Today on February 13, 1601, the East India Company’s flagship vessel, the Red Dragon alongside four other ships, depart England for the Far East.
The First Voyage of the East India Company left England to explore the spice producing regions of Sumatra and Java. The fleet consisted of five ships, including its flagship vessel, Malice Scourge — later renamed the Red Dragon. Ordered by George Clifford in 1595, the Red Dragon consisted of 38-guns. It played a significant role in raiding Spanish trading in the New World. Queen Elizabeth I commissioned the Voyage and gave the command to Sir James Lancaster. Captain Lancaster immediately began preparations on December 31, 1600. Despite leaving by mid-February, unfavorable winds prevented the fleet from clearing the English Channel until April. The Voyage made their first stop at the Canary Islands near Portugal to resupply and continued sailing down the western coast of Africa.
The crew was initially riddled by scurvy, a prevalent illness while at sea for an extended period. Lancaster ordered daily doses of lemon juice to prevent unaffected sailors from contracting the illness. Approximately fifty crew members died from disease along the way to Asia. They were forced to stop again for several months to replenish and rest in Antongil Bay, Madagascar. After more than a year of sailing, the fleet finally reached the Nicobar Islands, located in the Indian Ocean near Thailand. Lancaster ordered his crew to hunt down and target Portuguese vessels so they could quickly fill up their cargo stores. While sailing through the Strait of Malacca, they successfully captured the Portuguese carrack called Sao Thome.
Three of the English ships sailed home early with full storage compartments of pepper and spices. Next, Lancaster set sail with the remaining two boats toward Java. The East India Company established a spice factory after negotiating and trading with the local indigenous people. After two years of adventure, Lancaster finally decided to return to England. The crew was struck by a sudden and terrible storm around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The rudder of the Red Dragon was completely torn off. But it was miraculously repaired by their best divers the following day. On September 11, 1603, Captain Lancaster and the remaining crew made it home. King James I of England knighted the captain for his successful Voyage to the Far East.
The East Indian Company deployed the Red Dragon on several subsequent voyages to the Far East. The ship played a critical role in the Second Voyage from 1604-1605, the Third Voyage from 1607-1610, the Tenth Voyage from 1612-1614, and its final expedition in 1615. In 1619, a Dutch fleet attacked the Red Dragon while under the command of Robert Bonner. Historical records suggest the Dutch either captured and sank the vessel, but nobody has yet confirmed. Interestingly, the first recorded performance of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet took place on the Red Dragon off the coast of Sierra Leone.