Spain was the great power in the 16th century in Europe. It became the dominant figurehead in the Holy Roman Empire, a medieval conglomerate of states that included Italy, the Netherlands, and some German states.
Portugal might have been considered the other dominant power, having championed the age of discovery by sailing around Africa and accessing that delicious wealth of India, China and the Spice Islands.
But Spain was hot on her tail. With Christopher Columbus, Spain managed to acquire lands in the New World, and soon she encountered a treasure trove equal to–if not even greater than–what Portugal had found. This treasure was the captured from the Aztecs and Incas who had a mass of gold.
Spain and Portugal fought over all these lands until the Pope stepped in and arbitrated a deal. Spain was to get half the world, including the Americas, and Portugal was to get the other half, which included the Orient. No other country could legally trade with the world except through these two states. And if they tried, they would be out-gunned before they even left Europe.
This was a very tense period where hostilities could break out in flash fires. When Magellan sailed around the world, the most dangerous part of his voyage was not the Pacific or Cape Horn (although these were incredibly dangerous) but the voyage through the Orient in Portuguese ruled waters. One of his ships, laden with spices from Malacca, was sunk by a Portuguese vessel and her crew executed after travelling around half the world.
By the time of Sir Francis Drake the hostilities had ended. Spain had conquered Portugal and now ruled the entire world.
England, at this time, barely had a navy.
She had almost no international trade and watched helplessly as fat treasure ships from America, Malacca, India, China and Japan poured the wealth of the world into her enemy’s pockets. All England could do was try to sell her textiles to a silk-clad Spanish merchant class that likely scoffed at their simple fabrics, dyed black because they had no access to exotic colored dyes.
To many in England, and especially to the merchants who eeked out a living from this trade, the status quo was acceptable. Even the English royalty were afraid to rock the boat with Spain.
But there were some who saw the Spanish dominance of the seas as unacceptable. They wanted equal access, free trade, and they became convinced that as private investors, they had to take this right by force.
I just want to impress upon you the size of the operations that we’re dealing with. If we remember the Sir Francis Drake sci-fi analogy, the ships going into space would probably have had very small crews. You simply can’t send thousands of people into space and not spend an absolute fortune. Things were not so different in the 16th century. The numbers that took part in these voyages would at the very most amount to only a few hundred men, and usually they could be counted at under a hundred.
Cortez conquered the Aztecs with a mere 600 men, and Pisaro destroyed the Incas with only 200. These missions were like going to the moon, but the time scales were so much longer and the risk of death was incredible.
These missions were so dangerous!
If you didn’t die from scurvy, starvation, drowning, infection or other illness, you might easily be killed by natives or by another European man-o-war. The fact that people like Cabot, Magellan, Vasco de Gamba, and Drake are so famous is because so many people died ahead of them. The story of the early age of discovery, when Prince Henry the Navigator sent out expedition after expedition to explore the coast of Africa (and in search of a mystical Christian king who never actually existed), is riddled with tales of ships returning like ghosts… if they returned at all.
And the people who joined these ships were immensely superstitious people.
Sailors have always had a reputation for being a bit superstitious, but in the High Middle Ages and Renaissance, the range of their imaginations was incredible. These people came from proto-scientific societies where the masses were uneducated, believed fervently in witches and magic and saw their dark forests as refuges for evil spirits and monsters which they colored their maps with.
There were creatures that looked like humans but had large faces within their torsos.
There were fairies or pixies that would lure children into the woods and steal them away.
There were even thought to be men with dogs’ heads who inhabited the far flung world. Missionaries were trained on ways to convert the dog headed people if they came upon them. We still have their training manuels.
Imagine if you were on one of these ships, months or even years away from home, and you beached at some exotic land never before seen by European eyes.
To us, it might be a postcard image of the coasts of British Columbia or Brazil. But to their eyes, the mists that hung over the dark forests might hide fantastic monsters, savage cannibals and could even be the home of the devil himself.
What would they think when they saw a Killer Whale with its bizarre black and white patches, or when they heard the howl of wolves rising from the impenetrable forests with their ominous floating mists. How would they have reacted when they saw the tribes of the Haida for the first time, with their war canoes where warriors would dress in full bear skins and dance on deck to the sound of drums and eerie off-key chanting.
We think of places being named after people. But in this age of discovery, places were often named after nightmares: the Bay of Giants, the Land of Fire, or the Island of Death.
And the sailors who took part in these expeditions, although they staked their lives against ridiculous odds (and even if they survived, they’d likely return home without teeth, or they’d be sickly from disease) would do so with an aim of gaining a fortune.
The fleets worked a bit like a corporation of shareholders where the main investor, whether it be a private lender or the crown, would stake a claim on usually 20% of the cargo in exchange for providing ships and supplies. The captain would claim around 10%, and whoever survived from the crew would divvy up the rest.
And the amount of money they could earn from a year at sea was astounding to the poor fishermen or longshoremen who watched the ships leave. When Drake returned from his voyage around the world, he returned with enough treasure in one ship to pay for England’s navy for an entire year. Even half a percent of this treasure was enough for one of his sailors to live like a baron.
At a time when upward mobility was nearly impossible, risking one’s life to go from a poor fisherman to an estate owner in as little as a few months or years could be quite attractive.