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  • Spencer Low

16th century Dutch spy who exposed Portuguese secrets

My last post on the 15th century Portuguese merchant-spy Pêro da Covilhã prompted quite a bit of debate among some readers around how the history of the Portuguese Discoveries should be interpreted: celebrated as a glorious chapter of the proud history of Portugal, or dismissed as a shameful period of imperial rapaciousness and religious bigotry? I understand both points of view, but for me personally it's... just history. History that's hundreds of years old, but with echos and ramifications that continue to live on today, and which should not be forgotten.

Which brings me to another little-known historical detail: while Pêro da Covilhã surreptitiously gathered information about the lands east and south of Muslim territories (little known to Europeans previously), about a hundred years later the Dutchman Jan Huygen van Linschoten was gathering 16th century Portuguese secrets about Asian trade and navigation. There were dramatic consequences for the Portuguese when all this classified information became exposed and freely shared.


Born in 1563 in North Holland, van Linschoten was raised a Catholic at a time when the Netherlands was experiencing several waves of the Protestant Reformation. The Low Countries (including what is today Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of northern France) were ruled by the very Catholic Habsburg King Philip II of Spain, who took a dim view of any challenge to Catholic orthodoxy. In 1568, when van Linschoten was five, the Eighty Years' War broke out. Also known as the Dutch Revolt, the war only ended in 1648 when the Dutch Republic gained independence from the Holy Roman Empire.


In 1578, the Portuguese King Sebastian disappeared after the Battle of the Three Kings in Morocco, triggering the dynastic death throes of the House of Aviz. In 1580, when van Linschoten was 17, King Philip II of Spain also became King Philip I of Portugal, starting the sixty year-long Iberian Union. Perhaps because van Linschoten was Catholic and a loyal subject of the Habsburgs, he had by 1580 already learned some Spanish after working in Seville for his elder stepbrother Willem, a merchant. That same year, van Linschoten found a job in Lisbon working for another merchant and moved to Portugal.


A couple years later, an economic downturn led him to consider other options. His brother Willem somehow knew the friar Frei João Vicente da Fonseca, who took part in King Sebastian's ill-fated expedition to Morocco in 1578. After the Battle of the Three Kings at El-Ksar el Kebir (Alcácer-Quibir in Portuguese), Frei Vicente was taken prisoner and only returned to Portugal in 1581. The next year, he was appointed the fifth Archbishop of Goa, his predecessor having died there in 1581. At this point, the Archdiocese of Goa (upgraded from the status of a diocese only in 1557) covered dioceses from Mozambique all the way to China (Macau, Nanjing and Bejing) and Japan (Nagasaki). Somehow, the younger van Linschoten managed to get hired as a guarda-livros (secretary) to the Archbishop Frei Vicente, by now addressed with the noble honorific "Dom". In 1583, they set sail for Goa.

Archbishop João Vicente da Fonseca

The journey took five months, via Madeira, Guinea, the Cape of Good Hope, Madagascar and Mozambique. This sea route to the Indian Ocean had been fiercely protected by the Portuguese for almost a century. Other European ships caught sailing to the Indies were seized, and suspected spies were arrested. With Portugal becoming part of the Iberian Union in 1580, the country became closely associated with Spain and the enemies of Spain became the enemies of Portugal. These included the Netherlands, then waging armed rebellion against Spain, as well as England, a traditional ally of Portugal since the 1386 Anglo-Portuguese Alliance (still in effect today). In fact the Portuguese factions that did not accept the rule of Philip II exiled themselves to England. The imperious Philip II declared that both Protestant countries could no longer buy spices from Portugal, and now the all-out conflict extended from religion and politics into trade. The English started attacking Portuguese ships as they returned from Asia, but the Dutch realized that they should instead trade directly with the sources of these valuable spices. They just needed a lot of information to do so, knowledge that the Portuguese guarded jealously.


Van Linschoten spent almost six years in Goa, of which four were in the service of Dom Frei Vicente until the archbishop died in 1587 near southern Africa, on his way back to Portugal (allegedly to complain about the misdeeds of the Viceroy of India and his ministers). The Dutchman won the confidence of the ecclesiast, and as the archbishop's secretary he was allowed access to classified information regarding trade routes and sailing conditions. Abusing the trust placed in him, he used his cartographic and drawing skills to copy and create new maps, reproducing a treasure trove of nautical and commercial information. Van Linschoten also amassed information about the Europeans, Indians, and other Asians who lived and passed through Goa in his detailed diary.


During his stay in Goa, the Eighty Years' War between the Spanish and the Dutch continued while in 1585 the Anglo-Spanish War started after English merchant ships were seized in Spanish harbours. The English joined the Eighty Years' War to support the Dutch and despatched the privateer Francis Drake to harass Spanish territories in the New World. In 1588, the famous Spanish Armada was sent to invade England and avenge the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots by deposing Queen Elizabeth I and installing a Catholic monarch. Unfortunately for King Philip II, his armada (which set sail from Lisbon) was cursed by bad weather and torn apart by the English and their Dutch allies.


It is likely that van Linschoten was aware of what was happening back in Europe as he sent letters home to say how he enjoyed living in 'Golden Goa'. After the death of both his employer and his stepbrother Willem, the Dutchman decided to leave Goa in 1589 to return to Portugal. The normally six-month journey ended up taking three years after a shipwreck (and English attacks) kept him for two years in the Azores.


He took the time to organize his notes from Goa, and in January 1592 arrived back in Lisbon. Van Linschoten returned home to North Holland in the summer of that year. Curiously, 1592 was also the year that Petrus Plancius, a cartographer and Flemish minister in the Calvinist Reform Church, sponsored an espionage mission to steal secret Portuguese rutters (mariner's handbooks of written sailing directions) from Lisbon. The mission was not successful although the spies, the Houtman brothers, managed to buy 25 manuscript charts from the Portuguese cartographer, Bartolomeu Lasso.

As for van Linschoten, he clearly hadn't had enough adventures so he took part in two Dutch maritime expeditions in 1594 and 1595, trying to find the Northeast Passage to Asia via the Arctic Ocean above Siberia. Somehow managing not to get himself killed despite icebergs, frozen seas and polar bears, van Linschoten finally published his first masterpiece in Amsterdam in 1595. The Reys-gheschrift vande navigatien der Portugaloysers in Orienten (Travel Accounts of Portuguese Navigation in the Orient) contained detailed sailing directions for shipping not only between Portugal and the East Indies, but also between India, China and Japan. Van Linschoten included up-to-date maps and even described details like where to get fresh water and provisions and what time of year the weather was best for safe sailing. He explained that Asian traders were not interested in European products and recommended bringing silver to buy spices. He provided descriptions of Asian countries and customs, such as tea-drinking in Japan. Most importantly, Linschoten revealed that the once powerful Portuguese, who had defended the trade routes with blazing guns in the past, were no longer so formidable.


The sea routes to the east were now open to anyone who dared take them. That same year, in 1595, Dutch ships sailed for Java, with a copy of Linschoten’s book aboard as a guide. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company would be founded to trade the spices that the Spanish King had denied, and the Dutch-Portuguese War, a global extension of the Eighty Years' War to the Atlantic, Africa, India, and Southeast and East Asia, would start. Portuguese control of the spice trade was over.

India and the Middle East, map by Jan Huygen van Linschoten (1596)

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