History of the Merchant Navy

Our Merchant Navy really began to develop in the fifteenth century. As trade and commerce expanded the merchants of the day began to travel overseas looking for new products and new markets. The sixteenth century saw the voyages of exploration by famous Elizabethan seamen and navigators; famous names which included Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh and Martin Frobisher. We usually regard these men as historical heroes, but in many respects a lot of their exploits bordered on piracy. However, they set forth into the unknown in tiny ships and tribute must be paid to their bravery without which England would never have become a great sea power.

Richard Chancellor (d. 1556), British navigator, was, in 1553, appointed captain and pilot major of an expedition under Sir Hugh Willoughby to find a North-East passage to India. With Willoughby in the Bona Esperanza and himself in the 160-ton Edward Bonaventure, and accompanied by the Bona Confidentia, the three ships were towed down the Thames on 22 May 1553 and past the Royal Palace of Greenwich, the ship’s companies being dressed in sky-blue cloth and saluting the king as they passed. However the final departure from England was delayed until July, the ships reaching the Lofoten Islands in August when, after a stay of three days, they continued their northward voyage. As they prepared to round the North Cape, they encountered a severe storm and became separated. After waiting seven days at the rendezvous Chancellor went on alone and reached the White Sea where he landed and visited Ivan the Terrible in Moscow. This led to the founding of the Muscovy Company designed to stimulate trade between England and Russia. During a second voyage in 1555 he called at Arzina, where Willoughby and his men had succumbed to an Arctic winter, and collected the body of his former chief, together with his papers and goods. Returning from a third voyage in 1556, during which he had embarked a Russian ambassador to England, his ship was wrecked off Petsligo, Aberdeen, and Chancellor was drowned together with most of his crew.

Martin Frobisher Martin Frobisher (c 1535 – 1594) was of England’s greatest Elizabethan seamen and one of the first explorers to seek the Northwest Passage to the Far East. Born around 1535 in Altofts, Yorkshire, he spent his early years in London. In 1544 he became apprenticed as a cabin boy and quickly learned to demonstrate his daring and skills as a seamen. He steadily rose through the ranks and was promoted to captain in 1565. On 7th June 1576, set sail on what was the first expedition by an Englishman to seek out the Northwest Passage. Three small ships sailed from England, the Gabriel , the Michael and a small unnamed pinnace which was lost in a storm. The Michael deserted shortly afterwards but the Gabriel continued alone and eventually arrived at the mouth of a bay which Frobisher believed was the entrance to the Northwest Passage. The bay was actually on Baffin Island and is now known as Frobisher Bay. He then returned to England and brought with him samples of black earth which were rumoured to contain gold. In 1577 another expedition financed by Elizabeth 1 set sail for Canada but neither this nor a subsequent voyage were successful in finding valuable ores or establishing colonies. However, Frobisher remained in the Queen’s favour and in 1585, as vice admiral on the Primrose, he accompanied Sir Francis Drake on an expedition to the West Indies for the purpose of raiding the Spanish colonies. In 1588 he played a valiant role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada and was rewarded with knighthood. After trying to retire in Yorkshire for a year, in 1592 he commanded a fleet equipped by Sir Walter Raleigh and set about harrying Spanish merchant ships that were transporting gold from Panama. In November 1594 Frobisher was participating in the relief of Fort Crozo near Brest in France when, on the 22nd, whilst engaging the Spanish fleet, he was mortally wounded and later died in Plymouth.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert (c.1539-83) was a half brother of Sir Walter Raleigh and lived at Compton, near Dartmouth, Devon. His early career was spent soldiering in France, Holland and Ireland where he was knighted for his services. However, his lifelong ambition was to seek out the North-West passage to Cathay and in 1576 published his famous ‘Discourse’ on the subject. His patience was rewarded when, in 1578, he was granted a charter by Elizabeth I for such a voyage. not only to search for the passage but also to establish a colony in Newfoundland where he was to be the Governor. His first expedition got no further than the Cape Verde Islands where it was set upon by the Spaniards.
When the money and credit ran out Gilbert returned to soldiering for a short while but in 1583, with Raleigh’s help and by “selling the clothes off my wife’s back”, he was able to finance another expedition. He sailed from Plymouth in June 1583 in the Delight accompanied by the Ark Royal, which had been provided by Raleigh, the Swallow, the 10 ton Squirrel and vessel in the flotilla, the Golden Hind. The Ark Royal soon left the group and returned home on the pretext of sickness. The remainder reached St John’s, in Newfoundland where, on 5th August 1583, after taking possession of the territory, Gilbert set up the first English colony in North America .
Gilbert, in reality, was a god-fearing academic and not being a leader of men found it difficult to impose law and order. After sending the Swallow back to England with the sick and disillusioned he set sail in the Squirrel and led the others southwards to explore the coast. On 29th August the Delight was lost when she ran aground and two days later the Golden Hind and Squirrel set course for home. When the ships reached the Azores they encountered fierce storms and on clearing one of them Gilbert was seen sitting in the stern of the Squirrel reading a book. As the Golden Hind closed within earshot Gilbert cheerfully called across “we are as near to heaven by sea as by land”. Captain Hayes, commanding the Golden Hind, later reported the loss of the Squirrel. ‘The same Monday night, about twelve, the frigate [Squirrel] being ahead of us in the Golden Hind, suddenly her lights were out…in that moment the frigate was devoured and swallowed up of the sea.’ Gilbert perished with the remainder of his crew.

Edward Fenton (d. 1603), commanded the Gabriel in Martin Frobisher’s second voyage in search of the Northwest passage in 1577, and in the following year was second-in-command of the third expedition for the same purpose, sailing in the Judith. In 1582 he was selected to command a trading expedition into the Indian Ocean and eventually to China, with instructions to discover, if possible, a western entrance to the Northwest passage. This expedition got no further than Brazil because of quarrels among the officers, and in fact returned to England with many of them in irons. In the battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588, Fenton commanded the English ship Mary Rose.

Luke Fox (Foxe) – (1586-1636) was born in Hull and went to sea at an early age and in 1606 offered his services for an expedition to Greenland but was rejected. Having the desire to undertake Artic exploration in 1629 he successfully petitioned the king for money to finance an expedition to seek out the North-West passage. He was provided with the pinnace Charles and a crew of twenty-two men by the Admiralty and set sail from Bristol in 1631. When he reached Frobisher Bay he worked his way along the north shore of the Hudson Strait until he arrived at Coates Island where he began his search for the passage. He spent some time making observations in the channel which bears his name but when the winter ice began to close in he decided to return home without achieving his objective.

Francis Drake (c1540 – 1596) was born around 1540 near the Devon town of Tavistock. He was apprenticed as a mariner and was given his first command, the Judith in 1567 which was one of a squadron of vessels led by Sir John Hawkins, a kinsman of Drake, on a slave trading voyage to the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the squadron was attacked by a Spanish fleet and all but two ships were lost. Drake made two trading voyages to West Indies in 1570 and 1571 which were very profitable and in 1572 he commanded two vessels which engaged in marauding exploits against Spanish ports in the Caribbean. During this voyage Drake captured the port of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama, destroyed the nearby town of Portobelo and saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time. He returned to England with a cargo of Spanish silver and the reputation as a brilliant privateer. From 1573 until 1576 he spent his time in Ireland helping to quell a rebellion. On 13th December 1577 Drake set sail from Plymouth, England, with five ships and 166 men his own vessel being the Golden Hind. Elizabeth 1 had secretly commissioned Drake to embark on an expedition against the Spanish colonies on the Pacific coast of America. The small fleet successfully crossed the Atlantic but on arrival in the Rio de la Plata (River Plate) estuary in South America he was forced to abandon two of the ships. The three remaining ships continued southward until, in August 1578, they left the Atlantic Ocean and entered the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America. After sixteen days the three ships sailed into the Pacific Ocean to be confronted with a series of violent storms which lasted for more than 50 days. One ship was destroyed, the second sailed back to England, but Drake in the Golden Hind, although having been blown far to the south, sailed on. He ventured northward along the coast of South America plundering Valparaiso and other Spanish ports. He also took the opportunity to capture Spanish ships so that he could use their more up-to-date charts. Considering that Drake now only had one small ship and the residue of the 166 men that sailed with him from Plymouth, he must have been a remarkable tactician to achieve so much. Drake continued sailing northwards looking for an eastward passage back to the Atlantic, possibly as far north as latitude 48 degrees north which is close to the present day US-Canadian border. Failing to locate a passage he brought the Golden Hind round and headed south until he reached an inlet which offered protection from the weather, for repairs. This inlet is now known as Drake’s Bay and is situated north of San Francisco. Drake claimed the land for his queen and called it New Albion. After completing his repairs Drake set sail again on 23rd July,1579 on a westward heading which would take him across the Pacific Ocean. After calling at the Moluccas, a group of islands in the southwest Pacific, Celebes and Java in Indonesia, he rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the African continent. Carrying a cargo of rich spices from the east and captured Spanish treasure he eventually arrived back in England in September 1580. Drake was a hero and accredited as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world. Seven months later on board the Golden Hind he was knighted by the queen. In 1581 he became mayor of Plymouth and served as a member of Parliament in 1584 and 1585. But Drake was a seaman, navigator and explorer and at the end of 1585 he set sail again with a large fleet for the West Indies where he raided many Spanish settlements including Saint Augustine in present day Florida. Before returning to England he called at Roanoke Island, an island off present day North Carolina where an unsuccessful attempt had been made to establish the first English Colony in the New World, to bring back the colonists. It was after this visit to North America that Drake supposedly brought tobacco to England for the first time. By 1587 war between England and Spain inevitable and Drake was ordered by the queen to sail to Cadiz to destroy the Spanish fleet which was being assembled there by Philip II, the king of Spain. He was partially successful but the Spanish were still able to amass a sizeable fleet with which to attack the English. In 1588 Drake, as vice admiral, defeated the Spanish Armada. It is well known story that Drake was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe when the Spanish Armada was sighted but he insisted on finishing his game before putting to sea. In the following year Drake set off on an expedition to seek and destroy the remaining Spanish fleet but was unsuccessful, returning to Plymouth where he entered Parliament once again. In 1595, Elizabeth I dispatched Drake, together with his kinsman Sir John Hawkins, on a further expedition to the West Indies, once again, to seek out the Spanish forces. The expedition was a failure and both Drake and Hawkins contracted and died of dysentery while in the Caribbean and were buried at sea.

A Replica of the Golden Hind seen visiting the Tower Pier in London. Note the size compared with the ships of today.
The Golden Hind, originally called the Pelican was about 60 feet long from stem to stern post with a beam of approximately 19 feet. The depth in her hold was about 9 to 10 feet.

For an insight into life at sea during Elizabethan times
read Albert Marrin’s
The Sea King: Sir Francis Drake and his Times


Sir Walter RaleighWalter Raleigh (1554 – 1681) was an adventurer, writer, courtier at the court of Elizabeth 1 and an explorer of the Americas. Born in 1554 at Hayes Barton in Devon he went to Oxford University, fought for the Huguenots in the French religious wars and studied law in London where he was able to become familiar with court life and the intellectual community. Raleigh’s first venture to America was with his half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and it may have been during this voyage that he conceived the plan to establish a colony there. In 1585 he sponsored the first colony on Roanoke Island off present day North Carolina but this failed as did a second attempt in 1587. Further ventures to South America fared little better and a search, in 1595, for the legendary El Dorado, the city of gold, in present day Guyana achieved little. In 1580 Raleigh went to Ireland to help suppress a rebellion and using his experiences and posing as an expert on Irish affairs he won favour with Queen Elizabeth 1, was knighted and became one of the most powerful men in England. He temporarily lost favour when the Queen discovered that he had married one of her maids. However , his return to power was short lived as James 1, who had succeeded the throne on the death of Elizabeth 1, disliked Raleigh. In 1603 Raleigh was accused of plotting against the king and sentenced to death but James 1 commuted the sentence to one of life imprisonment. Raleigh went to the Tower of London for 13 years during which time he penned the first volume of his History of the World and several poems including The Last Fight of the Revenge and The Discovery of Guiana. These works impressed the Elizabethan intellectuals and he became the hero of the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, who tried to secure Raleigh’s release from prison. Unfortunately, Prince Henry died in 1612 which frustrated Raleigh who then proposed to King James that he would give him a fortune in gold if he was allowed to return toGuiana. The king agreed on the condition that the Spanish were not offended in any way. The 1616 expedition was a disaster. In Guiana Raleigh’s son was killed when, with an aide, he was sent to find El Dorado and attacked a Spanish settlement. Sir Walter Raleigh then returned to England where James 1, invoking the 1603 death sentence, had him beheaded on 29th Octob er, 1618.

John Davis or Davys (c. 1550-1605), was one of the greatest of the Elizabethan seamen and explorers. He went to sea as a boy, and being a west-country man (he was born near Dartmouth, in Devon) was friendly with the two great seafaring families of that neighbourhood, the Gilberts and the Raleighs, who between them did much to rouse and nourish his enthusiasm for maritime exploration. In 1583 he became convinced that navigation was possible between Europe and the Far East around the north of America (the Northwest passage) and two years later he had persuaded the English authorities to fit out an expedition under his command to explore the northern seas west of Greenland. In all he made three voyage in search of the passage (1585, 1586, and 1587) and though he penetrated as far north and west as Hudson’s Bay, he just missed, as had Martin Frobisher before him, discovering Hudson’s Bay, though he did apparently sight Hudson’s Strait. Many of the names still on the map of the Arctic are memorials to his endeavours; the great strait which bears his own name, Exeter Sound, Cape Walsingham, Cumberland Sound, etc. He was home in time from his last expedition to command the Black Dog in the battle of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and in 1589 was in the Earl of Cumberland’s fleet operating off the Azores. He was taken on as pilot and navigator by Thomas Cavendish in his second privateering expedition round the world in 1591, which proved a fiasco. Davis’s participation in this doubtful venture arose partly, it appears, from Cavendish’s suggestion that a search might be made for the Northwest passage from the western end rather than from the eastern. When Cavendish deserted his little fleet at the entrance to the Strait of Magellan, Davis went on alone with his own ship to attempt the passage of the Strait but was driven back by storms. On his way home to England, he discovered the Falkland Islands. Davis was more than a skilled navigator; he was also author of two excellent books on navigation, (The Seaman’s Secrets in 1594 and The World’s Hydrographical Description in 1595) and the inventor of the back-staff and double quadrant, known as Davis’s quadrant, which remained a principal instrument of navigation until the reflecting quadrant was introduced by Hadley in 1731. The remainder of Davis’s life was spent mainly in voyaging, particularly to the Far East. He was master (navigator) of Raleigh’s flagship in the expedition to Cadiz and the Azores, 1596-7 he went as pilot of a Dutch expedition to the East Indies (1598-1600) in which he only just avoided being killed by treachery in Sumatra. He was first pilot to Sir James Lancaster in 1601-3 in his voyage to the east on behalf of the East India Company; and in 1604 sailed in the same situation with Sir Edward Michelborne, but was killed the following year by Japanese pirates near Sumatra.

John HawkinsJohn Hawkins (1532 – 1595) was the son of a wealthy sea captain and born in Plymouth, Devon. As a young man he went on trading voyages and soon heard stories about the riches which were to be found across the sea towards the west. Fired with enthusiasm he went on to become one of the bravest and boldest Elizabethan seamen and one of the first to undermine Spanish domination in the West Indies. He made many trading voyages to America as a merchant. Unfortunately, although regarded as a hero, some of his expeditions and actions were, in todays terms, of a dubious nature. In 1562 he set sail for Africa where he captured 300 of the local native population to sell as slaves. At Santo Domingo, in the West Indies, the colonists, although forbidden by Spanish law to trade with any other nation, were eager to buy the slaves in exchange for pearls, hides, ginger and sugar. A second voyage some two years later was equally profitable. However, a third voyage in 1568 came to a disastrous end off the coast of Mexico. Hawkins had already broken Spanish law by selling a cargo of slaves to the colonists in the Caribbean so when he, together with his cousin Francis Drake who had accompanied him, sought refuge for their six ships in Veracruz they were attacked by an armed Spanish fleet. Luck held for Hawkins and Drake as they were able to escape but the other four vessels were destroyed or captured. Following these exploits to the West Indies Hawkins came ashore and worked in the service of Elizabeth I for 20 years eventually becoming treasurer and controller of the navy. During this time he built up England’s fleet with the objective of challenging Spanish supremacy at sea. He redesigned ships to make them faster, added increased canon and fire power. His foresight was rewarded when, in 1588 and as a vice admiral, he saw the defeat of the Spanish Armada for which he was knighted for gallantry. Back at sea in 1595 he sailed with Sir Francis Drake on an expedition during the course of which he had hoped to rescue his son who was being held captive by the Spanish in Lima, Peru. The voyage was his last. Contracting dysentery Hawkins died on 12th November, 1595 near Puerto Rico and was buried at sea.

Bartholomew Gosnold (d. 1607) commanded the Concord which had been chartered by Sir Walter Raleigh for a trading voyage across the Atlantic. When he reached the coast of Maine he turned northwards eventually landing at Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard giving them both their names. He returned to England with a cargo of furs purchased from the Indians and promoted the colonisation of the area. Interest was aroused and a charter was granted to the London and Plymouth companies 1606. Gosnold together with Christopher Newport returned to Virginia in 1607 with three ships carrying the first Jamestown colonists. He was actively involved in the running of the colony but died of swamp fever later the same year.

George Dixon (c. 1755-1800), British navigator, sailed with Captain James Cook in his third voyage of discovery, and was made a post-captain in the British Navy on his return. In 1785 he sailed on a commercial venture in the ship Queen Charlotte to the coasts of British Columbia, partly to develop the fur trade and partly for exploration. Among his discoveries were Queen Charlotte’s Island, Port Mulgrave, Norfolk Bay, and Dixon’s Archipelago. On his return to England he became a teacher of navigation at Gosport, near Portsmouth, and was the author of The Navigator’s Assistant, published in 1791.