Adams was born in 1564, in the southern English town of Gillingham, and became apprenticed, aged 12, to a mariner named Nicholas Diggens of Limehouse (now very much a part of London, but at that time a flourishing shipbuilding community outside the City.) His formative years coincided with the very beginning of systematic English attempts to sail beyond Europe in any meaningful way, and he would have been inspired by the swashbuckling rumours of adventure, and tales of unimaginable riches that were constantly being voiced. These years were also marked by increased sectarian conflict with nearby nations, in particular those of the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal and Spain. The global battlefield extended from the territory of the nascent Dutch Republic, to the newly-founded European enclaves and well-established Islamic sultanates of the Philippines and Spice Islands.
These confrontations, and the trade blockades which accompanied them, drove the English economy to its knees and consequently led the English to attempt to find new extra-European trade partners, prime among them being Japan.
An artists' depiction of Chatham Dockyard in 1790.
Established in Chatham in the mid-16th century, the dockyard subsequently expanded into neighbouring Gillingham. (Credit: Wikimedia)
In 1588, after decades of antipathy, true war with Spain broke out. The Iberians attempted an invasion of the British Isles to put an end to the 'English problem.' Adams, along with most other able-bodied seamen in the realm, was enlisted to defend the nation's independence, and something that might have seemed even more important to the people of the time, the Protestant religion.
Serving on the armed merchantman, Richard Duffield, during the Armada's attack, Adams got his first taste of battle, and he must have been truly moved by his own survival and the closeness by which England evaded this attempted mortal blow.
Around this time, he also started to sail in the service of the recently established Barbary Company which traded largely with Morocco. The, perhaps unlikely seeming, Protestant-Muslim amity that flourished in the last decades of the 16th century, was brought about by a mutual interest in attacking Catholics, and hence with this endeavor, he was also serving his country, and probably his pocket as well.Without doubt, his years of Africa-bound voyages furnished Adams with valuable experience as a long-distance mariner, and he clearly emerged as a man to be respected in the seafaring community. So much so that he was hired as one of the senior officers on a Dutch voyage to the Pacific via the Straits of Magellan at the very southern tip of the Americas.
The self-declared Dutch Republic was, as far as Spain was concerned, a rebel province. However in 1596, the Triple Alliance with England and France effectively recognized it as an independent state. Adams’ voyage was the first to leave for the western Americas after de-facto independence, and was hence seen as a hugely important step in Dutch nation building. It was as much a military mission as a trade one, and damaging Iberian interests was a primary objective. Once more, Adams was serving his country's political aims, as well as those of the Dutch.