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The English Plan to Colonise Russia

In 1613 the English ambassadors John Merrick and William Russell landed in the port city of Archangel, in the Russian north. The first purpose of their mission was fairly innocuous. The two men were given a set of written instructions to protect the financial position of the Muscovy Company, which was, at the time, the main commercial entity that regulated trade with Russia. However, they also had a secret aim: to explore the possibility of annexing part of northern Russia and to set up an English colony in Muscovy. It was hoped that this colony could stretch along the river Volga and down to the Russian border with Persia.

This rather brazen attempt at a ‘land-grab’ in northern Russia was extraordinary in itself. What made it even more significant was the fact that the proposal received backing from a range of groups in London. This included members of the English Royal Navy, mercenary soldiers, senior courtiers, the king and, of course, the Muscovy Company.

England’s plans to colonise Russia came about in a period of political unrest. In 1605, the first false Dimitri – an imposter posing as the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible – led an uprising against the then Muscovite tsar, Boris Godunov. This is often seen as the start of Russia’s Time of Troubles (1605-13), a period of political strife that saw several rival claimants to the Russian throne. This decade-long discord resulted in the almost complete desolation of Russia’s economic, social and political structures. The lack of central authority in turn allowed Poland and Sweden to launch invasions into Muscovy between 1610 and 1612. It was against this backdrop that the English mercenary soldier, Thomas Chamberlain, alongside other military men, formulated and developed the idea of an English invasion of Russia.

Initially, their plan was a somewhat left-field proposition. But by 1612 the plan had begun to gather pace. The Muscovy Company and its governor, Thomas Smythe – one of England’s most successful merchants – saw obvious merits in the proposition: a colony in Russia could not only safeguard their trade but would allow a quicker and shorter trade route overland via Russia to India. By 1613, the idea of an English colony in Russia had also received backing from important courtiers such as the Earl of Pembroke, the Lord Chancellor and even King James I.

There is no doubt that Smythe supported the plan to set up a colony in Muscovy. In an undated document written by Thomas Chamberlain, thought to be written around the winter of 1612-13, Chamberlain mentioned that he ‘had conference with Sir Thomas Smythe, governor of the Muscovy Company, [who] had been ambassador there (a man very painful and industrious in all public service)’. Chamberlain then remarked that Smythe and his merchant colleagues had ‘fallen into consideration of a proposition which, if it may be embraced, may be advantageous to his majesty and the whole kingdom’ – the plan to invade Russia. However, Smythe’s reasons for promoting the project may have gone beyond his connection with the Muscovy Company.

In the first decade of the 17th century, under Smythe’s stewardship the Muscovy and East India Company had sponsored voyages to discover a Northwest Passage. It was believed that such a passage could enable travellers to journey north, and eventually to China, India and Central Asia. This had the potential to shave months off the traditional trade route to the Far East and India via the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. The companies also supported the English explorer Henry Hudson’s attempts to prove the existence of a Northwest Passage in 1607, 1608 and 1610. None of these missions made any tangible progress towards successfully establishing the fabled route.

These failures did little to dampen Smythe’s belief in the existence of a faster commercial route to the East. In July 1612, Smythe and his kinsman Dudley Digges set up the North-West Passage Company. The Company’s original patent shows that it was well supported by the merchant community; it was made up of numerous merchants who had previously worked closely with Smythe. This included Benjamin Decrow (a senior member of the Muscovy Company) and the English diplomats John Merrick and William Russell. However, the new commercial entity had little success. This was partly down to the fact that one of its main sponsors, Digges, released a book on the Northwest Passage in 1612 entitled Of the Circumference of the Earth, which was littered with mathematical and navigational errors. Unsurprisingly, the work was widely discredited, and Digges’ failures also discredited the North-West Passage Company as a viable entity.

It is against this litany of failures that we must consider Smythe’s participation in the plan to colonise Russia. The unfortunate fate of these expeditions to discover a Northwest Passage via sea, all of which Smythe was partially or fully involved with, may have led him to throw his full weight behind the more extreme plan to annex a part of Russia in the winter of 1612-13, which could have furnished him with his desired passage to the East, this time via land.

England’s colonising plan came to little. When Merrick and Russell arrived in Muscovy in 1613 it was to the news that the Russians had elected a new tsar, Michael I. A military annexation would now be impossible. The politically astute Merrick simply presented his credentials to the new tsar and asked for a renewal of the Muscovy Company’s previous trading privileges. The proposed English invasion of Russia did not take place.


Shahid Hussain is researching networks and patronage among British ambassadors to Muscovy in the 17th century at University College London.

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