The Dawn of Empire

James Lancaster

James Lancaster was born at Basingstoke and brought up among the Portuguese, as a gentleman, soldier, and merchant. He returned to England before February 1587 and in 1588 commanded the Edward Bonaventure, a merchant ship of 250 tons, serving in the fleet against the Armada. He commanded the same ship in the first English voyage to the East Indies with George Raymond as general in the Penelope and Samuel Foxcroft in the Merchant Royal. They left Plymouth on 10 April 1591, were becalmed for nearly a month in the doldrums, and reached Table Bay on 1 August, the first English ships to use the roadstead. Losses from scurvy had been such that the Merchant Royal was sent home to allow adequate manning of the other ships. A few days after rounding the Cape the Penelope was lost with all hands in a storm. In another storm four men were killed and many injured by lightning. In an affray at the Comoros they lost the master, some thirty men, and their boat. After refitting at Zanzibar they made a difficult voyage to Penang, losing many men from sickness. They put to sea again on 1 September, plundered three ships, and called at Junkceylon and the Nicobars. Forced by a mutinous crew to head for home, they were becalmed for some six weeks in the doldrums, ran short of victuals, and made for the West Indies. Lancaster and others landed on Mona Island but one of those left on board cut the cable; the ship drove to Hispaniola and was surrendered to the Spaniards. Lancaster and his companions were taken off by a French ship and landed at Dieppe, whence they reached Rye on 24 May 1594. The voyage had been financially disastrous but had revealed the vulnerability of the Portuguese monopoly in the East.

The object of Lancaster's second voyage was to plunder Pernambuco. He left with three ships in October 1594, took prizes, and was joined at the Cape Verde Islands by John Venner in return for a quarter of the booty. The town was easily taken, and they captured the contents of an East India carrack that had been unloaded for trans-shipment. Three Dutch and four French ships were chartered to transport the plunder. A party landed to attack a redoubt built to command the harbour entrance. They succeeded but, against the orders of Lancaster, who was ill, they pursued the Portuguese, were repulsed, and lost thirty-five men. They left for England the same evening with fifteen ships, all laden. They reached home safely, though not together; the booty made Lancaster a rich man. In 1598 he was made a commissioner for managing the earl of Cumberland's voyage, but seems not to have taken part in it. In 1601 he was receiving a pension of 50 pound per annum but it is not known why and he surrendered it in 1610.

In 1600 Lancaster became a director of the newly founded East India Company. He was in command of the four ships of its first expedition, the Hector, Susan, Ascension, and the Red Dragon, of at least 400 tons, in which he himself sailed. They left Woolwich on 13 February 1601 but were delayed by contrary winds and did not leave Torbay until 20 April. Becalmed in the doldrums they did not reach Table Bay until 9 September; by then they had lost 105 men from scurvy, the flagship having lost fewer than the others because Lancaster had provided his crew with lemon juice. They called at St Mary's Island and spent from Christmas until 6 March at Antongil Bay. After spending nearly three weeks in the Nicobars they sailed to Achin, where the sultan readily permitted them to trade without paying custom dues. Lancaster sent the Susan to Priaman to buy a full lading of pepper, and joined the Dutch in plundering a richly laden Portuguese vessel. The Ascension and Susan were sent home while the Hector and Red Dragon went to Bantam. Terms for trade there were agreed and a factory established, while a pinnace bought from the Dutch was sent to the Moluccas to obtain cloves and nutmegs. Lancaster was given a letter and present for Queen Elizabeth and left Bantam on 20 February 1602. When near the Cape the Red Dragon was so badly damaged in a storm that the crew wanted to abandon her, which Lancaster refused to do. He ordered the Hector to leave him and make for home, but his order was disobeyed. Both ships anchored in the Downs on 11 September. Lancaster was received by the king and knighted for his achievements in the following year.

Lancaster lived in London in Bevis Marks, served as a director of the East India Company more than once, and was consulted by members. His interest in the north-west passage is attested by the name Baffin gave to Lancaster Sound when he discovered it in 1616. Lancaster died in London on 6 June 1618 and was buried on the 9th in All Hallows parish church, London Wall. His will does not mention a wife or children, but does mention a surviving brother Peter and another, deceased, John, and a brother-in-law Hopgood. The bulk of his property he bequeathed to various charities, especially in connection with the Skinners' Company, of which he became a freeman in 1579, and to Mistress Thomasyne Owfeild for distribution to the poor.

This Picture is courtesy of National Maritime Museum

Dawn of Empire Article

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV and Film

by Stephen