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The Great Elizabethan Navigators

The map of Canada offers to the eye and to the imagination a vast country more than three thousand miles in width. Its eastern face presents a broken outline to the wild surges of the Atlantic. Its western coast commands from majestic heights the broad bosom of the Pacific. Along its southern boundary is a fertile country of lake and plain and woodland, loud already with the murmur of a rising industry, and in summer waving with the golden wealth of the harvest.

But on its northern side Canada is set fast against the frozen seas of the Pole and the desolate region of barren rock and ice-bound island that is joined to the polar ocean by a common mantle of snow. For hundreds and hundreds of miles the vast fortress of ice rears its battlements of shining glaciers. The un-ending sunshine of the Arctic summer falls upon untrodden snow. The cold light of the aurora illumines in winter an endless desolation. There is no sound, save when at times the melting water falls from the glistening sides of some vast pinnacle of ice, or when the leaden sea forces its tide between the rock-bound islands. Here in this vast territory civilization has no part and man no place. Life struggles northward only to die out in the Arctic cold. The green woods of the lake district and the blossoms of the prairies are left behind. The fertility of the Great West gives place to the rock-strewn wilderness of the barren grounds. A stunted and deformed vegetation fights its way to the Arctic Circle. Rude grasses and thin moss cling desperately to the naked rock. Animal life pushes even farther. The seas of the frozen ocean still afford sustenance. Even mankind is found eking out a savage livelihood on the shores of the northern sea. But gradually all fades, until nothing is left but the endless plain of snow, stretching towards the Pole.

Yet this frozen northern land and these for-bidding seas have their history. Deeds were here done as great in valor as those which led to the conquest of a Mexico or the acquisition of a Peru. But unlike the captains and conquerors of the South, the come and gone and left behind no trace of their passage. Their hopes of a land of gold, their vision of a new sea-way round the world, are among the forgotten dreams of the past. Robbed of its empty secret, the North still stretches silent and untenanted with nothing but the splendid record of human courage to illuminate its annals.

For us in our own day, the romance that once clung about the northern seas has drifted well nigh to oblivion. To understand it we must turn back in fancy three hundred years. We must picture to ourselves the aspect of the New World at the time when Elizabeth sat on the throne of England, and when the kingdoms of Western Europe, Britain, France, and Spain, were rising from the confusion of the Middle Ages to national greatness. The existence of the New World had been known for nearly a hundred years. But it still remained shadowed in mystery and uncertainty. It was known that America lay as a vast continent, or island, as men often called it then, midway between Europe and the great empires of the East. Columbus, and after him Verrazano and others, had explored its eastern coast, finding every-where a land of dense forests, peopled here and there with naked savages that fled at their approach. The servants of the king of Spain had penetrated its central part and reaped, in the spoils of Mexico, the reward of their savage bravery. From the central isthmus Balboa had first seen the broad expanse of the Pacific. On this ocean the Spaniard Pizarro had been borne to the conquest of Peru. Even before that conquest Magellan had passed the strait that bears his name, and had sailed westward from America over the vast space that led to the island archipelago of Eastern Asia. Far towards the northern end of the great island, the fishermen of the Channel ports had found their way in yearly sailings to the cod banks of Newfoundland. There they had witnessed the silent procession of the great icebergs that swept out of the frozen seas of the north, and spoke of oceans still unknown, leading one knew not whither. The boldest of such sailors, one Jacques Cartier, fighting his way westward had entered a great gulf that yawned in the opening side of the continent, and from it he had advanced up a vast river, the like of which no man had seen. Hundreds of miles from the gulf he had found villages of savages, who pointed still westward and told him of wonder-ful countries of gold and silver that lay beyond the palisaded settlement of Hochelaga. But the discoveries of Columbus and those who followed him had not solved but had only opened the mystery of the western seas. True, a way to the Asiatic empire had been found. The road discovered by the Portuguese round the base of Africa was known. But it was long and arduous beyond description. Even more arduous was the sea-way found by Magellan: the whole side of the continent must be traversed. The dreadful terrors of the straits that separate South America from the Land of Fire must be essayed: and beyond that a voyage of thirteen thousand miles across the Pacific, during which the little caravels must slowly make their way northward again till the latitude of Cathay was reached, parallel to that of Spain itself. For any other sea-way to Asia the known coast-line of America offered an impassable barrier. In only one region, and that as yet unknown, might an easier and more direct way be found towards the eastern empires. This was by way of the northern seas, either round the top of Asia or, more direct still perhaps, by entering those ice-bound seas that lay beyond the Great Banks of Newfoundland and the coastal waters visited by Jacques Cartier. Into the entrance of these waters the ships of the Cabots flying the English flag had already made their way at the close of the fifteenth century. They seem to have reached as far, or nearly as far, as the northern limits of Labrador, and Sebastian Cabot had said that beyond the point reached by their ships the sea opened out before them to the west. No further exploration was made, indeed, for three-quarters of a century after the Cabots, but from this time on the idea of a North-West Passage and the possibility of a great achievement in this direction remained as a tradition with English seamen.

It was natural, then, that the English sailors of the sixteenth century should turn to the northern seas. The eastern passage, from the German Ocean round the top of Russia and Asia, was first attempted. As early as the reign of Edward the Sixth, a company of adventurers, commonly called the Muscovy Company, sailed their ships round the north of Norway and opened a connection with Russia by way of the White Sea. But the sailing masters of the company tried in vain to find a passage in this direction to the east. Their ships reached as far as the Kara Sea at about the point where the present boundary of European Russia separates it from Siberia. Beyond this extended countless leagues of impassable ice and the rock-bound desolation of Northern Asia.

It remained to seek a passage in the opposite direction by way of the Arctic seas that lay above America. To find such a passage and with it a ready access to Cathay and the Indies became one of the great ambitions of the Elizabethan age. There is no period when great things might better have been attempted. It was an epoch of wonderful national activity and progress: the spirit of the nation was being formed anew in the Protestant Reformation and in the rising conflict with Spain. It was the age of Drake, of Raleigh, of Shakespeare, the time at which were aroused those wide ambitions which were to give birth to the British Empire.

In thinking of the exploits of these Elizabethan sailors in the Arctic seas, we must try to place ourselves at their point of view, and dismiss from our minds our own knowledge of the desolate and hopeless region against which their efforts were directed. The existence of Greenland, often called Frisland, and of Labrador was known from the voyages of the Cabots and the Corte-Reals. It was known that between these two coasts the sea swept in a powerful current out of the north. Of what lay beyond nothing was known. There seemed no reason why Frobisher, or Davis, or Henry Hudson might not find the land trend away to the south again and thus offer, after a brief transit of the dangerous waters of the north, a smooth and easy passage over the Pacific.

Perhaps we can best understand the hopes and ambitions of the time if we turn to the writings of the Elizabethans themselves. One of the greatest of them, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, afterwards lost in the northern seas, wrote down at large his reasons for believing that the passage was feasible and that its discovery would be fraught with the greatest profit to the nation. In his Discourse to prove a North-West Passage to Cathay, Gilbert argues that all writers from Plato down have spoken of a great island out in the Atlantic; that this island is America which must thus have a water passage all round it; that the ocean currents moving to the west across the Atlantic and driven along its coast, as Cartier saw, past Newfoundland, evidently show that the water runs on round the top of America. A North-West Passage must therefore exist. Of the advantages to be derived from its discovery Gilbert was in no doubt.

It were the only way for our princes [he wrote] to possess themselves of the wealth of all the east parts of the world which is infinite. Through the shortness of the voyage, we should be able to sell all manner of merchandise brought from thence far better cheap than either the Portugal or Spaniard doth or may do. Also we might sail to divers very rich countries, both civil and others, out of both their jurisdiction [that of the Portuguese and Spaniards], where there is to be found great abundance of gold, silver, precious stones, cloth of gold, silks, all manner of spices, grocery wares, and other kinds of merchandise of an inestimable price.

Gilbert also speaks of the possibility of colonizing the regions thus to be discovered. The quaint language in which he describes the chances of what is now called ' imperial expansion ' is not without its irony:
We might inhabit some part of those countries (he says), and settle their such needy people of our country which now trouble the commonwealth, and through want here at home are enforced to commit outrageous offences whereby they are daily consumed with the gallows. We shall also have occasion to set poor men's children to learn handicrafts and thereby to make trifles and such like, which the Indians and those people do much esteem: by reason whereof there should be none occasion to have our country cumbered with loiterers, vagabonds, and such like idle persons.

Undoubtedly Gilbert's way of thinking was also that of many of the great statesmen and sailors of his day. Especially was this the case with Sir Martin Frobisher, a man, we are told, ' thoroughly furnished with knowledge of the sphere and all other skills appertaining to the art of navigation.' The North- West Passage became the dream of Frobisher's ambition. Year after year he vainly besought the queen's councilors to sanction an expedition. But the opposition of the powerful Muscovy Company was thrown against the project. Frobisher, although supported by the influence of the Earl of Warwick, agitated and argued in vain for fifteen years, till at last in 1574 the necessary license was granted and the countenance of the queen was assured to the enterprise. Even then about two years passed before the preparations could be completed.
Frobisher's first expedition was on a humble scale. His company numbered in all thirty-five men. They embarked in two small barques, the Gabriel and the Michael, neither of them of more than twenty-five tons, and a pinnace of ten tons. They carried food for a year. The ships dropped down the Thames on June 7, 1576, and as they passed Greenwich, where the queen's court was, the little vessels made a brave show by the discharge of their ordnance. Elizabeth waved her hand from a window to the departing ships and sent one of her gentlemen aboard to say that she had 'a good liking of their doings.' From such small acts of royal graciousness has often sprung a wonderful devotion.

Frobisher's little ships struck boldly out on the Atlantic. They ran northward first, and crossed the ocean along the parallel of sixty degrees north latitude. Favorable winds and strong gales bore them rapidly across the sea. On July n, they sighted the southern capes of Greenland, or Frisland, as they called it, that rose like pinnacles of steeples, snow-crowned and glittering on the horizon. They essayed a landing, but the masses of shore ice and the drifting fog baffled their efforts. Here off Cape Desolation the full fury of the Arctic gales broke upon their ships. The little pinnace foundered with all hands. The Michael was separated from her consort in the storm, and her captain, losing heart, made his way back to England to report Frobisher cast away. But no terror of the sea could force Frobisher from his purpose. With his single ship the Gabriel, its mast sprung, its top-mast carried overboard in the storm, he drove on towards the west. He was ' deter-mined,' so writes a chronicler of his voyages, ' to bring true proof of what land and sea might be so far to the northwestwards beyond any that man hath heretofore discovered.' His efforts were rewarded. On July 28, a tall headland rose on the horizon, Queen Elizabeth's Foreland, so Frobisher named it. As the Gabriel approached, a deep sound studded with rocky islands at its mouth opened to view. Its position shows that the vessel had been carried northward and westward past the coast of Labrador and the ' entrance of Hudson Strait. The voyagers had found their way to the vast polar island now known as Baffin Island. Into this, at the point which the ship had reached, there extends a deep inlet. called after its discoverer, Frobisher's Strait. Frobisher had found a new land, and its form, with a great sea passage running westward and land both north and south of it, made him think that this was truly the highway to the Orient. He judged that the land seen to the north was part of Asia, reaching out and over-lapping the American continent. For many days heavy weather and fog and the danger of the drifting ice prevented a landing. The month of August opened with calm seas and milder weather. Frobisher and his men were able to land in the ship's boat. They found before them a desolate and uninviting prospect, a rock-bound coast fringed with islands and with the huge masses of grounded icebergs.

For nearly a month Frobisher's ship stood on and off the coast. Fresh water was taken on board. In a convenient spot the ship was beached and at low tide repairs were made and leaks were stopped in the strained timbers of her hull. In the third week, canoes of savages were seen, and presently the natives were induced to come on board the Gabriel and barter furs for looking-glasses and trinkets. The savages were ' like Tartars with long black hair, broad faces, and flat noses.' They seemed friendly and well-disposed. Five of the English sailors ventured to join the natives on land, contrary to the express orders of the captain. They never returned, nor could any of the savages be afterwards induced to come within reach. One man only, paddling in the sea in his skin canoe, was enticed to the ship's side by the tinkling of a little bell, and so seized and carried away. But his own sailors, though he vainly searched the coast, Frobisher saw no more. After a week's delay, the Gabriel set sail (on August 26) for home, and in spite of terrific gales was safely back at her anchorage at Harwich early in October.

Contrary to what we should suppose, the voyage was viewed as a brilliant success. The queen herself named the newly found rocks and islands Meta Incognita. Frobisher was at once ' specially famous for the great hope he brought of a passage to Cathay/ A strange-looking piece of black rock that had been carried home in the Gabriel was pronounced by a metallurgist, one Baptista Agnello, to contain gold; true, Agnello admitted in confidence that he had ' coaxed nature ' to find the precious metal. But the rumor of the thing was enough. The cupidity of the London merchants was added to the ambitions of the court. There was no trouble about finding ships and immediate funds for a second expedition.

The new enterprise was carried out in the following year (1577). The Gabriel and the Michael sailed again, and with them one of the queen's ships, the Aid. This time the company included a number of soldiers and gentlemen adventurers. The main object was not the discovery of the passage but the search for gold.
The expedition sailed out of Harwich on May 31, 1577, following the route by the north of Scotland. A week's sail brought the ships ' with a merrie wind ' to the Orkneys. Here a day or so was spent in obtaining water. The inhabitants of these remote islands were found living in stone huts in a condition almost as primitive as that of American savages. ' The good man, wife, children, and other members of the family/ wrote Master Settle, one of Frobisher's company, ' eat and sleep on one side of the house and the cattle on the other, very beastly and rude.' From the Orkneys the ships pursued a very northerly course, entering within the Arctic Circle and sailing in the perpetual sunlight of the polar day. Near Iceland they saw huge pine trees drifting, roots and all, across the ocean. Wild storms beset them as they passed the desolate capes of Greenland. At length, on July 16, the navigators found themselves off the headlands of Meta Incognita.

Here Frobisher and his men spent the summer. The coast and waters were searched as far as the inclement climate allowed. The savages were fierce and unfriendly. A few poor rags of clothing found among the rocks bespoke the fate of the sailors of the year before. Fierce conflicts with the natives followed. Several were captured. One woman so hideous and wrinkled with age that the mariners thought her a witch was released in pious awe. A younger woman, with a baby at her back, was carried captive to the English ships. The natives in return watched their opportunity and fell fiercely on the English as occasion offered, leaping headlong from the rocks into the sea rather than submit to capture.

To the perils of conflict was added the perpetual danger of moving ice. Even in the summer seas, great gales blew and giant masses of ice drove furiously through the strait. No passage was possible. In vain Frobisher landed on both the northern and the southern sides and tried to penetrate the rugged country. All about the land was barren and forbidding.

Mountains of rough stone crowned with snow blocked the way. No trees were seen and no vegetation except a scant grass here and there upon the flatter spaces of the rocks.

But neither the terrors of the ice nor the fear of the savages could damp the ardor of the explorers. The landing of Frobisher and his men on Meta Incognita was carried out with something of the pomp, dear to an age of chivalrous display that marked the landing of Columbus on the tropic island of San Salvador. The captain and his men moved in marching order: they knelt together on the barren rock to offer thanks to God and to invoke a blessing on their queen. Great cairns of stone were piled high here and there, as a sign of England's sovereignty, while as they advanced against the rugged hills of the interior, the banner of their country was proudly carried in the van. Their thoughts were not of glory only. It was with the ardor of treasure-seekers that they fell to their task, forgetting in the lust for gold the chill horror of their surroundings; and, when the Arctic sunlight glittered on the splintered edges of the rocks, the crevices of the barren stone seemed to the excited minds of the explorers to be fined with virgin gold, carried by subterranean streams. The three ships were loaded deep with worthless stone, a fitting irony on their quest. Then, at the end of August, they were turned again eastward for England. Tempest and fog enveloped their passage. The ships were driven asunder. Each thought the others lost. But, by good fortune, all safely arrived, the captain's ship landing at Milford Haven, the others at Bristol and Yarmouth.

Fortunately for Frobisher the worthless character of the freight that he brought home was not readily made clear by the crude methods of the day. For the next summer found him again off the shores of Meta Incognita eagerly searching for new mines. This time he bore with him a large company and ample equipment. Fifteen ships in all sailed under his command. Among his company were miners and artificers. The frames of a house, ready to set up, were borne in the vessels. Felton, a ship's captain, and a group of Frobisher's gentlemen were to be left behind to spend the winter in the new land.

From the first the voyage was inauspicious. The ships had scarcely entered the straits be-fore a great storm broke upon them. Land and sea were blotted out in driving snow. The open water into which they had sailed was soon filled with great masses of ice which the tempest cast furiously against the ships. To their horror the barque Dionise, rammed by the ice, went down in the swirling waters. With her she carried all her cargo, including a part of the timbers of the house destined for the winter's habitation. But the stout courage of the mariners was undismayed. All through the evening and the night they fought against the ice: with capstan bars, with boats* oars, and with great planks they thrust it from the ships. Some of the men leaped down upon the moving floes and bore with might and main against the ships to break the shock. At times the little vessels were lifted clear out of the sea, their sides torn with the fierce blows of the ice-pack, their seams strained and leaking. All night they looked for instant death. But, with the coming of the morning, the wind shifted to the west and cleared the ice from the sea, and God sent to the mariners, so runs their chronicle, 'so pleasant a day as the like we had not of a long time before, as after punishment consolation.'
But their dangers were not ended. As the ships stood on and off the land, they fell in with a great berg of ice that reared its height four hundred feet above the masts, and lay extended for a half mile in length. This they avoided. But a few days later, while they were still awaiting a landing, a great mist rolled down upon the seas, so that for five days and nights all was obscurity and no ship could see its consorts. Current and tide drove the explorers to and fro till they drifted away from the mouth of Frobisher Strait southward and westward. Then another great sound opened before them to the west. This was the passage of Hudson Strait, and, had Frobisher followed it, he would have found the vast inland sea of Hudson Bay open to his exploration. But, intent upon his search for ore, he fought his way back to the inhospitable waters that bear his name. There at an island which had been christened the Countess of Warwick's Island, the fleet was able to assemble by August I. But the ill-fortune of the enterprise demanded the abandonment of all idea of settlement. Frobisher and his men made haste to load their vessels with the worthless rock which abounded in the district. In one ' great black island alone ' there was discovered such a quantity of it that ' if the goodness might answer the plenty thereof, it might reasonably suffice all the gold-gluttons of the world.' In leaving Meta Incognita, Frobisher and his companions by no means intended that the enterprise should be definitely abandoned. Such timbers of the house as remained they buried for use next year. A little building, or fort, of stone was erected, to test whether it would stand against the frost of the Arctic winter. In it were set a number of little toys, bells, and knives to tempt the cupidity of the Eskimos, who had grown wary and hostile to the newcomers. Pease, corn, and grain were sown in the scant soil as a provision for the following summer. On the last day of August, the fleet departed on its homeward voyage. The passage was long and stormy. The ships were scattered and found their way home as best they might, some to one harbor and some to another. But by the beginning of October, the entire fleet was safely back in its own waters.
The expectations of a speedy return to Meta Incognita were doomed to disappointment. The ore that the ships carried proved to be but worthless rock, and from the commercial point of view the whole expedition was a failure. Frobisher was never able to repeat his attempt to find the North-West Passage. In its existence his faith remained as firm as ever. But, although his three voyages resulted in no discoveries of profit to England, his name should stand high on the roll of honor of great English sea-captains. He brought to bear on his task not only the splendid courage of his age, but also the earnest devotion and intense religious spirit which marked the best men of the period of the Reformation. The first article of Frobisher's standing orders to his fleet enjoined his men to banish swearing, dice, and card-playing and to worship God twice a day in the service of the Church of England. The watch-word of the fleet, to be called out in fog or darkness as a means of recognition was ' Before the World was God,' and the answer shouted back across the darkness, 'After God came Christ His Son.' At all convenient times and places, sermons were preached to the company of the fleet by Frobisher's chaplain, Master Wolfall, a godly man who had left behind in England a 'large living and a good honest woman to wife and very towardly children,' in order to spread the Gospel in the new land. Frobisher's personal bravery was of the highest order. We read how in the rage of a storm he would venture tasks from which even his boldest sailors shrank in fear. Once, when his ship was thrown on her beam ends and the water poured into the waist, the commander worked his way along the lee side of the vessel, engulfed in the roaring surges, to free the sheets. With these qualities Martin Frobisher combined a singular humanity towards both those whom he commanded and natives with whom he dealt. It is to be regretted that a man of such high character and ability should have spent his efforts on so vain a task.

Although the gold mines of Meta Incognita had become discredited, it was not long before hope began to revive in the hearts of the English merchants. The new country produced at least valuable sealskins. There was always the chance, too, that a lucky discovery of a Western Passage might bring fabulous wealth to the merchant adventurers. It thus happened that not many years elapsed before certain wealthy men of London and the West Country, especially one Master William Sanderson, backed by various gentlemen of the court, decided to make another venture. They chose as their captain and chief pilot John Davis, who had already acquired a reputation as a bold and skilful mariner. In 1585 Davis, in command of two little ships, the Sunshine and the Moonshine, set out from Dartmouth. The memory of this explorer will always be associated with the great strait or arm of the sea which separates Greenland from the Arctic islands of Canada, and which bears his name. To these waters, his three successive voyages were directed, and he has the honor of being the first on the long roll of navigators whose watchword has been ' Farther North/ and who have carried their ships nearer and nearer to the pole.

Davis started by way of the English Channel and lay storm-bound for twelve days under the Scilly Islands, a circumstance which bears witness to the imperfect means of navigation of the day and to the courage of seamen. The ships once able to put to sea, the voyage was rapid, and in twenty days Davis was off the south-west coast of Greenland. All about the ships were fog and mist, and a great roaring noise which the sailors thought must be the sea breaking on a beach. They lay thus for a day, trying in vain for soundings and firing guns in order to know the whereabouts of the ships. They lowered their boats and found that the roaring noise came from the grinding of the ice pack that lay all about them. Next day the fog cleared and revealed the coast, which they said was the most deformed rocky and mountainous land that ever they saw. This was Greenland. The commander, suiting a name to the miserable prospect before him, called it the Land of Desolation.

Davis spent nearly a fortnight on the coast. There was little in the inhospitable country to encourage his exploration. Great cliffs were seen glittering as with gold or crystal, but the ore was the same as that which Frobisher had brought from Meta Incognita and the voyagers had been warned. Of vegetation there was nothing but scant grass and birch and willow growing like stunted shrubs close to the ground. Eskimos were seen plying along the coast in their canoes of seal skin. They called to the English sailors in a deep guttural speech, low in the throat, of which nothing was intelligible. One of them pointed upwards to the sun and beat upon his breast. By imitating this gesture, which seemed a pledge of friendship, the sailors were able to induce the natives to approach. They presently mingled freely with Davis's company. The captain shook hands with all who came to him, and there was a great show of friendliness on both sides. A brisk trade began. The savages eagerly handed over their garments of sealskin and fur, their darts, oars, and everything that they had, in return for little trifles, even for pieces of paper. They seemed to the English sailors a very tractable people, void of craft and double dealing. Seeing that the English were eager to obtain furs, they pointed to the hills inland, as if to indicate that they should go and bring a large supply. But Davis was anxious for further exploration, and would not delay his ships. On August I, the wind being fair, he put to sea, directing his course to the north-west. In five days he reached the land on the other side of Davis Strait. This was the shore of what is now called Baffin Island, in latitude 66 40', and hence considerably to the north of the strait which Frobisher had entered. At this season the sea was clear of ice, and Davis anchored his ships under a great cliff that glittered like gold. He called it Mount Raleigh, and the sound which opened out beside it Exeter Sound. A large headland to the south was named Cape Walsingham in honor of the queen's secretary. Davis and his men went ashore under Mount Raleigh, where they saw four white bears of ' a monstrous bigness/ three of which they killed with their guns and boar-spears. There were low shrubs growing among the cliffs and flowers like primroses. But the whole country as far as they could see was without wood or grass. Nothing was in sight except the open iceless sea to the east and on the land side great mountains of stone. Though the land offered nothing to their search, the air was moderate and the weather singularly mild. The broad sheet of open water, of the very color of the ocean itself, buoyed up their hopes of the discovery of the Western Passage. Davis turned his ships to the south, coasting the shore. Here and there signs of man were seen, a pile of stones fashioned into a rude wall and a human skull lying upon the rock. The howling of wolves, as the sailors thought it, was heard along the shore; but when two of these animals were killed they were seen to be dogs like mastiffs with sharp ears and bushy tails. A little farther on sleds were found, one made of wood and sawn boards, the other of whalebone. Presently the coast-line was broken into a network of barren islands with great sounds between. When Davis sailed southward he reached and passed the strait that had been the scene of Frobisher's adventures and, like Frobisher himself, also passed by the opening of Hudson Strait. Davis was convinced that somewhere on this route was the passage that he sought. But the winds blew hard from the west, rendering it difficult to prosecute his search. The short season was already closing in, and it was dangerous to linger. Reluctantly the ships were turned homeward, and, though separated at sea, the Sunshine and the Moonshine arrived safely at Dartmouth within two hours of each other. While this first expedition had met with no conspicuous material success, Davis was yet able to make two other voyages to the same region in the two following seasons. In his second voyage, that of 1586, he sailed along the edge of the continent from above the Arctic Circle to the coast of Labrador, a distance of several hundred miles. His search convinced him that if a passage existed at all it must lie somewhere among the great sounds that opened into the coast, one of which, of course, proved later on to be the entrance to Hudson Bay. Moreover, Davis began to see that, owing to the great quantity of whales in the northern waters, and the ease with which seal-skins and furs could be bought from the natives, these ventures might be made a source of profit whether the Western Passage was found or not. In his second voyage alone he bought from the Eskimos five hundred sealskins. The natives seem especially to have interested him, and he himself wrote an account of his dealings with them. They were found to be people of good stature, well proportioned in body, with broad faces and small eyes, wide mouths, for the most part unbearded, and with great lips. They were, so Davis said, ' very simple in their conversation, but marvelous thievish. They made off with a boat that lay astern of the Moonshine, cut off pieces from clothes that were spread out to dry, and stole oars, spears, swords, and indeed anything within their reach. Articles made of iron seemed to offer an irresistible temptation: in spite of all pledges of friendship and of the lifting up of hands to-wards the sun which the Eskimos renewed every morning, they no sooner saw iron than they must perforce seize upon it. To stop their pilfering, Davis was compelled to fire off a cannon among them, whereat the savages made off in wild terror. But in a few hours they came flocking back again, holding up their hands to the sun and begging to be friends. 'When I perceived this,' said Davis, 'it did but minister unto me an occasion of laughter to see their simplicity and I willed that in no case should they be any more hardly used, but that our own company should be more vigilant to keep their things, supposing it to be very hard in so short a time to make them know their own evils.

The natives ate all their meat raw, lived mostly on fish and ' ate grass and ice with delight.' They were rarely out of the water, but lived in the nature of fishes except when ' dead sleep took them and they lay down exhausted in a warm hollow of the rocks. Davis found among them copper ore and black and red copper. But Frobisher's experience seems to have made him loath to hunt for mineral treasure.

On his last voyage (1587) Davis made a desperate attempt to find the desired passage by striking boldly towards the Far North. He skirted the west shore of Greenland and with favorable winds ran as far north as 72 12', thus coming into the great sheet of polar water now called Baffin Bay. This was at the end of the month of June. In these regions there was perpetual day, the sun sweeping in a great circle about the heavens and standing five degrees above the horizon even at midnight. To the northward and westward, as far as could be seen, there was nothing but open sea. Davis thought himself almost in sight of the goal. Then the wind turned and blew fiercely out of the north. Unable to advance, Davis drove westward across the path of the gale. At forty leagues from Greenland, he came upon a sheet of ice that forced him to turn back towards the south. 'There was no ice towards the north,' he wrote, in relating his experience, ' but a great sea, free, large, very salt and blue and of an unsearchable depth. It seemed most manifest that the passage was free and without impediment towards the north.'

When Davis returned home, he was still eager to try again. But the situation was changed. Walsingham, who had encouraged his enterprise, was dead, and the whole energy of the nation was absorbed in the great struggle with Spain. Davis sailed no more to the northern seas. With each succeeding decade it became clear that the hopes aroused by the New World lay not in finding a passage by the ice-blocked sounds of the north, but in occupying the vast continent of America itself. Many voyages were indeed attempted before the hope of a northern passage to the Indies was laid aside. Weymouth, Knight, and others followed in the track of Frobisher and Davis. But nothing new was found. The sea-faring spirit and the restless adventure which characterized the Elizabethan period outlived the great queen. The famous voyage of Henry Hudson in 1610 revealed the existence of the great inland sea which bears his name.
Hudson, already famous as an explorer and for his discovery of the Hudson river, was sent out by Sir John Wolstenholme and Sir Dudley Digges to find the North-West Passage. The story of his passage of the strait, his discovery of the great bay, the mutiny of his men and his tragic and mysterious fate forms one of the most thrilling narratives in the history of exploration. But it belongs rather to the romantic story of the great bay, which he discovered and which bears his name, than to the present narrative.

After Hudson came the exploits of Bylot, one of his pilots, and a survivor of the tragedy, and of William Baffin, who tried to follow Davis's lead in searching for the Western Passage in the very confines of the polar sea. Finally there came (1631) the voyage of Captain Luke Fox, who traversed the whole western coast of Hudson Bay and proved that from the main body of its waters there was no outlet to the Pacific. The hope of a North-West Passage in the form of a wide and glittering sea, an easy passage to Asia, was dead. Other causes were added to divert attention from the northern waters. The definite foundation of the colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts Bay opened the path to new hopes and even wider ambitions of Empire. Then, as the seventeenth century moved on its course, the shadow of civil strife fell dark over England. The fierce struggle of the Great Rebellion ended for a time all adventure over-seas. When it had passed, the days of bold sea-farers gazing westward from the decks of their little caravels over the glittering ice of the Arctic for a pathway to the Orient were gone, and the first period of northern adventure had come to an end.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Adventurers of the Far North, Pioneers of the North and West, By Stephen Leacock, Hunter-Rose Co., Limited, Toronto


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