1/ Portugal

In 1498, Vasco de Gama, the great Portuguese navigator rounded the Cape of Good Hope and opened up the sea route from Western Europe to India and brought back the first shipload of samples of mid-eastern products.



Two years later, Pedro Alvares Cabral discovered Brazil and Madagascar and founded the first Portuguese base at Cochin in India and during the next 50 years Portugal established many trading agencies along the 12 000 mile sea route.


The old 'Spice Route' as it was once known, connected Europe to the East Indies, was one of the most dangerous of all sea routes in the world.

The voyage between Lisbon and Goa in south-west India took at least 8 months in favourable conditions! And the round trip could take as much as 20 months to two years to complete.



The route was so dangerous, that when a Portuguese carrack arrived back in Lisbon safe and sound, it was considered to be something of a national event worthy of celebration!


Everyone has heard of the famous Spanish galleons laden to the gunnels with gold and silver from the New World, but perhaps not so well known are the Portuguese carracks which were equally - if not even more - richly laden.

The size of these Portuguese vessels was ever increasing - from 200 tons at the beginning of the 16th century - to 400 tons by 1530 - to 1,000 tons in 1560 - to 1,300 by 1600 and so on until they eventually reached a massive 2,000 tons.

These Portuguese vessels, on leaving Lisbon, were generally heavily laden with gold, silver, copper, lead, mercury, and red coral from the Mediterranean Sea. Along the way, they usually added a ton or so of gold to this initial cargo from places such as Sofala and Mozambique before finally reaching the Indies.


Just it was in the ‘Titanic’, the most famous and tragic shipwreck of our modern times, wealthy passengers and their families who were leaving home for a long time, (if not permanently), carried the major part of their jewels and other valuables with them which added considerably to the 'official' indented cargo - but was unrecorded.
Crew members, braving the severe consequences of smuggling and trading illegally on their own account, stashed away gold, silver and precious gems. This 'private trade' which was undeclared, often equalled the official cargo and partly explains why so many vessels limped back to their home ports (or sank before they got there), so heavily over-laden were they.
We know for a fact that at least five tons of gold were brought back each year from Mozambique alone, as well as several hundreds of thousands of pieces of Chinese porcelain and thousands of carats of uncut diamonds from Golconde.


To quote a fine example:

In 1592, the English captured a 1 600 ton Portuguese carrack, the 'Madre de Deus' off the coast of the Azores. In its holds, they discovered a rich cargo of sea-chests filled with gold, silver coins, spices, pearls, ivory, amber, Chinese porcelain and uncut diamonds.


In addition to its 'precious' cargo, a shipwreck also yields us the more 'every-day' articles of its epoch: Navigational instruments, bronze cannons, ship's bells, swords and pistols etc., and of course the personal possessions of the crew and the passengers. (These items not only have enormous value as museum pieces but they also tell us much about the era with which we are dealing).


This Portuguese monopoly was maintained until the beginning of the 17th century until the Dutch, hitherto forbidden to trade with Portugal decided to act.


2/ Spain


In 1503 the ‘Casa de Contratación’  which was a  commercial, financial and administrative office controlling the trade with the New World was created and sent out two fleets from Cadiz each year.


- The ‘Tierra Firme’ fleet sailed towards the South-East Caribbean islands and the north of South America continent.

- The ‘Nueva España’ fleet sailed towards the north of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.


Gold and silver were carried by sea along the western coast of South America. When disembarked in Panama, the ingots and coins were carried, on mule’s back, through the isthmus towards Porto Bello and Nombre de Dios.

The ‘Tierra Firme’ fleet picked them up and sailed back to Cartagena to complete its cargo in the annual fair which included emeralds from New Granada, amethysts and pearls. Then it sailed to Havana to join the ‘Nueva España’ fleet loaded with silver produced in Mexico and  Chinese treasures brought by the ‘Manila galleon’ to Acapulco and then carried on mule’s back to Vera Cruz.




Each year, a convoy of approximately a hundred ships left Havana and sailed along the East Florida coast, doubled the north of the Bahamas, took advantage of the Gulf Stream and the Western breezes, sailed towards the Bermudas then the Azores to reach finally Seville where all the rich products, sugar, ginger, cocoa, tobacco, cochineal, indigo, red wool, leathers, fears, medicinal drugs… were disembarked.


Spain after receiving the New World as an inheritance didn’t develop or encourage the huge wealth brought by its ships.

It spent its wealth in very expensive wars. The tons of silver, after crossing the Atlantic, only transited through a ruined Spain and enriched the merchants and artisans of northern Europe who produced laboriously what Spain didn’t want to build with its hands.



From the beginning of the 17th century, these countries were to create their own companies…


It will be usual to find, on board Dutch, English, Scandinavian or French ships, ingots still marked with Mexico stamps or Spanish ‘pieces of eight’ that will become the basic money during nearly three centuries.

Arrived in Amsterdam, London, Copenhagen or Lorient, gold and silver sailed for Java, India, China or Japan.


The European countries owe a great part of their actual power and wealth to their former Indies Companies. By creating the capitalism and colonialism and representing a political, economical and social phenomenon, unique during Humanity’s history, they were at the origin of progress in navigation, great discoveries, exploration and scientific progress in geography, linguistic, botanic and ethnology.


3/ Holland



After the world was separated into two, the Dutch took the habit of coming and searching for spices and Indian products in the Spanish harbours and Lisbon. In 1579 Holland bonded to the Spanish crown, rose and the provinces of Groningen, Guilder, Fries, Utrecht, Holland, Over Ijssel and Zeeland declared themselves independent and took the name of ‘The seven united provinces republic’.


The reaction of Philipp II was quick. He proclaimed that all the Spanish harbours would be forbidden to ships of the republic, declaring them ‘enemy ships and good to be taken’. The next year in 1580 the crowns of Spain and Portugal were joined on the head of the king Philipp II.

He became a sovereign reigning on the colonies of both countries. Philipp II was at the top of his power. He was king of Aragon, Castille, Leon, Sardinia, Naples, the two Sicily’s, Navarra, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Majorca, Seville, Cordoba, Corcyra, Murcia, Algarve, Algeciras, Gibraltar, Canaries islands, East and West Indies, islands and lands of the Oceania Sea, Portugal, Alger, Brazil, Azores and Cape Verde islands. He was the master of the counters of Guinea, Angola, Mozambique, India, Aden, Muscat, Ormuz, Java, Moluccas, Philippines and Macao. He was Archduke of Austria, Duke of Milan, Limburg, Brabant, Luxembourg and Guilder, Marquees of Anvers, Count of Hapsburg, Burgundy, Tyrol, Barcelona, Flanders, Artois, Hainaut, Namur, Holland, Zeeland and Zutphen, lord of Biscay, Molina, Tournai, Groningen, Utrecht and Fries.

On his empire, the sun didn’t set.

Never in the history of the whole Humanity had a single man reigned over so many people and countries.


The prohibition of Philipp II was extended to the harbour of Lisbon. The numerous Dutch brokers, designed as heretics, were thrown in jail and tortured. It was precisely in Lisbon that the Dutch came to buy pepper, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, drugs, rare clothes, precious merchandise…

Because the access of the harbour of Lisbon was prohibited to them they decided to go and find for themselves these products in the Far-East.




The Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) attacked and managed to capture the majority of the Portuguese agencies leaving them only Macao, Goa and the island of Mozambique.

Each year, from 1603 to 1799, 10 to 30 vessels belonging to the V.O.C. left Europe, destined for Batavia (now Jakarta in modern Indonesia). Each was carrying in their holds approximately seven tons in gold and silver coins and ingots.


For the return voyage to the west, they were loaded with exotic products which included precious objects of jade, mother of pearl, Chinese gold and the famous blue and white porcelain which was now 'all the rage' on the European market.




Then, between 1750 and 1850, the English ousted the Dutch, leaving them only Indonesia in their control.


4/ England


After launching their first Indies Company at the beginning of the 17th century the English ships came to Canton to buy products and in 1699 they were authorized to establish a counter.

The main part of their cargoes (tea and silks) had to be paid with silver ingots, metal that was more precious than gold at this time.

But, among all the marvellous Eastern products brought to Europe in the creaking hulls of the Indiamen, none created more influence on English fortunes than tea. Known first as a medical drink (they recommended to drink 50 to 200 cups per day!) the tea infusion became from 1568 a fashionable trend in the elegant London society.

They didn’t know at that time exactly how to prepare it. In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth’s widow sent a pound of tea to her parents in Scotland. They boiled it then threw away the liquid served the leaves as vegetables… and wondered why their cousins of the South were so fond of it!



The ships carried also big quantities of Chinese porcelain which the English as the other European nations had become infatuated with.

Made with a white and thin clay unknown in Europe and cooked at about 1 300 degrees Fahrenheit it became hard and translucent and represented a real treasure. In 1712 the European need became so important that Ching-Te-Chen main centre of production located at 800 kilometres of Canton had to keep 3 000 ovens lighted day and night to satisfy the demand.

From the 18th century onwards the ballast of the ships was made of zinc ingots. Moreover they accumulated wooden boxes containing porcelain plates, bowls, cups and saucers, packed in palm-tree leaf confetti. Over them was placed the tea packed up in wooden boxes doubled with zinc and they were stowed with hammer blows to avoid them moving during the journey.

Finally on the top were silks and cottons that kept steady the coffers of mercury, camphor, ginger, candy sugar and precious woods.


5/ China


For more than 1 000 years Chinese junks sailed on the South-East Asian seas following the traditional routes along the coasts from China to Vietnam, Siam, Malaysia, Sumatra, Java and the Moluccas islands. Because of storms, unknown reefs and other dangers a big quantity of these ships sunk along these routes. Compulsory passage for trade these waters were in fact scattered with reefs and shallow banks. This is why the navigation has always been very hazardous mainly because of uncertain maps and changing tropical weather.

The Chinese junk shipwrecks carried huge quantities of porcelains, gold and precious stones.



The ships (instruments & life on board)


Already during the 16th century the sailors made observations during day and night and could determinate the latitude by looking to the sun during the day with an astrolabe or using the stars with a Jacob stick. They could find their way with a compass and know the time during the day with a solar dial or during the night with a nocturlabe.

The compass was of great help for the navigators but was used only to indicate the direction. Making the point with precision was still impossible.

The nocturlabe was used to calculate the night hour when noting the progression of certain stars.

The astrolabe invented in 1501 by the Portuguese Zaçuto was used to measure the angle formed by the horizon and a star. They could calculate the exact latitude but not the longitude which was possible only after the middle of the 18th century due to the chronometer.


Life on board was particularly hard…


The sailors often hired by force fell under a very severe discipline with much castigation.

They were living in dark and fetid between-decks where the air was hardly breathable because of lack of ventilation, excrements and filth smells that created diseases. The captain, the officers, the surgeon and the passengers enjoyed rather comfortable rooms in the back cabins.

The sailors took their meals where they found a seat using wooden bowls and spoons. The officers and the merchants took place around a table with table-cloths, napkins, knives and tin tumblers.

Fresh supplies didn’t keep for long. Quickly they had to content themselves with stagnated water and salted or dried spoilt meat and hard biscuits crawling with insects.


But the greatest danger of navigation was the plunderers and the wreckages…


The French privateers:


 Robert SURCOUF, the ‘king of privateers’



He was born in Saint-Malo on December 12, 1773 from a father Customs Receiver and a mother daughter of a Navy captain.

Robert SURCOUF was the descendant of a king of Leinster in Ireland and his grand-grand-father was co-founder of the French Indies Company. His mother was the grand-niece of René DUGUAY-TROUIN and the grand-grand-niece of Pierre PORCON de la BARBINAIS, the ‘Saint-Malo Regulus’.


Ship’s boy at 13 he left for East Indies at 16.

Captain corsair at 22 he led during several years a very active war against the English East Indies company ships.

Based in Mauritius island (called then ‘Ile de France), Robert SURCOUF captured in a few years 51 ships in Indian Ocean between Sumatra coasts and the Gulf of Bengali.

His two most famous exploits were :

- The catch of the ‘Triton’, English vessel of 1 000 tons, armed with 26 cannons, with 150 crew members, taken by boarding off India, on January 29, 1796 by the ‘Cartier’, small ship of 150 tons, armed with 8 cannons, with 16 crew members.

- The catch of the ‘Kent’, English vessel of 1 200 tons, armed with 38 cannons, with 437 crew members (of which 150 fusiliers) taken by boarding off Bengali, on October 7, 1800, by ‘The Confiance’, ship of 364 tons, armed with 16 cannons, with 130 crew members.