on 30 January 2016
Even though I am not into Tudors at all, I enjoyed "Merchant Adventurers" tremendously. In the parlance of a well-known tv-show about cars, my judgment would be "subzero", and then a bit cooler still.
The Merchant Adventurers in question was a company of London merchants who, inspired by none other than Sebastian Cabot (son of the more famous John Cabot), attempted to set up a trade route with the Far East bypassing the Portugese-controlled route around the Cape of Good Hope. What must have seemed like a good idea at the time (sailing across the North Pole, or perhaps just Southeast after rounding the North Cape) turned out to be a good deal more complicated in practice: the theory that the temperatures would rise again as you got further and further north turned out to be as unfounded as was the notion that there probably was not all that much land left East of Scandinavia. On top of this, the first expedition suffered from contrary winds and a major storm that blew them apart. A practicable North-East passage to China proved to be an illusion.
Still, a lot was achieved: one ship made its way into the White Sea and some of it crew, lead by the great Richard Chancellor managed to make it all the way to Moscow and negotiate a nice trading agreement (a monopoly, effectively) with Ivan the Terrible. I won't give away the fate of the other ships.
Mr. Evans's writing is extremely good. He is clearly very knowledgeable but wears his scholarship lightly. In addition to the main story, I very much liked the excursions into the background of contemporary England as well as Russia: the troublesome succession from the sickly but fanatical Edward VI via Lady Jane Grey to Mary Stuart, the contemporary religious turmoil in England, the transformation of the former Duchy of Muscovy into what was becoming a regional power under Ivan the Terrible, and last but not least the antics of this fascinating personality and his court. Nothing but praise for this wonderful book.
on 30 September 2013
This story is both very well researched and an excellent read. The central narrative is completely compelling, and the reader almost doesn't notice that the book deals too with new developments in political thinking, groundbreaking advances in maritime skills, and economic models that were new too, at least to England.
At the heart of the account are the stories of the people involved; notably Sebastian Cabot, whose views, so enlightened for the times, lay at the philosophical heart of the venture; and Richard Chancellor, a young and brilliant mariner and seeker after scientific understanding, who placed his stamp on history.
I was gripped and highly recommend this to anyone interested in good popular history
on 29 October 2013
This is an excellent work of popular history. It tells a story which should be far better known (I can't believe I had never heard it before) which is gripping enough in itself. It features a cast of fascinating and remarkable characters in extraordinary situations: from ships lost at sea in terrible conditions to Englishmen desperately trying to stay vaguely sober during what seems to have been a fairly average dinner night at the court of Ivan the Terrible to two baffled (and angry) Tartars being given the third degree about strange lands by London merchants.
But the most impressive aspect of the book for me is the way in which James Evans uses the narrative to show and expound on many different aspects of the world around the story. There are fascinating vignettes which illustrate some of the major developments of the time: the early days of exploration, modern science, merchant capitalism,the impact of years of Protestantism on the way Englishmen saw the world - all of which would play a very major role in the next few hundred years of English history. There are fine sections which expound on the high politics and diplomacy of Tudor England. The chapters on the sea voyages give a real feel for how naval voyages were organised and what life was like on board ships of the time (I imagine anyone with an interest in British maritime history will find those fascinating; I certainly did - particularly the rules governing life on board drawn up by men who knew what they were talking about). And the (rather unexpected) adventures at the court of Ivan the Terrible have an almost Flashman-like quality of Englishmen abroad and trying to cope with an exotic - and rather dangerous and unstable - location.
All in all, a terrific read and highly recommended.
on 22 October 2013
Historian James Evans tells the dramatic but little known story of how England, slow to take up world exploration, finally set sail to discover new worlds, and began to build our island nation's reputation as a great maritime power.
Evans writes that he has always been convinced that the first duty of historical writing is to be a pleasure to read. In his handling of this remarkable true adventure story he has triumphantly succeeded.
Set in the middle of the sixteenth century, when classical myths were giving way to facts based on observation, this book charts an epic voyage to find a north east passage to what were assumed to be the riches of Asia, defying what contemporaries called 'the greatness of the dangers' to which the crews would be exposed, and from which not all ships would return. This is a remarkable tale, told with great vigour and authority.
on 25 October 2013
What a pleasure to be immersed once more in Tudor times - all the more so for this being uncharted territory; a journey unknown; a voyage unwritten; lands unseen; men not met; exploration; adventure; excitement. For the reader, the subject is all new; all revelation; all discovery. More than this, it is pacey, with knowledge dropped like golden nuggets along the way: charming; unexpected; enriching. This book is popular history at its best.