In 1602 Queen Elizabeth I, Queen of England, wrote a letter to the Emperor of China, in the hope of opening a up a trade route and starting friendly relations.
Elizabeth entrusted the letter to George Weymouth, who had been hired by the East India Company to seek a northwest passage to India and China. At the time, England was seeking an alternative trade route to the east due to the control of trade held at the time by the Portuguese and Dutch.
Weymouth carried the letter from Elizabeth in English but also had copies in Latin, Spanish and Italian. Presumably this was just in case the residents of the Imperial palace were unable to read English but had experience of one of the alternatives.
The letter did not arrive as planned however. Weymouth, with 35 men in the ships ‘Discovery’ and ‘God Speed’ set off from Ratcliffe (on the north bank of the Thames between Limehouse and Shadwell) on 2nd May 1602. They crossed the Atlantic Ocean but instead of arriving in China, ended up in North America and explored the Labrador Coast and Hudson Strait. The exploration was hampered by bad weather and restive crew but it was ill health that was to be the decisive factor. On 26th July, with his crew increasingly unwell from the deprivations of the journey, Weymouth was forced to head for home. He returned back to England and arrived at Dartmouth on 5th September.
There is some doubt whether Weymouth would have been able to pass the letter to Emperor Wanli, even had he made landfall in China. After 1600, the Emperor had become increasingly alienated from his role and effectively ‘went on strike’. He refused to attend meetings, ignored the business of state and neglected to see his ministers or make state appointments. As a result the Empire became striven by internal power struggles and the control of the borders would be weakened. The turmoil that ensued would eventually see the Ming dynasty overthrown in 1644.
The letter itself managed to survive, having been used as the liner of a bran bin in a Lancashire farm, which only came to light when this collapsed. The letter ended up the property of the Crosse family, who passed it to the Lancashire County Record Office. The question of how the letter ended up in the bin, or even in Lancashire, has never been answered. Happily though, it survived and a copy was eventually delivered to China in 1984 to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the National Archive of China.
The original text of the letter is shown below, in modern English form:
Translation: New Zealand China Friendship Society
Elizabeth, by the grace of God, Queen of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith to the great, mighty and invincible Emperor of Cathay, greetings.
We have received divers and sundry reports both by our own subjects and others, who have visited some parts of Your Majesty’s empire. They have told us of your greatness and your kind usage of strangers, who come to your kingdom with merchandise to trade.
This has encouraged us to find a shorter route by sea from us to your country than the usual course that involves encompassing the greatest part of the world.
This nearer passage may provide opportunity for trade between the subjects of both our countries and also amity may grow between us, due to the navigation of a closer route. With this in mind, we have many times in the past encouraged some of our pioneering subjects to find this nearer passage through the north. Some of their ships didn’t return again and nothing was ever heard of them, presumably because of frozen seas and intolerable cold.
However, we wish to try again and have prepared and set forth two small ships under the direction of our subject, George Waymouth, employed as principal pilot for his knowledge and experience in navigation.
We hope your Majesty will look kindly on them and give them encouragement to make this new discovered passage, which hitherto has not been frequented or known as a usual trade route.
By this means our countries can exchange commodities for our mutual benefit and as a result, friendship may grow.
We decided for this first passage not to burden your Majesty with great quantities of commodities as the ships were venturing on a previously unknown route and would need such necessities as required for their discovery.
It may please your Majesty to observe, on the ships, samples available from our country of many diverse materials which we can supply most amply and may it please your Majesty to enquire of the said George Waymouth what may be supplied by the next fleet.
In the meantime, we commend Your Majesty to the protection of the Eternal God, who providence guides and follows all kings and kingdoms. From our Royal Palace of Greenwich, the fourth of May anno Domini 1602 and of our reign 44.