James Lancaster: Elizabethan Admiral or Pirate?

James Lancaster: Elizabethan Admiral or Pirate?

by Ron Gallivan, Chairman of the Mercian Military History Society
Thursday 29th October 2015

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Pernambuco, Zanzibar, the Spice Islands – names of places in various parts of the world that are redolent of romance and adventure!    And it was to these places that members of the Society were taken during their talk by Ron Gallivan about the life of the sailor and adventurer,  the Elizabethan Admiral, James Lancaster.

In a period when the distinction between honest trade and piracy (or its more respectable relative, privateering) was rather unclear, James Lancaster was a founder member of the East India Company and led its first voyage to the East in search of spices and other rare commodities.

A native of Basingstoke, in 1588 he was in command of the ship the Edward Bonadventure, under Sir Francis Drake in the fight with the Spanish Armada.  He took this same ship on his first voyage to the East in 1591, when he reached Penang, returning to England in 1594.

It was in April 1601, however, and commanding the Red Dragon, that Lancaster set out on the first voyage of the East India Company.  Rounding the Cape of Good Hope, he visited Aceh and other parts of Sumatra, and established the first Company Factory in Bantam in Java.  He also established friendly relations with the leaders of these places.  On his return to England he was rewarded with a knighthood by King James I.

He continued to be an active Director of the Company until his death in 1618.  One fascinating and (to this writer at least) previously unknown fact, was that during the planning of the Company’s second voyage, he insisted on the issue of lemon juice to crews for the prevention of scurvy!  In this he was nearly 200 years ahead of his time.

He also sponsored William Baffin in the search for the North West Passage, and Baffin named Lancaster Sound in Northern Canada  after him.

This was a truly fascinating talk on a topic that was unfamiliar to our members.  Lancaster had an adventurous and prosperous career, and as well as founding the East India Company, helped lay the foundations of British naval power.


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