William Cornelius Schouten

views updated

William Cornelius Schouten

William Cornelius Schouten (ca. 1580-1625) was a Dutch explorer and navigator. In 1616 he discovered a new route to the Pacific via Cape Horn.

The exact birth date of William Schouten is unknown, but the year was probably 1580 and the place Hoorn in what is now Holland. He became a seafarer and made three trips to the East Indies between 1601 and 1603. His reputation as a navigator and interest in exploring distant parts attracted the attention of Isaac Le Maire, a wealthy Amsterdam merchant who in 1615 appointed him to command the Eendracht on a voyage to the Pacific.

One object was to search for the great south land about whose existence and riches rumors abounded. Another was to find a route into the Pacific other than those then known to exist via the Strait of Magellan and the Cape of Good Hope. The Dutch East India Company alone was permitted to use these routes; thus it had a monopoly over trade in the Pacific. Le Maire, who had formed a rival trading company, believed that another entrance lay south of the Strait of Magellan. If it could be found, the trade of the Pacific would be open to his company.

The Eendracht, accompanied by the Hoorn, later destroyed by fire in Patagonia, sailed for South America on June 14, 1615. Schouten's official position was that of master mariner, and Le Maire's son Jacob accompanied the voyage as merchant and president. In January 1616 their first goal was attained when a new entrance to the Pacific around Cape Horn was discovered and named after their hometown.

From there they sailed across the Pacific, passing through some of the islands of the Tuamoto and Tonga groups. They moved on to New Ireland and to other islands of the Bismarck Archipelago and later spent some time examining the northern coastline of New Guinea. From there they sailed among more of the Pacific islands, arriving at Ternate on Sept. 17, 1616, where they encountered a large Dutch fleet under Adm. van Spilbergen.

Their efforts were favorably received, but at Batavia, their last port of call, the Dutch governor general, Jan Pietersz Coen, refused to believe that they had discovered a third route into the Pacific. Viewing them as trespassers who had broken the East India Company's charter, he confiscated their ship and sent them back to Holland under arrest. Eventually Le Maire succeeded in clearing their name and securing recompense for their treatment.

Following his release Schouten published a narrative of the voyage under his own name, thereby precipitating a clash with Jacob Le Maire, who objected to being given no credit. A later edition of the same work was issued by Le Maire, and some historians believe that he was justified in claiming most of the credit. Schouten in September 1619 captained a vessel of the Dutch East India Company and made several voyages to the East Indies. In 1625 bad weather forced him into Antongil Bay, on the east coast of Madagascar, where he died.

Further Reading

Biographical details about Schouten are scarce and mainly found scattered in Dutch sources. Accounts of Schouten's voyage are in Alexander Dalrymple, Historical Collection of the Several Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean (1770-1771; repr. 1967), and John C. Beaglehole, The Exploration of the Pacific (1934; 3d ed. 1966). See also Peter H. Buck, Explorers of the Pacific (1953). □