Throwback Episode 31: Trade and Exploration in the 16th century

Episode 31 of the Renaissance English History Podcast, from 2015, was on Elizabethan Exploration and Trade. Listen or read the transcript below.


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Hello, and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast. I’m your host, Heather Teysko. Today we’re going to talk about one of the major economic developments happening during the reign of Elizabeth I, specifically trade and exploration, as well as the notable people and companies involved in the age of discovery.

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So, let’s get started.

We like to think of the Age of Exploration as this grand period in which explorers, driven by the purist ideas of the burgeoning enlightenment went off to seek new lands and make great discoveries for the sake of discovery. It wasn’t quite that simple. Like many other discoveries that massively changed the world, the age of exploration was driven by economics.

Most of us have heard the stories about how returning Crusaders, having been introduced to spices, silks, and the wonders of the East during their time in the Holy Land, came back to Europe with tales of these amazing products, and a taste for things like sugar. The trade routes to Western Europe were cumbersome and made these products ridiculously expensive and difficult to obtain. But if new routes could be found, then it would make these products easier to get, and all of Europe could more easily access them.

That is all true, and there’s also a lot more involved, especially in the case of English exploration. While it was economically driven, it was also the product of several historical forces coming together in a perfect storm of ideas and technological advances that combined to make everything possible.

By the mid 16th century the Italians had a monopoly on trade from the East. The merchants of Venice and Genoa had long been the only ones with access to the traders and knowledge of the routes. But by the beginning of the 15th century, the Portuguese and Spanish were attempting to break the monopoly and find their own routes. People like Henry the Navigator were sponsoring voyages of discovery in the early to mid 1400’s.

England actually came to the exploration table much later than many countries. In part that’s because in the 15th century they were too busy fighting battles over the succession (in what would become known as the Wars of the Roses). And the early Tudors were too distracted with keeping a hold on power, as well as matrimonial issues, to really focus on funding exploration. Henry VIII would have been familiar with what was going on in Spain ­ the stories of the ships coming back loaded with gold and silver from the discoveries in the Americas would have been tempting to the Tudors.

King Henry VII commissioned J​ohn Cabot​to lead a voyage to find a northern route to the S​pice Islands​of Asia; this began the search for the N​orth West Passage.​ Cabot sailed in 1497 and reached N​ewfoundland. He led another voyage to the Americas the following year, but nothing was heard of him or his ships again.

By the later part of Henry VIII’s reign, the beginnings of the Muscovy company were put in place when Sebastian Cabot, John’s son who had been working for the Spanish, arrived back in England and began lobbying for an expedition to sail North in order to find a new route to Asia over Russia. This finally took off at the end of Edward’s reign, and the ships had come back during Mary’s. Three changes in monarchs during the time it takes to put together and launch one venture wouldn’t generally make you think they would be very successful. I actually did an episode solely on the Muscovy Company in November 2014, so you can listen from the archives to that to get more information.

By the time Elizabeth took power, England was internally torn apart, she had nearly been implicated in a plot to overthrow her sister Mary a few years before, and England was yearning for some permanent structure.

Also, when Elizabeth took over, England was heavily dependent on the wool trade with the Netherlands. 90% of the English export business was semi­finished wool, and the main customer was the Netherlands. The Netherlands were under Spanish control during this time, and so the economics of the wool trade were a huge concern during Elizabeth’s reign, and they needed to find new markets.

The problem was that by now, Portugal and Spain had surpassed the Italians through the discoveries of the Americas. Now that they had a monopoly, they weren’t about to go giving it away. Thus, they kept their maps and charts completely secret, at such a high level that they were treated as any other important security documents.

Though England was a seafaring country, still with Norse Viking blood running through the fishermen, the skills and maps they had only allowed them to sail within sight of land. Most fisherman never lost sight of land. They were going to need to catch up quickly.

There were certainly some new technological advancements that would help measure location using the angle of the ocean. Through contact with the Arabic traders, the Europeans were able to learn how to make a compass as well as an astrolabe which would help boats figure out which direction was North as well as their rough latitude. Longitude wasn’t accurately measured yet, but through estimating speed in a ship’s log, people could make a rough estimate.

But England still needed something else. Something like the charts and maps that the Spanish and Portuguese used. They got it in the form of a textbook, “Breve compendio de la Sphere”, a Spanish textbook by Martin Cortez.

Someone involved with the Muscovy Company was able to get hold of a copy of this book, translate it to The Arte of Navigation, and publish it in 1561. Scholars agree that this book represents one of the decisive steps that led to the oceanic expansion of England.

So, by the mid 1560’s England has: a stable monarch, new technology available, and secret knowledge. They still need a burning impetus to take the risks that such voyages would require ­ both in terms of money, and the potential loss of life.

Relations with Spain provided one of the drives. England and Spain were in a Cold War since Spain, being ruled by a Catholic, didn’t recognize Elizabeth as the Queen. The idea that the New World would be settled by Catholics who would teach Catholic Christianity to the native peoples they discovered was difficult for many English protestants to stomach.

One, Richard Haklyuyt, was a minister who was also England’s first travel writer. He began collecting every piece of information on travel and discovery that he could find. He went to France with Francis Walsingham to find out intelligence on what the French and Spanish were doing exploration­wise. And he was commissioned by men like Walter Raleigh to write supporting treatises on why England should take the risks involved and make voyages of discovery. He spent his life trying to get voyages funded, essentially a one man public relations team for American colonization.

Another person heavily involved in Elizabethan Trade and Exploration was John Dee, who was a mathemetician, astronomer, astrologer, and philosopher who advised Queen Elizabeth in her imperial policies.

He stood between the two worlds of magic (ie astrology) and “real science” just as they were becoming distinguishable ­ he was both a brilliant mathemetician and expert in geometry, as well as practicing alchemy and occult philosophy. He had been a consultant with the Muscovy Company, preparing nautical charts and instructing the crew on geometry and cosmography before they left for voyages to North America in 1576.

John Dee had written a report commissioned by Robert Dudley and Christopher Hatton in 1570 called the Brytannicae Republicae Synopsis ­ Summary on the Commonwealth of Britain. He summarized issues facing the country, and the possible outcomes of various actions, as well as his suggested solutions. Later in 1577 he proposed the rise of a British Empire using historical precedents which asserted England’s prior claims to the New World. He believed that England should invest in a navy and prove maritime supremacy, which would make his vision a reality, and then England could become wealthier through using resources found in the America’s and other newly discovered places. By 1588, with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, England had proven her maritime supremacy, which would be largely unchallenged until the 20th century.

Many of the voyages of discovery occurred in partnership with privateering raids. In 1562 Elizabeth sent p​rivateers​to seize booty from Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of W​est Africa.​ When the war with Spain intensified after 1585, Elizabeth approved further raids against Spanish ports in the Americas and against shipping returning to Europe with treasure.​ Francis Drake famously raided the port of Cadiz the year before the Armada was defeated.

Martin Frobisher​landed at F​robisher Bay​on B​affin Island​in August 1576; He returned in 1577, claiming it in Queen Elizabeth’s name, and in a third voyage tried but failed to found a settlement in Frobisher Bay.​

From 1577 to 1580, S​ir Francis Drake​ circumnavigated the globe, but England did not follow up on his claims.​In 1583, H​umphrey Gilbert​ sailed to Newfoundland, taking possession of the Harbour of St John’s ​together with all land within two hundred l​eagues ​to the north and south of it.

In 1584, the queen granted S​ir Walter Raleigh​ a charter for the colonisation of V​irginia​­ named after the famous Virgin Queen. Raleigh and Elizabeth were looking towards having a base from which to raid the Spanish boats. Raleigh sent others to found the R​Roanoke Colony;​but all of the settlers disappeared after a few years, and no one has ever found out why. In 1600, the queen chartered the East India Company. It established trading posts, which in later centuries evolved into British India, on the coasts of what is now India and Bangladesh.

Of course after Elizabeth died this didn’t all stop. England continued the colonization efforts that had begun, and explorers like Henry Hudson continued to look for a northwest passage. As religious tensions escalated, the Separatists and Puritans looked towards the New World as their base to escape persecution in England.

So that’s it for this week. The book recommendation is H​akluyt’s Promise: An Elizabethan’s Obsession for an English America by P​eter C. Mancall​.​

Thanks so much for listening. Talk to you soon!

Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!