This edited article about exploration and discovery originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 852 published on 13 May 1978.
How do you get to China? A question simple enough to answer today. But 400 years ago it was one of the most talked about problems among thinking Englishmen.
You could, of course, go south, then east or west, following routes already tracked by the Spanish and Portuguese. The English, however, believed that there were other ways – not along the bottom of the world, but over the top of it. They thought a way to China lay to the north.
The problem: was it north-west (the way that John Cabot had partly taken) or north-east?
It was the temperamental, aged Italian explorer, Sebastian Cabot, son of John, who finally persuaded Englishmen to look for a north-east passage. They liked Cabot. At 74 he was as alert and as crafty as ever, but he had mellowed. He had settled in England and he had a bank of nautical experience to draw upon that was second to none.
Cabot, now too old to explore, had to content himself with fitting out the expedition. The command of the three ships was given to Sir Hugh Willoughby. His second-in-command was Richard Chancellor, who was to play the principal role in the events that followed.
The little fleet was watched by a big crowd as it sailed down the Thames from Greenwich in May, 1553. These were times of great change in Tudor England. Once again the boy King Edward VI was seriously ill and soon to die. His most likely successor, Mary Tudor, was committed to returning England to Catholicism. A Catholic England or a Protestant one – this was an even bigger problem than the north-east passage to China.
At Harwich there was a week’s delay because the wind did not blow in the right direction. Then Willoughby led the way to the Norwegian coast.
At a group of small Norwegian islands, the commander called his captains together and gave them precise instructions about what to do if they should be separated by a sudden storm. Only hours later that was exactly what happened. The seas, Willoughby wrote, “became so outrageous that the ships could not keep to their intended course.”
One of them was never seen again. Another, the Bona Esperanza, commanded by Willoughby himself, was tossed about in the icy-cold Arctic Sea for six weeks. Finally she made a landfall on the Murmansk coast of Russia.
Willoughby sent out scouts this way and that, but there was no one to be seen. There was nothing for it but to settle down and pass the winter there. An Englishman could not turn back – although, had Willoughby known something of the severity of an Arctic winter, he might have done so.
The end for Willoughby and his crew must have been like that of Captain Scott on his South Pole expedition. One by one they died. Five months after leaving England, some were still alive – a month later all were dead. Only Willoughby’s diary, lying on the desk at which his body was found still in a sitting position, survived to tell the heroic tale.
The third ship hammered by the storm was the Edward Bonaventure, commanded by Chancellor. He had made a safe anchor-age at Vardo, the agreed rendezvous for such an emergency, but as the days went by he realised that Willoughby and the third ship must be lost.
What to do? Chancellor had no doubts about that. He resolved “either to bring that to pass which was intended, or else to die the death.”
So Chancellor sailed on into the eerie frozen north and the land of the white bear and the sea-horse to “a place where he found no night at all, but a continual light and brightness of the sun shining upon a huge and mighty sea.” Presently, he entered the White Sea, which is like a great bay almost completely surrounded by land, in northern Russia.
At sight of the Edward Bonaventure, the local fishermen, near where modern Archangel stands, dropped their nets and raised their sails in terror. Never had they seen anything as colossal on the sea. It took Chancellor a long time of patient reasoning to indicate that he meant them no harm, that he wanted only to trade.
Thus reassured, the simple White Sea folk crowded around the Edward Bonaventure. They gave the Englishmen food, but as for trade, they said, they would first have to ask their Tsar. It was soon clear to Chancellor that, more than anything else, these fur-clad fisherfolk had the most profound respect for their Tsar.
He was Ivan the Terrible, who fortunately at this time was enjoying the halcyon period between his cruel youth and savage middle-age. Chancellor, determined to meet him, was undeterred by the 1,500 miles of ice and snow that lay overland between Archangel and Moscow. He cajoled the fisherfolk into giving him sledges and set out for the capital.
He had not gone very far before he met an emissary of the Tsar, who gave him post-horses and provisions, for, he said, the Tsar had learned of the coming of the English and was anxious to be in touch with Western Europe.
It was a strange procession that finally rode into snow-covered Moscow. Chancellor had set out as second-in-command of a fleet to seek the north-east passage to China and instead was now arriving as the commander of an overland party that was “discovering” Russia.
Ivan the Terrible was delighted at the twist of fate that had brought the English to his court. He listened enthusiastically to Chancellor, then gave him a letter to send to King Edward VI in London. “If you will send one of your Council to treat with us, your country’s merchants shall have a free market through my whole dominions, to come and go at their pleasure,” Ivan wrote.
By the time Chancellor had taken this letter back to London, King Edward was dead and his half-sister; Mary Tudor, was on the throne. Mary was determined to restore the old religion of Catholicism. To this end, heretics were being burnt at the stake and rebels hanged, drawn and quartered, but Mary’s advisers had time to regard the Tsar’s letter with interest.
They remembered that the Pope had assigned all the Unknown, swimming like new planets before men’s eyes, either to Spain if it were west of the Azores or to Portugal if it were east of them. They annulled that decree at once and gave a charter to a “Muscovy Company” to create trade between England and Russia.
Within weeks of the company being formed, Chancellor was preparing to sail again for the White Sea. Following his earlier route, he was back in Moscow in October, 1555, and stayed there for eight months to establish trade connections. When he set out again the Tsar sent with him a Russian ambassador.
Chancellor was almost home again when disaster struck. While anchored in a Scottish bay one November night, the Edward Bonaventure was caught in a sudden storm and thrown upon some rocks.
Chancellor got the ambassador and his attendants into a small boat and made for the shore. It was dark and the sea heaved in the storm; soon the little boat was turned over by the onslaught. Chancellor and the ambassador’s attendants were all drowned; only the ambassador survived the ordeal.
But the good work for which Chancellor had given his life was now well started. The Russian trade prospered and the quest for the north-east passage to China went on vigorously. It was finally found, exactly a century ago, by a Swedish explorer hardly recalled today.
He was Baron Nordenskjold from Stockholm and was the first man ever to bring a ship around the north coast of Asia.
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