In this guest blog, Dr Cheryl Fury (University of New Brunswick), a recipient of this year’s Hakluyt Society Research Grants for her work on “The Human Dimension of the Early Voyages of the English East India Company”, talks about her quest to unearth biographical details about one remarkably colourful individual, the Tudor-Stuart shipmaster Abraham Lawse (c. 1559-1613). Fury’s study reveals how much historical detail can be recovered about ordinary lives through careful archival research.
When I was working on my PhD dissertation on the social history of Elizabethan seamen in the 1990s, I spent a great deal of time combing through High Court of the Admiralty cases, parish records, wills, and whatever else might yield information about the personal and professional lives of late Tudor seafarers. The highest-ranking men in the English maritime community were the most likely to leave a paper trail in the historical records, affording researchers the opportunity to “meet” them at various junctures of their lives: shipmaster Abraham Lawse (c. 1559-1613) was one such man.
I first encountered Lawse in parish records from 1584, when he was a young man getting married to Sara Laikyn. Abraham and Sara lived in Ratcliffe, Stepney – a Thames-side parish populated with many families connected to London’s maritime trades. Because shipmasters were skilled navigators who shouldered great responsibility, Lawse and his ilk commanded significantly higher wages than most of their crews: this meant Lawse had the wherewithal to marry in his mid-20s and support a family early in his career.
We don’t know what his wife brought to the marriage but Lawse would have been a “good catch” in the local marriage market.
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Lawse’s early prospects dimmed considerably when he was caught up in the rising tide of maritime violence of the late sixteenth century. As the master of the Harry of London, Lawse had been captured by Dunkirker privateers on a voyage from London to Danske and imprisoned for seven months until his “great ransom” was paid by London merchants. Lawse employed a number of strategies to restore his fortunes.
In 1587 Lawse petitioned the Crown and was granted a begging license because he was “utterly impoverished” and on the verge of going to jail for debt. This license allowed him to seek donations from London parishes for three months. He also applied to the Admiralty for letters of reprisal as the Captain and master of the Greyhound of London to seek compensation for his losses through privateering. Lawse was fortunate that he seems to have returned to England in good health, able to resume his seafaring career and work towards restoring his young family’s financial wellbeing.
Lawse was visited by misfortune again in 1604, when he and his men were attacked by Captain John Ward and his pirate crew. During this ordeal, Lawse told the Admiralty court that one of the pirates threatened to put him in an old sail and throw him overboard – doubtless a technique for soliciting all shipboard items of worth with a minimum of resistance. Lawse was eventually allowed to depart with his ship although the pirates took his lading and provisions. Once again, Lawse seems to have escaped unharmed.
As a grateful recipient of a research grant from the Hakluyt Society, I went to London recently to investigate the early voyages of the East India Company. I was delighted to meet with Abraham Lawse once again: this time in an account of the Company’s sixth voyage (1610-1613). Lawse was serving as the master of the Peppercorn in a small EIC fleet under Sir Henry Middleton. The Company hired respected seamen and a veteran mariner like Lawse had been tested by fire. Given what I knew of his life, I wasn’t surprised Lawse was in a dire situation once more.
EIC voyages were extremely taxing physically and mentally. Morbidity and mortality were very high. Hostilities often turned violent between the English and rival traders from Europe and Asia. Lawse survived over 3 years, from the fleet’s departure from England in April, 1610 until July, 1613, when his luck well and truly ran out.
Nicholas Downton, captain of the Peppercorn, recorded in his journal that “we had many men sick of the scurvy god sent us”. Abraham Lawse was among the sick but the master made a startling claim: he believed that his ailment was not scurvy but rather he was “poisoned by reason of his stomake failing him and hauing often inclination to vomit”. He maintained his symptoms were the same as when he had been poisoned in Venice previously.
Such accusations were sure to send ripples of distrust throughout the small fleet during an already tension voyage. In his journal, Downton criticized Lawse for stirring up mistrust without naming possible suspects, “and soendevors to leave a scandal”.
When Lawse died on July 27, 1613, the ship surgeon did an autopsy –a first on an East India Company vessel, to my knowledge. In order to quell this suspicion, Downton records that in the presence of diverse witnesses, the surgeon opened Lawse’s corpse and “took notice how his innard partes were conditioned.” Presumably the witnesses were satisfied that Lawse had not been poisoned as there were no further accusations, investigation, nor a trial in the wake of his death.
Lawse provides an interesting case study in the occupational lives of Tudor-Stuart seamen. As a young shipmaster, Lawse had excellent career prospects. However, this was no guarantee of success in the rough and tumble world of early modern seafaring. The Elizabethan period, and the Anglo-Spanish war (1585-1604) in particular, was a time of increased maritime violence: Lawse was a victim of pirates and privateers at least twice in his career. He was fortunate to escape with his life and his health.
Personally and professionally, Abraham Lawse was a man who knew loss. He was also a tenacious mariner intent on using multiple means to reverse his misfortunes: he had connections to London merchants who paid his ransom, he petitioned the Crown successfully for a begging license, he collected donations from local parishes to repay his debts, he sought and obtained letters of reprisal from the Admiralty to engage in privateering, and in general, Abraham Lawse worked to rebuild his fortunes by going to sea and diligently plying his craft.
His earlier run-ins with danger do not seem to have convinced him to confine himself to less risky voyages closer to home even in his advancing years. Lawse was born circa 1559, making him around 54 when he died. This is a very respectable life-span for someone in Tudor-Stuart times; it is doubly so for someone who had survived a lengthy and dangerous career at sea of over 30 years. Because privateers were compensated only with shares of any prizes taken, it was a risky venture for Lawse to undertake when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb. To sign up for a punishing voyage to the East Indies while in his early 50s also says much about Lawse.
This case study demonstrates that an individual who has no particular claim to be remembered 400 years after his death has left quite a number of footprints in the pages of surviving sources. Although there is nothing near a complete biography, by consulting a range of historical records, it is gratifying to see the broad strokes of this tenacious London shipmaster’s colourful life emerge to those who are willing to dig around in the archives
Cheryl Fury is an Associate Professor of History at the University of New Brunswick (Saint John) in Canada as well as a Fellow and Associated Faculty of the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society. She has published extensively on the social lives of Elizabethan seamen. Her current work is on the first twenty-five years of the English East India Company.