Trade between Middle East Countries and China before 1500

A map showing the route and destinations of the seven voyages of Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 CE, acting as an ambassador and explorer of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 CE).

Some products were traded over very long distances indeed. In the thirteenth century date honey was produced in Bahrain and was much in demand in China by Buddhist pilgrims travelling to India. The great Chinese admiral Zheng He brought back to Beijing several giraffes, including one from Malindi and one from Bengal, the latter having apparently been given to the ruler of Bengal, Saifu’d-Din, by the ruler of Malindi. Most extraordinary, and mysterious, was the discovery in 1944 by an Australian radar team of five Islamic copper coins from Kilwa on a beach in the remote Marchinbar Islands, part of the Wessell Islands off Australia’s Northern Territory coast. None have dates, but from the inscriptions two may be tenth century, and three early fourteenth. We have no idea how they managed to travel clear across the whole Indian Ocean.

Long-distance trade was governed by the monsoons. One example was a route from the Gulf region to China around 1000 on the longest voyage sailed by any one ship. The Arab geographers claimed that a passage from Oman to China took about three months and ten days, though one exceptional voyage was completed in 48 days. These sound extraordinarily rapid, but they are only sailing times. Several stops were necessary on the way, partly to trade, and partly to wait for the right monsoon, so that the actual time from leaving the Gulf to reaching Guangzhou (Canton) was at least six months. The dhows sailed down the Gulf before it became too rough, in September or October, and then went on to Malabar on the northeast monsoon, arriving in mid-December. They stayed there while they traded, and waited for the cyclone season in the Bay of Bengal to end. In January they sailed to Malaya, and used the last of the northeast monsoon to get around the straits of Melaka and so catch the southern monsoon in the South China Sea and reach Guangzhou in April or May. The return voyage began in October to December when the northeast monsoon took them back to Melaka and over the Bay of Bengal to the west coast of India. The last stage, back to the Gulf, was sailed using the beginning of the southwest monsoon, reaching home around midyear.

Another example comes from five hundred years later. Very early in the sixteenth century Barbosa left us a compelling description of one of the major long-distance trade routes of this period, that is from Malabar, specifically Calicut, to the Red Sea. He wrote that the Muslim traders in Calicut from the Red Sea and Egypt:

took on board goods for every place, and every monsoon ten or fifteen of these ships sailed for the Red Sea, Aden and Meca, where they sold their goods at a profit, some to the Merchants of Juda, who took them on thence in small vessels to Toro, and from Toro they would go to Cairo, and from Cairo to Alexandria, and thence to Venice, whence they came to our regions. These goods were pepper (great store), ginger, cinnamon, cardamons, myrobalans, tamarinds, canafistula, precious stones of every kind, seed pearls, musk, ambergris, rhubarb, aloes-wood, great store of cotton cloths, porcelains, and some of them took on at Juda copper, quicksilver, vermilion, coral, saffron, coloured velvets, rosewater, knives, coloured camlets, gold, silver, and many other things which they brought back for sale in Calecut. They started in February, and returned from the middle of August up to the middle of October of the same year. In this trade they became extremely wealthy. And on their return voyages they would bring with them other foreign merchants who settled in the city, beginning to build ships and to trade, on which the King received heavy duties.

These two accounts point to a major change in the structure of long-distance sea trade in our period. Barbosa was describing a trade divided at south India, while the first account sketched a direct passage from the Gulf to China. What happened is that around the eleventh century the trade became segmented, with one merchant and ship doing the Arabian Sea part to south India, where the goods were exchanged, and then taken on by other ships and merchants to southeast Asia, where there was another exchange, and so to China. South India was always a place where there was a halt, and exchange, but the difference is that in the earlier time the same merchant and ship kept going beyond there, while later they did not.

In the earlier period, from say the eighth century, the very long-distance trade from the Gulf to China was handled by Persian merchants. In the Gulf Siraf, on the east bank, was the main centre, where were to be found goods from all over the Indian Ocean, including East Africa. Later Julfar, on the west coast up from Hurmuz, was important, and later still Hurmuz. Another old centre was Daybul, in present day Pakistan. Arabs also took part in this trade, and soon became more important than the Persians. Later some Chinese ships also, from the twelfth century and particularly in the fourteenth, traded into the Arabian Sea. However, from around the eleventh century the direct passage from Baghdad to Guangzhou declined, and we see the rise of emporia, that is shorter routes connecting the major port cities of Baghdad, Hurmuz, Cambay, Calicut, Melaka and Guangzhou, with many minor routes from, say, the Bay of Bengal feeding into this network. What evolved then was a basic change in the orientation of long-distance trade, which in the earlier period was on an east–west axis, from Baghdad to Guangzhou, and later was more north–south, that is Baghdad down to India, then an east–west segment to southeast Asia, and then north–south again up to China. We can even see here an early version of today’s divide between north and south, for the north, India and China, provided manufactures like cloths and porcelain, and the south unprocessed tropical products such as ivory, slaves, gold and spices.

From the twelfth century or slightly later we have three segments: the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the South China Sea. Chinese and Indians went to Melaka, Persians and Arabs only to India. It is significant that the account by Wang Dayuan, who travelled extensively in the 1330s, finds a western ocean and an eastern one, with the division at the Straits of Singapore. This important move towards segmentation may have been a result of traders realising that the direct passage in the same ship was inefficient, given that they had to wait for monsoons at several places, but it was probably also a result of the rise of important Indian trading communities in south India associated with the powerful Cola dynasty. We will turn to the influence of politics on trade presently, but we can remember here that the wealth and stability of the Abbasid empire from 750 CE, and of T’ang China, 618–907, certainly fostered this long-distance and quite perilous trade. The effects of the rise of the Cola empire in South India from the late ninth century has been less investigated, but it may be that the Colas, and the powerful merchant organisations, akin to guilds and associated intricately with state power, had two results. First, the stability provided by this state had the same effect as the equivalent in Baghdad and Guangzhou, that is a wealthy and stable state which had a large demand for foreign luxuries, and second merchants based in this state could trade both east and west, and especially to the east, to southeast Asia, where they met up with the powerful Sumatran-based trading empire of Srivijaya, which benefited from controlling the Melaka Straits up to the thirteenth century. South India seems to act as a fulcrum in this very long-distance connection. Later in our period other Indians joined in, this time Muslims based in the many emporia on the west coast, and in the major Islamic state of Gujarat from the thirteenth century. Increasingly the trade beyond India was controlled by Indian Muslims, while Arabs, and a few Persians, were restricted to the Arabian Sea.

We can start our survey of routes, trade and ports in the east, in China. We have noticed that Chinese products, especially porcelain, were traded all around the Indian Ocean from very early times. We have already quoted Ibn Battuta’s valuable description of the ships he saw in Calicut. His account dates from the early fourteenth century, but Chinese products have been found in the Arabian Sea from much earlier. Chinese pottery has been found on the Swahili coast from at least the eighth century, and a little later in Mauritius also. These goods were transshipped many times in a relay fashion, and some no doubt came overland to the Gulf and then were sent on by sea. An actual Chinese trading presence seems to date only from the twelfth century.

Many of the vast Chinese ships had both economic and political functions. We refer to the famous tribute system. Ostensibly this was a matter of foreign rulers accepting the superiority of the Chinese emperor, and sending tribute to signify this. However, much of the tribute was actually trade items, and the system then was a method of fostering exchange as much as a matter of political dominance. In the later thirteenth century the new Mongol dynasty, the Yuan, was keen to expand trade. In 1286 either the sons or younger brothers of the rulers of ten kingdoms ranging from Malabar to Sumatra came to pay tribute.88 Marco Polo got part of the way back home accompanying one of these politico-trade missions. Around 1290 a Mongol princess was sent by sea to Persia to become the consort of the local ruler, Arghun Khan, and the Polos went with her. She travelled with 600 sailors and officials, in a fleet of fourteen ships. They left from Zaiton, of which more in a minute, and touched at Champa and the Malay peninsula. Reaching Sumatra, they were forced to wait for five months to avoid monsoon storms. They then travelled near the Nicobar Islands to Sri Lanka, the west coast of India, and so to Hurmuz. However, Arghun had died by this time, and the princess was handed over to his son, Mahmud Ghazan, instead. This sort of voyage has been described in Chinese sources also. They said that it took forty days to get from China to Sumatra. One spent the ‘winter’ there and then took thirty days to get to the Malabar coast. This information again points to the good sense of the rise of the emporia trade, which meant that ships travelled shorter distances and did not have to wait for a change in the monsoon. Rather they could sell their goods and return home.

Kulke claims that in the thirteenth century there was a large Indian settlement, complete with temple, in south China, and Chinese settlements in Cola south India. Chinese traded to India, but it seems that many more Indians traded to China. Indeed Polo makes clear that Indian traders had by his time replaced Arabs and were an important community at the main Chinese port, which now seems to be Zaiton, that is modern Quanzhou, rather than Guangzhou (Canton). In a famous passage he wrote that Quanzhou is

frequented by all the ships of India, which bring thither spicery and all other kinds of costly wares. It is the port also that is frequented by all the merchants of Manzi [the surrounding province], for hither is imported the most astonishing quantity of goods and of precious stones and pearls, and from this they are distributed all over Manzi.

Much later, when he got to Malabar, he again wrote, ‘Ships come hither from many quarters, but especially from the great province of Manzi. Coarse spices are exported hence both to Manzi and to the west’.

Quanzhou was located north of the modern port of Amoy, or Xiamen, opposite Taiwan. Muslims had traded there very early on, even from the seventh century, and in 1350 there were six or seven mosques in the town. Among the products they imported was rhinocerous horn, which establishes a connection between East Africa and China. Fujian merchants began to venture out only from the late tenth century. Indian merchants had been in Guangzhou by at least the early sixth century.93 From the twelfth century the Kling merchants from south India began to concentrate on Quanzhou, where in the mid fourteenth century they built a large Siva temple modelled on that back home in Madurai. By this time however Chinese traders were taking over the trade between China and Melaka from both Hindus and Muslims. This trade may have been fostered by the awe-inspiring state-directed expeditions of the eunuch Zheng He, to whom we must now turn.

Zheng He erected a tablet which gives a flavour of his pride and sense of superiority. He had inscribed:

We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li of immense waterspaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly as] a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare….

This chauvinism is reflected even more in another inscription, where he claims that during his voyages ‘those among the foreigners who were resisting the transforming influence of Chinese culture and were disrespectful, we captured alive, and brigands who indulged in violence and plunder, we exterminated. Consequently the sea-route was purified and tranquillised and the natives were enabled to pursue their avocations.’ So also with many modern authors: Mills claims in his introduction to Ma Huan’s account of Zheng He’s 1433 expedition that the representatives of sixty-seven foreign states, including seven kings, came to China to pay tribute and render homage. At this time, at the height of Ming power in the 1420s, Yong Le’s fleet had 400 warships of the fleet, 2,700 coastal warships, 400 armed transports, and the pride of the Ming fleet, 250 treasure ships, each carrying 500 men. Throwing caution to the wind, Mills enthusiastically claims that ‘China enjoyed a hegemony over a vast arc of land which extended from Japan to the east coast of Africa.’

Comparisons have often been made with Portuguese activities at the same time in the early fifteenth century. When the Chinese were travelling all over the Indian Ocean, say in 1422, the Portuguese had not even got to Cape Bojador, 26° N. Zheng He’s greatest ships were 400 feet long, while Vasco da Gama’s were between 85 and 100 feet. Many senior historians have speculated that Zheng He’s fleets had the ability to round the Cape of Good Hope (indeed maybe they did) and proceed north to discover western Europe. World history would have been stood on its head.

The reality is a little less exciting than this. There were a total of six expeditions between 1403 and 1433, sponsored by the Yong Le emperor of the Ming dynasty. These vast fleets travelled all around the littoral of the Indian Ocean, going as far as Jiddah, and far down the Swahili coast. Each had between 100 and 200 ships, and forty to sixty of these were the famed huge treasure ships, which could be 150 metres long. There were maybe 27,000 men in each fleet. However, most of the ships were much smaller, some for example being water carriers. Barker tentatively claims that even the size of the great treasure ships has been enthusiastically overestimated: they may have been only about 230 feet long (though this is still very large for the time). They are to be seen as a continuation of the tribute system, with its characteristic mixture of tribute and trade. However, the fleets also engaged in essentially pedling trade in the Indian Ocean, that is, they took goods from one place to another quite apart from any association with tribute. They took southeast Asian sandalwood and Indian pepper to Aden and Dhofar, Indian pepper to Hurmuz, sandalwood and rice to Mogadishu, and rice, probably from Bengal, to the Maldives.

Perhaps the most important point is that Zheng He (perhaps understandably) has bewitched historians, and led to their ignoring three important matters that place his voyages in context. First, his activities were really a continuation of a long tradition, albeit writ large. Second, the tribute system, so-called, hardly meant Chinese suzerainty all over the Indian Ocean. Third, for much of the time the expeditions engaged in humble Indian Ocean trade alongside many other merchants. We described Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo travelling in private, and very large, Chinese ships, and generally Chinese merchants, often ignoring official prohibitions on overseas trade, dominated the trade from their coast to southeast Asia, and at least up to the middle of the fifteenth century, well after the end of major state expeditions, participated fully in trade from Melaka to the west coast of India but not beyond.

Overall then Chinese merchants, and state expeditions, played a rather small and transient role in the Indian Ocean proper.

Portuguese in the Indian Ocean

Under Malik Ayaz’s stewardship Diu at 1500 had risen to be one of the great ports in India. About one half of his income came from the port. This wealth and Diu’s strategic location enabled the Malik to acquire a considerable degree of independence from his overlord, the sultan of Gujarat. His initial reaction to the Portuguese seems to have been similar to that of many other independent or quasi-independent rulers of Indian port cities: he was happy for them to come and trade in his port on a basis similar to that of all the other foreign merchants there. As a Portuguese chronicler noted, he was always in these early years pressing them to send to Diu ‘two ships loaded with copper and spices so that he could trade with us’ (Fernao Lopes de Castanheda, Historia do Descobrimento e Conquista da India pelos Portugueses, 9 vols., Coimbra, 1924-33, II, lxxxv). In vain: we have noted Portugal’s designs. Malik Ayaz had to choose between resistance or submission. Co-operation in peaceful trade was not offered.

Resistance took two forms, military and diplomatic. In 1508 he helped the Egyptian fleet under Amir Husain defeat and kill the viceroy’s son, D. Louren^o d’Almeida, at Chaul. But he feared reprisals, so ‘on the one hand he wrote letters of condolence to the viceroy and on the other he fortified the city, as one who expected repayment for the help he had given Amir Husain, which repayment was not long delayed’ (Joao de Barros, Asia, 4 vols., Lisbon, 1945-6, 11, ii, 9). The viceroy at Diu in 1509 achieved a notable victory over the combined Egyptian-Gujarati fleet.

From then on Malik Ayaz concentrated on guileful defence. In 1513 he was able to out-manoeuvre Albuquerque’s attempt to establish a fort in Diu. Seven years later another Portuguese reconnaissance was defeated, as were Portuguese attempts to go above him and get his overlord, the sultan of Gujarat, to allow them a fort. At his death in 1522 he could be well satisfied, for he left a still independent and prosperous Diu to be governed by his son.

Diu’s downfall came because it was sucked into closer control by the sultanate of Gujarat. In 1526 a new ruler, Bahadur Shah, came to power. He was able to acquire much closer control over Diu, and change its governors at will. Meanwhile from 1530 he was involved in sporadic warfare with the Portuguese, who had become desperate to conquer Diu and so close it off as a haven for the ‘illegal’ spice trade. An open Portuguese attack in that year was beaten off thanks to Diu’s formidable defences. Five years later Bahadur’s situation had changed radically. He had been defeated by the Mughal emperor Humayon, and now desperately needed Portuguese help. In 1535, fatefully, he allowed them to build a fort at Diu. Two attempts by Gujarati forces in 1538 and 1546 to retake the port failed, and by the mid 1550s at least the Portuguese had finally achieved their main objective: all Gujarati ships leaving the great ports of the Gulf of Cambay had now to call at Diu, pay customs duties, and take a cartaz which obliged them to call at Diu again on the way back and again pay duties to the Portuguese. This was a very substantial accomplishment indeed. Nor was this Portuguese control threatened when Gujarat was incorporated into the Mughal empire in 1572.

Portuguese Superiority

One rather different case study can be used to complete this analysis of Indian reactions to the Portuguese. It concerns artillery, one of several areas where they did have an advantage and an impact.

Portugal’s important victories, such as the conquests of Goa and Malacca, the defeat of Amir Husain in 1509, the defences of Diu in 1538 and 1546, and their general superiority in naval warfare, need some explaining, for the Portuguese were operating with a comparative handful of men. A really big expedition would still include only about 2000 or 3000 Portuguese and mestizos. Typically these would be backed up by an at least equal number of local auxiliaries, while the ships on which they travelled would also be primarily crewed by Indians. In the whole empire, from Mozambique to Macao, there may have been a maximum of 10,000 men, Portuguese or Eurasian, available for military service at any one time. There were also complaints that the quality of soldiers sent out from Portugal declined during the century, so that at the end they were mere scum: beggars, jailbirds, and people taken forcibly off the streets of Lisbon. The brittleness of Portugal’s land defences was revealed in 1570 when a concerted attack on Portuguese areas (in part provoked by the Portuguese) from the rulers of Calicut, Bijapur, and Ahmadnagar was beaten off with great difficulty; indeed the Portuguese fort near Calicut, at Chale, was lost.

Portuguese success was based both on the fact that, except in 1570, they were never faced with united opposition from local powers, and on naval superiority. The first is obvious enough. There is no doubt that had the full weight of Deccan armies been turned on their areas in the Konkan and Kanara, in co-ordination with Mughal attacks in Gujarat, then the Portuguese could have been driven out. However most of the time Portuguese activities did not threaten the interests of these land-based states.

The reason why the Portuguese were successful in naval battles, and so could supply besieged forts like Diu from the sea, is also obvious enough. Their ships were better and, crucially, they had artillery on them. At first the Portuguese were confronted by galleys, or large merchant ships which carried soldiers but no cannon. These ships, whether oared or not, were comparatively flimsy because all they needed to be able to do was cruise before the monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean. But the Portuguese ships had to be able to sail from Europe to India, and to withstand much harsher weather.

The key was the cannon on the ships. Artillery had been developed during the fourteenth century in Europe, and was used on ships by the end of this century. In Asia generally crude cannon were occasionally used on land in the fourteenth century, and much more widely later: they played a crucial role in Babur’s victories in 1526 which established the Mughal empire. But it does seem that European cannon were better cast, and European gunners more skilful: hence the use of both when available by Indian states. The problem was that the concept of using them on ships at sea was not known when the Portuguese irrupted into the Indian Ocean, partly because Indian Ocean ships, being usually sewn not nailed, were too rickety to survive the recoil of cannon. Here lies the prime reason for their fast early successes. The Portuguese, indeed, were well aware of this advantage. From the very start they were routinely instructed not to board an enemy, but rather to stand off and, using artillery, slaughter the enemy with impunity.

The response of Indian rulers to this situation was a complex one. The advantages of cannon were early demonstrated, as an account of Cabral’s voyage in 1500 makes clear. While his fleet was in Calicut the zamorin asked him to capture a coastal ship. Cabral agreed, and the zamorin sent along a Muslim agent to watch how the Portuguese fared. Cabral sent off a caravel armed with a large bombard and sixty or seventy men. After two days they caught up with the local ship,

. . . and asked them if they wished to surrender. The Moors began to laugh because they were numerous, and their ship was very large, and they began to shoot arrows. And when the captain of the caravel saw this, he ordered the artillery fired, so that they struck the said ship, and it surrendered at once . .. The king (zamorin) marvelled greatly that so small a caravel and with so few people could take so large a ship in which were three hundred men at arms. (The Voyage of Pedro Alvares Cabral to Brazil and India, London, 1937, p. 78).

This demonstration, and later Portuguese bombardments of his capital from the sea, made the zamorin stop marvelling and start catching up. In 1503 two Milanese cannon makers deserted the Portuguese and joined up with the zamorin. In three years they cast 300 cannon, and taught local people how to make and use artillery. By 1506 the zamorin had a fleet of 200 ships, protected by bales of cotton in the gunwales and carrying cannon on board.

Despite this the zamorin and other Indian rulers proved unable to challenge formal Portuguese naval dominance in the sixteenth century. Geoffrey Parker has provided the best explanation for this. Their ships were not strong enough to withstand an artillery bombardment from the Portuguese, nor to absorb the recoil of large ordinance. There was however no real reason why Portuguese-style ships could not have been built by Asian rulers. It was just that this would not have been cost-effective. It was cheaper to take cartazes and so not need to arm one’s ships. If the Portuguese failed to honour the protection they had sold, Asian rulers often could retaliate on land. As Parker neatly sums up: ‘The ultimate defence of local Asian rulers was, thus, not the gun but the permit and the prison.’

Here then is another area where, when we disentangle a specific case, we find the Portuguese having an impact and an advantage. Their naval dominance, based on artillery on ships, was comparable with other instances we have already noted where they had successes, where they ‘made a difference’, such as the rise of Cochin and the decline of Calicut; such as their central achievement of establishing a series of fortified areas around the Indian Ocean littoral; such as their contribution to the redirection of Gujarat’s massive trade in the sixteenth century.

Yet it needs to be stressed that this sort of impact was rather atypical. Thus their infantry was no better organized than that of most of their opponents. Proper regiments were not formed until the eighteenth century. Before then Portuguese soldiers simply joined up, without proper training, uniform, or even standardized weapons, with a fidalgo of their choice for the campaigning season. The companies were disbanded at the end of each season, that is when the rains started in May or June, and the soldiers left for several months to beg for their food in the streets of Goa.

In other technological areas also recent studies seem to make clear that the Portuguese enjoyed few advantages. Habib notes important technological changes in western Europe from 1450 to 1750, which cleared the way for the industrial revolution. In the most general sense, the two main areas of innovation were the development of mechanical devices, clocks, screws, and gear wheels being examples, and the more concentrated application of power and heat. The mass dissemination of many of these innovations in some parts of Europe (Italy, the Low Countries, France and later England, but not Iberia) was of crucial importance in explaining later European dominance in Asia. Indians generally failed to appreciate these new devices; this failure told heavily in the eighteenth century. But two points must be stressed. First, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries India was, on most criteria, one of the advanced countries of the world. Second, the Portuguese, at least in the sixteenth century, also knew nothing of these innovations except, ironically, for artillery. Leaving this aside, in the vital area of technology also, the European-Asian balance changed long after the end of Portuguese power.

Portuguese Man at War

This is the name given to a very dangerous species of jelly fish. The real reason behind it resides in how well equipped this creature is, and is a comparison to the way the Portuguese ships fought in India.

Vice-Roy of India, D. Afonso de Albuquerque, a military genius of the highest degree commanded a fleet of six ships manned by four hundred men, and entered Ormuz Bay, being surrounded by 250 warships and a 20.000 men army on land ready to dispatch the small Portuguese flotilla. When the King of Ormuz sent aboard an emissary to question Albuquerque, the great Commander told the messenger one phrase: Surrender yourselves!!!

This must have provoked an inner laugh from the messenger who left. When the battle begun, Albuquerque made his fleet circle like a carrousel and destroyed most of the ships. He then proceeded to conquer Ormuz with 400 men.

How could this be achieved one must ask. The technical explanation may make some sense, but will not explain the courage of taking such a risk. In fact we all know that during the U. S. Civil War, canons had to be loaded from their mouths. This was in the XIX Century. However, Albuquerque’s canons were equipped with breeches that did not require the canons to be brought backwards to be loaded. It meant that while the enemy’s canons fired a shot, the Portuguese canons could fire six with a range of 1,800 meters against 700 meters of the enemy’s canons. The next issue is that the Portuguese artillery men had discovered the propulsive effect of water. If you throw a stone at a low angle near the surface of the water, the stone will be propelled by the water’s surface and gain more speed. The second row of canons were placed very near the floating line and the stronger fire power was further enhanced by the water effect, causing the steel balls to not only hit the ship but hit the one behind the first one. Being fired at close to the floating line, the ships would start sinking very fast.

Then one must be aware that the Portuguese knew they were always outnumbered, a certainty that led them to employ all their courage and determination in the fights and battles they engaged. In many cases, just mentioning the Portuguese would distress an entire army or fleet, knowing the fierceness and bravery of the Portuguese warriors.

Running forward

One of the techniques that the Portuguese warriors employed against their enemies who held the Moorish bow was just more than unusual. They knew that the Moorish bow would be very effective within the range from 50 meters to 400 meters. So when 40 Portuguese soldiers disembarked to face a first row of 300 archers also armed with tulwars, their first act was to run like madmen towards the archers, with their rapiers and left handlers in hand. The archers would be stunned by this totally insane act, as due to the heat, very few would wear armors. This stunning delay would again act in favour of the Portuguese who would close de 50 meters range with a few more seconds of advantage.

The Portuguese knew about the 50 meters bow effectiveness and that their only hope was to run frontward to cut that distance, after which their highly seasoned maneuver of the rapier and the left handler would destroy the tulwar in no time, one after the other. One blade would stop the tulwar strike and the other would dispatch the enemy, and this was one methodically in no time.

Running front wards for cover was a tactic that brought the Portuguese warriors great fame and respect for their bravery.

A unique exchange of insults

In 1537 some Portuguese sailors committed a crime, considered a grave diplomatic offense. In front of the city of Diu, the Sultan Bahadur Shah was received on a Portuguese ship. The diplomatic conversations did not go well and the Sultan and his entourage left angrily. Some less disciplined Portuguese sailors made the Sultan’s boarding the small boat that would take him back a pretty difficult task, one of them managed to hit the Sultan’s head with an oar which caused him to drown. The shameful action caused an outcry of indignation and revenge which echoed from the Muslim kingdoms of the Gulf of Cambay to Egypt and Constantinople.

The Sultan’s widow offered all of her fortune to finance a punitive expedition against the Portuguese. The Portuguese fortress of Diu had a garrison of 600 Portuguese commanded by D. Antonio da Silveira. The Turk Suleiman Pasha and the Sultan of Cambay united their armies, and arrived at Diu with 70 Turkish galleys and a land army of 23,000 men. Having taken some Portuguese as prisoners, Suleiman Pasha sent a letter by one of the prisoners to be delivered to D. Antonio da Silveira. It must be said that Suleiman was a court eunuch that gained power after a Court Coup, having beheaded the entire Turkish royal family and therefore usurping the throne.

When Antonio da Silveira received the letter from the Turk, he turned to his companions saying: Let us see what does the castrated dog has to say, and read the letter in public.

Suleiman Pasha promised the Portuguese free leave of people and goods as long as they returned to the Coast of Malabar and handed over the fortress and their weapons. Suleiman promised to skin alive all of the Portuguese if they did not obey his conditions, referring that he had the largest army in Cambay, among which were many who participate in the taking of Belgrade, Hungary and the Island of Rhodes. Finally he asked Antonio da Silveira how would he defend the pig-sty with so few pigs!

D. Antonio da Silveira ordered paper and ink to be brought forward, and in the presence of all, dictated the reply to the Pasha:

“Most honored captain Pasha, I have carefully read your letter. If in the Island of Rhodes were the knights that are in this pig-sty you could be assured that you would have not conquered it. You are to learn that here are Portuguese, used to killing many Moors and are commanded by Antonio da Silveira that has a pair of balls stronger than the balls of your canons and that all the Portuguese here have balls and do not fear those who don’t have them”.

A bigger insult could not be imagined. The Pasha was furious and ordered that the remaining prisoners were killed, and a fight of giants begun. During more then a month Antonio da Silveira fought bravely, remaining only less than 40 Portuguese capable of fighting, but causing so many casualties to the Turks that these gave up the siege and retired from Diu.(in Gaspar Correia: “Chronicle of the Feats in India”, vol. IV, pages 34-36)

The bullet that was a tooth

It is sometimes in chronicles written by foreigners that for some centuries have studied Portuguese History, that some interesting details are found.

A Dutch priest, Philippus Baldaeus, who accompanied the Dutch fleets that fought the Portuguese in the Indic Ocean, tells a most interesting story: During the first Siege of Diu, a Portuguese soldier who was manning one of the bastions of the fortress that was being attacked by the Turks, found himself as the only survivor, having used all bullets but still having some gun powder for one more shot, and finding nothing else to charge his firearm with, decided to extract one of his own tooth and armed the weapon with it, firing against the enemy that was considering he was out of ammunitions.

It is just a little detail in a great battle that is readily forgotten. The Dutchman however, relates this fact with great respect for a brave warrior, which does honor to the Portuguese soldier.

Phillipus Baldaeus: “A Description of ye East India Coasts of Malabar and Coromandel” chapter X, page 533 of the English translation. Chronicles of the time

1415 To organize the expedition to Ceuta ships were rented while others were built in Portugal to carry the expeditionary forces that were formed by the King’s vassals and by men supplied by the nobles. The enthusiasm was so great and so great was the impatience to serve, that a nobleman aged 90 years old presented himself with his troops.

1512 Fernao Lopes de Andrade, with a fleet of 17 sails manned by 350 Portuguese and some Malays attacks the fleet of Pate-Onuz that was coming from Malacca, composed of 90 sails and a garrison of 12,000 men. After a brave fight that took many hours, victory descended at the hands of the Portuguese, at whose hands many ships fell, while others were burnt or sunk. This battle, which filled with terror the various kingdoms of the region, was one of the most outstanding victory the Portuguese achieved in India.

1516 The King of Fez, having placed siege on the Portuguese fortress of Arzilla with 100,000 men is forced to abandon the siege. Note: Nothing else is referred in this short chronicle.

1518 Conquered by the great Afonso de Albuquerque, the famous city of Malacca grew in trade, and the oppulence of its citizens and the grandiosity of its buildings excited the neighbouring princes and the wish for its dominance. Many tried to after the Portuguese Arm showed it was not invincible. Of all, Mahamet, now king of Bintan learnt from spies that the fortress had only a garrison of 200 men, many of whom were sick. Grabbing the opportunity of such a situation and its timing, Mahamet came with 1,500 chosen infantry men and many well armed elephants, and by sea a fleet of 60 ships full of men and of instruments of expugnation.

Here a Nature’s wonder happened. Once the alarm was sounded and word passed around that the enemy was at sight, it happened that the sick soldiers, excited by the military preparations, tried to get up and suddenly the fevers that opressed and tied them to their sickbeds left them and they ran to the walls, mixing with the healthy ones, and with noble pride and unique bravery faced the furious assault. Many have witnessed a bullet remove the head of a Portuguese and his body remaining still for a space of time. Mahamet kept fighting for 20 days, yet all the assaults on the fortress were bravely repelled, until, all hope lost and having suffered 330 casualties, the assault was ended and the King returned home. This glorious event costed the lives of 18 Portuguese. Note: The number of casualties is pointed out with such an exactitude that it may be questionable.

1529 Lopo Vaz de Sampaio, with a fleet of 6 galleons and 13 light ships defeats the Samorim’s fleet of 130 sails. Note: Nothing else is referred in this short chronicle.

1538 The pirate known as Pate-Marcar that infested the Indian seas with 50 ships and 8,000 men disembarked at Beadalla. There, Martim Affonso de Sousa with 400 Portuguese attacks and defeats the pirate. Of the enemy’s fleet that was anchoured, 25 sails were set on fire while the remaining where taken as well as 400 canons and 1,500 guns.

1546 In the second siege of Diu, the place became so narrow that the captain-major of the fortress proposed to his council that they got out of the fortress, and at the enemy’s ground would give them battle and die over the bodies of the turks. The enemy did not ignore the state of the fortress, deciding on a final assault, hoping for a most certain victory. Exploding a mine that they have placed below the tower of St. Thomas which was destroyed, the Turks attacked from all sides with such might that the Portuguese resisted in a very costly way. The battle was burning everywhere, often with the enemy riding on the fortress walls, fighting at close quarters. Many fell, but more took their place, and it was such the fire that the Turks threw that the Portuguese had to fight among the flames.

The captain-major ordered that some basins of water were brought so that the soldiers could refresh their bodies from the heath of the fire that surrounded them. At the occasion of this providence an unusual case took place that is worthy of note. Antonio Moniz Barreto commanded the defense of a tower, and was lowering towards a basin to refresh himself, was pulled by an arm by a soldier who shouted: how come? Do you want to loose His Majesty’s tower? Barreto replied: I am burning, I must refresh myself. The soldier shouted again if the arms are good, the rest is nothing! Antonio Moniz Barreto heard the admonishment of that courageous soldier that later gave him all sort of favours and named him the fire soldier.

1538 The illustrious Nuno da Cunha, Governor of India, to rescue the fortress of Diu that the Turks have dangerously surrounded, resorted to a most unique artifice. Having sent some ships to give battle, in each of them had four torches placed before arriving by night. The small fleet started firing their artillery, among war cries and shouts which caused great effect among the turks who though the lights corresponded to a much bigger fleet, seeming like the whole of Portuguese India was after them, immediately raised the siege, not wanting to taste their fortune against the Portuguese.

1550 Death of the celebrated D. Pedro de Menezes, captain of Tangere. Having commanded eighty horsemen against three thousand moors, he was killed; however his death was avenged with the retreat of the enemy.

1551 The Prince of Chembe with an army of 30,000 men is defeated by 4,000 Portuguese commanded by the Vice-Roy D. Affonso de Noronha.

1559 A Portuguese fleet of six sails manned by 200 soldiers defeats another from the Samorim, composed of thirteen sails and a garrison of 2,000 fighting men.

1559 The kings of Malabar, joined against the Portuguese, attack the fortress of Cananor with a mighty army. The besieged, with the aid of 400 Portuguese that arrived in a small fleet, defeat the enemy who lost 15,000 men. The battle lasted from 3 hours in the morning until 4 hours in the afternoon.

These accounts were published in “O Panorama” 1840 edition, vol. I and IV.

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.