Polar Profiles: Frobisher’s Second Expedition

[the man himself, in his ridiculously baggy-panted glory]

Martin Frobisher had a much easier time funding his second expedition to find the Northwest Passage, largely due to the rumors of gold that he brought back to England after his first voyage. This rumor piqued the interest of investors from every strata of English society. The Muscovy Company partnered with another merchant consortium, the Company of Cathay to buy supplies and refit the Michael and the Gabriel for a second voyage. Frobisher’s exploits even attracted the interest of the Queen, who sold the Ayde, a Royal Navy ship, to the Company of Cathay for the purpose of discovering the elusive Northwest Passage (and more importantly, to gather more of the “gold”).

The Ayde, the Gabriel, and the Michael left Blackwall on the 26th of May, 1577, and had a relatively uneventful voyage across the Atlantic, reaching Hall’s Island, not far from where Frobisher had moored the previous year, on the 17th of July.

I have to take a moment to explain another one of my favorite parts of this particular area of history: Primary Sources. I’m practically swimming in them. You see, it was in vogue (and more importantly, profitable) for sailors to keep records of their journeys for sale back in Merry Old England. These accounts were published as journals, and a majority of what we know about these expeditions comes from the composite records of these men. Now, it’s important to take the contents of these journals with a grain of salt, because the sailors who wrote them were never above a bit of self-inflation through memoir, but as a whole, I love these things. They let me see the men as they wanted to be seen, which is still a step better than we get from secondary sources.

I actually have one of these primary accounts for Frobisher’s second expedition, written by one Dionyse Settle, titled A True Report of Captain Frobisher, His Last Voyage into the West and Northwest Regions, 1577. I want to share some of his insights into the voyage with you, so it’s not just me babbling about these men, but the men speaking for themselves, here some 450 years later.  Dionyse was a well-written man, and his account of the voyage is emblematic of the types of writing of these sailors: patriotic, stoic, and informative, bringing the cold of the wild unknown back to England in neat, warm sentences.

“…and the sixteenth of [July], we came withing the making of land, which our General the year before had named the Queen’s Foreland, being an island, as we judge, lying near the supposed continent with America. And on the other side, opposite to the same, one other island called Hall’s Isle, after the name of the master of our ship, near adjacent to the firm land, the supposed continent of Asia. Between the two islands there is a large entrance or strait, called Frobisher’s Strait, after the name of our general, the first finder thereof. This said Strait is supposed to have passage into the Sea of Sur.”

Despite the expedition’s expressed intention of exploring Frobisher’s Strait (Which turned out to have no outlet at all, let alone an outlet into the Pacific, or the “Sea of Sur”, as Dionyse knew it), he did very little exploring. Frobisher’s goal was much more immediate. He set the ships at Hall’s Island, and ordered the men ashore to search for more of the ore he had discovered last year. Dionyse describes finding a remarkable bit of local fauna:

“On this west shore [of Frobisher Bay] we found a dead fish floating which had in his nose a horn straight and torque, of length two yards lacking two inches, being broken in the top, where we might perceive it hollow, into which some of our sailors putting spiders, they presently died. I saw not the trial thereof, but it was reported to me of a truth, by the virtue whereof, we supposed it to be the sea unicorn.”

[the elusive and exceedingly dangerous sea-unicorn]

This was, of course, a narwhal, but as none of the English sailors had ever seen such a thing, it enchanted them. Frobisher found more of his ore  and began loading it back onto the ships. As the work progressed, native Inuits began to approach the ships. Frobisher, fearing for the fates of the men he had lost the previous year, ordered them seized, but the natives fled into the hills surrounding Frobisher Bay. Frobisher was not easily satisfied, though, and ordered the crew split into hunting parties to find them. The Inuit were ready, however, and assaulted the English with bows and spears. The English retaliated with their own bows, and rather than be taken captive, the wounded Inuit threw themselves into the sea. Dionyse describes the Inuit at length, mostly due to the fact that nothing else was happening, aside from the loading of some 200 tons(!) of ore onto the ships. It’s rife with misunderstandings and Dionyse’s contempt for their apparent barbarity is present, but it’s the first recorded ethnographic description of the Inuit people that we have, and it’s valuable for that. Here’s an excerpt from his descriptions, which are honestly worth their own blog post:

“They are men of a large corporature, and good proportion. Their color is not much unlike the sunburnt countryman, who labors daily in the sun for his living. They wear their hair something long, and cut before, either with stone or knife, very disorderly. Their women wear their hair long, and knit up with two loops, showing forth on either side of their faces, the rest drawn up in a knot. They eat all their meat raw, both flesh, fish, and fowl, or sometimes parboiled with blood and a little water, which they drink. For lack of water they will eat ice that is hard frozen as pleasantly as we do sugar candy, or other sugar. “

After the ore was loaded onto the vessels, Frobisher declared their exploration complete and set sail back for England. He made another trip the following year, with the goal of establishing a mining colony to bring back even more of the blasted ore, but the weather and common sense conspired against him, and the colony was abandoned almost as soon as they arrived.

Back in England, the assayers continued to analyze the ore for gold. The whole of England waited, rapt, for their final conclusions.

The “gold” that Frobisher had built his promises on, funded his expeditions with, was nothing more than iron pyrite.

Quite literally Fool’s Gold.

[it’s okay, Frobisher. Iron Pyrite fools the best of them.]

Frobisher was ruined, and spent some years in disgrace. Not even national ridicule could keep Frobisher down, and he returned to the Royal Navy, where served under Sir Francis Drake. He was restored to public approval through his brave conduct in battling the Spanish Armada, earning commendation and knighthood from the Queen in 1588. In 1594, he was shot and killed while engaged in a siege.

Frobisher was a businessman first, and an explorer second, but he set a fire in the belly of the English to wring the Northwest Passage and the Arctic Sea for every pound of wealth it could divest. This fire remained lit for almost 400 years, inspiring generation after generation of sailors to seek their fortunes (and often their death), in the frozen north.

Next week we discuss one of the Big Ones: William Parry’s Expedition of 1819.

[photo credits to Google Images]

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]