The Tudor Society

29 December – Japanese pirates

On this day in history, 29th (or 30th) December 1605, in the reign of King James I, Elizabethan navigator and explorer, John Davis (also spelled Davys) died near Bintang, off the coast of Borneo.

Davis died after being attacked by Japanese pirates. He was about 55 when he died.

He is known for his voyages, for being the first Englishman to document a sighting of the Falkland Islands, for his 1594 “The Seaman's Secrets” and 1595 “The World's Hydrographical Description", and for his invention, the Davis Quadrant, or the backstaff.

Find out more about him, his final voyage and death, in today's talk.

You can read more about Davis's voyages in "The voyages and works of John Davis, the navigator" (1853) edited by Albert Hastings Markham at https://archive.org/stream/voyagesandworks00wriggoog#page/n8/mode/2up.

You can read more about the Davis Quadrant at http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/42245.html and http://www.dehilster.info/navigational_instruments/1734_w._garner_davis_quadrant_backstaff.php.

The Seaman's Secrets can also be read online at http://www.stexboat.com/books/seasecr/dseasec1.htm and The World's Hydrographical Description can be read online at http://www.spirasolaris.ca/sbb9c.pdf.

Also on this day in history:

  • 1494 – Death of William Selling (Celling), Prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, diplomat and humanist scholar. He was buried at Canterbury Cathedral, in the martyrium of Thomas Becket.
  • 1605 – Burial of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, courtier, naval commander and Elizabeth I's champion, at Holy Trinity Church, Skipton, Yorkshire.
  • 1605 – Death of Arthur Hall, member of Parliament, courtier and translator. He was buried at Grantham in Lincolnshire. Hall is known for his 1581 “Ten Books of Homer's Iliades, translated out of French”, the first English translation of Homer's Iliad. Hall was imprisoned at various times on account of debt and works he published, which were either libellous or offensive. He may even have been in prison for debt at his death.


On this day in history, 29th (or 30th) December 1605, in the reign of King James I, Elizabethan navigator and explorer, John Davis (Davys) died near Bintang, off the coast of Borneo. His ship, The Tiger, was attacked by Japanese pirates who killed Davis in hand-to-hand combat. He was about 55 when he died.

John Davis was born in around 1550, in Sandridge, near Dartmouth in Devon, and was one of the main Elizabethan navigators and explorers. The Davis Strait in the Northwest Passage is named after him. He is also known for being the first Englishman to document a sighting of the Falkland Islands. Davis also wrote the 1594 “The Seaman's Secrets” and 1595 “The World's Hydrographical Description”.

But let me tell you a bit more about his final voyage and death…

The Tiger, piloted by Davis and commanded by Sir Edward Michelborne, set off from Cowes, a port on the Isle of Wight, on 5th December 1604. It landed at Bantam, or Banten, Java, in October 1605 and then set sail, bound of Patany, on 2nd November. However, they never reached there. According to a contemporary account of the voyage, on 27th December 1605, the crew of The Tiger encountered a Japonese junk while they were anchored in the port of Bintang, in the Straits of Malacca. The crew had been pirating along the coasts of China and Cambodia, but had lost their pilot and had been shipwrecked. The English and Japanese men got on well initially, with the contemporary writer saying that the crew of The Tiger spent “two days, entertaining them with good usage, not taking anything from them” and gifts and feastings were exchanged. However, he goes on to say that “these rogues, being desperate in winds and fortune, being hopeless in that paltry junk ever to return to their own country, resolved with themselves either to gain my ship or to lose their lives.” The writer explains that a party led by Davis were sent to search the junk and that Davis, who was “beguiled with their humble semblance” refused to take any weapons. Big mistake. The writer gives an account of Davis’s last moments:

“They passed all the day, my men searching in the Rice and they looking on. At the Sunnesetting, after long search and nothing found, save a little Storax and Benjamin, they, seeing oportunitie, and talking to the rest of their Companie which were in my ship, being neere to their Juncke, they resolved, at a watchword betweene them, to set upon us resolutely in both ships. This being concluded they suddenly killed and drave over-boord all my men that were in their ship; and those which were aboord my ship sallied out of my Cabbin, where they were put, with such weapons as they had, finding certaine Targets in my Cabbin, and other things that they used as weapons. My selfe being aloft on the Decke, knowing what was likely to follow, leapt into the waste, where, with the Boate Swaines, Carpenter, and some few more wee kept them under the halfe-decke.
At their first comming forth of the Cabbin, they met Captaine Davis comming out of the Gunroome, whom they pulled into the Cabbin, and giving him sixe or seven mortall wounds they thrust him out of the Cabbin before them. His wounds were so mortall that he dyed as soone, as he came into the waste.”

The writer explains that the English crew used pikes to try and defend themselves, but that they finally drove them off, leaving just one alive, by firing cannons at them through the bulkhead.

In his will, Davis left his worldly goods to his sons, Gilbert, Arthur and Philip, and Judith Havard, his “espoused love” and the woman he intended to marry on his return to England. How sad.

By the way, John Davis also invented the Davis Quadrant, or the backstaff, which he describes in The Seaman's Secrets. It was a navigational instrument that was used to measure the altitude of the sun or moon. The Nautical Instruments website explains that it "was the successor of the cross-staff and the predecessor of the octant" and the National Maritime Museum's description of a Davis quadrant made in the 18th century describes it as follows:

“The backstaff is made from a hornbeam frame with boxwood arcs. The staff has an inlaid ivory plate on the main strut and rivets capped by decorative ivory triangles. There are no vanes. Small decorative stamps, including flowers and fleurs-de-lis, are stamped at the ends of both arcs. The transversal scale on the thirty degree arc is from 0° to 25° by 5 arcminutes and reads to 0.5 arcminutes. The graduation on the sixty degree arc is from 0° to 65° by 1°.”

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29 December – Japanese pirates