400 years ago: an account of two Danish expeditions | Print edition
By Ismeth Raheem
About 400 years ago, a decisive encounter took place at the court of Christian IV (1577-1648) in Copenhagen, Denmark, which had a profound impact on trade and commerce in the East.
The Danish East India Company founded in 1616 was largely funded by Christian IV, a notable Danish monarch. King Christian spent large sums of money to build, equip and maintain ships to serve the Danish East India Company to compete with the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French.
He embarked on a scheme – a daring, expensive and fanciful mission to out-compete his European counterparts – two competing fleets pitted against each other to make the journey to China. The first, led by Jens Munk, was tasked with charting a shorter, faster, but more arduous route from Northern Europe through the Northwest Passage through North America and Canada to China.
The second most accepted route was 10,500 miles via the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands along the African coast, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, to the Coromandel Coast, across the Indian Ocean to in China. On November 18, 1618, a fleet of five ships left the port of Copenhagen under the command of the young Over Gjedde (1577-1648). two warships Elephant and David were to ensure the safety of the fleet against attacks by pirates and enemy warships. The other three were freighters Copenhagen, Christian and Ostend. The voyage took four years and the expedition, since its inception, has been plagued by mutinies, shipwrecks, pirate attacks, courts-martial and executions and scurvy – a disease caused by lack of vitamin C.
Christian IV had entrusted the young nobleman with the difficult task of forging a commercial pact with Senarat, king of Kandy. experience of business dealings at the highest level with Sri Lankan and Indian potentates in their courts.
Marselis de Boshouwer bolstered the Danish king’s enthusiasm by convincing him that the fledgling Danish East India Company had a good chance of making large profits in the spice trade. Introducing himself as the Prince of Migomme, Personal Advisor to the King of Kandy, Knight of the Order of the Sun, Boshouwer was offered a managerial position in the company.
As commander of the fleet, Gjedde was responsible for making all major decisions regarding the spice trade in Sri Lanka.
By the time the fleet had sailed into the Cape of Good Hope, 200 men had died of scurvy. These and other incidents troubled the inexperienced Gjedde. But on May 16, 1619, he had reason to rejoice, as evidenced by his logbook;
“This morning we saw with great joy the promised land of Ceylon.”
On landing however, he was distraught to learn that Marselis of Boshouwer had died eight months earlier and that his corpse had been embalmed and preserved for display to the envoy of the King of Kandy.
Papers presented by de Boshouwer to King Christian IV in 1615 were rejected as forged. King Kandyan Senarat also rejected the demands for the documents, but to his relief offered Gjedde access to the spice trade.
Meanwhile, one of the fleet’s ships was reportedly shipwrecked near Karaikaal in southern India. Only 14 of the 200 crew including Roland Crappe had survived and they were taken prisoner at Raghunath Nayak court in Tanjore. Gjedde was then informed by Crappe who had been freed by his captors to meet Raghunath to set up a trade in spices and particularly pepper for which this district was famous.
Having left Trincomalee on September 15, Gjedde was on board the Elephant anchored offshore near Tranquebar (Tarangambadipatanam). Raghunath and Gjedde finally signed the first Indo-Danish treaty in October 1620, which allowed the Danes to set up a fortress at Tranquebar. Seizing the opportunity, Gjedde soon prepared to build a factory, warehouses and a fortress (Fort Dansborg).
While visiting Tranquebar in 1986, I noticed that all that was left of the fortification and ramparts facing the Indian Ocean was rubble falling into the sea. But the 18th century Lutheran church still had the majestic look.
For Jens Munk’s crew of Lamprey and the Unicorn, the Northwest Passage proved to be well beyond its capabilities. For four centuries, frail wooden and then steel boats tried to make their way through this dangerous road. Almost every year since 1497, when John Cabot (during the reign of Henry VII) left England, they never made it. It was not until June 1903 that Norwegian explorer and master seaman Captain Roald Amundsen, sailing from Christiana, Norway, propelled his ship from the Atlantic across the open seas to the Pacific – the shortest route to China.
In September 1619, three months after their departure from Copenhagen, the climate and weather were all stacked against the crew, with the sudden storms that frequent these seas proving to be daunting. They reached Hudson’s Bay but were in grave danger. Trapped by huge glaciers and large slabs of fast-moving ice caps and freezing cold; one by one, scurvy – the dreaded seafaring disease took its toll.
In June, only three of them were locked in the captain’s cabin, and Munk had a feeling he would soon die. The following extract is taken from his diary of June 4, 1620.
“Since I have no more hope of living, I can only pray to God that we will be found by some good Christians and for the love of God they will have my poor corpse buried with the others…
I hereby say goodbye to the world and commit my soul into the hands of God.
Controversially, he is believed to have survived and returned to Denmark.
Three centuries later, on August 9, 1964, the Jens Munk Memorial Expedition from Denmark managed to locate the very spot where the Unicorn sank. Several artifacts belonging to the ship were recovered, including the journal in which Munk had made his journal entries. The ice and snow that killed the crew of the Lamprey and the Unicorn had somehow preserved the traces of this tragic expedition.
The original plan for a shorter route to China never materialized. Christian IV’s plan to deploy Sri Lanka as a stopover destination was also never realized to its full potential.
Gjedde’s major contribution for which he will be remembered was the establishment of a fortified township known as Fort Dansborg at Tranquebar.
The big race was over and Over Gjedde had won.
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