Polar Profiles: More Background, and Martin Frobisher pt. 1

What drives a sailor to abandon warm seas and steady employment, to breach the pack-ice of the north, risking life (and with frostbite, very often limb)? For some, it was the prospect of scientific advancement, others, the heady brew of national prestige and glory. The man we talk about today was inspired by an equally common, but far more prosaic goal: the pursuit of gold.


Martin Frobisher was, by all accounts, a despicable rogue. Born in Yorkshire in 1535 and leaving home to become a cabin boy at the age of nine, Frobisher’s destiny was irrevocably intertwined with the sea. He served on merchant ships for ten years before being arrested in a West African colony by the local Portuguese authorities. He escaped soon after, fleeing back to England. This was a bit of a turning point for the young, nineteen-year-old Frobisher. While there was money in the merchant marine, he realized that there was another, more lucrative prospect available to a young man with less-than-legal proclivities.

Frobisher became a privateer. Privateering was legal, nationally endorsed piracy, and under Mary I of England, which meant that pretty much any non-British ship was fair game for Frobisher and his piratical crew. He ran a successful operation up and down the west coast of Africa, sinking and stealing in the name of Queen and Country until 1570, when he began to reconsider a more mercantile lifestyle.

[the most popular sea-routes of the spice-trade in the 16th century.]

See, in the 1500’s, the hot commodity was spices. These exotic plants and extracts were worth their weight in gold in the European markets, and the heat was on to find the quickest, cheapest way to get them there.

There was the Silk Road, which wound from China across India and Central Asia, terminating in Istanbul and the Mediterranean, but lots of stops to resupply and rest meant the trip took far too long, and each state along the road charged its own duties, meaning that the prices of the spices were wildly inflated by the end of the journey. In contrast, the journey by sea, down and around the coast of Africa, up to India and the Spice Islands and back, was much more direct, if dangerous.

As such, finding a new route to the spice-wealth of the East was in the forefront of the imagination of many a commercially-minded 16th century European sailor.

It was this aim that led Martin Frobisher to abandon piracy and begin canvassing England for investors to finance his own exploratory expedition. His big break was a negotiating a licensing deal with the Muscovy Company, an English merchant group which already had its eye on a possible route to the East.

At the time, the geography of the North American coast was spotty, to say the least. Sailors and scientists reported a widespread belief that seawater couldn’t freeze, so the belief in a cold northerly route over the continent seemed reasonable, and more importantly, profitable.

Frobisher, backed by the Muscovy Company, set sail on June 7, 1576, with three ships, the Michael, the Gabriel, and an unnamed pinnace.

The pinnace was lost in a storm almost immediately, but the rest of the crossing was uneventful. On the 28th of July, Frobisher reached the coast of Labrador, a northerly region of Newfoundland. He intended to continue sailing north, through the mouth of what he named Frobisher Bay, but a wicked arctic storm prevented any travel that way. Instead, he sailed west, hoping to cut across, and then up what he assumed would be the Northwest Passage. Instead, he found what would later be named Baffin Island on August 18th.

While there, he had an unfortunate interaction with the native Inuit people. You see, Frobisher struck a deal with a group of then natives to guide them around Baffin Island, and sent five of his crew to finalize the arrangements.  As soon as the men reached land, however, they were seized by the natives and borne away, never to be seen again. As revenge, Frobisher kept the native sworn to them as guide. While moored at Baffin Island, Frobisher gathered a piece of particular black stone that he was assured contained gold. The conditions continued to worsen, forcing our friend Frobisher to return to England.

In the absence of a navigable Northwest Passage, Frobisher’s continued fortune relied on the presence of gold in the little black stone. He had it assayed by a multitude of geologists in England and although only one in four believed it to be of any value, that was enough of a consensus the gold fever to secure Frobisher enough funding for two more expeditions.  More on those next week.

[photo credits to Google Images]


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