1636 The China Venture – Snippet 09

Chapter 6


November 1633

Captain David Pieterszoon de Vries had never been in pre-Sack Magdeburg, but even now, with the construction boom occasioned by its selection as the capital of the United States of Europe, the scars were still visible. Almost the entire area west of the Elbe had been burnt and, as the barge from Halle rode the current downstream and thus northward, he could see on the left bank a hodgepodge of old and new construction, not to mention the occasional pile of rubble that now served as an informal quarry site.

The United States of Europe itself was “new construction.” The loose confederation of the kingdom of Sweden, the republican New United States and their allied Germanies that had been known as the Confederated Principalities of Europe was now the USE, with Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden as its emperor. And the New United States, centered on Grantville, would be the State of Thuringia within the USE.

De Vries disembarked, not at the main city dock, but further north, by the Navy Yard. He could hear in the distance the rumble from the steam-powered sawmill and rolling mill. He presented his credentials to one of the dock guards and was conducted to a small building that stood apart from others. Plainly, the group he was meeting with, while nominally private investors and their consultants, was being given a considerable amount of governmental support. And he suspected that they thought that the Navy Yard security was better than that of the Government House, in the Altstadt. They might even be right….

“Captain de Vries! I am so glad you could join us.”

His greeter was an up-timer named Eric Garlow, who was some sort of aide-de-camp to Don Francisco. De Vries, who prided himself on his language skills, had already figured out the proper American vernacular term for him.


The young American had a firm handshake, which De Vries found modestly reassuring.

“And this is Mike Song.” De Vries hadn’t even known that any of the Grantvillers were of Oriental descent, but knew better than to show his surprise.

“Perhaps you already know Willem Usselincx?” Eric gestured toward an elderly man with a goatee, whose clothing was almost entirely of pre-RoF design.

“Indeed,” De Vries acknowledged. “He is one of the investors in my Guianas venture.” Usselincx was a Flemish merchant, and had helped found the Dutch West India Company in 1621. And in 1625, the king of Sweden had given him a commission to establish a “General Company for Trade to Asia, Africa, America and Magellanica,” the last being what they now knew was the imaginary land that combined the real continents of Australia and Antarctica.

Usselincx in turn introduced his own associates, all down-timers, and motioned for de Vries to take a seat. He coughed to clear his throat.

“According to the history books in Grantville, a few years from now I would have become involved in the founding of New Sweden on the eastern coast of America, in what the up-timers call Delaware. But from the same history books, I also know that in the old time line, the New Sweden colony was a failure. It is more likely that such a colony would be suppressed, in the new time line, by the French rather than the Dutch, but doomed it remains.

“And we also know that in the eighteenth century, the Swedish East India Company, trading primarily with China, was a great financial success. And for that matter, the Dutch East India Company, the VOC, is already doing extremely well in the Far East.

“So some of us Dutch who have close working relationships with the Swedes, or the USE, have decided to form a new trading company that will look to East Asia in general, and China in particular. It will be called, we think, the Aktiebolaget Svenska Ostasiatiska Kompaniet. That is to say, the Swedish East Asia Company.”

“The ‘SEAC,'” Eric interjected.

“Ah, you Americans, you love your acronyms. We will seek formal trading privileges from the Chinese court, and our representatives will travel to Beijing with a USE diplomatic mission.

“Louis de Geer, the five Trips, Samuel Godijn, and others whom I am sure you know, are all involved in the new company to some degree. But unfortunately, our own expertise is directed toward America and we are not sure that we can entirely rely on the, ahem, candor of our friends in the VOC. So you are among those we wish to consult with, and, we can assure you, we will make it worth your while to do so. “

De Vries smiled. “In view of the assistance I have received from your colleagues for my own venture, in the Guianas, how could I refuse? I am sorry I cannot be a part of this expedition to China, but even the up-timers have not mastered the art of being in two places at one time.”

Forgive me for asking,” said Eric, “but since your associates are asking the USE to consider you an expert on the Asian trade, perhaps you can tell me about your background.”

De Vries shrugged. “No offense taken. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you.  I went to Asia in March 1627 as the captain of the Wapen van Hoorn, six hundred tons and twenty guns. We took the Brouwer route to Batavia, arriving there in October. It was not the fastest passage from the Netherlands to Batavia–Brouwer made the journey in six months–but it was respectable.

“I was appointed to Governor-General Coen’s staff soon after our arrival and in February 1628 I was made an Opper Koopman, that is, a Chief Merchant, and a member of the Council. My first assignment was to make a detailed, quantitative study of the Dutch-Asian trade. “

Eric Garlow raised his hand, palm toward de Vries. “That seems, if you excuse my saying so, an unusual assignment for a ship’s captain.”

“Perhaps, but I did go to Latin School. But for whatever reason I was chosen, I did it. I found that most of what Batavia exported was imported from somewhere else; we were an entrepot. And so I know exactly what products came from or went to China, and in what volumes, and at what prices. I will share that information with you, but of course it is a few years out of date as I left Batavia in late 1629, after Coen died.” De Vries declined to mention that, as Coen’s upstart favorite, his star had dimmed rapidly when he lost Coen’s patronage.

“So what should we bring for sale to the Chinese?” asked Eric.

“Unfortunately, there is little of European manufacture that they want. Perhaps you will be lucky and one of your up-time gadgets will strike their fancy, but typically the best selling European good is lead.”

Usselincx raised his eyebrows. “Don’t they have lead of their own?”

“Oh, they do, but not enough. They also want a variety of goods that you will find in Southeast Asia: pepper, ivory, deer hides, sandalwood.

“One can do quite well in trade without ever leaving Asia. Chinese silk for Japanese silver, for example. Or take Chinese silk to Japan, Japanese silver to India, Indian cotton to Indonesia, and Indonesian spices to China. But for a ship coming directly from Europe the bulk of your cargo will be silver coin and bullion. Are planning to stop in Batavia?”

“We are.”

“Well, I hope that you will get a good welcome, but remember the saying, ‘no peace beyond the line.’ You may be perceived, like the English, as competition for the VOC, and the VOC is sometimes quite harsh in its treatment of competition. They may try to hold your ships, coming or going, or they might do worse.”

“You state a valid concern,” said Usselincx, “but many of us are shareholders in the VOC, and both the VOC and the Prince of Orange are well aware of the importance of good relations with the Americans. Not to mention Gustavus Adolphus. The mission will travel with credentials that even the governor-general of the VOC for the Indies cannot dare ignore.”

“Just be on your guard for more subtle interference, then.”

“What ports in China should we make for?” asked Eric. “I thought we should sail first to Macao and Canton, by the mouth of the Pearl River, since the encyclopedias indicate that they became the centers of overseas trade for China, but my colleagues express doubt that we can do so, even coming under the USE or Swedish flags.”

“I agree with your colleagues that it makes no sense to go to Macao. If you came in peace, the Macaonese would perhaps let you take on fresh water and buy food. They might even let you trade with them. But they would do everything in their power to prevent your trading with the Chinese in Canton, just as they did to us Dutch in 1604 and 1607. Even making the visit would put them on notice that you were trying to enter the China trade, and the Jesuits in Beijing would be put on alert.

“Even if you skipped Macao and went directly to Canton, the Portuguese would learn of it soon enough. The only advantage I can see to going to Canton at all is that they have a large silk fair there, twice a year. And the prices and quality are better than what you can get from the Fujianese. If the Cantonese let you trade at all, that is.”

“I see,” said Eric, scribbling a note. “But we have some interest in visiting southern Kiangsi. And it appears from the maps that it is possible to reach it by going up a tributary of the Pearl and then over a mountain pass. That was mentioned to Father Mazzare by Father Kircher, and confirmed by the Encyclopedia Britannica. So we’ll have to think about it….”

Usselincx broke in. “Have you personally sailed to any of the China ports, Captain?”

De Vries shook his head. “No, only to Masulpitam, the port of Golconda. The Dutch do not have direct trade with China. At least, not legal trade. Rather, the Chinese come to Batavia, or we meet them in Taiwan or Japan. Sometimes, there’s covert trade at coves near Canton, or in the Pescadores Islands, or the coast of Fujian. Or further north, at Ningbo, or Zhoushan Island in Hangzhou Bay.”

Eric made a note of this. “We have of course been reviewing what the Grantville books say about China in this period, and there is a personage we thought you might know. His name is Zheng Zhilong, but the Portuguese in Macao are said to have called him Nicholas Gaspard.” Eric pulled out a piece of paper. “One encyclopedia said, ‘After leaving Macau, he joined a pirate band that preyed on Dutch and Chinese trade. In 1628 he was induced by the government to help defend the coast against both the Dutch and the pirates. He soon acquired great wealth and power.’ Ring any bells?”

“Gaspard? That’s a French name. Do you mean Gaspar, perhaps? In any event, that name is not familiar to me, but I have heard of a Chinese rogue who goes by the name of Nicholas Iquan, He was once the agent in Japan of an older scoundrel we called ‘Captain China.’ Captain China’s real name, if I recall correctly, was Li Dan. In any event, this Nicholas Iquan managed to worm his way into the esteem of the head of our Japan post, Jacques Specx.”

“This is the Jacques Specx who was appointed Governor-General in place of Coen?”

David grimaced. “That’s right. He took over in September 1629. By that time, as you say, Iquan was already given a naval command, and was getting ready to fight the pirate Li Kuiqi. Talk about fighting fire with fire! The last I heard of the matter before I left Batavia in December 1629 was that Specx was planning to send Dutch ships to help Iquan. The more fool he.”

“Hendrik Brouwer was sent out to replace Specx,” said Usselincx. “That was, I think, in April 1632.”

“Any more advice?” asked Mike. “I speak Chinese, of course, as does Eric here, but do the Chinese merchants speak Dutch?”

David shook his head. “Only a few. It is absolutely essential that several of your party speak Portuguese fluently, as it is the language of traders from India to China. Remember, the Portuguese came to India and China over a century ago. “

“I am still a little nervous about what you said about carrying a bunch of silver coin,” said Mike. “Isn’t that an invitation to pirate attack?”

“Certainly. We have tried to relieve the Portuguese of their silver on the way out, or for that matter, of their silk on the way back. The typical East Indiaman is a really a warship of sorts; the VOC regulations require that they carry thirty-two guns. My old command, the Wapen, was under-armed.”

“That’s a lot of guns,” Eric agreed. “Especially since that doesn’t count swivel guns….”

“Yes, but bear in mind that a ship intended just for combat might carry that number in a much smaller hull. And in addition, the heaviest cannon on a large warship would be thirty-two pounders, whereas on an East Indiaman, they might be twenty-fours, eighteens, or even twelves.

“The ill-fated Batavia carried thirty cannon, of which the heaviest were six 24-pounders.”

“Ill-fated?” asked Eric.

“En route to Batavia, it went off course and went aground off the coast of Australia. That was, I believe, in June 1629. The captain and a few others took a longboat all the way to Batavia, arriving there a month later and reporting the shipwreck. A great feat of seamanship! Governor-General Coen gave Captain Palsaert another vessel and sent him to rescue the survivors and salvage the gold and silver. ”

There were more questions and answers, but nothing more of great note.

Willem Usselincx finally rose. “This has been very helpful, Captain.”

“If you have more questions, get them to me quickly,” warned David. “I intend to set sail for the Wild Coast next month.”