Preferred Citation: Howse, Derek, editor. Background to Discovery: Pacific Exploration from Dampier to Cook. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

I Seapower and Science: The Motives for Pacific Exploration

Diversions and Deterrents (ca. 1640s-1760s)

Exploration is planned discovery. Discoveries may be made casually or accidentally, but those are not part of our subject. We have thus far traced the manner in which planned exploration of the Pacific came to an end by the 1640s. Our task now is to explain why the lapse persisted for 120 years. Basically there are two avenues of interpretation. One would emphasize diversions—other concerns, other


priorities. The other would emphasize deterrents—most of which related directly to the geographic and political situation in or near the Pacific basin. In some respects the two interacted, of course, but on the whole they remained separate.

Certainly there is a powerful case for stressing exogenous diversions. Key points would include the conservatism which enveloped Spanish and Dutch policy, concentration of English and French resources on colonial development in North America and the West Indies, and the task of improving trading opportunities in India. Perhaps the most important diversion of all was the peculiarly unsettled condition of seventeenth-century European politics, marked by an intensive yet highly unstable process of state building in the two emerging maritime powers, England and France; for this reason those countries were strongly inclined toward short-term goals. Furthermore, throughout the first half of the eighteenth century all European governments tended to concentrate on the immediate requirements of European rivalry and the balance of power.

Turning to the factors indigenous to the Pacific basin that tended to deter exploration, the most obvious was geographic—the Pacific Ocean's size, distance, and difficulty of access from Europe. Nevertheless, the monopolistic claims of the Spanish Empire and the Dutch East India Company did in fact play a powerful role in discouraging exploratory activity after the 1640s.

At first glance a historian would be tempted to deny this. Everyone knows that Spain's bold claim to the whole of North America was freely ignored by the English, Dutch, and French with impunity. Although seventeenth-century Spain made an effort to police its vital core of American waters in the Caribbean and near the isthmus, [23] practically nothing was done to guard the periphery. Similarly, the Dutch East India Company did not attempt to police any regions east of the Spice Islands. Thus, though trespassers were warned, the ocean between the Moluccas and the South American coast appears to have been wide open.


But in reality it was not. By themselves the inflated monopolistic claims were undeniably frail. But when taken in combination with circumstances of geography, the limited range of commercial opportunity, and the vicissitudes of European diplomacy, the claims wound up having a powerful influence on the history of exploration.

We begin by examining the ways in which the combination of these circumstances and the monopolistic claims tended to deter serious exploration. Then we will take up the influence of Atlantic and European diversions.

The size of the Pacific and its distance from Europe were of course unchanging factors, but however great the toll on ships and crews, these obstacles obviously did not deter exploratory efforts prior to the 1640s. There was, however, a third geographical factor: Ships could reach the Pacific only by the two southerly approaches, both of which—unless the voyage was very fortunate—entailed the hazards of human and material exhaustion. The fact that within a century of Magellan's voyage the two routes of access had come to be dominated strategically by the Spanish Empire and the Dutch East India Company constituted a considerable hindrance to other nations. These two powers might contrive to interdict the approaches, of course, but mainly they rendered the nearby shores hostile and hence substantially increased the risks of passage.

Let us first consider the South Atlantic approach. The discovery of the route around Cape Horn by Jacob Le Maire made it theoretically far more difficult for the Spanish to interdict this approach. But because the Spanish could scarcely afford the resources to guard either the straits or the cape route on a regular basis during the seventeenth century, Le Maire's discovery did not in reality make much difference. [24] The key problem was wear and tear on ships and crews. Both routes were arduous; voyages completing the passage often needed repairs and refreshment. The austere, rockbound coast of the far south, though unoccupied, was hardly suitable. Because of the pattern of wind belts it was prudent (necessary really) to


head north for quite a distance before striking out westward. Along this path there existed one useful point of relief, 600 miles off the coast and not occupied by the Spaniards: the island of Juan Fernández (Robinson Crusoe's island), where ships could find fresh water, fruits, and greens. It became a well-known refuge for early eighteenth-century English adventurers. [25] But because no accurate method of ascertaining longitude at sea existed before the 1760s, there was considerable risk of not finding the island. For instance, in 1741 Commodore George Anson, upon reaching the island's known latitude, mistakenly estimated that he was west rather than east of it and therefore began his search by sailing away from it; the consequent delay cruelly amplified the deaths from scurvy. As a result of Anson's use of the island, the Spanish undertook at long last to occupy and fortify it. [26] Since in 1741 Britain and Spain were at war, Anson's voyage was an expedition of war. In peacetime a foreign vessel in dire distress might venture to call at a South American port, but it was taking a chance, for the Spaniards assumed—almost always correctly—that foreign vessels in those waters were up to no good.

The importance of this inhibition to Pacific voyaging is further illustrated by the repeated efforts, made especially by the English, to find a Northwest Passage; these efforts were motivated by a desire to find not only a shorter route to the Far East but also a route which was well clear of Spanish power. As well, the flurry of excitement over the Falkland (or Malvinas) Islands in 1770, a feature of the second age of Pacific exploration, was founded on a British urge to possess a base for refreshing crews en route to and from the Pacific via Cape Horn.

On the other side of the Pacific there were, after Tasman's discovery of the passage south of Australia, two known approaches. The southernmost route was favorable only for eastbound voyages because of the prevailing winds. Access north of Australia passed through the Dutch preserve. Again, it was the need for a safe place to recu-


perate that mattered most. Two illustrations of the difficulties encountered by explorers because of the Dutch East India Company's attitude toward trespassing will suffice.

When William Dampier made his second voyage to the western Pacific, a planned voyage of exploration sponsored by the English government, he found his ship to be much in need of water and sought assistance at Dutch Timor. He sent his clerk ashore to tell the governor the nature of his voyage, and

that we were English Men: and in the King's ship. . . . But the Governour replied, that he had Orders not to supply any Ships but their own East-India Company ; neither must they allow any Europeans to come the Way that we came; and wondred how we durst come near their Fort. My clerk answered him, that had we been Enemies, we must have come ashore among them for Water: But, said the Governour, you are come to inspect into our Trade and Strength; and I will have you therefore be gone with all Speed. My Clerk answered him, that I had no such Design.

Agreeing to keep a distance from the fort, Dampier got the water. [27] This occurred in 1699, in the reign of William III. It was probably not a coincidence that Dampier's voyage of exploration to regions near the Dutch East Indies was authorized at a time when the English and Dutch heads of state were, to say the least, on good terms, being the same person. Even so, the Dutch reception of Dampier at Timor exuded hostility and suspicion.

The voyage of Jacob Roggeveen, who set sail from the Texel in August 1721 with two ships, provides our second illustration. It was also a genuine voyage of exploration, undertaken by arrangement with the Dutch West India Company. Roggeveen's aim was to try to find terra australis incognita , the great continent rumored to exist in the south central Pacific. He had some goods with him for trading with the new customers. After an extensive voyage, with provisions running low, he was forced to find relief at Batavia. Roggeveen had been worried about this eventuality and had written ahead requesting permission to put in there for supplies. To no avail. When he reached


Batavia ships, crews, and cargoes were detained. He had to return home in an East India Company vessel. [28]

To sum up the account at this point, we have seen that neither the Spanish Empire nor the Dutch East India Company was willing after the 1640s to undertake serious exploration. Although they were incapable of closing the Pacific to foreign intrusion, they were able to make repeated intrusions hazardous and thus to call into question the future usefulness of exploratory findings. Outsiders had to calculate that substantial and expensive force would eventually be required. The deterring consideration was not so much the hazard of the single exploratory voyage as the degree of commitment faced by sponsoring governments, syndicates, or companies if they wished to assure themselves of future returns. It is small wonder that most ventures in this period pursued quick profits rather than long-term goals. But of course serious, planned exploration generally presumes long-term goals; it is ordinarily a kind of preliminary research in which the benefit, if any, is to come from subsequent and repeated journeys.

There is no doubt that in some spheres quick profits could indeed be got, and this brings us to the question of commercial opportunities. At the outset, a negative point should be noted. Because the Pacific Ocean was distant and relatively inaccessible from Europe, its islands were not economically suitable for "plantation" products except for those which would not flourish in Atlantic regions. Similarly, its fisheries were too far away for the catch to be sold competitively in European markets (during the eighteenth century). These constraints ruled out two inducements that had played major roles in opening up the Atlantic and Caribbean.

The commercial opportunities that did exist in the Pacific during this 120-year period may be divided into five categories. First, the real and attainable but not glitteringly attractive: furs, skins, walrus ivory, whale oil, and minerals. Second, the real and attractive but probably unattainable: chiefly trade with Japan, which the Japanese kept


closed off except for a tiny window open to the Dutch; trade with the Spice Islands, tightly monopolized by the Dutch; direct trade to South America, about which more will be said in a moment; and a transpacific carrying trade between China and South America, which only the Spanish were in an immediate position to conduct through their entrepôt at Manila. Third, the real and probably attainable but essentially irrelevant to discovery of the unknown parts of the Pacific: chiefly trading between China and India. The fourth category does not perhaps deserve to be classed as commercial opportunity: the real though unknown and problematic. For instance, an exploratory voyage, if conducted assiduously, could hope to discover "rare commodities"—pharmacopoeial, culinary, or otherwise. If the plants that produced them could be made to grow on islands or shores nearer Europe, the eventual returns could be sizable. The search for valuable and exotic commodities was a commonly stated object of later eighteenth-century European exploration in the Pacific, even before Sir Joseph Banks applied his enthusiasm, wealth, and influence to the quest. [29] But clearly this sort of goal—not at all foolish—tends much more toward basic research than commercial viability. The fifth and last category of opportunities is impossible to ignore though it may appear strange on the list: the unknown and unreal. It cannot be ignored because it played a role in the resumption of European exploratory activity after 1760. Our concern here, however, is with the first three categories—the known and calculable opportunities.

It was the first category that led the Russians into the North Pacific in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century these commodities (especially those derived from sea mammals) became an important foundation of Western European and American commerce in the Pacific, but their value-to-bulk ratio was not generally high and therefore the profit margins did not seem attractive in the early eighteenth century—except to the Russians. But the Russian situation was unique. In the seventeenth century the


Russian Empire had extended itself across all of Siberia and was probing Kamchatka. The drive had been fueled mainly by profits from furs and to a lesser extent by iasak , a tax payable in furs levied upon subjugated aborigines. The furs were chiefly sold by Russian entrepreneurs to China, and the tsar's treasury took 10 percent of the gross. By the early eighteenth century Siberian sources were showing signs of becoming depleted, but entrepreneurs, taking to the sea, were finding plentiful supplies in the Aleutian Islands. Thus Russian expansion into the "Eastern Ocean" was economically self-sustaining, indeed highly practical. The product could be conveniently sold in Asia, and a handsome income flowed to the tsar's treasury, which grew ever more needful of it as Peter the Great and his successors pursued militarily expensive ambitions in Europe. In fact, there is a strong case, contrary to the traditional view, for thinking that the primary purpose of the government's sponsorship of Bering's voyages, even his first voyage, was not to settle a geographical question but to lay a foundation for eastward expansion of the Russian Empire. [30] Obviously, in this period such commercial attractions could apply only to Russia.

Western Europeans when they eyed the Pacific were left to contemplate, among the known commercial opportunities, only the very faint hope that either Japan or the Dutch Spice Islands would be opened to them and the extreme unlikelihood of being able to mount a successful transpacific carrying trade. In the latter regard the most likely Asian country was China; it became gradually more accessible to the British in the eighteenth century. But the British East India Company stood in the way. China lay within its monopoly sphere, and in the later eighteenth century the growing trade between China and India was seen as essential to the company's financial viability. With the whole imperial position in India at stake, there was no chance that parliament or cabinet would allow a transpacific side-show unless the company wanted to undertake it, however much free-traders might rail against the allegedly con-


straining effects of the company's monopoly. The overall effect on British policy was to attach China to concerns in India rather than to new possibilities in the Pacific. [31] The French government, on the other hand, was from time to time prepared to close its eyes to the monopoly claims of its India company if there was money in it for a hard-pressed treasury to tax or borrow. [32] In the first two decades of the eighteenth century French trading vessels made more than a half-dozen voyages carrying Chinese goods to South America. These voyages fitted the description of a carrying trade, but they were in reality only a small adjunct to a much larger commercial enterprise of the time whose focus was South America—by far the most enticing of the opportunities on our list. To the South American opportunities we now turn.

In 1669, amid a burst of enthusiasm at court for distant commerce, two English naval vessels under the command of Captain John Narborough were dispatched to the nether part of South America "to make a Discovery both of the Seas and Coasts of that part of the World, and if possible to lay the foundation of a Trade there." The plan entailed charting, recording navigational data, and inventorying flora, fauna, and minerals. Perhaps most important of all, Narborough, while taking care to avoid contact with the Spaniards, was to "mark the temper and inclinations of the Indian Inhabitants" in hopes of making friends and preparing the way for trade. [33] The idea was far from new. Though such schemes repeatedly failed, the Protestant powers could not bring themselves to give up the hope that friendly natives, annoyed with Spanish rule, might provide access to the wealth of Peru. (Hendrick Brouwer had led a similar venture in the 1640s on behalf of the Dutch West India Company; he used force, and it ended in disaster.) [34] The English probe of 1669 ended in disappointment and minor losses. The mission and its results illustrated two key points: the tremendous allure of Peruvian treasure (chiefly the silver from Potosí) and the futility of English attempts to find a peaceful method of trading for it.


Narborough's voyage is properly classed as one of exploration. It was designed to gain geographical knowledge and to smooth the way for future developments, and he did succeed in obtaining data for some high-quality charts. As it happened, the English wound up devoting their navigational research to predatory rather than commercial purposes. There was further navigational "research" of a more casual sort: Bartholomew Sharp, during a piratical expedition upon the Pacific in 1680, managed to take from a Spanish ship her secret book of charts and sailing directions and bring it back to England. He reported: "The Spaniards cryed when I gott the book (farewell South sea now)." [35] One may well doubt that this cry was really voiced, but the point is easy enough to grasp: the era in which the Spanish could rely on the assistance of navigational ignorance to protect the west coast of America from foreigners had come to an end. [36] William Dampier's career illustrates the importance of buccaneering to the English. He began his nautical career in the South Seas as a buccaneer—in the same expedition as Bartholomew Sharp—and ended it in a similar manner with two privateering voyages during the latter part of the 1702-1713 war. Another English privateer of the period, Edward Cooke, wrote in the dedication of his published account: "I present a Voyage round the World, principally intended to reap the Advantages of the South-Sea Trade, whereof your Lordship is the Patron, and which prov'd successful in the plundering the Town of Guayaquil, on the Coast of Peru, and the taking of a rich Ship bound from Manila to Acapulco." [37] Cooke's manner of using the word "trade" is interesting. It neatly sums up the overall character of English enterprise on the west coast of South America at this time.

On the whole, the various English efforts to tap the wealth of that coast must be counted a failure—though punctuated here and there by some dazzling successes. Buccaneering in the reign of Charles II did not yield much success. The Darien scheme (1697-1700), aimed at siphoning Peruvian wealth at the isthmus, was wiped out by Spanish arms. The War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713),


which many enthusiasts hoped and believed would have the effect of securing direct English access to the west coast, yielded instead the Asiento privilege, whose stipulations explicitly forbade such trade. (In the treaty negotiations Spain obdurately refused the English request for a port of call on the coastline.) Even Anson's voyage during the war of 1739-1748 became a material success only by the lucky stroke of his running into a well-laden galleon near the Philippines. There had been so much noisy English enthusiasm, over so long a period of time, yet so little to show for it. [38]

Until about 1700 the French had no better access to the region than the English. After that the story was quite different. In 1698 a reconnaissance voyage by Beauchesne wound up paving the way for a new era. For by the time he returned home in 1701 France and Spain were united by a strong dynastic tie—the dying king of Spain had bequeathed the throne to Louis XIV's grandson—and a war to defend that inheritance was fast brewing. The Spanish navy at this point was moribund, so the task of defending the silver lifeline and the trading monopoly in wartime had to be given over—though Madrid did so with the greatest reluctance and misgiving—to the French. Because the approved imperial channels of trade to Peru had been cut off for almost a decade, the west coast was sitting on a great pile of silver and starved for European goods. At the end of the war of 1689-1697 the Compagnie de la Chine and the Compagnie de la Mer Pacifique (or Mer du Sud) had been allowed to form in order to provide employment for privateering crews and ships, especially those of Saint-Malo, upon which the monarchy had come to rely heavily for carrying on maritime warfare. [39] When war recommenced in 1702 the moment had come for direct French trade to the west coast. Wartime circumstances, extraordinary influence at the court of Madrid, and subterfuge at Versailles, as steady as it was shameless, produced a bonanza for the adventurers of Saint-Malo, La Rochelle, and other ports. Between 1695 and 1726 the figures show 168


French vessels venturing to the South Seas, of which 117 returned (26 were sold in America, 12 wrecked, 13 captured). More than half a dozen are known to have crossed the Pacific. [40] The Spanish were given to understand that it was all occurring without French governmental approval. After granting permission to some merchants of Saint-Malo to trade in the South Seas in August 1705, the king's minister, Chamillart, wrote to the minister of marine: "Since the king does not wish to give any public title or personal authorization to their enterprise, it is necessary for the passports to state some other purpose, such as going to our American islands, or going on exploration, or some other pretext." To the French ambassador at Madrid, who was raising questions, he wrote: "You may assure the Spaniards that the king has not given and will not give any permission to his subjects to go and trade in the American territories ruled by the king of Spain. All that have been issued are some permits given in the normal way for the French islands in America and for going on explorations." [41] The returns were enormous, and largely in the form of bullion.

On the one hand, this surge of lucrative trade actually tended, at least in an immediate sense, to deflect interest away from exploration of the unknown parts of the ocean. The many French voyages tracked along known coasts and routes, and although the government took steps to gather accurate navigational knowledge of the South American littoral, the character of the voyages was almost wholly commercial. On the other hand, these voyages demonstrated to the European nations the feasibility of regular sailings around Cape Horn (at least when the nearby shores were not guarded in a hostile manner).

Thus by about 1710 the Pacific Ocean seemed open. Ordinary merchantmen were sailing there, and the breach of the Spanish monopoly seemed irreparable. Yet, as it happened, there was only one serious exploratory effort in the epoch that followed—by Roggeveen, the Hollander, in 1722. Neither Britain nor France essayed a serious voyage


of Pacific exploration for the next forty years. And by the mid-1720s trade to the west coast was again closed to outsiders.

Both Britain and France deliberately allowed the Spanish monopoly to be restored. To explain why they did this is also to explain why the British and French governments did not encourage peacetime expeditions of any kind to the Pacific during the next forty years. The explanation is to be found partly in the Atlantic but mostly in Europe. Hence the last 40 years of the 120-year period of fallow are to be explained primarily by the influence of exogenous diversions.

Notwithstanding the attractiveness of Peruvian wealth, Britain and France had higher priorities. The final outcome of the treaty negotiations of 1713 made this clear: Both nations agreed to forgo direct trade with the west coast. In each case the policy was prompted by caution and therefore acceptance of the status quo ante, and during the next two decades this disposition suited well the inclinations of the leading ministers of state, Sir Robert Walpole and Cardinal Fleury. The calculations were nicely balanced. Britain feared that French influence at the court of Madrid, enhanced by the Bourbon connection, might secure to French merchants a continuing privilege of direct trade. The French feared that if their own direct trade to the west coast persisted, the burgeoning power of the British navy would be brought to bear in support of British contraband traders on that coast. It was for this reason that the French court decided it could no longer wink at the direct trading. [42] The two newly risen giants of maritime enterprise, warily eying one another, thus kept their distance from the Pacific except when Britain was formally at war with Spain.

France's general inclination to cultivate Spanish allegiance is a commonplace of eighteenth-century diplomacy. It is Britain's posture that requires explanation. Although Britain went to war with Spain three times between 1714 and 1750, British interests on the whole were well served


by the policy of trying to maintain peaceful relations with Spain. Of course, the proponents of aggressive maritime expansion did not agree; the popular cause—popular in London anyhow—mustered enough political support to bring on a major war with Spain in 1739. (On the other two occasions armed conflict arose more from Spanish than from British impetus.) Popular clamorings for war, however, were offset by British statesmen's concern not to put the export trade with southern Europe to hazard. During the fifty years after 1714 this trade was very important. [43] Within its orbit the Iberian peninsula played a major role both as a market itself and as a conduit for goods reexported to South America via Cádiz and Lisbon. Moreover, both Spain and Portugal bought large quantities of the most politically sensitive English export product: wool cloth. (Portugal was practically the only market in the world where English cloth exports expanded during the eighteenth century.) Finally, the trade balance with Iberia was strongly favorable to England, and the difference was made good in precious metals and coin. In fact, a prime reason for the expansion of Anglo-Portuguese trade in the decades prior to 1760 was the discovery of gold in Brazil in the 1690s. [44]

Over many centuries England had little difficulty in maintaining close ties with Portugal, both for strategic and for commercial reasons. Relations between England and Spain, on the other hand, were continually plagued by basic problems. Aside from the popular English enthusiasm for aggression in Spanish America, there were the potentially hostile Bourbon connection, the English wish to retain Gibraltar and Minorca (for strategic positioning against French seapower), incidents arising from contraband trading in the Caribbean, and other frictions. In view of these issues and the actual eruptions of war, it is all too easy to forget that during the half-century that followed 1714 British diplomacy generally tried to steer its way through the difficulties. It did this out of concern not only for the balance of power in Europe but also the substantial


commercial advantages of the trade with Old Spain. In 1750 a commercial treaty, highly beneficial to English trade with Old Spain, was concluded under auspicious circumstances, and Anglo-Spanish relations remained friendly until Ferdinand VI died in 1759.

Summing up the situation down to 1759, we may say that both Britain and France avoided the Pacific in time of peace in order to avoid offending Spanish sensibilities. In 1749, for example, the British cabinet canceled a projected voyage to the Falkland Islands and South Seas because Madrid learned of it and objected—this occurring at a moment when promising negotiations were under way concerning the commercial treaty signed in 1750. [45] But after 1759 British policy toward Spain underwent a significant change.

The seeds of change lay in the new Spanish monarch's mistrust of the British. By 1761 William Pitt, who had formerly valued Spanish neutrality (and the lucrative trading that went with it), believed that Spain was preparing for war and urged his cabinet colleagues to commence hostilities immediately. They refused and he resigned. But Pitt had read the drift of Spanish policy correctly: French counsels were prevailing at the court of Charles III and the following year Britain found itself at war with Spain anyway. For Spain had made a decision unequivocally, willfully—and disastrously as it turned out—to join France in the Seven Years' War.

This decision transformed the extended outlook for Anglo-Spanish relations, because it happened at a time when English politicians of an older generation—Walpoles and Pelhams—who had nursed relations with Old Spain as best they could for half a century were retiring from the political stage. The new men fretted far less about European ties than had their predecessors. Moreover, the trend of trade statistics in the 1760s showed that the relative importance of Iberian trade was declining rapidly. [46] Spanish goodwill seemed scarcely worth an effort. When peace re-


turned to Europe in 1763, an altered British attitude toward Spain soon became obvious. Hence the somewhat nebulous opportunities and concerns of the Pacific no longer had to be weighed against a concrete and compelling European case for not giving offense to Spain.

I Seapower and Science: The Motives for Pacific Exploration

Preferred Citation: Howse, Derek, editor. Background to Discovery: Pacific Exploration from Dampier to Cook. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.