1636 The China Venture – Snippet 15

1636 The China Venture – Snippet 15

The detour also lengthened what would probably have been a ten day cruise up to fourteen days. But that was good enough; Captain Hamilton had been told that the Powers-that-Be in the SEAC had decided upon a September departure.

Goteborg, Sweden

June 1634

Entering Goteborg harbor, the Groen Feniks exchanged salutes, first with Alvsborg Fortress, and then with the Rode Draak. Captain Hamilton studied the East Indiaman carefully; it seemed to be of conventional construction, and well-maintained. Of course the last was no surprise, given that it was nigh on brand-new.

According to his briefing, the Rode Draak, the “Red Dragon,” was an East Indiaman built at the Amsterdam shipyard. It had just been completed in September 1633 when the news of the Dutch defeat at the Battle of Dunkirk arrived. Even as the Amsterdam chamber of the Dutch East India Company debated what to do, news had come of the fall of Rotterdam and Haarlem. And then the Catholic provinces of the north had rebelled against the House of Orange. The chamber had considered sending the new ship to New Netherlands, or to the East Indies, but with Amsterdam expected to be placed under siege and blockade they couldn’t spare the sailors or soldiers to man it for so long a voyage. As there was no refuge anywhere in the little stretch of coastline still under the Prince of Orange’s control, it had been sent instead with a skeleton crew to Gothenburg, a Swedish port founded in 1621, and with a large Dutch population. Ultimately, Gustav Adolf was persuaded that Sweden should have its own Asian trading company, and the Rode Draak was chartered (at a bargain price) for this endeavor.

Since it was the larger ship, it was certain that Captain Hamilton would be under the orders of Captain Lyell, the Rode Draak‘s skipper. He had never met the man, but they had some friends in common. Lyell was considered to be a man who thought before he acted.

Hamilton was under the impression that Lyell had made at least one voyage previously to Asia, under the VOC flag, but whether as captain or mate, he didn’t know. Hamilton himself had never sailed beyond Bordeaux. For both their sakes, he hoped that the SEAC had lined up an expert on Asian waters to accompany them. As the proverb said, “there’s many a slip between cup and lip.”

****

Goteborg in 1634 was only a little more than a decade old, its predecessor having been burnt by the Danes, and its main industry was fishing not trade. During the Baltic War, it had increased strategic importance because of the closing of the Oresund to the Swedes, and shipbuilding materials and armaments had been transported there by roads and inland waterways from Orebro and Stockholm.

Soon after the Groen Feniks docked at Goteborg, Captain Hamilton learned that plans had changed … again. While Goteborg had been valuable to Sweden because ships could sail from there without encountering the navigational difficulties of the Danish archipelago, or passing the gauntlet of the Danish straits fortifications, it still was inferior to the Netherlands, or even Hamburg, as the jump-off point for an Asia voyage. Ships at Goteborg would have to cross the fickle North Sea, and it could take weeks or even months to reach the English Channel.

As long as Amsterdam was enduring a Spanish siege and Spanish warships lurking off the Dutch coast, Goteborg was an acceptable fallback. But now….

Not only had the Danes surrendered and been bridled into the new Union of Kalmar, the arrival of the timberclad Achates and its escorts in the Zuider Zee had forced Don Fernando to declare an immediate cease-fire. While the siege of Amsterdam had not formally been lifted, the Dutch investors in the SEAC were sure that the combination of political pressure and judicious bribery would ensure that the Groen Feniks and the Rode Draak would be allowed to enter and leave Amsterdam. Especially since the latest radio report said that there were now six timberclads swanning about the Zuider Zee, each armed with a dozen sixty-eight pound carronades loaded with explosive shells. Under the circumstances, Admiral Don Antonio de Oquendo probably didn’t blow his nose without first getting permission from USE Commodore Henderson.

By radio transmission to Goteborg, probably relayed by the new station in Copenhagen, Captain Hamilton of the Groen Feniks and Captain Lyell of the Rode Draak had received orders to sail by the end of June for Harlingen, a town on the Zuider Zee about sixty miles NNW of Amsterdam. The USE Navy had essentially appropriated it as a naval base supporting the squadron in the Zuider Zee, and strictly speaking, it was outside the Spanish siege lines.

‘There,” Captain Lyell told Captain Hamilton, “we are to verify that there has been no further change in circumstances before proceeding further. And at our discretion, we may proceed to Texel, where the SEAC is renting facilities.” Texel was the island north of Amsterdam, and the VOC’s Amsterdam chamber used it as its home port.

“Since we’re leaving as soon as we can, what do you want to do about the silver?” Hamilton asked. “Leave it on the Groen Feniks, take it on board the Rode Draak now, or store it in Alvsborg until you’re ready to depart?”

Captain Lyell stroked his chin. “It will be safer in the fortress, and more importantly, someone else’s responsibility. I think that more than justifies having to make two transfers instead of one.”

The silver was also on the mind of the captains of the Kronan and the Scepter. They insisted on waiting at Goteborg and escorting the SEAC ships to the Netherlands.

And that resolution came despite the substantial armament on board the Rode Draak. It was customary for an East Indiaman to be heavily armed; the East Indiamen carried silver to Asia, and silk, spices and sugar home; these were valuable commodities. Its crew had to be prepared to fend off both pirates and enemy naval units.

The Rode Draak had a closed gun deck with ten gunports on each side, and two gunports facing aft. There were another four gunports on each side of the quarterdeck, for a total of thirty gunports. However, it also carried two bow chasers that just jutted over the bow, on either side of the bowsprit. As originally outfitted by the Dutch, the guns were in a variety of different calibers, firing 24-, 18-, 12-, 9 and 6-pound shot. There were also ten breechloading swivel guns, firing one or half-pound shot, which didn’t count toward the rating of the ship.

While waiting patiently at Goteborg, the Rode Draak‘s armament had been modified. It kept its original two 24-pounder bronze stern chasers and two extra-long 12-pounder bow chasers. On the gun deck, it kept its long twelves but exchanged its 24-, 18- and 9-pounders for 12-pounders from other ships, so as to leave it with ten 12-pounders, of which the pair closest to the compass were of bronze. There were still ten gunports left there, and at these the crew installed eight new 32-pounder carronades, and a pair of experimental “short” 32s. These had barrels that were a little over six feet long, and thus weighed the same as a 9.5 foot “long” 12–about 4000 pounds. Finally, it replaced the 6-pounders on the quarterdeck with eight new 32-pounder carronades. Thus, it had a total of eighteen carronades and fourteen long guns. The Rode Draak carried just solid shot for the 24 and 12-pounders, and both solid shot and shells for the 32-pounder carronades. The total gun weight had decreased, improving the handling of the ship and reducing its draft.

Now she could take on anything she was likely to encounter in Asian waters.

***

 The Groen Feniks and the Rode Draak had a rough but thankfully rapid crossing of the North Sea from Goteborg to Harlingen, and a couple days later proceeded through the Zuider Zee to Texel.

Texel, as the main point of departure for the VOC ships heading to Asia, had a shipyard far superior to that of Goteborg in both size and sophistication. And that shipyard was underutilized, thanks to the Spanish blockade. Under the terms of the ceasefire, food and medicine were allowed into the city, but trade had not been normalized. Captains Lyell and Hamilton were thankful that they were being handled with kid gloves.

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