Belief in trade

In the letter he wrote for the crews of the north-east passage expedition of 1553, or to which he at least affixed his signature in a weak and wavering hand, the young but dying King Edward VI eulogised the role that trade could play in bringing people together.


It was a document addressed to all ‘Kings, princes and other potentates inhabiting the north-east parts of the world toward the mighty empire of Cathay’. Copies of it were taken in a variety of languages which seemed like they might be useful (not that people really knew). Probably, the body of the letter was drafted by Sebastian Cabot, who organised the expedition and who wrote its lengthy and remarkable instructions. Certainly it is suffused with a similar idealistic spirit.


God, it declared, had instilled in all men the desire ‘to love, and be loved’. In particular he desired men to treat well those who had ‘come unto them from far countries’. Above all, respect should be due to merchants, whose role in distributing the fruits of the earth, and in bringing peoples together, in peace, was clearly aligned with the divine plan:

For the God of heaven and earth greatly providing for mankind, would not that all things should be found in one region, to the end that one should have need of another, that by this means friendship might be established among all men, and every one seek to gratify all.

If commerce had any less noble motive, such as the desire for personal enrichment, then this was passed over in silence. It was the humanitarian goal – ‘the establishing and furthering of universal amity’ – which, in King Edward’s account, had motivated these men to ‘voyage by sea into far Countries’. ‘Consider you that they also are men’, the letter implores foreign rulers. It concludes with a date written not in a Christian time frame, but in an Old Testament one that was assumed to be universal. The year is given as 5515, the month as ‘Iyar’.


Unlike the Spanish or the Portuguese, for instance, the leading men behind the 1553 expedition were adamant that trade, and not religious conversion, should be its goal. Knowledge should be acquired, of the commodities and geography of particular regions – because knowledge, as Francis Bacon would later comment, was power. An inquisitive commercial eye was what was needed.


It was for this reason, Cabot argued in his instructions, that the crew should try not to give away their own leanings. Far better, he advised, ‘not to disclose to any nation the state of our religion, but to pass it over in silence’. Foreigners, he cautioned, should by no means be mocked or disdained. Every nation or region was to be approached with politeness, ‘with all gentleness, and courtesy’. Meetings should be about the friendly exchange of goods and ideas.


Merchants certainly did hope that vast wealth would be discovered – in gold, precious stones, or lavish rolls of silk. Many of them had traded with Spain, and looked on enviously as discoveries the Spanish had made had seen their wealth ‘marvellously increased’. But the influx of precious metals, of course, had driven inflation and often it had filtered away. Gold had fallen on Spanish roofs like rain, and like rain it had drained away.


While English merchants might have dreamed of instant riches, they were also happy with what was found: with a large new market for English cloth, and with useful, low-cost articles like wax, or train oil (as the rendered blubber of seals was called), which could be traded in bulk and sold on at a small but acceptable profit.


Nobody could pretend that there was not another, less laudable side to British imperialism. But from this particular philosophy it is hard to demur, and it was one which did prove enduring.