In 1583, the first recorded British visitor to Bangladesh set sail from London, together with two companions. Ralph Fitch was a successful London merchant with an evident penchant for exploration.
Their expedition was financed by the Levant Company, a trading association of merchants; one of a number set up with the patronage of Queen Elizabeth the 1st during the rapid expansion of trade undertaken in her long reign.
Their first destination was Aleppo, in Syria, whence they sailed in a trading vessel called Tyger.
The voyage was evidently no secret, at least amongst the well connected, noble circle, to which the great playwright, William Shakespeare belonged. In his great tragedy, Macbeth, in Act 1, Scene 3, one of the three witches cackles: ‘Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, Master of the Tyger’.
From Aleppo, Fitch travelled to the Euphrates and down that ancient trading route to the Gulf, then onward to India. In Goa he was arrested as a spy by the Portuguese, which, in commercial terms, he certainly was. Bailed out by an English born Jesuit he escaped to travel on to visit the court of the great Mughal Emperor Akbar, probably at Agra, before heading on by the Yamuna and Ganges to Patna, and thence into Bengal, from where he explored the source of trade in South East Asia, and possibly even as far north as Tibet.
On his return to London in about 1589 or 1590, his reports inspired the London merchants to seek the ready approval of the queen for setting up the East India Company. They finally received a Charter in 1600.
Perhaps close examination of Shakespeare’s later plays may reveal more references to the ‘mysterious east’!