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Twice since the Norman Conquest has the little country of England been the center of an empire: once when Henry II of England was at the same time master of half France; and now again when the Union Jack or the red ensign flies over cities and continents of which Henry Plantagenet never dreamed. Yet to use the same word to describe both of these empires seems unfortunate. Indeed, the use of the word "empire" is questionable in either case, – only to be sanctioned because we seem to have no other word that will quite answer the purpose. For "empire" is a Roman word. Its use seems to imply in some way absolute power, – the centralization which was so fundamentally characteristic of Rome. Yet the feudal empire of Henry II, so far from being centralized, was a mere bundle of separate lordships, thrown together by the accidents of conquest, marriage, and divorce. It was dashed to pieces in the reign of John, built again by Edward III, torn apart once more in the latter years of the fourteenth century, put together in a structure of surpassing glory by Henry V, and finally destroyed in the reign of his son. Through it all, for these three hundred years, England's own well-being and growth were something entirely apart from her connection with these other possessions of her king; the bond that united them had no root in national life. And if there is more organic unity in the British Empire of to-day, – if there is in it, indeed, a very powerful and living organic unity, – yet there is as little centralization as there was in the days of Henry II. So if we use the word "empire," as we must, let us at least remember that the old significance of the Roman word imperium has largely departed...
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Copyright © 2016 by Charles Payne
Published by Perennial Press
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
THE LAYING OF THE FOUNDATION
THE COMING OF SEA-POWER
THE OPENING OF THE EAST
THE GREAT DUEL WITH FRANCE
ROBERT CLIVE AND THE BEGINNING OF THE INDIAN EMPIRE
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
THE BEGINNINGS OF AUSTRALIA
THE BEGINNINGS OF SOUTH AFRICA
THE DOMINION OF CANADA
THE SELF-GOVERNING COLONIES OF THE SOUTH
THE INDIAN EMPIRE
THE ROAD TO THE EAST: EGYPT
IMPERIAL PROBLEMS: THE CASE OF IRELAND
THE EFFECTS OF THE GREAT WAR UPON THE EMPIRE
A BALANCING OF ACCOUNTS
TWICE SINCE THE NORMAN CONQUEST has the little country of England been the center of an empire: once when Henry II of England was at the same time master of half France; and now again when the Union Jack or the red ensign flies over cities and continents of which Henry Plantagenet never dreamed. Yet to use the same word to describe both of these empires seems unfortunate. Indeed, the use of the word “empire” is questionable in either case, – only to be sanctioned because we seem to have no other word that will quite answer the purpose. For “empire” is a Roman word. Its use seems to imply in some way absolute power, – the centralization which was so fundamentally characteristic of Rome. Yet the feudal empire of Henry II, so far from being centralized, was a mere bundle of separate lordships, thrown together by the accidents of conquest, marriage, and divorce. It was dashed to pieces in the reign of John, built again by Edward III, torn apart once more in the latter years of the fourteenth century, put together in a structure of surpassing glory by Henry V, and finally destroyed in the reign of his son. Through it all, for these three hundred years, England’s own well-being and growth were something entirely apart from her connection with these other possessions of her king; the bond that united them had no root in national life. And if there is more organic unity in the British Empire of to-day, – if there is in it, indeed, a very powerful and living organic unity, – yet there is as little centralization as there was in the days of Henry II. So if we use the word “empire,” as we must, let us at least remember that the old significance of the Roman word imperium has largely departed.
The empire of Henry II was, we have said, the loose, feudal union of half France with England. But in it the English destiny or the English national character was scarcely involved at all. It was not the genius of Englishmen that built up the feudal empire; it was feudal custom and the ability of half a dozen men to whom the English tongue was an abomination. To the Norman kings England was a mere appendage to their continental domains, valued only for her money and her archers. England’s influence was not materially extended by the power of her rulers; she was rather influenced by France than France by England. So that from the landing of the Jutes in 449 until the close of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, and of the Wars of the Roses in 1485, England was simply England, not even Great Britain, with no political interest outside her borders except a feudal and dynastic interest which affected only a foreign king and his military aristocracy. Her trade was largely local, across the narrow seas. Her seamen were many and daring, it is true, but from the political point of view they were in the background. The sea-power and imperial ambitions of Venice and Genoa in the south, of the Hanseatic League in the north, stirred as yet neither jealousy nor emulation in the bosoms of the slow-moving islanders.
But if the fifteenth century English were indifferent to seapower, little inclined to maritime enterprise, and quite without imperial ambitions, they and their fathers had unwittingly laid a solid foundation for national greatness. By slow degrees, with many moments of discouragement and reaction, there had been crystallizing the potent ideals of liberty and nationality without which the England that we know, the free mother of free states, could never have existed. In the old days before the Norman Conquest villagers and townsmen had met in their town meetings to deal with town affairs, had elected representatives to meet with other townsmen of the “hundred,” and to meet in the still larger “folkmoot” of the shire. That is to say, they had been accustomed to the idea and practice of representative government. The larger affairs of the kingdom as a whole were indeed in the hands of the lords who met in their Witanagernot, i.e., the assembly of the wise, the nobles and clerics of greater power and larger grasp of affairs than could be claimed by the humbler merchants, craftsmen and agriculturists who made up the great mass of the population. Government of the people was still a thing of the future; but the germ of English liberty was clearly present in the England of Alfred and of Edward the Confessor.
This germ was not only never smothered out by the Norman kings: it was positively encouraged. William the Conqueror, William Rufus, Henry I and Henry II saw clearly that the great obstacle to the realization of their ambitious plans for consolidation and centralization was not the people but the great lords. The kings, intent on power, the people, anxious for protection against brutal and lawless barons, had no vision of the possibilities of the future. They became allies only to avert a common danger, not to realize a national or democratic ideal. But between them they built up a steadily growing political unity and a steadily growing national consciousness, until at last the barons, seeing that they could not hold their own against the alliance of king and people, seized a golden opportunity to do a really great thing. For after the great Norman and Angevin kings came King John, enemy of lords and commons, enemy of God and man. The invincible alliance was broken by the blind wickedness of John; and the barons in sudden inspiration joined the troubled and oppressed people in wresting from the king the great charter. To them it was merely a winning move in their play for power. But the Charter signed at Runnymede in 1215, feudal document as it was, saw the birth of the English nation. Only the birth, indeed, not adolescence or conscious maturity. Yet Magna Carta was still an event of tremendous significance. And it was confirmed fifty years later when Simon de Montfort, Earl Of Leicester and premier baron of England, called on the people for aid in his struggle against John’s son, and summoned representatives of the towns to sit side by side with the lords in the first house of Commons. This first representative national assembly was, it is true, called by a rebel. Strictly speaking, it was illegal. But behind it was a force that could no longer be ignored. King and people had been invincible in restraining the lawless ferocity of the barons. Now the barons had been at least partly tamed, and barons and people were allied to restrain the lawlessness of the throne. The great king Edward I, still without any vision of the future and seeing only the advantage of town representation for taxing purposes, bowed to the inevitable. In 1295 he quietly followed the precedent created by de Montfort thirty years before, and thereafter the Parliament of England was composed of lords, knights, and representatives of the towns. Through the fourteenth century the national assembly, soon separated into two houses – Lords and Commons – grew in power, tightened its grasp on the two essential rights of legislation and taxation, interfered at critical moments with even the administration, gave its support to the deposition of two kings, asserted the rights of the English Church against what seemed the undue claims of the Papacy, grappled with economic difficulties, and made itself bit by bit the controlling power of the kingdom. The king was still the executive chief, and able kings like Edward I, Edward III, and Henry V wielded a still potent scepter. But no king successfully defied Parliament during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
The basis of English liberty seemed solidly laid. But while the towns were growing in wealth and consequence, and while merchants, craftsmen and sailors were developing economic security, intelligence, self-confidence, pride, imagination, courage, capacity to act together, – all of the things that go to make up the stuff of self-government, – yet hitherto they had allowed the lords to assume the leadership. The alliance between them was tacit but firm, and it held against all shocks. But in the main it was recognized that in politics and war the lords were more efficient than the representatives of the towns, and they were allowed to take the initiative. The people were indeed but restless and indiffer. ent students of the great art of government. Their place in Parliament seemed often a burden rather than a privilege. As long as their individual rights were respected they were content to let others have the cares and responsibilities of guiding the ship of state. Then in the fifteenth century came the Wars of the Roses. The nobles, already decimated by the long war with France, dashed themselves to pieces in the conflict of factions. And when Henry VII came to the throne after his victory over Richard of York on Bosworth Field (1485) the Parliament faced a crisis of which it was quite unconscious. The House of Lords under the new ruler was filled with nobles of his creation. Only a fragment of the old baronage was left. The Commons at last had to stand on their own feet or lose their hard-won liberties.
So the sixteenth century saw a national readjustment. The question that time had to answer was whether the English people had learned the lesson of self-government. And for a time it was difficult to see what the answer would be. Henry VII and Henry VIII were more absolute, apparently, than Henry II or Edward I or Henry V had ever been. The people, welcoming with relief an era of peace, looked placidly on while the king built up a great power on the ruins of feudalism. England seemed to be quietly becoming an absolute monarchy. But in reality the people were unconsciously adjusting themselves to the situation, showing little realization of their danger and little disposition to take the initiative, but never relaxing their stubborn grip on essentials. Indeed even at the height of the Tudor despotism there were signs that the lessons of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had not been utterly thrown away. Interest in national affairs was steadily growing stronger, quickened by the spread of Protestantism and the fear of Spain. And when the high-spirited Elizabeth came to the throne of her father, her brother and her sister, she faced a nation that was nearly ready to graduate after its long schooling. She found Parliament and people ready indeed to give her love and honor, willing to accord her much power in the exercise of her high duties, but unyielding as iron when their cherished liberties were menaced. Again and again the proud Queen sought angrily to assert her independent sovereignty; again and again she had to bow before the courteous obstinacy of Parliament. When she died in 1603 the nation was well awake, uncertain of its powers, unused to united action, unwilling to move other than slowly, cautiously, circumspectly, but still pulsing with a new and vast consciousness of strength and with new, vague ambitions of dazzling splendor.
For the sixteenth century had brought a steadily increasing responsiveness to the thrill of new intellectual life which was shaking Europe. The Renaissance in Italy had reached its height before the century opened, and had begun to send abroad impulses of spiritual quickening that soon reached England through men like Colet, Erasmus and Thomas More. At the same time there came other influences just as disturbing. There were rumors of the advancing power of the Turks, of the closing up the old trade routes to Asia by way of Constantinople, Syria, and Egypt, and – far more amazing – the opening of a new route to the east by Diaz and Vasco da Gama around the Cape of Good Hope. Portugal leaped into fame and wealth with the commerce now made possible by her navigators; Venice and Genoa faced slow ruin with the passing of the greatness of the Mediterranean highway; and all sea-faring peoples felt some stirring of the blood at the thought of the rich reward that had followed the enterprise of a handful of bold sailors. But eclipsing all other news came the tremendous tidings of the crossing of the Atlantic. All too late did Henry VII send out John and Sebastian Cabot to bring England some of the advantage of this short cut to India – as every one deemed was the significance of the discovery of Columbus. But no effort could make Newfoundland or Cape Breton or Labrador yield the rich spoil that soon flowed to Spain from the mines of Mexico and Peru. As Italy had led in the revival of learning, Portugal and Spain had led in the discovery of new worlds, and by the time the bewildered minds of English statesmen and sailors had adjusted themselves to the vast changes wrought in a single generation, the chance of sharing in the trade of Asia or the wealth of America seemed forever lost. The fruits of the Renaissance could be learned. The dying torch of Italy could touch the eager lamp of England’s genius, and inspire a burst of intellectual glory in the northern islands even more splendid than Florence herself had seen in the days of Lorenzo. But the fruits of maritime enterprise could not so easily be transferred. Spain and Portugal, first in the field, rejoiced and waxed fat in a flood of wealth out of all proportion to the energy expended. The peoples of the north seemed to be hopelessly left behind.
It must be remembered that no one, up to the middle of the sixteenth century at any rate, had thought of planting a colony in our modern sense of the word. The possibility of such a development as was later seen in the English colonies of America, Australia or South Africa had not occurred to the wildest dreamer. The prize of Spain in her own eyes was not the opportunity to plant and develop new Spains overseas, but that of seizing a lucrative trade and exploiting a vast, helpless, and wealthy possession. And in this new territory competition was by no means to be permitted. The custom followed by all European countries of making indefinitely large claims on the strength of sighting a single stretch of coast meant that Spain claimed the whole of the West Indies and Central and South America – with the sole exception of the Portuguese possession of Brazil – as one vast preserve. Not only was this whole territory annexed to the Spanish crown, but the wealth that came from it was a monopoly. Absurd as the idea seems to us, moreover, it was in accord with the notions of the time, and was accepted as right and normal by the English themselves. But no body of law, and no power of custom could so cancel the primary instincts of human nature that sailors and traders of all nations would not look somewhat wistfully at the gigantic prize that was making Spain the wealthiest and most powerful state in Europe. Every new rumor of the riches of Mexico and Peru made it more certain that little excuse would be needed to bring eager adventurers to the Spanish Main to snatch such crumbs of the great feast as Providence, cunning, or force might give them. Marvelous tales came with every western breeze to draw men toward the horizon beyond which lay America.
The inevitable conflict began early. In November, 1519, Cortez entered the City of Mexico for the first time, and when the conquest was completed two great treasure ships were dispatched to Spain as an earnest of what was coming. France and Spain were at war just then, and a Florentine captain named Verazzani in the service of France captured those treasure ships near the Azores. So Europe learned at the same time both the fabulous wealth of Spanish America and the ease with which a share of it could be obtained. France accordingly followed up Verazzani’s success with some degree of vigor, but England still waited, – partly because her conservative instincts forbade her to make a new movement too hurriedly, and partly because during a great part of the sixteenth century she was Spain’s ally. Then the Protestant revolution came to sow discord. The Marian persecution and the acute danger for a time that England might be made by Mary and Philip II a mere province of Spain awakened in the minds of Englishmen an active hatred of the Spaniards. And with the accession of the Protestant Elizabeth in 1558 the two countries began definitely to drift into a relation in which a small cause might precipitate a bitter and relentless war. The English sailors began to do more than cast greedy looks toward the Spanish Main. Ship after ship crossed the Atlantic to defy the monopoly by securing some of the trade; and when traders were punished as smugglers and pirates their trade became after a time actual piracy, on the ancient principle that one may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. So national and racial a character did this unique kind of piracy assume, moreover, that an Englishman and a Spaniard came to regard one another as inevitable and invariable enemies, and the religious difference between them, aided by the Inquisition, added fierce fuel to their hatred. Yet for many years there was no open war. Neither Philip II nor Elizabeth wanted war, and both struggled against fate to preserve at least a nominal peace. War came only when Drake’s great voyage of 1577-80 made it inevitable. Elizabeth had then to choose between England and. Spain, for peace and good-will with the one meant war with the other.
So that in the third quarter of the sixteenth century England stood at the fork of the roads. Still fat from anything like democracy, she had yet built a firm foundation for a free nationality that was rapidly becoming conscious. The intellectual vigor that was to make the age of Elizabeth one of the most brilliant in the annals of literature was joined to a proud and exuberant patriotism. Less than a century later this new national spirit was to turn in fierce resentment against the monarchy that sought to chain it in the name of divine right, and in civil war and revolution was to end forever the debate between kingly power and national freedom. But Elizabeth’s tact postponed the conflict, and in her day the energy of English. men was turned not so much to politics as to literature and adventure. Indeed even the literature of the age was a literature of action, of romance, and of aspiration. Shakespeare and Drake alike are the interpreters of an England unknown to Henry II and to de Montfort, a dynamic England which they had helped to make but which had grown far beyond their planning. She stood now at the threshold of a new era. Ahead of her lay the glory and the peril of empire.
WHEN ENGLISH SAILORS FIRST BEGAN to feel the lure of the far horizon there were two enterprises that attracted them with peculiar power. One was the quest of the northwest passage to the Indies, and one was the trade of the Spanish Main. The former was to attract English explorers for three centuries and was to immortalize some of the most notable names in the annals of British seamanship. The latter had all the fascination of adventure, conflict, and unguessable turns of chance. Between them, they were the school of Elizabethan seamen. In the polar seas, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, Englishmen learned the lessons that were to stand them in good stead in 1588 and were ultimately to make them the first among sea-faring peoples. So that, roughly speaking, the reign of Elizabeth marks the beginning of England’s sea-power; and if we open at random the pages of “Hakluyt’s Voyages” we may obtain a glimpse into the training school.
On the eighth of June, 1576, Martin Frobisher left Deptford with two small barks (25 and 20 tons), the Gabriel and the Michael, and a pinnace of 10 tons, to seek in the northwest a nearer passage to Cathay than by the Cape of Good Hope or the Straits of Magellan. On the 11th of July “he had sight of a high and ragged land “ – probably Greenland – “but durst not approach the same by reason of the great store of ice that lay along the coast and the great mists that troubled them not a little.” Not far from here he lost the pinnace and was deserted by the Michael, but “notwithstanding these discomforts the worthy captain, although his mast was sprung and his topmast blown overboard with extreme foul weather, continued his course towards the northwest, knowing that the sea at length must needs have an ending.” So he passed on and did at length sight two great forelands, with a great open passage between them, which he entered, and sailed above fifty leagues, believing that he had Asia on his right hand and America on his left.
After some time “he went ashore and found signs where fire had been made. He saw mighty deer . . . which ran at him: and hardly he escaped with his life in a narrow way, where he was fain to use defense and policy to save his life. In this place he saw and perceived sundry token of the peoples resorting thither. And being ashore upon the top of a hill, he perceived a number of small things floating in the sea afar off, which he supposed to be porpoises, or seals, or some strange kind of fish; but coming nearer, he discovered them to be men in small boats made of leather.” These were a troop of Esquimaux, who after nearly taking the captain himself, did some trading with the sailors and by treachery captured five of them. After this they kept away from the ships, but one was taken by a stratagem and brought back to England. So “with this new prey, which was a sufficient witness of the Captain’s far and tedious travel towards the unknown parts of the world . . . the said Captain Frobisher returned homeward and arrived in England the second of October following. Thence he came to London, where he was highly commended of all men for his great and notable attempt, but specially famous for the great hope he brought of the passage to Cathay.” Besides the unfortunate native there was by chance brought back a black stone – really iron pyrites – which certain refiners pronounced to be rich in gold. Thereafter it was gold, not the northwest passage, which formed the chief attraction to the desolate region of the north. In Frobisher’s second voyage 200 tons and in the third 1,700 tons of the stuff were brought with great labor to England to the sore loss of those who had borne the expense of the enterprise. But the interest of it all to us is not so much the success or ill success of these voyages. It is the persistent and purposeful daring, the awakening interest in a world wider than England, the determination against all obstacles to search the untried and immense posssibilities of the New World. Every sentence of the old sailor narratives assures us that the narrowness, the pettiness, the morbid interest in unreal things, of the Middle Ages have passed away. It is like breathing in a draught of fresh sea air to see again the little ships of England – struggling against the terrors and dangers of the north, stemming and striking great rocks of ice, compassed about with floes and bergs, and so driven by tempests against the crystal reefs that “planks of timber of more than three inches thick by the surging of the sea with the ice were shivered and cut in sunder.”
To these northern voyagers the elements themselves were the most formidable foes. But to the all-expecting imaginations of the Elizabethan mariners there was even more terror in the strange beasts and devils of the new seas. An iceberg was an iceberg – dangerous enough but avoidable. But what of the strange monster that Sir Humphrey Gilbert saw “swimming or rather sliding upon the water off the coast of Labrador, – a monster like a lion in shape, hair and color, which passed along turning his head to and fro, yawning and gaping wide with ugly demonstration of long teeth and glaring eyes, and which coming right against the ship sent forth a horrible voice, roaring and bellowing as doth a lion”? Might not this be the devil himself? And every voyager had to face beasts equally strange and equally invested with the halo of marvel that belonged to the newly discovered regions, – serpents with three heads, monsters in the shape and color of men who rose from the sea and might bring on many days of foul weather, and evil creatures such as the “monstrous venemous worme” encountered by the companions of Hawkins, “with two heads and a body as bigge as a man’s arme, whose blood made the sword that cut him asunder as black as ink.”
Fearsome tales, surely. And yet these encounters with beasts and devils are after all only incidents. Even the conflicts with storms, with heat, and with cold were not the epoch-making ones of the age, significant as they are of its spirit. The great battles of the English were with a power more cruel and far more hated than ice, heat, storms, or savage monsters. The fierce and withering grip of Spain and the Inquisition on the wealthiest part of the New World and on the empire of the sea still remained to be matched and shaken before England’s introduction to her new future could be complete. In the summer of 1568 John Hawkins, having accomplished a profitable bit of trade in negroes with those of the Spaniards who were willing to defy their own law for the sake of profit, headed northwest from the Gulf of Mexico intending to make for England. It was his third voyage, and he was well known in both England and Spain. It had been his avowed practice to simply disregard the Spanish laws as to trade, and since his living merchandise was badly needed for heavy labor by the Spanish mine owners and planters, he had driven a profitable business. In dining with the Spanish ambassador, after his second voyage, he had quite coolly declared his intention of visiting the African coast and the Indies again. And so he did; but as might be expected, this cool violation of Spanish law aroused irritation at the court of Philip II, and orders were sent out to treat Hawkins as an open enemy if the opportunity occurred. Now it happened that on this very trip, as the English ships passed by the west end of Cuba, heavy storms came upon them and, being driven far into the Gulf and failing to find any other harbor, they took refuge in the port of Vera Cruz, guarded by the castle of San Juan de Ullua. Here to their surprise they found twelve ships – part of the annual silver fleet for Spain – which were awaiting there the rest of the fleet and its armed convoy. Hawkins was a trader, not either a pirate or an enemy of the Spaniards. He did not touch the prize before him accordingly, but sent word of his arrival to the Spanish Council at Mexico, and asked permission to remain in the harbor to refit. But, says Hawkins, “the message being sent away the sixteenth of September at night, being the very day of our arrival, in the next morning, which was the seventeenth day of the same month, we saw open off the haven thirteen great ships. And understanding them to be the fleet of Spain I sent immediately to advise the general of the fleet of my being there: giving him to understand that, before I would suffer them to enter the port, there should some orders of conditions pass between us for our safe being there, and maintenance of peace.”
Now the harbor was so guarded by an island that the English ships in possession could easily keep out an enemy five times as strong. But the English admiral was torn between two difficulties. If he prevented the Spanish fleet entering, they must inevitably be shipwrecked by the next storm from the north. In view of the peace existing between the two countries – peace which Elizabeth was very anxious to maintain – such a disaster would be a very grave matter and would probably mean trouble from the Queen. On the other hand, if entrance were permitted, there was the danger of treachery. At last Hawkins resolved on the more generous course, and giving the Spaniards the benefit of the doubt he made a convention, exchanged hostages and allowed them to come in.
All was apparently satisfactory for a time, and the English sailors set to work busily to repair their ships. It was Monday, the twentieth of September, when the Spanish fleet entered the port. On Thursday morning the English noticed a suspicious shifting and embarking of men going on, and a stealthy clearing of the ships and arrangement of ordnance which was uncalled for on any peaceful pretext. Remonstrance first brought polite assurances, but at last the mine was sprung. On all sides the English were attacked, and in most cases were taken utterly by surprise. The men on shore were nearly all killed at once without mercy. The largest of the English ships was attacked by three Spaniards; each of the others was terribly outnumbered, and what with the odds and the surprise, and the Spanish command of great ordnance on shore, the English were barely able to hold their own. After an hour’s fight three of the enemy’s ships were burned and sunk, and the battle eased off somewhat; but then fire ships were sent down upon Hawkins’ battered vessels, and those that were able cut loose and put to sea as best they might, – two large ships, the Jesus and the Minion, the former of which was so injured that she had to be abandoned soon after, and the smaller Judith, commanded by Francis Drake. Of the sufferings of the crews of these, as without sufficient provisions, with battered and half rigged ships, they wandered in an unknown sea, we cannot speak here. Those who have access to “Hakluyt’s Voyages” may read of them as told by two seamen, Phillips and Job Hartop, and by Hawkins himself in his narrative of this disastrous third voyage. But disastrous as the incident at San Juan de Ullua was to the English, it was – as has been well observed – even more disastrous to the Spaniards. For it brought them the bitter and undying enmity, not only of Hawkins, but also of the young captain of the Judith – Francis Drake.
Let us now move forward a few years. In 1571 Drake was in the West Indian seas engaged in real piracy on his own account. Ships were captured, treasure was seized and hidden, and investigations made into the operations by which the silver and gold of Peru was conveyed to Spain. He found that Panama was the focus on the Pacific side of the Isthmus, and that the treasure was thence carried across the mountain ridge to Nombre de Dios, where it was shipped home. In May, 1572, with two ships and material for three pinnaces, the daring captain set sail from Plymouth to attack the richest spot on the Spanish Main. On reaching a group of islands near their destination he found that Nombre de Dios had recently been strongly fortified against a possible attack of the Maroons, – a formidable mixed negro and Indian race, deadly enemies of the Spaniards and treated by them like wild beasts. But he resolved to try his fortune. With seventy-three men he attacked the town on its coast side, drove the redoubtable Spanish soldiery out of the opposite gate, refused to touch three hundred and sixty tons of silver that were ready to be shipped in order to devote undivided attention to the stores of pearls and gold, and finally withdrew from the panic-stricken town only when he himself fell wounded. In spite of remonstrances the sailors bore their commander back to the boats. On the way out of the bay a wine ship was captured, and with her cargo to console them for their retreat the English took up their quarters on the island where the town had its gardens and poultry yards. Here they rested and looked after the wounded while their leader formed new plans.
With very little delay all necessary repairing was done, and the little squadron went on its way in search of more adventures. At Carthagena several prizes were taken, but the spread of the news from Nombre de Dios made surprises difficult, and Drake resolved to fall back on his little pinnaces and carry on his depredations on shore and up the rivers. For this it was necessary to learn the country, and establish firm alliance with the Maroons, which took time; so during the next month the rovers had to trust to their negro allies and an occasional ship for supplies, while they sustained various attacks from the Spaniards, and from a more dreaded foe – the yellow fever. Finally news came that a mule train was on its way from Panama to Carthagena with a great load of treasure. With eighteen men and a Maroon chief, named Pedro, with thirty negroes, Drake marched inland towards Panama. In four days they reached the lofty ridge from which Drake first looked upon the Pacific. There was a great tree there in which the Maroons had cut and made steps, and had built at the top a “bower where ten or twelve men might easily sit.” Here the Maroon chief “took our captain by the hand and prayed him to follow him, if he was desirous to see at once the two seas. . . . After our captain had ascended to this bower with the chief . . . and having as it pleased God at that time by reason of the breeze a very fair day, had seen that sea of which he had heard such golden reports, he besought Almighty God of his goodness to give him life and leave to sail once in an English ship in that sea. And then calling up the rest of our men he acquainted John Oxenham especially with this his petition and purpose, if it would please God to grant him that happiness; who understanding it presently protested that unless our captain did beat him from his company he would follow him by God’s grace. Thus all, thoroughly satisfied with the sight of the seas, descended, and after our repast continued our ordinary march through the woods.”
These are only glimpses. They convey little impression of orderly sequence. But orderly sequence matters less in the age of Elizabeth than in most periods, simply because policy, statesmanship, the working out of carefully laid plans play but a small part in the great achievements of the time. It was an age primarily of individual initiative, of personality. The triumph of Burghley and the Queen lay not in the positive doing of things, not in constructive diplomacy, but in the preservation of peace, in giving England a chance to develop the tremendous energy that leaped within her. To understand this English Renaissance – profitable and even fascinating as it is to study the constant game of diplomacy that kept France and Spain balanced and steered England clear of the rocks and whirlpools of European politics for twenty-five years – it is beyond comparison more necessary to know the men of Elizabethan England as they were. So for our purpose these bits of real life are worth while, and we shall add one more. For it is written that at the end of this first buccaneering expedition Drake and his men turned at last homeward, “passing hard by Carthagena, in the sight of all the fleet, with a’flag of St. George in the main-top of our frigate, with silk streamers and ancients down to the water, sailing forward with a large wind.” The impudence of this is emphasized by the fact that the adventurers were sailing home in captured Spanish ships, their own having been destroyed in various ways during the year. “Within twenty-three days,” runs on the narrative, “we passed from the Cape of Florida to the Isles of Scilly, and so arrived at Plymouth on Sunday about sermon-time, August 9, 1573. At what time the news of our Captain’s return . . . did so pass over all the church, and surpass their minds with desire and delight to see him that very few or none remained with the preacher, all hastening to see the evidences of God’s love and blessing toward our gracious Queen and country, by the fruit of our Captain’s labor and success. Soli Deo Gloria.”
Are we to wonder then that when the great crescent of Spanish ships of war came slowly up the channel to chastise the heretic islanders in the last week of July, 1588, they were watched by eyes that reflected little fear? All the famous leaders who had time and again smitten these same foes hip and thigh on the Spanish Main now sailed rejoicing out of port after port to do battle for England within sight of home, and stalwart sons of Devon and Kent who had followed Drake at Nombre de Dios or across the Pacific, who had raided African villages and Spanish galleons under Hawkins, or sailed their little barks between the giant bergs of the Greenland coast with Davis and Frobisher, now went joyously forth, rejoicing that they were Englishmen, in sure confidence that the God who had guided them and given them courage on far away seas would nerve their arms once more against Spain. It was on Saturday, the twentieth of July, 1588, at daybreak, that the Armada sighted the coast of Cornwall. No fighting occurred that day, but in the night some sixty English ships sailed around to the rear of the great fleet to hover and swoop and sting as the Spaniards sailed slowly on toward Calais. Again and again during that week the English admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, closed in on the Spaniards for a fierce exchange of shots, but it was only to strike a few deadly blows and then draw away. “The enemy pursue me,” wrote irritably the Duke of Medina Sidonia, the Spanish admiral. “They fire upon me most days from morning to nightfall; but they will not close and grapple. I have given them every opportunity. I have purposely left ships exposed to tempt them to board; but they decline to do it, and there is no remedy, for they are swift and we are slow.” But well Howard knew that much as this running fight might damage and demoralize the Spanish fleet, the real death grapple was yet to come.
On Friday, the twenty-sixth, Lord Henry Seymour, who had been waiting between Calais and Dover, joined his admiral, while the Spaniards cast anchor off Calais. And now the English captains were ready to strike. On Sunday night fire ships were sent drifting down with an easy wind on the Spanish fleet. In a panic the great ships cut cables and put to sea, sailing on somewhat confusedly to form once more in a crescent off the Flemish town of Gravelines. And here, on Monday, July twenty-ninth, the English closed desperately with their enemies in the tremendous conflict that was to determine the independence of their country and the greatness of their race for ages to come. No new thing was it for the brave sailors of Drake and Hawkins to grapple with these lords of the Indies, these allies of the Inquisition, these proud devils who would treat London as they had treated Antwerp, and valiantly did they fight that day for England. By the evening the Invincible Armada was in full flight toward the North Sea. Then tempests more cruel than the English fell fiercely upon the beaten fleet. Painfully, in dire confusion, the great galleons labored northwards, strewing the shores with wrecks and with the corpses of hapless men who had hoped to harry England as they had harried the Netherlands, and who had found instead a wild grave on the pitiless shore of northern Scotland.
The defeat of the Armada did not settle the matter, of course. It saved England from invasion, perhaps from conquest, and was the most brilliant of the victories won by English gallantry and spirit over the discipline and the resources of Spain. But it by no means destroyed the sea-power of Spain. It is rather the specific point at which the beginning of her decline became evident to those who, a few years or decades later, saw her star waning and that of England waxing brighter and more glorious. And its chief significance may be seen best by those who try to see it clearly in its setting. Not in that one battle, but in scores of fierce – often unrecorded – fights the world over did England give signs of her new vitality. And not alone in the joy and bitterness of warfare, but in the dawn of a new wonder, a new wish to face the mysteries of the world and of life, a new enthusiasm and a new power, did the countrymen of Raleigh and of Shakespere enter upon an era of adventure and of achievement beyond the dreams of Columbus or of Cortez.
AS IT WAS DURING THE reign of Elizabeth that the first steps were taken towards the founding of the English colonies in America, and the first English ship sailed across the Pacific, so it was while the great queen was still on the throne that a company of English merchants was authorized to enter upon competition with Portugal and Holland in the Eastern trade. Here as in America, England was late in the field, and before we endeavor to see something of the first feeble steps of the famous company “of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies,” we must glance for a moment at their predecessors. For many and daring as the explorers of the English race have been, there are few chapters in the story of the expansion of Europe whose first pages contain an English name. Our pride of race, amply justified as it is, must recognize that if the English race – American, Canadian, Australian, or pure Yorkshire – has a certain careless curiosity, a tenacity, an unwillingness to retreat, and an inexhaustible determination to somehow reach the end aimed at, yet the exploring instinct in us is balanced and checked by our own virtues. The Englishman seldom forgets the end in the means, or allows a dream to overcome his caution. When Henry VII of England refused to listen to the application of Columbus his caution was typical of his race. When John of Portugal did the same thing his decision was out of accord with a century of Portuguese enterprise. While Marco Polo was exploring the far realms of the Khan of Tartary England was laying the foundations of her parliamentary government. While the Portuguese sailors sent out by Henry the Navigator were creeping mile by mile down the coast of Africa, England was vainly trying to conquer France and settle vexed questions as to the kings who should reign over her. In the age of Elizabeth, indeed, there was an outburst of chivalrous enthusiasm well represented by such heroes as Raleigh and Humphrey Gilbert. But in the main Englishmen need not be given credit for being the first to brush aside the dark veil of mystery that hid the outer world from the Europe of the Middle Ages. Rather do they merit the praise, – more practical, if less picturesque – of penetrating, settling, trading, building after the veil was lifted. The solid virtues of the trader and the pioneer look gray and unromantic beside the glorious achievements of Columbus, of Vasco da Gama, and of Balboa. The high emotions of the man who dares to face absolute mystery and to peer over the edge of the known world into possible infinity, are emotions that few Englishmen have felt. And yet it is no accident that while an Italian sailor under Spanish orders discovered America, and a Portuguese navigator first pierced the Indian Ocean by the Cape of Good Hope, yet Spanish supremacy has yielded to AngloSaxon in the western world and the Portuguese possessions in the East are a mere dot on the edge of the vast realm of British India.
The discovery of America was practically a discovery of an unknown world. The voyage of Vasco da Gama in 1497-9 was the discovery of a new route to a world with which Europe has been in communication for ages. A thousand years before Portugal dreamed of a Cape route to India there was a steady and rich trade between Europe and the East along three great highways, each marked by famous and wealthy merchant cities. One lay through Alexandria and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. A second ran through Syria by way of Damascus and Palmyra to Bagdad and Persia. A third route was that by Constantinople, the Bosphorus, the Caucasus and the Caspian, connecting with the caravans from Northern India, Bokhara, and Samarcand. The second of these had once been the greatest. It had fed the wealth of Tyre and Sidon and made possible the glory of Solomon. But the destruction of Tyre by Alexander had paved the way for the rise of Alexandria, and opulent as the Syrian cities remained for many ages, the Egyptian and the Bosphorus routes took thenceforward the greater part of the rich commerce between Asia and the Mediterranean. From the side of Europe the Asiatic trade tended more and more after the fall of Rome to fall into the hands of the Italian coast cities. Long before Europe had fully aroused itself from the stupor and the chaos of the Empire’s collapse, Venice and Genoa and Pisa were sending their galleys to the Levant and the increase of trade with the Orient that came during the Crusades meant more wealth for the Italian cities as well as for Constantinople and Alexandria. But early in the fifteenth century a shadow that had already darkened Syria began to menace Constantinople and Egypt. In 1453 the triumphant Turks stood masters of the Bosphorus, and in 1516 their empire included the valley of the Nile. In place of a Christian emperor and the civilized Arabs the three great roads to the East were in the hands of a wild and brutal race of fanatics, incapable of appreciating or preserving the civilization of the lands they had conquered, and indifferent to the value of the trade routes of which they now became the lords. It was as if a wall of barbarism had suddenly intervened between Europe and Asia. Trade at once became difficult. The wealth of Venice and Genoa began a slow but sure decline. And the very century that saw with every decade a new awakening of conscious curiosity and interest in the world saw the western peoples confronted with a totally new problem that both stimulated their keenest interest and seemed to defy solution.
There were three conceivable ways by which a fifteenth century European might think of reaching the Indies. One was the old threefold route already described, through the Mediterranean. One was straight across the Atlantic. One lay round the southern point of Africa. Of these the first was familiar enough, but was attended now with great difficulty and risk. The second was a mere dream until the voyages of Columbus and his successors, and then it proved to be not so much a new route to the East as the opening up of a hitherto undreamed of continent. That the third should ever have been a mystery seems strange now, but such it certainly was. The north coast of Africa and inland as far as the great desert, the valley of the Nile as far as the granite quarries of Syene, and a few hundred miles of the Atlantic coast, represented all that Romans or mediæval Europeans knew of what was indeed to them a Dark Continent.
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