A Letter from Olivier Van Noort, Circumnavigator: Pertaining to the First Dutch Voyage around the World, 1598-1601

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The Setting

HE . . . has made with four ships for three years a great and very perilous voyage, and passing through the Strait of Magellan, has sailed around the world . . . And it is likely that no one on a similar voyage has experienced more dangers, miseries and loss of ships, of property and life than he . . ." Thus Olivier Van Noort describes his own great adventure after his return in 1601.

The last third of the sixteenth century was for the Low Countries a period of desperate struggle against Spanish rule. In the South the Spaniards squelched the rebellion, but the northern provinces fought on, founded a new union in 1579, and renounced their allegiance to King Philip in 1581. Until this war the Dutch, like the English, had gone to Spain and Portugal to fetch the spices and other exotic goods from southern Asia on which these countries had the monopoly. When in 1581 King Philip also became King of Portugal all ports on the Iberian Peninsula were closed to his enemies. While the Dutch were engaged in a fierce defense of their homeland the English challenged the Spanish empire at sea, at first as a "cold war" of trade competition, local skirmishes, and piracy. Queen Elizabeth encouraged explorations to test the opponent's strength in his colonies, and to find alternate routes to his domain. The round-theworld trips of the gentleman-adventurers Francis Drake (1577-1580) and Thomas Cavendish (1586- 1588) are symptoms and symbols of the aspirations of this era. They were, after the Magellan-Del Cano expedition (1519-1522), the second and third "to embrace the round waist of vast Mother Earth," as Samuel Purchas put it. Their achievements demonstrated the weakness of Iberian rule in the South Seas and encouraged the peoples of northwestern Europe to set out on their own course of empire.

The first successful Dutch expedition to the East Indies, under Cornelis Houtman, boldly followed the wake of the Portuguese around Africa. Its return in August 1597 ignited the long-smouldering desire for direct trade with the fabulous lands of the Orient. The next year not less than five fleets sailed forth from the Netherlands. Three of them chose the route around the Cape of Good Hope, but two companies, enticed by the fame and fortunes of Drake and Cavendish, decided on the westward route through the Strait of Magellan. One of these was a company formed by refugees from Spanish-occupied Antwerp. Misfortune stalked its fleet from the very start, and only one ship got as far as Japan. The other enterprise was instigated by burghers of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. It was their fleet that Olivier Van Noort commanded as admiral-general from 1598 to 1601.

What kind of man was Van Noort? We know from his own statement in the letter reproduced on pages 13 to 16 that he was "a native burgher son" of Utrecht. A portrait made after his return gives his age as 42 years, which would place his birth in either 1558 or 1559. Nothing is known of his life until 1587, when he is mentioned as innkeeper in Rotterdam.

-3-

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A Letter from Olivier Van Noort, Circumnavigator: Pertaining to the First Dutch Voyage around the World, 1598-1601
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • A Foreword v
  • The Setting 3
  • The Voyage 5
  • The Letter 11
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