English sailors looked for Greater China only to find a small island

By the mid-16th century, the Great Geographical Discoveries had become an important economic and political factor for the Old World. Spanish galleons with American gold and silver onboard had started to reach European shores alongside Portuguese caravels carrying precious spices from the Indian Ocean. England couldn't stay on the sidelines of history, as its merchants and industrialists, having made fortunes in textiles, started to look to India and China as potential sources of new revenue and investment.

There was however a problem, since the trade routes leading to these destinations were controlled by England's competitors, stressing the urgency of finding new routes that came to be known as the Northwest and the Northeast passages.

The idea of organizing an expedition to India and China along  Arctic coasts of Scandinavia, Russia (then known as the Tsardom of Muscovy) and enigmatic Tartary, took shape in 1551

A painting by artist Martynov from the Severodvinsk Museum
A painting by artist Martynov from the Severodvinsk Museum © Source

It was then that  company was formed called The Merchants Adventurers of England for the Discovery of Lands, Territories, Iles, Dominions and Seigneuries Unknown, and Not Before that Late Adventure or Enterprise by Sea or Navigation Commonly Frequented. It included among its members the richest London merchants and even the Lord-Mayor of the English capital. Some 240 people purchased shares at 25 pounds each to create the company's capital, a substantial amount of money for the time. The funds went toward buying three ships: the Bona Esperanza, the Edward Bonaventura and the Bona Confidentia, each carrying a pinnace and small boats used for landing onshore.

The main purpose of the society was clearly stated in its charter:

"You hope to undertake this wonderful enterprise that many hope to have as much success and bring no less profit than the East and West Indies did to the Emperor and Kings of Portugal"

One of the company's first expeditions was tasked with finding a Northeast Passage to China through the Arctic seas. It was inspired by Sebastian Cabot, an Italian explorer living in England. The founders chose Hugh Willoughby as fleet commander, which was a peculiar choice, since he had no experience in sea exploration, but was a good soldier whose fame came from fighting the Scotts in northern England. He was even dubbed a knight and everyone hoped that he would lead the sea expedition to success.


The expedition is believed to have departed on May 10, 1553, but was unable to leave the English shores for quite a while, first because of rotten provisions, and later due to unfavorable winds.

The Bona Esperanza, under Willoughby's command, the Edward Bonaventura, led by Richard Chancellor, and the Bona Confidentia finally hit the high seas on June 23

On August 3, the Edward Bonaventura was lost from sight after a powerful storm. There was nothing unusual about this at the time. A specific port was agreed to beforehand where the ships were to meet should the fleet become separated. For this expedition, this was Vardøhus, and captain Chancellor made it to the port. Having waited a week without success, he decided to move further east, and on August 24 dropped anchor near the mouth of the Dvina River in the White Sea, landing near the Nikolo-Korelsky Monastery, where today's city of Severodvinsk stands. The Englishman met Russians at the monastery, and decided to travel by land to the south in order to reach Moscow where he was received by Tsar Ivan the Terrible. This led to the formation of a Moscow Company in London that had a monopoly in trade with Russia.

An engraved portrait of Richard Chancellor from a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger
An engraved portrait of Richard Chancellor from a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger © Source

Hugh Willoughby may have been a great soldier, but a good sailor he was not. Even though the Bona Esperanza had a professional sailing master on its crew, it missed Vardøhus and sailed farther east. On August 14, 1553 the captain noted in the ship's journal that land was spotted. It was long unknown were the expedition ended up, and until the 1640s the mysterious Willoughby's Land could be seen on the first maps of the Arctic.

It seems that the unfortunate sailor reached Novaya Zemlya, but was unable to land there due to shallow waters and challenging ice conditions, and had to turn back west

On August 23, the Bona Esperanza and the Bona Confidentia could see the Kola Peninsula once again, but due to an unfortunate turn of events they missed the Edward Bonaventura once again. Having sailed along the coast of what is now the Murmansk Region, Willoughby finally anchored at what seemed to him a convenient harbor. It was the Nokuevskaya Bay at the mouth of the Varzina River.


Sir Hugh Willoughby left a sufficiently detailed description of the harbor where he was destined to perish. He wrote that the harbor was teeming with seals and large fish, and that the crew saw bears, large reindeer and other strange animals and birds, including swans, seagulls and other unknown creatures that surprised them. After spending a week in this harbor, realizing that the sailing season was ending and that bad weather with subzero temperatures, snow and hail, and resembling that of the mid-winter season had set in, the expedition decided to spend the winter there.

The sailors were well-prepared for the winter. The possibility of wintering in the high latitudes was considered during preparations for the expedition. They had enough warm clothing plus food for an 18- voyage

Nevertheless, they tried to make contact with the natives. According to Willoughby, he sent three men to the southwest to see whether they would meet any people. They walked for three days but found no one. He then sent four men to the west, and they also came back without encountering any people. Willoughby wrote in the ship's log, "After that, we sent three people to the southeast; they came back after failing to find any people or dwellings." This was his last entry.

In May 1554, Pomor fishermen came across the two British ships. One of them was completely empty, and the second ship was found to contain 63 dead bodies. According to the fishermen, some of the dead men were sitting with pen and paper in front of them. Still others were sitting at the table and holding plates, with spoons in their mouths. Others were opening a cupboard or sitting and standing in different postures as if they were figures in a diorama, and dogs were also posed in the same strange way.

A postcard from the 1979 Geographical Discoveries postcard collection. Artist P. Pavlinov
A postcard from the 1979 Geographical Discoveries postcard collection. Artist P. Pavlinov © Source

In the summer of 1555, a large new English trade delegation arrived in the Tsardom  Muscovy and retrieved the bodies. Giovanni Miguel, the Venetian Ambassador at the Court of the King of England, claimed that the crews of both ships had perished from some "extreme-cold" temperatures that froze them in just a few seconds.

As all sailors were found inside the ship, one can surmise that their simultaneous death was caused by some disaster

About 30 years later, a merchant named Lane, who had retrieved the bodies and brought them back to England, told writer Richard Hakluyt that Willoughby and his comrades had been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning, due to their inability  build caves and stoves. This remains the only plausible theory on their deaths.

The riddle of the expedition's unfortunate demise has persisted for over 450 years. Nevertheless, Willoughby and his men did discover the Northeast Passage to China. However, that was not mainland Greater China but rather a tiny island located not far from their camp and bearing a strange name for those parts – Kitai (China) Island.


By: Ekaterina Kolchina