Land of the Golden Trade - John Lang

Early English Voyages to Guinea: Towrson

The success of Lok's voyage gave great impetus to the Guinea trade, and, not unnaturally, thereupon befell much trouble with the Portuguese, who could ill brook that foreigners should poach in their preserves.

Yet in spite of all that Portugal could do—and she did not confine her efforts to honest fighting—both English and French ships as the years passed visited the Guinea Coast in ever-increasing numbers. The Portuguese were not strong enough to sweep the entire seaboard; but even if their strength had been much greater than it actually was, the task of keeping off the English wolves would have been a heavy one. Already England had tasted of the riches of West Africa, already her sons had begun to despise the Portuguese, that people who—it was scornfully said—"for the conquering of forty or fifty miles here and there, and erecting of certain fortresses, think to be lords of half the world." When it came to going into action, it was not always with victory, or with credit, that the Portuguese now came out. So they resorted to other means to stop what they deemed an illicit trade.

Natives known to have had dealings with either of their rivals were severely punished, their homes burned, their villages destroyed. Crews of captured English or French ships were either put to death or were sent to the galleys as slaves—slaves with but faint hope of release. Finally, the Portuguese offered a reward of one hundred crowns for the head of any Englishman or Frenchman, and many a poor wretch, no doubt, when ashore was decoyed into the bush, and there treacherously murdered for sake of the reward;—in all ages and in all lands "Jack ashore" has been easy prey to even the least skilled hunter.

But even measures so extreme on the part of the Portuguese were of little effect in deterring the interlopers, and long before they were resorted to many a rich ending to Guinea voyage had been made by English vessels. Not the least successful of the adventurers was Mr. William Towrson, a merchant of London, who in the years 1555, 1556, and 1557 made three voyages to the coast. With the ships Hart  and Hinde, Towrson began his first voyage on 80th September 1555. After an uneventful run, anchor was dropped one evening off what they believed to be the Sestos River, where, after dark, seeing a light inshore which they concluded must come from a Portuguese or a French vessel, they cleared for action and lay all night expecting to be attacked. Morning light, however, showing no sign of an enemy, the two English ships under easy sail stood along the coast, doing trade here and there "at a reasonable good reckoning." Grains of Paradise—which are not so romantic as they sound, being merely a species of pepper—elephants' teeth, and gold dust were exchanged by the natives for cloth and for small basins; but "they desired most to have basins," out of which, indeed, the Englishmen seem to have made more than "a reasonable good reckoning," for we read that five small basins were the equivalent of half an ounce of gold dust, that is to say that five basins sold for the value of nearly 2 sterling. And "for an Elephant's tooth of 30 lbs. we gave them six basins,"—a very tidy profit in this instance also, one may imagine, seeing that the value of ivory can scarcely have been less, and probably was much more, than 50 per cwt.

Friendly enough were the natives here; "divers of their women to show us pleasure danced and sung after their manner, full ill to our ears." Full ill, indeed, to our ears, are most native chantings, and not alone on the West Coast of Africa.

Some way to the east of the Sestos, Towrson's vessels ran into a haven which doubtless in later days must have become a favoured haunt of Pirates; few strongholds could be imagined that would have better suited the ruffians who flew the Skull and Cross-bones. "This river lies by estimation eight leagues beyond the River de Sestos and is called on the chart Rio S. Vincente, but it is so hard to find that a boat being within half a mile of it shall not be able to discern that it is a River: by reason that directly before the mouth of it there lies a ledge of rocks which is much broader than the River, so that a boat must run in along the shore a good way between the rocks and the shore before it come to the mouth of the River, and being within it, it is a great River and divers other Rivers fall into it. The going into it is somewhat ill, because that at the entry the seas go somewhat high, but once within it, it is as calm as the Thames." To the writer of this volume is known, on another line of coast, just such a haven, in entering which, till within two cables' length of the land, the uninitiated might suppose that he was about to pile the bones of his craft on the forbidding shore. Then, as the giant seas, relentless and terrible in their deliberate haste swing past and fling themselves thundering in white fury over a treacherous far jutting rock, almost as the vessel seems lifting her bows to hurl them in destruction on the breakers, a quick turn to starboard lead to sudden peace, and to stillness as of abbey cloisters And now, where of old the debaucheries and ribald shoutings of ruffian pirate crews desecrated the silence of Nature, it may be that the chatter and inane laughter of some cockney tourist alone at rare intervals break the Sabbath peace that for generation has lain undisturbed.

Farther along the coast, Towrson found the negroes to be very timid, having already been mishandled by the Portuguese, and little trade could be done. Hitherto no actual collision had occurred between the rivals, but near Cape Corso, whilst the Hinde's  men were ashore attempting to trade, warning was received that they were about to be attacked by the Portuguese. Sailor-like, little attention was paid to the warning, and near were they to pay heavily for neglect of precautions. The son of a chief had "conspired with the Portugals," and the English sailors were all but cut off. With extreme difficulty their boat was reached, and as the crew bent to the oars, the Portuguese "shot their culivers at them but hurt no man." Then the ship joined in with her guns, without, however, doing more than to drive the Portuguese and their negro allies to cover. When later the armed boats attempted a landing, the Portuguese "from the rocks and from the hills shot at us with their half hakes, and the Negroes more from fear than for love stood by them to help them, and when we saw that the Negroes were in such subjection unto them that they dared not sell us anything for fear of them, we went aboard," and stood further along the coast. Benefiting nothing from this experience, the crew were again all but ambushed a few days later when trading on shore. A crowd of negroes stood "at the end of a hollow way, and behind them the Portugals had planted a base, who suddenly shot at us but overshot us, and yet we were in a manner hard by them, and they shot at us again before we could ship our oars to get away, but did no hurt." All along the coast a Portuguese brigantine followed the English ships from place to place, warning the people of what they might expect in the way of recompense if they should dare to trade with the strangers.

In spite of every difficulty, however, Towrson did well enough to encourage him to return towards the end of the year. On 80th December 1556 his squadron, consisting of the Hart, of sixty tons, the Tyger, of one hundred and twenty, and a pinnace of sixteen tons, sighted the Guinea Coast, and at the same time, to windward of them, three ships and the same number of pinnaces. They were not English, that was very clear, so Towrson cleared for action and held on his course. As the opposing squadrons neared each other, "with their streamers, and pendants, and ensignes, and noise of trumpets very bravely,"—a gallant show,—Towrson signalled to the enemy "to come under his lee and fight"; the invitation, however, was not accepted, and after long parley the strangers, who were French, agreed to ally themselves with the English against the Portuguese, and so, being thus strong enough to crush any probable opposition, to cruise along the coast in company, each undertaking not to undersell the other. In theory the arrangement was excellent, but in practice it did not work; when the pinch came the Frenchmen proved to be but indifferent allies.

Everywhere the negroes were disinclined to trade, fearing the vengeance of the Portuguese. Towrson, however, promised to protect them, and to raise the courage of the natives gave a display of the combined fleets' strength; the boats were made to "shoot off their bases and harquebusses, and caused our men to come on shore with their long bows and they shot before the Captain which he and all the rest of the people wondered much at, specially to see them shoot so far as they did, and attempted to draw their bows but could not." A few days later the negroes gave warning that the Portuguese were coming both by land and by sea, to which reply was made that "wee were very glad of their coming and would be ready at all times to meet them." But though shots were heard in the bush, "which we knew to be Portugals which dared come no nearer to us, but shot off in the woods to see if they could scare us and so make us to leave our traffique," nothing was seen of the enemy till near the end of February, when five sail hove in sight.

Towrson at once weighed and put to sea, trying to get the weather gage of the Portuguese, but darkness came on ere a gun had been fired on either side. The English commander all through was doing everything in his power to bring on an engagement, but when fighting did begin a couple of days later, he was most indifferently backed up. The French Admiral was pretty severely handled by the Portuguese near the beginning of the action, suffering considerably both in spars and in rigging, and losing some men. But she had no great stomach for the fight, and after receiving a broadside from each of the Portuguese vessels, drew off for repairs, an example speedily followed by her countrymen. One of the enemy's ships was "a small barke which sailed so well that she cared not for any of us"; but the Portuguese vessels as a whole were faster and better handled than those of the allies. "Those of the Portugals," says Hakluyt, "went so fast that it was not possible for a ship to board them, and carried such ordinance that if they had had the weather of us they would have troubled three of the best ships that we had: and as for their Admiral and Vice-Admiral they were both notable opponents." Had it not been that the Tyger  lay to windward and showed every wish to close—Towrson never shunned hard knocks—it is likely that the French Admiral would have been boarded and taken. As it was, the Tyger  had the major part of the fighting, though she did not suffer very severely. Neither did she do much damage to the enemy, "because our ship was so weak in the side that she laid all her ordinance in the sea";—an uncomfortable ship to fight, and an uncomfortable ship to sail in anything like heavy weather, must have been the Tyger  at the beginning of such a voyage, when she was light, and high in the water. She did better ere the venture ended. Eventually, in this first fight, the Portuguese drew off, having had enough, and the Tyger  chased throughout the night, with the Hart far astern. It is not very clear why the Portuguese did not fall on the former and capture her whilst she was without support; they had the heels of the English ship, and they were in overwhelming strength. Certainly what credit was to be got in the fight was gleaned by the Tyger  but the little English pinnace also behaved throughout with courage. After the action, she was found to be so badly knocked about that it was barely possible to keep her afloat, and to prevent the possibility of her falling into the hands of the enemy she was set on fire and burnt.

"After this the French durst not anchor for fear of the Portugals," and their trading partnership with Towrson came to an end; each went his own way. There was no more actual fighting on the coast during this voyage, though the Tyger  and the Hart  were once forced to show their heels when a superior force of three vessels, (one of five hundred and one of two hundred tons), hove in sight; "whereupon we weighed and made shift to double out of the land." An awkward position indeed, with a powerful foe to windward, blocking the way, and the land closing in ahead and astern; rats in a trap might have had as little chance of escape, but eventually, after being chased the entire day, Towrson slipped through. He was not the man to run, where fighting would serve his turn, but he knew when courage degenerated into foolhardiness.

It was during this voyage that the earliest recorded English elephant-shooting expedition took place. Surely, as regards weapons, never before or since has crew so motley gone a-sporting! A party of thirty men landed, and, accompanied doubtless by an army of native beaters, made for the thick bush. They were "well armed," says the chronicler, "with harquebusses, pikes, long-bowes, crosse-bowes, partizans, long-swordes, and swordes and bucklers: we found two Elephants which we stroke divers times with harquebusses and long-bowes, but they went away from us and hurt one of our men." The picture of men armed with sword and buckler being charged by a wounded elephant is one which will commend itself to big-game hunters of the present day!

Having filled his ship, Towrson headed for home. But he did not see the Thames again without having to fight for his gold and his ivory. Off the Portu guese coast, as they slipped through the dancing, sun-lit waters one day, when already, almost, a whiff of the Channel was in their nostrils, and visions of the Lizard heaving in sight ere many days in their minds, a strange sail that had been suspiciously hovering about all morning, began rapidly to close in on them, and long before nightfall they could see from the English ship that the stranger was heavily armed and crowded with men. Towrson beat to quarters, and without much delay the strange sail—a Frenchman as it turned out—ranged along-side, "judging us to be weak, as indeed we were," and "there stepped up some of his men in armour, and commanded us to strike sail: whereupon we sent them some of our stuff, crossbars, and chain shot, and arrows so thick, that it made the upper work of their ship fly about their ears, and we spoiled him with all his men, and tore his ship miserably with our great ordinance, and then he began to fall astern of us and to pack on his sails and get away; and we seeing that gave him four or five good pieces more for his farewell: And thus we were rid of this Frenchman, who did us no harm at all." A man of action was Captain Towrson, one with fine insular scorn of the French! Yet on his own ship during this engagement lay sick unto death a very gallant man of that nation, the ship's trumpeter, who, "being sick and lying in his bed, took his trumpet notwithstanding, and sounded till he could sound no more, and so died." One loves to picture to oneself this poor youth, when drums beat to quarters unable to be in his wonted place, left to himself when the very dews of death itself were gathering on his brow, yet with unbroken courage struggling to raise his feeble body, and with last supreme effort, as his spirit passed, sending forth the old familiar call that should hearten his comrades.

From the start of Towrson's third voyage there was lack neither of adventure nor of excitement. To begin with, shortly after clearing the Channel his squadron captured two Dutch vessels which on being overhauled were found to be carrying cargo for a French trader. On this pretext the goods were confiscated, Towrson's ships, the Minion, the Christopher, the Tyger, and the Unicorn  pinnace, helping themselves to what each fancied ere the Dutchmen, in sorry plight, were permitted to go. To have carried home the cargoes for sale then would have too greatly delayed the voyage; therefore each man helped himself, and helped himself so largely that in the end Towrson was obliged to interfere and to order the goods to be restored. Still, much changed hands, especially of wine and brandy. Thereafter, putting in at Grand Canary for fresh water, Towrson found at anchor in that port the Spanish West India fleet of nineteen sail. In friendly mood were the Spaniards, for England at that date, through the marriage of Queen Mary with Philip II., was the ally of Spain,—within a few months, indeed, Englishmen under Lord Pembroke were fighting at San Quentin side by side with the Spaniards against France. Towrson dined on board the Spanish Flagship, and all went merrily till dinner was ended and the Englishman entering his boat to return to his own vessel. Then the Admiral gravely intimated that he observed the English ensign flying aboard the Minion; he must request Captain Towrson to have the goodness to furl his flag.

English in Guinea


Now, Towrson was not a man to be coerced. Not at dictation of any foreigner was he going to lower his flag, nor would he permit a Spaniard to issue orders to him. Defiant still flew the Cross of St. George. The Admiral sent fresh messages; Towrson returned more obstinate refusal. Excitement grew as the tension increased; trouble seemed quickly drawing to a head. Then—for the Devil, at a pinch, ever finds some fool ready to aid him in mischief-making—a hot-headed soldier on one of the Spanish ships, snatching up his harquebus, fired on the English ensign; in an instant his comrades, carried away by such an example, began to shoot at the arrogant bunting, hoping by good chance to cut away the signal halyards and thus bring the English colours down by the run. Towrson in a fury, and with his men at quarters, sent a boat with the intimation that if firing did not instantly stop he would loose off his big guns at them. This brought matters to a climax; but instead of threatening to blow the English ships out of the water, (a threat that, with his overwhelming force, he could very readily have carried into execution), the Spanish Admiral had the wisdom to order his men to cease fire, and himself to send an ample apology for the insult offered to the flag of England, thereby no doubt saving a very awkward international complication. It must have been with ill grace, and from unwilling lips, that the haughty Don forced an apology. What might have happened had temper and stubborn pride overcome discretion? How might History have been altered had Towrson carried out his threat, and had the Spanish fleet, in retaliation, sunk the English squadron? Would the courage of Mary, and her affection for Philip, have proved equal to the task of overcoming another popular outbreak in England? Would a Spanish Armada, before its time, have attempted invasion of our shores? Would Towrson and his ship have taken in later ages their places as national idols alongside Sir Richard Grenville and the Revenge, or would History have condemned the former as a hot-headed fool? In any case, it is by such acts of magnificent audacity that a nation, or an individual, is carried far to the front. The evening of her days will be closing in on Britain, methinks, when the deeds of men like Towrson cease to touch in her sons an answering chord.

After this incident at Grand Canary, Towrson's squadron ran down the Guinea Coast, trading; but not undisturbed. Whilst the bulk of the English crews were on shore one morning, five sail of Portuguese hove in sight. Hurrying on board, sail was made on the English ships, and the Minion  with her consorts drew slowly off shore. With freshening breeze a running fight began which lasted most part of the day. The Minion  hulled the Portuguese Admiral many times, and herself suffered to some extent in spars and rigging, but the end of the fray saw little real harm done to either side, and, the wind falling light, the ships drifted far apart and finally separated, teeing each other no more after nightfall. Greater damage than had been suffered in the fight was done to the English ships in the stark calm that followed, for the Tyger  and the Minion, drifting into dangerous proximity, finally fell foul of each other, the watch on deck of the former being asleep at the time. The rend of canvas and the snapping of spars, the groan of timbers and the smash of upper works as the helpless vessels ground their heaving sides together in the darkness, hoarse orders and the rush of hurrying feet over the decks, made a pandemonium worse than any caused by roar of cannon or crash of shot.

Farther along the coast Towrson surprised three French vessels at anchor; two, slipping their cables, with luck scraped clear and got away; the third was taken, with fifty pounds weight of gold on board, a welcome prize to the Englishmen.

But now sickness stretched out a heavy hand and gripped the crews; man after man, attacked by the fell African fever, laid him down and died; towards the end of the voyage there were not thirty sound men in all the ships. Things in other ways, too, began to go less well; the natives, hitherto so friendly, now refused to trade or even to supply food. The English helped themselves; the natives stoned the foragers. Then the sound portion of the ships' crews landed, burned a town, killed and wounded a number of negroes, and destroyed all the canoes. Returning to Shamah, where they had hoped to re-victual, a similar state of things was found; so Shamah too was burned, "because," says the chronicle, "the Captaine thereof was become subject to the Portugals."

Proceedings so masterful did not benefit the English, for when in 1562 the Minion  was again on the Coast, we read that she and her consort, the Primrose, were unable to trade at all.

It was in that same year 1562, however, that in other fashion John Hawkins traded to Guinea. Hawkins being, as we read, "amongst other particulars assured that Negros might easily be had upon the Coast of Guinea, resolved with himself to make trial thereof . . . For which purpose there were three good ships immediately provided." The Jonas, a barque of forty tons, the Swallow, a ship of one hundred, and the Solomon, of one hundred and twenty tons, "wherein M. Hawkins himself went as General," set forth on this the first recorded English Slave-hunting expedition. Calling at Teneriffe, from that island Hawkins "passed to Sierra Leona . . . which place by the people of the country is called Tagarin, where he stayed some good time and got into his possession, partly by the sword and partly by other means, to the number of three hundred Negroes at the least . . . With this praye he sailed over the Ocean sea unto the Island of Hispaniola . . . For the Negroes he received . . . by way of exchange such quantity of merchandise that he did not only lade his own three ships with hides, ginger, sugars, and some quantity of pearls, but he freighted also two other hulks with hides and other like commodities." And thus, so far as England was concerned, the seed germinated of that poison-plant the Slave Trade. Nor was this the last visit of Hawkins to the Guinea Coast in search of the same evil cargo. It is reported that on hearing of his first voyage Queen Elizabeth said that, "if any Africans should be carried away without their free consent, it would be detestable and call down the Vengeance of Heaven upon the undertaking." Admirable sentiments! But did she continue to hold them, one wonders. In the voyage of 1564, Hawkins' chief ship, the Jesus of Lubek, was a Royal ship. Did the Queen take a share in the venture? Did she wilfully close her eyes to his proceedings? In this latter voyage Hawkins lost several men whilst engaged in the capture of slaves; seven were killed and seven wounded in the course of one encounter. "We stayed certain days," says the chronicle, "going every day on shore to take the Inhabitants, with burning and spoiling their towns." Here surely was room for the "Vengeance of Heaven," to say nothing of the vengeance of England's Queen. Yet Hawkins incurred at least no permanent disgrace in the eyes of his Royal Mistress.

With regard to this voyage a curious note is made concerning the Azores. "About these islands," it is written, "are certain flitting islands which have sometimes been seen, and when men approached near them, they vanished . . . therefore it should seem that he is not yet born to whom God has appointed the finding of them." Strangely credulous and of exceeding simplicity in some ways were our ancestors. In days when surveying ships were un- dreamed of, charts but in the making, when men's minds were agape to swallow every fresh marvel, a mirage more or less perfect no doubt readily gave rise to the belief in "flitting islands." Yet, after all, if we have shaken ourselves free from some of the superstitions of our ancestors, in the eyes of our descendants three hundred years hence our own ignorance may seem as quaint as to us now seems the simplicity of the Sixteenth Century.