Awakening of Europe - M. B. Synge

First Voyage of the East India Company

"Whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself."


Far away in the Arctic regions, on a map of the world, may be seen the name Davis Straits, given to a wide sea between the western coast of Greenland and North America. This sea was discovered by John Davis, one of Elizabeth's most famous explorers, a man who not only did good work among the ice-bound regions of the north, but also piloted the first English ship sent by the East India Company to trade with those distant lands, henceforth to form so large a part of the British Empire.

John Davis was a Devonshire lad, like so many of the sixteenth-century sailors. Humphrey Gilbert and Walter Raleigh were his lifelong friends; Hawkins, Drake, and Frobisher, the inspirers of his boyish dreams.

Davis had been at sea some time himself when Frobisher sailed forth in the little Gabriel for the north-west passage, which attracted so many to that land of ice and peril. But it was not until Frobisher had given up his gallant work, to waste his efforts in the search after imaginary gold, that John Davis took up his work. To find a short cut to India by the north, by which English ships could sail to and fro without fear from the great Spanish vessels which haunted the Cape route—this was the dream of Davis.

Sailing early in January 1585 in two little ships, bearing the romantic names of Sunshine and Moonshine, he reached the coast of Greenland. And it was Davis who gave the most southern point of that cold land the name Cape Farewell, which it bears to-day.

Three times did he sail to the icy north, each time reaching a farther point and making fresh important discoveries. To him is due the honour of having re-discovered Greenland, which had been lost sight of since the days of the old Vikings, two centuries before. He also explored the sea known to us to-day as Davis Straits. He mapped out the mysterious regions of the north, and pointed out the way to those who came after. "He lighted Hudson into his strait. He lighted Baffin into his bay." But he did more than this. By his true-hearted devotion to the cause of Arctic discovery, by his patient research, his dauntless enthusiasm, he set an example which became a beacon-light to northern explorers of all time.

But his last voyage to the north was not successful, and the owners of the ships under his charge turned their eyes to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope, instead of dreaming of a shorter way by the perilous and ice-bound north.

The destruction of the Spanish Armada had made the voyage for English ships by the Cape less hazardous than before. England had swept away for a time the fleets of Spain and Portugal, and could now undertake safely the long sea route by South Africa in order to bring back rich cargoes from India and the islands beyond.

These merchant ships had heretofore been fitted out by private people, who bought the ships, appointed the commander, and received the reward. Now the merchant-princes of England made up their minds to join together in a company, to fit out fleets and establish direct trade with India, sharing the profits.

The queen approved of the arrangement, and on the very last day of the sixteenth century the East India Company, as it was called, was started. Soon a little fleet of ships left England under direction of the Company; and the chief pilot of the fleet was our old friend of the Arctic Seas, John Davis, on board the Red Dragon.

He had but just returned from piloting two Dutch ships, the Lion and the Lioness, under Cornelius Houtman, to Malacca by the Cape of Good Hope, for which services he had been specially thanked.

"The Dutch had special assistance in their late navigations by the means of Master John Davis, and in return the Dutch do in ample manner requite us, acquainting us with their voyages, discoveries, and dangers, both outward and homeward."

His services were now required by his own countrymen, for this was a memorable voyage, inasmuch as it laid the foundation of the British Empire in the East.

The ships returned triumphantly from this first expedition under the Company, to be received by the news that Queen Elizabeth was dead, that James I. was on the English throne, and that a Dutch East India Company had been formed to rival English trade with India and the East.