soviet supply effort, is impressive – 57.8 per cent of aviation fuel requirements, 53 per cent of all explosives, almost half the wartime supply of copper, aluminium and rubber tyres. Arguably the most decisive contribution was supplies for the strained Soviet rail network, much of which was in the occupied areas in 1941. From America came not only 56.6 per cent of all the rails used during the war but 1,900 locomotives to supplement the meagre Soviet output of just 92, and 11,075 railway cars to add to the 1,087 produced domestically. Almost half the supplies, by weight, came in the form of food, enough to provide an estimated half-pound of concentrated nourishment for every Soviet soldier, every day of the war. The shiny tins of Spam, stiff, pink compressed meat, were universally known as ‘second fronts’.

The provision of Lend-Lease supplies was slow in the early stages of the war, but from late 1942 it became a steady flow through the Soviet eastern provinces via Vladivostok, by the overland route from the Persian Gulf and the more dangerous and inhospitable convoy journeys from British ports to Murmansk or Archangel. Foreign aid on such a scale permitted the Soviet Union to concentrate its own production on the supply of battlefront equipment rather than on machinery, materials or consumer goods. Without Western aid, the narrower post-invasion economy could not have produced the remarkable output of tanks, guns and aircraft, which exceeded anything the wealthier German economy achieved throughout the war. Without the railway equipment, vehicles and fuel the Soviet war effort would almost certainly have foundered on poor mobility and an anaemic transport system. Without the technical and scientific aid – during the war 15,000 Soviet officials and engineers visited American factories and military installations technological progress in the Soviet Union would have come much more slowly. This is not to denigrate the extraordinary performance of the Soviet economy during the war, which was made possible only by the use of crude mass-production techniques, by skilful improvisation in planning and through the greater independence and initiative allowed plant managers and engineers. As a result of the improvements in production, the Red Army faced the German enemy in 1943 on more equal terms than at any time since 1941. The modernization of Soviet fighting power was an essential element in the equation. The gap in organization and technology between the two sides was narrowed to the point where the Red Army was prepared to confront German forces during the summer campaigning season in the sort of pitched battle of manoeuvre and firepower at which German commanders had hitherto excelled.

Soviet reaction to Allied aid during the war was mixed. While sending out extravagant shopping lists to the Western powers, the Soviet authorities complained constantly about delays in supply and the quality of some of the weaponry they were sent. Offers by British and American engineers and officers to follow up the deliveries with advice on how to use and repair the equipment were met with a stony refusal. It was true that aid deliveries were slow to materialize in the fifteen months after the promise was made in August of 1941, due partly to the difficulties in establishing effective supply lines, partly to the demands of America’s own rearmament. But neither Roosevelt nor Churchill were in any doubt that aid for the Soviet Union was vital to the anti-Axis coalition; they bore Soviet complaints without a serious rupture. When the first aid programme was finally settled in October 1941, Maxim Litvinov, by then the ambassador to Washington, leaped to his feet and shouted out, ‘Now we shall win the war!’ Yet after 1945 Lend-Lease was treated in the official Soviet histories of the war as a minor factor in the revival of Soviet fortunes. The story of Lend-Lease became a victim of the Cold War. Even in the late 1980s it was still a subject of which the regime would not permit open discussion. The significance of Western supplies for the Soviet war effort was admitted by Khrushchev in the taped interviews used for his memoirs, but the following passage was published only in the 1990s: ‘Several times I heard Stalin acknowledge [Lend-Lease] within the small circle of people around him. He said that… if we had had to deal with Germany one-to-one we would not have been able to cope because we lost so much of our industry.’ Marshal Zhukov, in a bugged conversation in 1963 whose contents were released only thirty years later, endorsed the view that without aid the Soviet Union ‘could not have continued the war’. All this was a far cry from the official history of the Great Patriotic War, which concluded that Lend-Lease was ‘in no way meaningful’ and had ‘no decisive influence’ on the outcome of the war.

The Soviet Union would not have been able to “fight their fight without allied support.”  However, the contribution of U. S. production and Lend-Lease to the Soviet effort has often been exaggerated.

“Left to their own devices,” as one contemporary source puts it, “Stalin and his commanders might have taken 12 to 18 months longer to finish off the Wehrmacht.” (David M. Glantz & Jonathan House, ‘When Titans Clashed’, 1995, p. 285)

Glantz and House noted (pp. 150-151, 285) the Soviet economy would have been more heavily burdened without Lend-Lease trucks, the implements of war, and raw materials including clothing.  Ultimately, the authors conclude, the result would have been the same, “except that Soviet soldiers could have waded at France’s Atlantic beaches.”

The authors point out, Lend-Lease equipment did not arrive in sufficient quantities in 1941-42 to make a difference.  “That achievement must be attributed solely to the Soviet people and to the nerve of Stalin” and others.  Lend-Lease trucks enabled the Soviets to keep their mobile forces moving, especially after March 1943.  But combat vehicles and aircraft proved less satisfactory.  The Valentine and Matilda tank turrets could not be upgunned.  And the Soviets wanted close air support ground aircraft and low altitude fighters, not fighter interceptors and long-range bombers.

According to Glantz and House (p. 340 n1), from October1941 to May 1942 the Allies delivered 4700 aircraft and 2600 armored vehicles.  In 1941 and 1942, the Soviets produced 8200 and 21,700 combat aircraft respectively, as well as 4700 and 24,500 tanks.  The Soviets lost 17,900 aircraft in 1941 and 12,100 aircraft in 1942 while tank losses were 20,500 and 15,100 for those years. (p. 306).

By mid to late 1942 the 1500 factories moved east of the Urals between July and November 1941 were beginning to meet much of the Soviet Union’s needs. Standardization of equipment and increased use of labor, especially women and teenagers, allowed tank production for example to rise 38% over 1941. Industrial production in the Urals increased 180% in 1942 over 1940, 140% in Western Siberia, 200% in the Volga region, 36% in Eastern Siberia and 19% in Central Asia and Kazakstan. (Source: Colonel G. S. Kravchenko, specialist in military economics, History of the Second World War, 1973, pp. 975-980).

Kravchenko points out that the smallest amounts of deliveries came at the beginning, the hardest period of war while the second front had not yet been opened. Lend-Lease, while important in providing locomotives, rail wagons, jeeps, trucks, raw materials such as aluminum, machine tools, food and medical supplies, only accounted for 10% of tanks and 12% of aircraft. Soviet soldiers appreciated the 15 million pair of boots the U.S. provided.

According to Alexander Werth (Russia at War: 1941-1945) Lend-Lease contributed to the Soviet army’s diet and to its mobility.   Between June 1941 and April 1944, Werth states (p. 567), the US delivered 6430 planes, 3734 tanks and 210,000 automobiles; the British 5800 planes and 4292 tanks; the Canadians 1188 tanks and 842 armored cars.  Given the Soviet attrition rate, (June 1941 to June 1943 – 23,000 planes and 30,000 tanks – Werth – FN p. 610), Allied contributions hardly covered Soviet losses.

Stalin pressed the Allies more for a second front than for supplies in October 1941 as the Germans pressed on Moscow.  It must also be repeated that by the summer of 1942, German resources could not keep pace with demands, and an attack could only be mounted in the area of Army Group South.

No doubt statistics can be massaged to support any point of view.  Glantz correctly concludes that without Lend-Lease, Soviet offensives would have stalled at an earlier stage, and forward troops could not be supplied.  But the outcome was never in doubt.  That outcome would only have taken longer to achieve.

Here are some stats.

Lend-lease supplied the USSR with 1.9% of all artillery, 7% of all tanks, 13% of all aircraft, 5.4% of transport in 1943, 19% transport in 1944 and 32.8% in 1945. Lend-lease deliveries amounted to 4% of Russia’s wartime production.

Soviet production of motor vehicles during the war amounted to 265,00 vehicles. Lend-lease delivered 409,500 motor vehicles. Lend-lease delivery of motor vehicles exceeded Soviet production by 1.5 times. In fact, the Soviets, due to Lend-lease, had more vehicles than fuel for them, i.e. 1st Belorussian Front at the end of 1944 as did the 1st Ukrainian Front. Both fronts requested more deliveries of fuel, less of vehicles.

Russia included lend-lease deliveries of aviation fuel in their total production figures. In truth, Lend-lease deliveries of aviation fuel amounted to 57.8% of Russia’s production totals. Lend-lease deliveries of automobile fuel were 242,300 metric tons or 2.8% of Soviet wartime production, but their value was much higher because of the higher-octane level.

Lend-lease deliveries of explosive materials amounted to 53% of the total Soviet wartime production and lend-lease supplied an estimated 82.5% of copper production. Lend-lease deliveries of aluminum, essential for production of aircraft and tank engines exceeded Soviet wartime production by 1.25 times. Lend-lease also delivered 956,700 miles of field telephone wire, 2,100 miles of sea cable, 35,800 radio stations, 5,899 radio receivers and 348 radars. Lend-lease deliveries of canned meat alone amounted to 17.9% of total meat production.

Lend-lease deliveries of locomotives exceeded Soviet production by 2.4 times and railroad rails amounted to 92.7% of overall volume of Soviet rail production. Deliveries of rolling stock exceeded production by 10 times. Deliveries of tires amounted to 43.1% of Soviet production.

Soviet production never produced enough material to sustain the war effort in any key area. In tank production, it wasn’t until 1944 that they actually had a year where tank production exceeded tank losses. Lend-lease tanks amounted to 20% of all Soviet tanks operating in 1944 and without these tanks, they never could have formed the Mech Corps they did in 1944.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

London: The Romans and Early Saxons I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The foundation and growth of Londinium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main Roman trade routes from the Mediterranean to Londinium

The port of Londinium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London: The Romans and Early Saxons II

Roman ships

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

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

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

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

The decline of the Roman Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the ports known to have traded with Lundenwic.

The Saxon port of Lundenwic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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