The Dutch Spy Who Revealed The Passage To India

"Fusta, which was used by the Portuguese and their enemies, the Malabares" (Image: Public Domain)
"Day and night my heart yearns to see strange countries... something to talk about when one is old."

Through the entirety of the 16th century, the Portuguese kept one important and powerful secret from reaching the shores of Europe – the trade route to India. Since time immemorial, India’s wealth was a legend shrouded in geographic uncertainty.

Marco Polo, who ‘discovered’ India for the Portuguese, kept the knowledge of his route to his people. Sailors called them rutters (roteiro in Portuguese), and they contained the nautical routes from Europe. It passed through the Atlantic Ocean and the coast of Africa, sometimes with a pit stop at Brazil, then returning East and turning left at the Cape of Good Hope; hugging the East African coast before charting through the Arabian Sea and arriving at the shores of Cochin or Goa. It was a path-breaking route. For, in 1489, this is what the European world map looked like.

(Image: 7MB) Early maps either underestimated or overestimated the size of Africa- making a oceanic trade route an unpredictable affair

The Carreira Da Índia (career of India) was the premier route to the subcontinent. Thanks to it, the Portuguese enjoyed a monopoly on Indian trade – until a Dutch adventurer and spy took this crucial information for himself and country.

Between 1590 and 1592, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten found himself shipwrecked on the Azores islands, nearly a thousand miles off the coast of Portugal. Worse, he found himself trapped by customs-officials and bureaucracy. It was an excruciating wait, for the Dutchman carried a powerful cargo – five years worth of observations he had made in the Portuguese colony at Goa. He considered himself lucky, however, narrowly missing the attention of a predatory British ship that was gunning for his cargo.

Jan Huygen spent his time on the islands well, however, interacting with disgruntled sailors and masters of the Azorean islands. From them, he gained the most precious data – their rutters. When Jan returned to his Dutch hometown of Enkhuizen, he wasted no time in preparing his Magnum Opus – the Itinerario. The ‘Key to the East‘, as it was called, led to the Dutch Golden Age and the future European colonization of India by the Dutch, British and French.

Not all who wander are lost

Portrait of Jan Huygen Van Linschoten (Image: Public Domain)

Day and night my heart yearns to see strange countries… something to talk about when one is old. There is no time more wasted than when a young fellow stays in his mother’s kitchen like a dimwit, knowing neither what poverty is, nor luxury, nor what the world contains, an ignorance which is often the cause of his ruin.

Growing up, Jan Huygen was driven by a sense of adventure. His early adulthood in Europe was eventful – he contracted and survived the plague in Spain. He followed the Spanish army to Portugal, where he briefly worked in finance – for a company that bought family heirlooms in order to finance ransom money for kidnapped Europeans in North Africa. In Portugal, he got on good terms with an Archbishop, who gave him the opportunity to work in India. In 1583, he set sail.

Jan Huygen’s notes on Goa were perhaps the earliest ethnography made of a colonized Indian city. In rich detail, he described the Indian people, their customs and mannerisms, as well as the opulence and lifestyles of the Portuguese who ruled over them. Arun Saldhana calls the Itinerario one of the “agents of globalization” and an example of humanist scholarship.

Jan Huygen focused on people and empirical evidence for what he described. His book is one of the facts. Though he was no navigator, mercantilist, historian or artist, he had access to such people – and used them to embellish his craft.

For modern anthropologists, there is much of interest to be found. He described life in Goa, the habits of the Portuguese, the manners and plants of the locals as well as the other European travellers who made their way to Golden Goa. His description of the effects of Bhang is vividly entertaining.

…whereof they take about an ounce, & at the first are merie, talking much & singing pleasant songs, laughing without measure, and using many foolish toyes: which contineth [with them] almost an hower. After that they are in a manner furious, given to chiding and fighting, which continueth likewise a little pace, that done they are possessed with heaviness, and [a certaine kind of] feare, that many times they crie out.

Most importantly, he studied the decay of the Portuguese empire in Goa. The riches of the spice trade made corruption a rampant issue, one that was of strategic importance to competing European powers. Brazil was growing more important for the Portuguese as a colony, giving other European powers an opportunity in India. This left the Portuguese possessions in Asia a fair game as well – and Van described useful routes to Indonesia; whose colonization by the Dutch was also a consequence of the Itinerario.

The Key to the East was richly illustrated, in the Renaissance style, and translated into many languages. In 1594, the Compagnie van Verre (a forerunner of the Dutch East India Company) was formed and made its first voyage to India using an early draft of Jan Huygen’s book, which dealt with navigation. The later chapters dealt with the exotic fruits and vegetables of India, its botany, narcotics and fine spices. These gave the Europeans a clear picture of the economic opportunity that lay in India.

The Dutchman’s subterfuge was his actual work in Goa – that of assistant to the Archbishop. During his stay there, he had an opportunity to visit China but turned it down as it was too dangerous. His stay was cut short when the Archbishop died – otherwise, his memoirs indicate that he would have loved to stay in Goa forever.

When Jan Huygen returned to the Netherlands, his thirst for adventure had yet to fade. He became a prominent and illustrious figure – and his newfound nautical expertise gave his ideas power. One of these was that of finding a North-East passage to China, that could pass through the Arctic. Shortly after publishing the Itinerario in 1594, he joined William Barentz in two voyages to the Arctic in search of this route. Heavy ice forced their ship aground, and the crew had to spend an entire winter on the island of Novaya Zemlya (now Russian). Throughout their stay, it’s said that they fended off dozens of polar bear attacks. During one of these, they even tried to capture one in hopes of bringing it back to Holland. But it ran amok and killed two crewmen.

The third voyage would prove fatal – for Barentz and his crew – and Jan had luckily stayed out of that one. It’s possible that the polar bear incident happened during this fateful voyage.

Is Jan Huyghen van Linschoten responsible for the colonization of India? European conquest may not have been his intention, as, by all accounts, he was only recording what he saw and heard – in as empirical a manner as possible. He didn’t realize the potential for invasion until after he had returned to Holland. His mostly un-opinionated work suggests that the Dutchman was more interested in being a scholar than any precursor of the colonizer. But in a time where one in five ships making the voyage to India would be lost at sea, Jan provided the ultimate map to the empire.


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