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Start of Trade with West Africa: Where is the African Voice?

Martin Frobisher was born in around 1535 in Altofts, now part of Wakefield. He moved to London with his uncle, who was a powerful man (an MP and Master of the Mint for Henry VIII).

Martin is about 9 years old when he goes to sea as a cabin boy or an apprentice. We don’t know where his first voyages take him, but in 1553 he sails with Thomas Wyndham on one of the first English voyages to the coast of West Africa.

It is called an expedition and sails with 140 men on three ships, funded by the businessman George Barne of London.

Before 1550 English traders had purchased African goods from the Spanish and Portuguese. However, war in the 1540s stopped this and English Merchants looked for ways to trade directly with Africa.

Print of a map of the world, surrounded by wind faces among clouds; sea monsters swimming in the Southern seas; a ship on the Pacific from a detailed German woodcut.
Map of the World Printed 1544-52


  • What was happening in Tudor England to enable expeditions such as this?
  • What were the expeditions looking for?
  • Were they seeking to explore and map the world, or for trade and financial gain?
  • Were the ships armed, or were they going in peace?
  • Is this the voyage that begins the British Empire?
  • Were other European countries doing the same?


  • To explore the answers to these questions, use a Tudor map of the known world and the resources from the Mary Rose to explore what a Tudor ship was like (see Supporting Links).

The expedition lands near Benin (southern Nigeria) and the voyage documents state they meet Oba (King) Oroghbua of Benin City, who traded with them and extended them credit for 80 tons of pepper.

Woodcut of a map of Africa
Map of Africa Printed Between 1544-52

The Portuguese had been trading on the West African coast for around 70 years (their fort at Elmina has stood since the 1470s). They had a monopoly and a charter from the Pope to trade in gold, ivory and pepper, therefore English ships were trading illicitly from an excommunicated country. The trade had been empowering to local groups; however, the monopoly was keeping the price of gold low, so the Africans welcomed other traders, and gave them credit payable on the return journey.


  • How and why was the trade mutually beneficial?
  • What are the issues with this evidence?
  • Whose voices are missing?
  • Do you think there was tension between the English and the people of Benin, because of the Portuguese monopoly?


  • Explore the art and culture of Benin at the time through the bronzes at the British Museum (see Supporting Links in Resources). As objects, they have a colonial history as they were removed from Benin at the time of the British Empire. There is discussion around returning them to Nigeria.

Thomas Wyndham dies on the return journey. Two thirds of the crew die on the voyage of heat, disease and drowning. Martin makes it back to England.

The following year, he returns to West Africa as an apprentice merchant on a ship owned and captained by the Lok family, again, London businessmen. They land at Shamma and the crew seek to trade. Martin goes ashore to be a voluntary hostage.

This was common practice in case the crew seize goods without payment. The voyage documents state that the Africans cease trading and continue to hold Martin. The crew abandon Martin and depart to seek trade elsewhere.

Lok made several journey's to West Africa. On one journey back to England, he brings back five African men from Shamma (modern day Ghana), three of whom are given new names: Antony, Binny, and George and one of whom has wealth and status. Were they taken by force, or did they go willingly? There was no legislation on enslavement and the status of enslaved people in English law at the time (see supporting resources) as England was considered to have ‘free soil’. The five men learn English and commercial insight in London in the hope that they could act as intermediaries in trade deals. All return home safely within four years.


  • What went wrong with the trade negotiations for the crew to abandon Martin?
  • Were the crew trying to steal goods, or were either party trying to negotiate a bad deal for the other?
  • Who are the people whose voices we hear from the ship’s logs? Whose voices are missing in this account?
  • Why do you think the men were given new names? How would this impact on their identities, or was it about ingratiating into English society? We could now see this as an act of racism. If the men were not enslaved by law, does this mean they were free? Did they go willingly?


  • Explore how the Tudor sailors viewed Africa using a map from the period.
  • How does this compare to our knowledge of geography now?
  • How does the style of the map shape your view of the world?

When the crew don’t return, the African people either trade, or hand over (it is unclear which) Martin to Portuguese merchants. He is imprisoned by the Portuguese, and finally makes his way back to England by 1558.


  • Was Martin a prisoner of war?
  • What would his treatment have been like as a voluntary hostage, then a less voluntary one, and then with the Portuguese merchants?
  • What ensured Martin’s safe passage back to England?