Merchant Adventurers by James Evans

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Reviewed by Liz Dexter

In the mid-1500s, three ships set off from London to seek a passage to the famed untold riches of the Far East through a northern passage that no one knew anything about, and which appeared as a vague set of tailing-off lines and blurry shapes on contemporary maps. One of those ships would return to England after its master made an extraordinary voyage right down into the Russia of Ivan the Terrible, negotiating with the locals while not knowing their language, navigating down frozen rivers and enduring relentless hospitality from an alien court. The other two ships became enmeshed in mystery, and only the work of historians contemporary and modern has enabled their story to be researched and told.

This is a lively and well-researched account of the 1553 voyage led by the naval scientist Richard Chancellor and the gentleman soldier Sir Hugh Willoughby. In many ways, they represent the old and the new, the seafarer born to the job and the technologist working out new ways to do it, the military man and the explorer for the sake of exploration. This tale has apparently never been told before, and the author does very well with it, dealing with a wealth of primary and secondary material, historical detail and geographical locations with practised ease and aplomb.

There is more to this book than a simple adventure tale. Evans takes the trouble to place the voyage very firmly within its context: the recent past, contemporary events political and social, and the upcoming and very changed future. He is particularly strong on the business and mercantile environment, which makes this a more fascinating read, in my opinion, and displays his firm grasp of the material in the very helpful and well-structured multiple narrative arrangement of the central section of the book.

After setting the scene in Bristol and Portugal and introducing the main characters, including Sebastian Cabot, who encouraged and promoted the scheme, the main part of the book does a very good job of circulating through events aboard the small fleet of ships and then the two separate groups when they become divided at sea, and events at home in England. This allows us to understand the context of the events we read about, and is linked together very well, making the whole seamless, while zipping between sea and land, kings, queens and emperors, religions and politics, England and Russia.

Right from the Prologue, detailing a grisly discovery by simple Russian folk working the White Sea, our attention is hooked by the narrative, but it’s rooted very firmly in documentation in the form of logs, diaries and letters, with the occasional addition of other primary resources, for example other people’s near-contemporary descriptions of the court of Ivan the Terrible when the characters central to the narrative have not left resources providing these details. This gives a vivid picture which tries hard not to be based on conjecture: an impressive feat, given the distant history and geography which the book describes.

The book is very good on the fundamental changes in science, technology and business that were happening at the time of the voyage, linking it with developments in map-making, the practice of navigation and the formation and administration of the first modern company of investors in the joint-stock operation set up to fund and support the voyages.

The central mystery of the story, background documentation for which has amazingly been preserved from a situation where it very well might not have been, is given a convincing new treatment and explanation by Evans, and while there is some slightly unpleasant detail, there’s nothing that will upset the reader of a more delicate disposition (similarly, he blurs the excesses of the Russian court, giving a good impression without resorting to gratuitous detail).

The history of trade between Russia and England is covered in just the right amount of detail, as is the administration of this trade and the businesses that arose to support it. Business administration is not the most thrilling of topics, but don’t fear – everything is related back to the matter at hand and kept interesting.

The text is accompanied by lavish notes, good maps and two sets of plates giving as much information as can be found on the people, ships and voyages described in the book.

Evans sets out his stall early, describing the voyages as being equally worthy of treatment as the early circumnavigations and the more well-known search for the North-West Passage. I agree with this assessment: it’s a very worthwhile read, but not a worthy one, lively, informative and briskly efficient, while pulling the reader into the narrative, making them care about distant personages who appear alive and vital, not like the formal and stiff, bearded figures in contemporary paintings (several of which are reproduced in the excellent plates). Recommended to those interested in history, travel, geography, naval matters and business history.

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Liz blogs about her own slightly more prosaic and less storm-tossed adventures in reading, writing and working from home at

James Evans,  Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage of Discovery that Transformed Tudor England (Phoenix: London, 2014). 978-1780221021, 383pp., paperback.

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