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History: the perilous voyage of England’s once largest ship

24th Sep 2021
History: the perilous voyage of England’s once largest ship

Bantam Harbour, the final resting place of Trades Increase, depicted ca. 1724
(Artist: François Valentijn/Wikimedia Commons)

The Muslim News presents the 17th century maritime catastrophic expedition of the Sixth Voyage of the English East India Company (EIC) and the daring escape of its General and Captain, Sir Henry Middleton, from Ottoman captivity in the Red Sea port cities of Mocha and Sana’a in Yemen (1610-1611) to his miserable death in Banten, West Java, present-day Indonesia, in 1613.

Sir Henry Middleton left England for Asia in April 1610 with three ships: Trades Increase, Capricorn and Darling. As the General of the voyage, he commanded the newly built Trades Increase, the largest vessel ever constructed by the English. As he did not live to see England again, his journals capture only a part of what transpired. Journals and writings of his colleagues commanding the other two ships and others onboard fill the gaps in the story.

Portuguese traders were the only Europeans to engage with the east between 1498 and the end of the 16th century (from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan and China). The Dutch beat the English by a few years in achieving successful voyages to Asian waters across the Indian and western Pacific oceans. Dutch (1595-97); British (1601-03).

Many of the powers and civilisations they encountered were Islamic, from Mozambique, along the coast of East Africa to Arabia, Persia, India and Indonesia.

Although most of the population in India were Hindus, those who ruled were mainly Muslims. Arakan, Burma, Cambodia, China, Japan and Thailand were major non-Islamic powers that the Europeans encountered in Asia. They came upon various religions and cultures – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Animism and many others.

Together, the early European ventures experienced a range of very complex cultures, powers and societies within a brief time. A rich description of Asia can be found in the journals, letters, and accounts of captains and others on the ship, along with details of the treaties and agreements reached by Europeans and local powers.

Unfortunately, not much is known today about the early encounters between Europe and Asian civilisations. Heritage institutions such as the British Library contain rich materials on the period, including detailed accounts from participants and observers. Most of what we can know is available from Western sources.

Except for Ottoman sources, there is little documentation from the Asian side concerning the encounters in Aden and the Red Sea.

Before the sixth voyage of the EIC sailed from Deptford in 1610 with three ships, all previous five voyages used bought or chartered ships. In 1608, the East India Company set up its first shipyard in Deptford. Two years later, the first two ships that rolled out of its shipyard were the Trades Increase and Capricorn.

The Capricorn was a small ship compared to many other ships. The Trades Increase was the largest vessel ever built by the English The christening and launching of the ‘Trades Increase’ by King James I, his wife and the establishment, with fine dining onboard served on Chinese porcelain, demonstrated that England was serious and confident about its new ventures in Asia.

Contrary to the high expectations of what the Trades Increase was going to achieve for England, it ended in a total disaster.

Against all expectations of the EIC and the establishment, the largest ship ever built by England ended up lost on a small island called Pulau Panjang, northwest of Banten, capital of the Sultanate of Banten, known as Bantam by the English.

The ships left England in early April 1610, taking the similar routes taken by other voyages and arrived in Saldana Bay, Cape of Good Hope in present-day South Africa, at the end of July 1610, staying there for about a month for replenishment and rest.

They then sailed east and turned north into the channel that separates Madagascar from Mozambique on the African mainland. On the way to the Arabian Peninsula, they first stopped at Socotra Island in mid-October and then proceeded to Aden. The Capricorn was left at Aden for Captain Nicholas Downton to carry on trading.

The Trades Increase and Darling proceeded into the Red Sea for the port of Mocha guided by a local pilot from Aden. They arrived in Mocha, a vital international trading city, in mid-November 1610. Merchant ships used to come there every year from various places, including India, with valuable textiles.

A few miles from the coast of Mocha, Trades Increase ran aground in shallow waters.
The English were enticed to come ashore following a period of goodwill and communication with the Ottoman authorities.

The captain and several dozen of his companions were treated well at first. But one evening, a confrontation developed between the English and Ottoman security forces where several Englishmen were killed and the rest confined to captivity, including Captain Middleton, who was chained. The English suspected that the purpose of the Aga, the Ottoman governor of Mocha, was to seize their ships and take the valuable goods.

After repeated release requests by the captain and a failed attempt by the Ottoman authorities to seize the ships, the governor of Mocha sent the captives to Sana’a to be dealt with by the Pasha, a person of higher authority in the Ottoman hierarchy.

The journey from Mocha to Sana’a began on December 22, 1610, and it took about two weeks. The captain described the journey as uncomfortable, due mainly to the cold weather, which they did not expect and, despite the advice of the Ottomans, who had warned them of the cold and suggested they bring warm clothing, they had arrived inadequately clothed.

In Sana’a, the Pasha asked them what they were doing in Mocha, a city close to Makkah, where Christians were banned. The captain said that they had been invited by the governor of Mocha and that they also came to trade. As they had violated the ban on entering Mocha, their lives were in danger and could have been executed.

However, on the advocacy of various local and prominent foreign merchants, they were sent back to Mocha with a strong warning. They were prisoners in Sana’a for about five weeks until February 17, 1611. Upon returning to Mocha, the governor of the city, aka the Aga, procrastinated, made excuses and prevented the English from leaving.

By that time, the Capricorn had arrived from Aden, and Captain Downton, a tough man, wanted to get them released from prison. He wanted to attack ships coming to Mocha with goods to pressure the authorities in the city. But through secret letters between ships to the captive captain, Downton was strongly advised against such action that would jeopardise the lives of those in captivity in Mocha.

After initially refusing advice to escape, the captain ultimately escaped via a cask taken to the shores on a small boat to the ships. His plan worked, which he achieved by making his guards drunk by secretly bringing alcohol from the ship, and he returned safely to the English ships.

The captain fled on April 11, 1611; however, there were still Englishmen in captivity left in Mocha and he had to get them released.

The Trades Increase was freed from the sandbanks where it was grounded. Using strong firepower from their three ships, the English threatened the Mocha governor to release the other prisoners and compensated for their losses by capturing incoming ships.

After securing the desired compensation, which took several months to achieve, they sailed, on August 1611, for Surat in India, where they encountered and successfully dealt with Portuguese challenges.

As their intended destination was Indonesia to buy spices, they needed Indian textiles as a form of bartering currency, in demand in Indonesia. But they failed to get the textiles they needed from Surat, so before proceeding to Banten they captured Indian ships going towards the Red Sea and forcibly bought their textiles.

Pirating Indian ships carrying goods to Arabia took several months, and the three English ships did not arrive in Banten until December 1612. On route, the Trades Increase developed a leak when passing along the western landmass of Sumatra, from the port of Tiku, where they bought peppers.

Eventually, through leak management, they sailed to Banten, but the Trades Increase did not venture into the harbour of the city. Instead, it docked on the shores of a small island called Pulau Panjang, a few miles northwest of Banten to carry out repairs and careening to clean the lower parts of the ship. They needed to bring the fleet to the standards required for the return voyage to England. While in Banten, they also obtained a good supply of spices they needed for England.

Following a long and arduous journey, including being a captive in chains and carrying out piracy, Captain Middleton was looking forward to returning home, but that was not what fate had in mind.

The Darling was careened, repaired and sent to the Malukus for nutmeg and cloves, while the Trades Increase was prepped for a return journey to England. Without a dry dock, careening and repairing the underparts of the ships were full of risks and dangers. The ship had to be slid one way and held firmly so one side of its bottom could be worked on and then turned 180 degrees in the opposite direction to repair the other side.

The captain had built a hut on the small island and moved valuables and other heavy items from the ship to the island to make it easier for repairs and careening. Something happened during repairing and careening that eventually led to the destruction of the Trades Increase and the death of Captain Middleton shortly after.

The journal of the captain ends abruptly, so there are no details of what happened, how the ship got destroyed and how he died. Journals of others who came to Banten a few months later provide fragments of information, from which scholars have tried to build up a picture of the final moments of the ship and the captain.

Many believed that Captain Middleton died of heartbreak after seeing his ship, the biggest ever built by England, suffering destruction on the shores of Pulau Panjang. The accident that destroyed the ship has not been dated, but it was a few months before the death of Captain Middleton on May 13, 1613.

M Ahmedullah

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