The Mozambique-expedition: battling the monsoon

In the spring of 1662, the directors in the Netherlands had once again decided to make an extra effort against the Portuguese in Asia by sending out an extra fleet, equipped with an unusual number of soldiers. On the 17th of April 1662, Huibert de Lairesse set sail from the Republic, commanding a fleet of six ships manned with some 1400 souls. His mission was first to drive the Portuguese from their port of call Mozambique. From there, two ships would continue to Batavia; the rest would set sail to the Indian coast to aid the Company war effort there.

Had the expedition of last year been slightly late to the taste of Van Goens; the expedition of this year never actually made it to the Indian Coast, or to Mozambique for that matter. The first port east of the Cape in which it would arrive was Batavia, after a trip which had lasted for almost a year. A small dossier on the expedition in the Overgekomen Brieven en Papieren tells what actually happened, and why the Mozambique attack never took place.[1]

The head of the fleet, Huibert de Lairesse, had set sail from Texel with three ships on the 16th of April: the Kennemerland, which he commanded, the Rijnland and the Waterhoen. The other three ships, the Kogge, the Oranje, and the Wapen van Zeeland, set sail from the Wielingen on the 23rd.

After leaving the Republic, the three ships sailing with de Lairesse had immediately run into delays. Adverse winds had forced it to sail ‘along the backway’ (i.e. around Scotland instead of through the Channel). Sailing in convoy even with this small fleet soon proved difficult: the flute Waterhoen, fresh off the yards, proved to be a crank ship, and kept on lagging behind. As the fleet approached the equator, more and more people on the Kennemerland fell ill, and being forced to wait for the Waterhoen thus became increasingly frustrating. On the 29th of June, five degrees above the equator, Lairesse finally decided that it would just have to be every ship for itself. They would just have to meet up at the Cape.[2]

Leaving the Waterhoen behind sped up things somewhat, and the Kennemerland ran into Table Bay on the 3rd of September, finding four ships there: the yachts Kogge and Vlaardingen, and the flutes Veldhoen and Zeeridder. Of these ships, the Kogge was in a very bad state. Not only had it lost a lot of sail in storms, its foremast was also broken. The Veldhoen and the Zeeridder were not even part of the expedition fleet. The former of these had left the Netherlands in January and was simply still at the Cape; the latter had not been in the Republic since 1656, its year of commissioning, and had arrived at the Cape from the East. The various larger ships of the fleet had not arrived yet. Lairesse was particularly unhappy to be missing the Oranje, one of the larger ships of the fleet. This ship had the bulk of the timber with it, and its arrival would greatly speed up the repairs of the Kogge.

Four days later, the Wapen van Zeeland arrived. This ship had sailed in convoy with the Oranje, but had left it behind as its skipper “had just left his sails flutter” and was not making an effort to get to the Cape as quickly as possible. The skipper of the Wapen van Zeeland also suspected that the Oranje was not planning to stop at the Cape at all. The Oranje was in fact one of the two ships that would continue to Batavia after the battle at Mozambique, and as Lairesse had not given out orders yet, it would seem that it did not know of the plans against Mozambique and simply supposed it would have to go to Batavia.[3] This would be disastrous to the expedition: not only did this ship have much of the timber; it was also one of the larger vessels in the fleet, carrying 344 souls. Having to miss it in the attack would be detrimental. At any rate, Lairesse now sent the crew of the Kogge into the woods to make a new foremast; “a bloody task, I can assure Your Honours, as I was there myself.”[4]

Although the crews of the ships were apparently not yet aware of the exact goal of the expedition, it did become clear at the Cape that they were up for a fight. Lairesse divided his soldiers into companies, and had crews work around the clock to produce storming ladders and other siege equipment. The muskets were tested and the troops were drilled. Lairesse was also looking for pilots to Mozambique, or at least skippers who could tell him how best to sail. As the Company had very little experience sailing northward from the Cape (last year’s fleet to Ceylon had been the first since the days of the Voorcompagnieën, and the fact that one ship bound for Ceylon had accidentally sailed to Batavia by reflex is telling), he did not actually find anyone who knew anything about sailing to Ceylon. He would just have to make use of the “old documents and printed books” brought from the Republic, which was far from ideal.[5]

Meanwhile, Lairesse was haggling with the commander of the Cape Colony, Zacharias Wagenaar, for more ships.[6] It had already been decided that the Veldhoen would go with the expedition fleet; now Lairesse was also trying to get his hands on the Zeeridder. Wagenaar had planned to send out the Zeeridder to look for the missing vessels of the return fleet from Batavia, which had been hit by a severe storm. Only three out of the seven ships had come in, and Wagenaar was planning to send out a search party to see if the ships, or any survivors, had ended up on Madagascar or Mauritius. Lairesse, however, managed to convince Wagenaar otherwise, promising that during his expedition he would also do his utmost to find the missing ships. This brought the fleet to seven ships, with a total crew of 581 sailors and 660 soldiers.[7] By the 20th of September, the fleet was ready to sail, and a day of prayer was held in the Cape Colony. The next day, Lairesse sealed his letter to the directors, concluding it in a very war-eager spirit, and on the 22nd, the fleet was to lift anchor.[8]

The day of prayer, however, had apparently not helped an awful lot. Just as the fleet was preparing to depart, a strong adverse wind came up, trapping the fleet in the Table Bay for another four days. Then, just when the wind had turned and the fleet had left the bay, the wind completely died down and the fleet was adrift for two days. By the 28th of September, the fleet was still within sight of Table Mountain.

After this rather slow start from the Cape, things went better, but only slightly. Only on the last day of October did the fleet gain sight of the southernmost point of Cape Corinth (the area around Inhambane in present-day Mozambique.) After more than five weeks of struggling, they had covered only two thirds of what should have been an easy and quick sailing trip. And things were about to get worse: the next day the wind turned and became stronger. As the current was also coming from the northeast, the ships were mercilessly blown back to where they had come from. Five days later, the ships were still near Cape Corinth, and back on the wrong side of it. Supplies had not been prepared for this great amount of ill luck, and water was put on ration by the 9th of November.

Of course it was not only bad luck which caused the fleet trouble: the combination of the earlier delays before the Cape and inexperience sailing this route were taking their revenge. As Lairesse was at least partly aware, the fleet had entirely missed the summer monsoon. Whereas, two months ago, it would have been blown right to Mozambique, the fleet was now facing adverse winds and calms. In addition, the onset of the Northeastern Monsoon also hailed the start of the cyclone season on the East African Coast, and the fleet was now stuck right in the area where the bulk of these cyclones hit the African mainland.

The first storm hit the fleet in the night of the 17th of November. As Lairesse visually describes, “the dense rain, combined with the complete darkness and the incessant lightning, made everyone blind as a bat.” Collisions were only avoided because each of the ships was carrying a big lantern on the stern. When the sky cleared by dawn, damage turned out to have been limited to several sails torn to rags. And the wind was now finally blowing in the right direction!

Nonetheless, Lairesse was getting quite fed up. On the 20th of November he once again called the brede raad together, as “this continuous sailing back and forth without making any advancement, or even the appearance of advancement, was making us all rather sad.” In addition, supplies weren’t getting any bigger, and disease had struck several of the ships. Slowly but steadily, various council members started wondering whether it was at all sensible to still try and attack Mozambique. With so much of the crew lying sick, the attack might well become a complete disaster, even if the fleet actually reached its destination. Then again, what were the other options? Waiting it out on the African Coast or the Cape was madness, as the monsoon would only turn around again by March. On the other hand, just giving up on the whole project and continuing to the Indian coast or Batavia was also undesirable. Not only was this a humiliation after struggling for so long; it was also insensible, as the ships bound for the Indian coast would still have to wait until March anyway.

It was finally decided to keep on trying to head north for another five days. If there was no improvement within that time, the fleet would find a suitable place along the Coast to take in fresh water and supplies. The wind did not turn around, so after five days the fleet did. The next day, it was once again at the southern point of Cape Corinth, which by now must have looked awfully familiar to the crews of the ships.

To de Lairesse’s great amazement, the fleet had not spotted a single other sail since its departure from the Cape. Near Cape Corinth, however, a ship appeared ahead of the fleet. As it approached, it turned out to be the Oranje, the arrival of which De Lairesse had so fervently been hoping for at the Cape. The ship had not passed by the Cape, but had just been extremely delayed and after a ten day stay at the Cape, had tried to catch up with the fleet. The crew must have been somewhat surprised to see the fleet coming towards it.

After a failed attempt to anchor on the 27th of November, the fleet found a river the next day, and anchored in the open sea “near what was called Bazzaratto on the maps.”[9] The river turned out to be brackish, but by digging wells one could obtain fresh water. The local “blacks” were very friendly, and more than willing to sell animals and fruits in exchange for cloth and simple ship’s blankets. The fleet, however, was two miles out on the open sea, and therefore completely unprotected. The fear of another storm immediately prompted de Lairesse to send off the Veldhoen to look for a bay.

For four days, the various chaloops rushed back and forth between the coast and the fleet. Then, the weather once again got in the way of plans. A strong seawind trapped the little flotilla of chaloops on the coast for three days; then the wind just died off completely, making traffic between the fleet and the coast extremely troublesome. All in all, the replenishment of supplies didn’t make as much headway as had been hoped. De Lairesse had also expected that fresh fruit would hem the diseases that ran rampant among the crews somewhat, but mortality just kept on increasing. The Wapen van Zeeland was now so low on sailors that operating the ship became troublesome. But the Veldhoen, which was supposed to be back within eight days, was also trapped by the calm and only appeared after twentyseven days, during which the fleet was just lying there and the crew just kept on dying off.

The Veldhoen finally arrived back on a rather strong wind blowing towards the coast, which was dangerous to the fleet and made the trade on the coast virtually impossible. It was decided to bring all personnel back to the ship as soon as possible, and set sail. However, just a few hours after the ships had set sail on the 1st of January 1663, another storm hit the fleet, threatening to throw it against the beach. The Zeeridder and the Oranje actually stranded and were in grave danger for two days, but ultimately managed to get afloat again. In the end, all the ships survived the storm, but several anchors and many of the chaloops were lost.

Before the fleet had lifted anchor, de Lairesse had informed with the council members “whether anyone still felt inclined to tend to our goal.” No-one did. The only question that still needed to be resolved was whether an attempt to reach the Indian Coast was still viable. Reaching Batavia was no problem, but the bulk of the fleet was supposed to go to Ceylon. Crossing the Indian Ocean would still be impossible for another two months, and the fleet would have to sail all the way to the coast of Sumatra to circumvent the adverse winds. Under these circumstances, sailing to Batavia in convoy was the most sensible thing to do.

De Lairesse sealed his letter on the 6th of January 1663, after a disaster journey of three-and-ahalf months since the Cape. On the same day, on the other side of the Indian Ocean, Van Goens stormed Cochin and thus finished the campaign in which the fleet had been supposed to participate. The letter bound for patria was sent to the Cape with the Veldhoen. De Lairesse concluded it by telling the directors how sorry he was to see that the good designs of the Company had had so bad an outcome, and that, if the war with the Portuguese should continue, he would request of the Governor-General and Council to be sent to Mozambique once again. The battered fleet finally arrived before Batavia on the 30th of March, after a fruitless journey of almost a year. News of the peace reached Batavia only two-and-a-half months later,[10] and Mozambique would never be captured by the VOC. De Lairesse’s fleet had not fired a single shot at the Portuguese, but the East African monsoon had proven itself an adversary not to be messed with.

List footnotes

VOC-Archives, Overgekomen Brieven en Papieren, 1239, 1365-1455. These pages contain letters from de Lairesse to patria, Batavia and the Cape, as well as the various resolutions of the brede raad of the fleet (the ‘broad council’, which was the meeting of all the high officers), and the Daghregisters of the Kennemerland, De Lairesse’s ship.
Overgekomen B&P, 1239, fol 1365-1366. Leaving the Waterhoen behind turned out to be a good decision, as this ship only ran into the the Cape colony / table bay">Table Bay on the 22nd of November. (Ships-database on
It has every appearance that the skippers didn’t know the exact goal of the expedition until they had left the Cape. The resolutions and the Daghregister make clear that Lairesse only gave out specific instructions to the brede raad and the krijgsraad on the 31st of September, when the fleet had already departed from the Cape. In his later letter to patria, Lairesse describes how around the same date, the crew was very enthusiastic to be part of such a ‘notable exploit.’ In his letter of the 21st of September, he does not mention the word Mozambique once but only talks about ‘our design’ and alike formulas; he only talks about Mozambique in his later letters. It therefore seems that the exact goal of the expedition was a secret even to its participants, and in this light it becomes understandable that they expected that the Orange would just sail on. Overgekomen B&P, 1239, fol. 1367, 1419, 1445.
Ibid., fol. 1368.
Ibid., fol. 1419.
Wagenaar had replaced Jan van Riebeeck just four months ago, as the latter had been recalled to Batavia for an investigation concerning his private trade.
In one of those instances where actual events are way more intriguing than any fiction, Maatsuiker had predicted this shipwreck. Six weeks after the return fleet had left on the 10th of December, he had a recurrent dream in which the ship Wapen van Holland was wrecked, and the head of the fleet, Arnoud de Vlaming, who was repatriating with his wife and child, was calling out to him for help. He found this dream so curious that he noted it down. As it later turned out, the Wapen van Holland, along with the Gekroonde Leeuw, the Prins Willem and the Arnhem, had been wrecked on the 11th and 12th of February. D.A.S. III, 74-75.
This first letter was thus sealed on the 21st of September 1662. Overgekomen B&P, 1239, fol. 1365-1375.
In some old maps, the area between Cape Corinth and the Maputo Bay, the present-day province of Inhambane, is called Bassarat or Bazarat. The river might be the Limpopo, but as the map used by Lairesse would probably have a name for this river, it is at least as likely that they anchored at a smaller stream further to the northeast. This would also explain the brackish water of the river, as these streams are fed by salty backwaters. Looking at the map of this area will also explain why the Veldhoen was unable to find a bay: the coast is a straight line for hundreds of kilometres in this area.
On the 14th of June, the Joncker brought news of the ratified treaty to Batavia. Daghregister, II, 236.