Oliver van Noort was the first Hollander to sail around the world. Incidentally, he was the fourth navigator to succeed in this dangerous enterprise since in the year 1520 the little ships of Magellan had accomplished the feat of circumnavigating the globe.
Of the hero of this memorable Dutch voyage we know almost nothing. He was a modest man, and except for a few lines of personal introduction which appear in the printed story of his voyage, which was published in Rotterdam, his home town, in the year 1620, in which he tells us that he had made many trips to different parts of the world, his life to us is a complete mystery.
He was not, like Jacob van Heemskerk and Van Neck, a man of education; neither was he of very low origin. He had picked up a good deal of learning at the common schools. Very likely he had been the mate or perhaps the captain of some small schooner, had made a little money, and then had retired from the sea.
Spending one's days on board a ship in the latter half of the 16th century was no pleasure. The ships were small. The cabins were uncomfortable, and so low that nowhere one could stand up straight. Cooking had to be done on a very primitive stove, which could not always be used when the weather was bad. The middle part of the deck was apt to be flooded most of the time, and the flat-bottomed ships rolled and pitched horribly. Therefore, as soon as a man had made a little competency as the master of a small craft he was apt to look for some quiet occupation on shore. He had not learned a regular trade which he could use on shore.
In the year 1595 we find Oliver van Noort described as the owner of the "Double White Keys," an ale-house in the town of Rotterdam. He might have finished his days there in peace and prosperity, but when Houtman returned from his first voyage and the craze for the riches of the Indies, or at least a share thereof, struck the town of Rotterdam, Van Noort, together with everybody else who could borrow a few pennies, began to think of new ways of reaching the marvelous island of Java, made of gold and jewels and the even more valuable pepper and nutmeg.
Van Noort himself possessed some money and the rest he obtained from several of his best customers. With this small sum he founded a trading company of his own. He petitioned the estates general of the republic and the estates of his own province of Holland to assist him in an expedition toward the "Kingdom of Chili, the west coast of America, and if need be, the islands of the Moluccas." To make this important enterprise successful, the estates general were asked to give Van Noort and his trading company freedom of export and import for at least six voyages, and to present it with ten cannon and twelve thousand pounds of gunpowder.
He asked for much in the hope of obtaining at least part of what he desired. In the winter of 1597 his request was granted. He received four guns, 6,000 pounds of bullets, 12,000 pounds of gunpowder, and a special grant which relieved him of the customary export tax for two voyages. This demand for cannon, gunpowder, and bullets gives us the impression that the expedition expected to meet with serious trouble. That was quite true.
The southern part of America was the private property of the Spaniards and the Portuguese. Anybody who ventured into those regions flying the Dutch colors did so at his own peril. Among his fellow-citizens Van Noort had the reputation of great courage. Nobody knew any precise details of his early life, but it was whispered, although never proved, that many years ago, long before the days of Houtman, he had tried to reach the Indies all alone, but that he had preferred the more lucrative profession of pirate to the dangerous calling of the pioneer. Since, however, all his privateering had been done at the expense of the Spaniards, nobody minded these few alleged irregularities of his youthful days. And the merchants who drank their pot of ale at his inn willingly provided him with the money which he needed, bade him go ahead, and helped him when during the winter of the year 1597 he was getting his two ships ready for the voyage.
Now, it happened that at that time a number of merchants in Amsterdam were working for the same purpose. They, too, wanted to sail to the Moluccas by way of the Strait of Magellan. For the sake of greater safety the two companies decided to travel together. In June of the year 1597 their fleet, composed of four ships, was ready for the voyage. Van Noort was to command the biggest vessel, the Mauritius, while the commander of the Amsterdam company was to be vice-admiral of the fleet on board the Henrick Frederick.
The name of the vice-admiral was Jacob Claesz. We know nothing about his early career, but we know all the details of his tragic end. There were two other small ships. There was a yacht called the Eendracht, and there was a merchantman called the Hope. The tonnage of the ships is not mentioned, but since there were only 248 men on the four ships, they must have been small even for that time. In a general way our meager information about the invested capital, the strange stories of the early lives of the commanders, and the very rough character of the crew show that we have to do with one of the many mushroom companies, an enterprise which was not based upon very sound principles, but was of a purely speculative nature.
During the earliest days of Indian trading, however, all good merchants were in such a hurry to make money to get to Java long before anybody else and to reach home ahead of all competitors that there was no time for the promoting of absolutely sound companies. On the other hand, the men who commanded those first expeditions had all been schooled in the noble art of self-reliance during the first twenty terrible years of the war against Spain. They were brave, they were resourceful, they succeeded where others, more careful, would have failed.
On the 28th of June of the year 1597 Van Noort left Rotterdam to await his companions from Amsterdam in the Downs, England. He waited for several weeks, but the ships did not appear, so he went back to Holland to find out what might have become of them. He found them lying at anchor in one of the Zeeland streams. Evidently there had been a misunderstanding as to the exact meeting-place of the two squadrons. Together they then began the voyage for a second time. They had lost a month and a half in waiting for each other, but at that date forty-five days more or less did not matter. The trip was to take a couple of years, anyway. First of all Van Noort went to Plymouth, where he had arranged to meet a British sailor, commonly referred to as "Captain Melis," a man who had been around the world with Captain Cavendish in 1588, and who was familiar with the stormy regions around the southern part of the American continent. In exchange for one Englishman, Van Noort lost several good Dutchmen. Six of his sailors deserted, and could not be found again.
The first part of the trip was along the coast of Africa, a road which we know from other expeditions. Then came a story with which we are only too familiar from previous accounts, for the much dreaded scurvy appeared among the men. When the fleet passed the small island of Principe in the Gulf of Guinea, it was decided to land there and try to obtain fresh water and fresh food. Unfortunately, this island was within the established domain of the Portuguese, and the Hollanders must be careful.
Early in the morning of the day on which they intended to look for water they sent three boats ashore flying a white flag as a sign of their peaceful intentions. The inhabitants of the island came near the boats, also carrying a white flag. They informed the Hollanders that if they would kindly visit the near-by villages the natives would sell them everything they wanted, provided the Hollanders paid cash. The men were ordered to stay near the boats, but four officers went farther inland. They were asked to come first of all to the Portuguese castle that was on the island. They went, but once inside, they were suddenly attacked, and three of them were murdered. The fourth one jumped out of the gate just in time to save his life. He ran to the shore. This was a great loss to the Hollanders, for among the men who had been killed was a brother of Admiral van Noort and the English pilot upon whom they depended to guide them through the difficult Strait of Magellan.
To uphold the prestige of the Dutch Republic, Van Noort decided to make an example. The next day after he landed with 120 of his men and entrenched himself near the mouth of a river, so that he might fill his water-tanks at leisure. Then, following this river, he went into the interior of the country and burned down all the plantations and houses he could find. Well provided with fresh water, he thereupon crossed the Atlantic Ocean and steered for the coast of Brazil.
On the 9th of February he dropped anchor in the harbor of Rio de Janeiro, which was a Portuguese town. He carefully kept out of reach of the menacing guns of the fortification. The reception in Brazil was little more cordial than it had been on the other side of the ocean. The Portuguese sent a boat to the Dutch ships to ask what they wanted. The answer was that the Hollanders were peaceful travelers in need of fresh provisions. The provisions were promised for the next day, but Van Noort, who had heard similar promises before, was on his guard and for safety's sake he kept a few Portuguese sailors on his ship as hostages.
On the morning of the next day he sent several of his men to the shore to get the supplies. They landed near a mountain called the Sugarloaf. Once more the Portuguese did not play the game fairly. They had posted a number of their soldiers in a well-hidden ambush near the Sugar-loaf. These soldiers suddenly opened fire, wounded a large number of the Dutch seamen and took two of them prisoners. A little later a shot fired from one of the cannon of the castle killed a man on board the Eendracht. The two Dutch prisoners were safely returned the next day in exchange for the Portuguese hostages, but Van Noort was obliged to leave the town without getting his provisions.
Therefore a few days later he landed on a small island near the coast where he found water and fruit, and his men caught fish and wild birds and were happy. Again the Portuguese interfered. They had ordered a number of Indians to follow the Dutch fleet and do whatever damage they could. When a Dutch boat with six men came rowing to the shore it was suddenly attacked by a large number of Indians in canoes. Two of the six men were killed. The other four were taken prisoner and were never seen again. Of course adventures of this sort were not very encouraging. Some of the officers suggested that, after all, it might be a better idea to discontinue the voyage around the South American coast before it was too late. They proposed that the ships should cross the Atlantic once more, and should either go to St. Helena and wait there until the next spring or should sail to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope; for it was now the month of March, and in that part of the world our summer is winter and our winter is summer. Wherefore they greatly feared that the ships could not reach the Strait of Magellan before the winter storms of July should set in.
It was upon such occasions that Van Noort showed his courage and his resolute spirit. His expedition was in bad shape. One of the ships, the Eendracht, was leaking badly. Through the bad water, the hard work, and the insufficient food a large number of sailors had fallen ill, and every day some of them died. Wherever the expedition tried to land on the coast of Brazil to get water and supplies they found strong Portuguese detachments which drove them away. Not for a moment, however, did Van Noort dream of giving up his original plans. At last, after many weeks and by mere chance, he found a little island called St. Clara where there were no Portuguese and no unfriendly natives and where he could build a fort on shore to land the sick men and cure them of their scurvy with fresh herbs. The expedition remained on Santa Clara for three weeks.