Archive for the ‘Background Byte’ Category

Did you know that there was an shipboard disease that killed more sailors than all battles, storms and other diseases combined between the 16th to the 18th centuries?

This is the question that sets us off on another small, but hopefully interesting diversion to our main story line.

As we move into this age of discovery in the Pacific, there is an enemy lurking. An enemy that needs defeating – an enemy that has been killing on board ships (and on land) for centuries.

That enemy is scurvy.  A disease that has plagued sailors, pirates, passengers and more as explorers and adventurers venture deeper into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

So what is this disease called scurvy?

Scurvy is a disease caused by the lack of vitamin C, an essential nutrient required by humans, but only in very small amounts. The lack of vitamin C leads to the degradation of the connective tissue in the body.

Wikipedia describes its impact quite eloquently; as a disease leading to “malaise and lethargy, followed by formation of spots on the skin, spongy gums, and bleeding from the mucous membranes. Spots are most abundant on the thighs and legs, and a person with the ailment looks pale, feels depressed, and is partially immobilized. As scurvy advances, there can be open, suppurating wounds, loss of teeth, jaundice, fever, neuropathy and death”.

Scurvy, however, is not just a disease of the oceans; it has been with humanity throughout the ages. The first written account of a disease likely to be scurvy comes from the Ebers papyrus from around 1500 BC in Egypt. The Ebers papyrus not only describes scurvy, but amazingly it also prescribes a relevant remedy – that victims be treated with onions, a common source of vitamin C during those times. Much later Hippocrates of Ancient Greece also recorded the existence of scurvy, but no effective cure was mentioned other than the likely demise of the patient.

In 1497, Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer from Byte 8 lost over 100 men to scurvy, providing us with one of the first recorded events of sea scurvy. A soldier on this voyage named Luis de Camoens, wrote a poem The Lusiad about the deaths from scurvy:

A dread disease its rankling horror shed,

And death’s dire ravage through mine army spread.

Never mind eyes such dreary sight beheld,

Ghastly the mouth and gums enormous swell’d;

And instant, putrid like a dead man’s wound,

Poisoned with foetid streams the air round.

No sage physician’s ever-watchful zeal;

No skillful surgeon’s gentle hand to heal,

Were found: each dreamy mournful hour we gave

Some brave companion to a foreign grave.

There is a reason why around this time scurvy becomes more prevalent on ocean going voyages. Voyages were now much more likely to be sailing the vast oceans for many months at a time, often without resupply. This timeline matches with the nature of the onset of the disease. Scurvy’s symptoms make a slow progression, usually appearing after 60-90 days of a vitamin C deficient diet.

Not that there were no attempts at a cure. Perhaps it was because of spongy gums, Vasco Da Gama orderes that sufferers wash out their mouths with their own urine. A most unpalatable, and no doubt ineffective attempt at a solution.

Scurvy increasing comes to plague major ocean going expeditions. Two scurvy outbreaks hit the Magellan expedition of 1519 that was to circumnavigate the world, once in the Pacific and once in the Indian oceans, both occurring far from land.

Moving closer to the time of the voyages of Captain James Cook, the British had one of their first major experiences with ocean going scurvy. An expedition led by Sir George Anson in 1740 to attack Spanish Galleons and ports in South America suffered significant losses from the onset of scurvy. The only upside from this tragedy was that at last it put the subject of scurvy on the agenda of the British Admiralty.

So to the cause and find a cure for scurvy…

One simple explanation for the onset of scurvy is shipboard diet at the time. And it does play a key role in the onset of the disease. But another important cause was the vast logistical challenges facing countries as they tried to support their Navies and their exploration agenda.

If we consider the current reach of just the British Admiralty at the time, it was a major task to provide provisions and establish and maintain adequate resupply points far from England.  This challenge was compounded by a focus on providing supplies at the absolute lowest cost and the endemic corruption that confounded the supply lines.

Over the years 1750-1757, it is estimated that England alone supplied it navy with over 54,000 pounds of bread and biscuit, 4,500,000 pounds of beef, 6,700,000 pounds of pork, 203,000 bushels of peas, 6,200,000 pounds of flour, 809,000 pounds of suet plus much more.

So in considering the causes of scurvy at the time we must include the quality of provisions, the lack of reliable resupply (and unpredictable voyage times), as well as the diet provided.

An example of a typical weeks ration for a sailor was:

1 lb. of biscuit (hardtack) daily

2 lbs. of salted beef twice weekly

1 lb. of salted pork twice weekly

2 oz. of salted fish three times weekly

2 oz. butter three times weekly

4 oz. cheese three times weekly

8 oz. dried peas four times weekly

1 gal. of beer daily

None of the above provided adequate and consistent protection from a deficiency in vitamin C.

It was not until 1746, not long after the losses of Sir George Anso’s voyage, that a surgeon named James Lind on the HMS Salisbry began research into a cure for scurvy. It was on this ship that Lind performed his now famous scurvy experiment. With the blessing of his captain, Lind began an experiment on twelve men with advanced scurvy. His approach was revolutionary for the time, undertaking what we would now call clinical trials; breaking the group up and trialing oranges, lemons elixir of vitriol, vinegar, cider, sea water, and nutmeg.

Based on these trials Lind published in 1753 his Treatise on Scurvy and to this date is considered a classic in medical science. Unfortunately the books impact in the short term was minimal. This was due to a number of things, but principally the small scale of the trial and his lowly rank as a ships surgeon.

It took the Royal Navy over forty years from the publication of Lind’s work to adopt Lind’s recommendations under the Physician of the Fleet, Sir Gilbert Blane, when small quantities of citrus juice were added to the shipboard diet.

So to Captain James Cook and his journey of discovery of 1768…

There is a certain mythology that Cook was involved in someway with a pioneering solution to scurvy, but this is not the case. It is true that his long voyages were remarkably free from scurvy, but this was due to the methods and approaches of Cook to his voyage, as opposed to a “regular dosing” of his crew with fresh fruit.  He banished scurvy more by his meticulous approach to cleanliness as well as the regular replenishment of food (including fresh fruit and vegetables), leading to a healthier more robust crew and a healthier shipboard environment. It is noteworthy that poor shipboard conditions were also referred to by Lind as a cause of scurvy.

So with the enemy “on the ropes”, the stage is set for Captain James Cook and others to safely venture deeper into the Pacific on more audacious, and ultimately more successful missions, both for country, and for once, crew…


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Time to get back on track. Let’s do a bit of a survey of the status of naval exploration  at this time. As mentioned previously, “the times were are a changing”…

I think we can describe the period around the 1760’s as the start of a new era of discovery. Both in its nature and its focus, with both the British and French turning their eyes towards the Pacific.

Why the Pacific? Well, by this time most of the areas of influence had already been pretty well established. South and Central America was largely a Spanish domain. North America belonged to the British and French. But the Pacific was still full of unknowns. It remained wide open, still shrouded in mystery, and what little maritime knowledge was known at the time was held closely by each nation.

As we will see with the future instructions provided by the British Admiralty to Captain James Cook, naval exploration was often elevated to a matter of national importance. The desire for colonial reach and the pursuit of knowledge began to outweigh greed and trade as the primary motives for exploration.

A so-called “Golden Age” of Pacific exploration was approaching.

But as with everything, the discovery of the Pacific was not going to be completely straightforward. The Pacific was a virtual melting pot of competing interests, with the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British all vying for primacy in the region.

To date the British had really only really dabbled in the Pacific since the time of Sir Francis Drake. Initially their missions were focused on competing for trade against its European rivals  (mainly the Spanish) as opposed to the pursuit of exploration for its own sake.  However, things now began to change. In 1764 the ships the Dolphin and Tamar were placed under the command of Commodore John Byron and you see the emergence of covert objectives, such as:

1. Claim the Falkland Islands for Britain

2. Find any other promising islands in the South Atlantic

3. Explore the west coast of North America and claim what lands they could

4. Sail into the North Pacific to discover the North-West Passage.

Clearly knowledge was power!

Ultimately, however, the voyage of Commodore Byron was not overly successful, and a further expedition followed in 1766 led by Captain Samuel Wallis and Lieutenant Philip Carteret. Wallis was instructed to search for Terra Australis Incognita. However neither Wallis nor Carteret succeeded (Wallis did, however, discover Tahiti, and Carteret discovered Pitcairn Island).

What we are starting to see is the agenda of the British Admiralty influencing exploration. Its focus was on increasing maritime knowledge and claiming land for the Crown. And the French were not far behind.  In 1766 the French sent its own expedition into the Pacific, comprising the vessels Boudeuse and Etoile. This voyage was commanded by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and among its members were a number of experts: an astronomer, a botanist, and a cartographer. This mix of skills is a significant change from the buccaneer and privateering types dispatched in prior years.

Bougainville’s voyage was a real success compared to some of the first English expeditions. His voyage discovered a wide variety of new botanical species, conducted a number of astronomical experiments, and made several geographical discoveries. Bougainville also “discovered” Tahiti (less than a year after Wallis).

After leaving Tahiti, Bougainville sailed west, encountering the island of Samoa, then Vanuatu. In fact, he was inching ever closer to the east coast of Australia. Bougainville came within only 150 kilometers or so of the Australian mainland, but found himself blocked by a reef (that was later named after him).  So near! Yet so far!

With his way blocked, Bougainville turned north and returned to France by way of Batavia then the Cape of Good Hope. He dropped anchor in France in 1769 to great fanfare after a true voyage of discovery.

But in the meantime another captain had weighed anchor and set sail. He in an Englishman and his name was Captain James Cook. A man of talent, and a man of destiny….. and he is about to sail into the center of our story….

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Now to Sir Isaac Newton, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, natural philosopher, and theologian….

What, you ask? How can we get Isaac Newton into our story of Australia and its discovery? Well, believe me we can.

Back in England during the 18th century, we can detect that “the times were a changing”, to quote singer songwriter Bob Dylon.

This change is best illustrated by the formation of the “Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge”. A society whose reputation Sir Isaac Newton from 1703 until his death in 1727 did much to enhance as the leading voice in the pursuit of knowledge and discovery within Britain.

The Royal Society evolved from a small group of like-minded individuals who called their gathering the “Invisible College”. This group’s focus was to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation. It evolved into a “Royal” Society in 1660 by Royal Charter and whose future membership would include a number of eminent people such as Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin and Michael Faraday.

During the early 18th century the Royal Society saw the number of Fellows increase from 110 to approximately 300 by 1739 and it is following this time that the society influences the search for the Land Down Under…

In the mid 18th century we are entering a new Age of Discovery, as opposed to a period motivated largely by the outright quest for trade & plunder (principally spearheaded by the Spanish and Dutch).

The Royal Society directly intersects with our story when two topics begin to dominate its discussions. The first is the possible existence of an undiscovered continent in the Earth’s southern hemisphere (New Holland was thought by the British to be too small to be the Great Southern Land) and an impending astronomical event, the crossing of Venus across the face of the sun. Interest in this event had been increasing since a British clergyman Jeremiah Horrocks became the first recorded observer of a transit of Venus in 1639.

Why Venus? Firstly, only Mercury and Venus transit the Sun. Secondly, the transit of Venus, as opposed to Mercury, is relatively easy to observe, but extremely rare. The 1761 transit was viewed with only limited success and the British were keen to make the most of the next transit. At that time the British plans for viewing the transit of 1769 were mediated by the Royal Society, which asked King George III to authorise three more expeditions, including one aboard a Royal Navy vessel to Tahiti in the South Pacific.

The Royal Society wanted Alexander Dalrymple, geographer and a former employee of the English East India Company to lead the expedition. Dalrymple also wanted to take advantage of the proposed expedition to undertake further exploration for this mysterious land, Terra Australis Incognita. This importantly coincided with the desires of the British Admiralty; but unfortunately for Dalrymple and the Royal Society, the Admiralty stipulated that a Navy officer command a Navy ship. So it was out with Dalrymple…and a new candidate was sought…

With the hopes of Dalrymple scuttled, it would open an opportunity for another man to step forward and take the lead in this history changing endeavor. A man whose name would become synonymous with the “discovery of the Great Southern Land”…


The motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in verba –  Latin for “Take nobody’s word for it”.

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As we venture towards the European colonisation (or invasion) of Terra Australis, let’s catch up on the situation of indigenous Australians around this time.

They possessed one of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet. But what makes their culture distinctly unique is their isolation other cultures.

It was 40,000 years plus years ago that the first humans migrated to Australia. This was during a time of glaciation and much lower sea levels, effectively joining Papua New Guinea and Tasmania to Australia.

Some 10,000 years ago the sea began to rise again, adding to the isolation of the Australian continent. This resulted in minimal contact with outside cultures for thousands and thousands of years (except for a few tribes in the north that may have had limited contact with Indonesian tribes). Over this time indigenous Australians developed their own unique culture, shaped by this isolation and the harsh and varied nature of the Australian landscape.

Aboriginal people at this time lived as they had for thousands of years, in close association with the rhythms of the land, mainly as hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal society was generally mobile and influenced by food availability and the seasons. The population at prior to the arrival of Europeans is variously estimated to be somewhere between 300,000 and 700,000.

Aboriginal society was based on largely oral traditions and complex and, as is obvious now, largely beyond the comprehension of the average European of the time. Research indicates that the indigenous Australians had not only had a rich systems of beliefs (a subject of a future Bytes), but also pioneered a number of innovations, among them being the earliest known human cremations, some of the earliest rock art, the first boomerangs, ground axes, and grindstones in the world.

As Europeans ready themselves to step onto this continent, some 500 individual tribes cover the continent like a patchwork quilt. There is no overarching political system. No chiefs or kings. Tribes met for ceremonies, settled disputes and traded with each other, but that was about it.

Beneath these tribes were are a multitude of clans and family groups of varying sizes, from 6 to 40. There was also around 250 languages, along with intricate and shared oral traditions and spiritual beliefs united by the Dreaming, a world view that unites the spiritual, human and natural world.

You could easily think of this continent as being made up of a multitude of individual nations all with dynamic relationships and alliances, but a single world view.

But there was one thing over and above the Dreaming that unites indigenous Australia, and that is a strong and permanent relationship with the land…and unfortunately this is something that the Europeans coveted most of all.

So as the Europeans approach this Great Southern Land we need to prepare ourselves for an impending clash of two very different cultures…cultures formed separately over thousands of years on opposite sides of the world. One rich and spiritual, the other individualistic and legalistic.

And as if to exacerbate this future clash the fires of prejudice were being stoked in Britain and Europe by the writings of the European explorers of the time.

We have to look no further than the writings of William Dampier in his New Voyage Round the World in 1697. His description of indigenous Australians created stereotypes that policy makers took to heart:

So wrote Dampier:

“The inhabitants of this country are the miserablest people in the world. The Hodmadods of Monomatapa, though a nasty people, yet for wealth are gentlemen to these; who have no houses and skin garments, sheep, poultry, and fruits of the earth, ostrich eggs, etc., as the Hodmadods have; and setting aside their human shape, they differ but little from brutes….”

Though to be fair, not all spoke as harshly as this. For example Captain Cook wrote a little more favorably about the Aboriginal inhabitants in 1770:

“… they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them … the Earth and sea of their own accord furnished them with all things necessary for life …”

What we will now see as we move towards the arrival of the first European colonists is a conflict over the very stuff of Terra Australis – a peoples’ identity and the land itself. A clash that will see the indigenous population dwindle from 100% of the population of this Great Southern Land, to some 2.5 % today…

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A little background note to assist us to understand the next character in our story of discovery, namely William Dampier.

Dampier has variously been described as an English buccaneer, ships captain, author and scientific observer. Some have described him as one of the greatest nautical explorers behind the likes of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.

It is the descriptor of buccaneer that is worth clarifying, as there are three terms that are often used interchangeably, that of Pirate, buccaneer and privateer.

Let’s first turn to a privateer

Basically a privateer is someone who is authorised by the government to attack enemy vessels at sea. During the 1600’s and beyond a Letter of Marque and Reprisal was often provided as a government license that authorized a private vessel to attack and capture enemy ships. A privateer could quite legally plunder a ship of another designated country, and even bring the vessel before courts for condemnation and sale.

Sailing the high seas for prizes under the authority of a Letter of Marque was considered an honorable pastime, as opposed to wanton acts of indiscriminate piracy. But be warned, things did not always turn out famously for privateers. For anyone interested in the fate of one famous privateer (not pirate) see the book about Captain William Kidd, The Pirate Hunter by Richard Zacks. This book tells the tale of how William Kidd started out as a legitimate English privateer, but was later hanged for alleged acts of piracy (basically to protect his aristocratic sponsors who authorized him to hunt down pirates and capture their plunder).

A privateer was often used as a tool used to bolster a smaller navy, or to distract opposing forces by requiring them to protect their trade routes from attack. You may also hear of the term Corsair, which is French version of the privateer.

Now comes the term buccaneer.

Today the term is often used interchangeably with that of a pirate, but the term had a different meaning originally. The term buccaneer was applied to privateers who specifically attacked Spanish shipping in the Caribbean Sea during the mid to late 17th century. The term actually comes from the Arawak term buccan, a wooden frame for smoking meat.

So a buccaneer is a specific type of privateer. For example the English viewed buccaneering as a cheap way to wage war on the Spanish. There was an additional benefit of a return on investment as the English crown took a cut of the plunder as payment in exchange for providing a Letter of Marque.

Now to Piracy, which is pretty straight forward.

Piracy is the unauthorised plunder of both shipping and coastal towns. The history of piracy stretches back thousands of years, and the one universal rule was, where there was an ocean and trade, there was piracy.  From the Mediterranean Sea to the seas off China.

The so-called “classic era” of piracy was in and around the Caribbean from the late 1500’s to the 1720’s. One interesting side note is that pirate ships were one of the first democratic institutions of this era. This was in great contrast to the current modus operandi of Western society at the time. In general the captain and quartermaster were elected by the crew. They in turn appointed the ships officers. There was logic in this approach, as it provided checks and balances and ensured that only a successful captain who delivered “results”, (or plunder) remained leading the ship.

For a pirate getting caught during these times often meant meeting a gruesome end. Often it was punishment meted out by “dancing the hempen jig”, or hanging. In England many pirate executions’ took place at Execution Dock on the River Thames. At that time they were very much public executions, drawing great crowds, with some then locked into iron cages where their bodies would rot over several years, visible to all those who sailed by. It was a clear reminder of the fate of those caught and prosecuted for piracy.

So, in our next byte we meet a man who will greatly add to the knowledge of this Great Southern Land. A man who would, amongst other achievements, be the first man to circumnavigate the world three times….

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Let’s turn to a little background on the subject of penal transportation. It is a subject that will soon come to play a major role in our History of Australia journey.  Let’s turn to England in the late 16th and 17th Century…

In 1600 the population of England and Wales is growing along with the port of London and London itself, the latter reaching a population of half a million towards the end of the 1600’s. The English nation, as it moves from Elizabethan times, is also becoming wealthier with the advent of improved trade and the establishment of new industries.

However, beneath this economic success, there are social tensions. England at this time is a land of “haves”, and “have nots”. The “have nots”, or poor account for some fifty percent of the population (for example, the latter were unable to afford to eat meat more than once per week). It was an issue that parliament sought to address in the latter part of the 16th century.

In 1601 the first overseers of the poor is appointed by Parliament as a part of a series of Poor Laws. The 1601 Act creates a national requirement for compulsory local taxes to fund support of the poor. Although support was a little different in those days. Help typically came in two completely different ways – for the infirmed and deserving unemployed, daily support in the form of food, while for the vagrant a good whipping or incarceration in a local correctional institution was provided.

These local correctional institutions were quite new at the time, established only some 25 years prior by the first of the Poor Laws. These so called correctional institutions were established under local Justices of the Peace specifically so that able body vagrants, harlots and the like might be removed from the streets and “corrected in their habits by laborious discipline”. These institutions could be described as the for-runners of today’s prisons, with the exception that they were not run by the state at this time. They were (under) funded via local  taxation, and, as we know today, were often poorly run.

Without digressing too far, the rise of the visible and vagrant poor had a number of causes. Major events like Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monastery’s in the 1530’s (monastery’s did much to support the poor in local communities), the breakdown of the hierarchical feudal system which supported the peasant classes, along with Land Enclosure Laws designed to support such things as sheep grazing all contributed to a rise in the number of poor, and particularly the visible urban poor.

It is also interesting to note that before this time sanctions or punishments for crimes were generally public events; such as a community hanging or a good public flogging.  A correctional facility was generally only for holding people prior to their public sanction, rather than being a punishment in itself (an exception to this were those held for outstanding debts; they had to pay there own board and lodgings). It is around this time that Thomas More writes his book Utopia and first suggests imprisonment as a punishment and alternative to death via execution (and thieves be reduced to the status of a slave).

But back to our journey of discovery which is in the vicinity of 1620.

This is a time when the English Crown and Parliament begin their first experiment with penal transportation.

Countries such as Portugal, Spain, and France had all used criminals and vagrants to help populate their colonies in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the idea was taken up by the writer and explorer Richard Hakluyt in a treatise he laid before Queen Elizabeth I in 1584.  Hakluyt argued that the Crown should support populating vacant parts of North America with the English race.

Up until this time (and going forward for quite a while) there were really only two sentencing options available for capital crimes. A first time offender could receive the “Benefit of the Clergy” and be released back into society, or alternately, death. However, a new statute of 1584 opened up another option of deportation (although not forced labour at that time).

Soon after, over in North America, Virginia found itself struggling in its endeavours to exploit the land and realise its abundant commercial opportunities (we should never underestimate the power of “commercial opportunity” to influence the law at this time). In 1611 there was a request from Governor Dale to King James I for convicts sentenced to die to be shipped to his colony. Able men were needed. Finally on January 23, 1615, the Privy Council issued a warrant that enacted a forced labour option (in the colonies) as a punishment for those found idle or committed mis-demeanours.

So here in 1615 we have the creation of a formal system of transporting convicts to overseas colonies, basically by granting them a reprieve on the condition that  felons remove themselves to one of the colonies. The concept of a reprieve was to get around the common law of the Habeas Corpus Act which made outright sentencing of transportation illegal at that time, but not the act of providing a pardon based on the accused removing themselves from the country.

And as brutal as transportation sounds, it must be said, it was often the chosen alternative over execution, and generally undertaken at the cost of the convict (or the shipowner). On the other hand, as we shall see, often the crime did not match the punishment.

The penal system as it evolved required convicts to work on government projects, or they were provided as unpaid labor to local colonists. In Virginia convicts were sold to private individuals, basically as slaves, or at least to work along side slaves.

The practice of transportation to North America continued until the War of Independence with the number of convicts transported during this time estimated to be up to 50,000 people…

So over the 17th century the English became increasingly well practiced at the art of penal transportation. And it will not be long until they turn their eyes and expertise to a new penal opportunity, deep in the southern oceans…







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British East India Company FlagWith regard to a presence in the Indian Ocean, the British were slow out of the blocks, but actually the first to raise capital and share the risk of trading with the far distant  East Indies

The British East India Company was granted an Royal Charter by Elizabeth I  in December 1600.  This was after one successful trip around the Cape of Good Hope by a British merchant group, and another where all the ships were lost at sea.

In the last years of the sixteenth century, a group of London merchants met and formed a corporation raising capital to purchase ships and finance future voyages to the East Indies. In December 1600 Queen Elizabeth I  awarded the newly formed company a monopoly on all British trade for a period of fifteen years.

However, the entry into the spice trade was not easy. The British were third in line behind the Dutch and the Portuguese who were each well established in the region, having established trading posts and local relationships (if that can be said).  As the British moved in hostilities arose wit  both the Dutch and the Portuguese. This was costly and impacted on profits, and this was probably the reason why the British, in the end, confined themselves to exploiting the trade opportunities with India where the other European powers were less entrenched.

All said, this was to be a strategic move that resulted in the British East India Company becoming one of the worlds most successful companies of all time. They effectively became a defacto government ruling over millions of people across the Indian sub-continent.

With this move by the British towards India, the British will recede from our journey of discovery, but they will come to the fore later, not so much with economic exploitation as their goal, but exploration and glory for king and country.

But glory in these times still meant for counties of the East Indies, at best absorption into a European sphere of influence, at worst, conquest and ruthless exploitation.

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