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The Tragedy of Henry Hudson

Though the adventurers to Hudson Bay turned to fur trading and won wealth, and discovered an empire while pursuing the little beaver across a continent, the beginning of all this was not the beaver, but a myth—the North-West Passage—a short way round the world to bring back the spices and silks and teas of India and Japan. It was this quest, not the lure of the beaver, that first brought men into the heart of New World wilds by way of Hudson Bay.

In this search Henry Hudson led the way when he sent his little high-decked oak craft, the Discovery, butting through the ice-drive of Hudson Strait in July of 1610; 'worming a way' through the floes by anchor out to the fore and a pull on the rope from behind. Smith, Wolstenholme, and Digges, the English merchant adventurers who had supplied him with money for his brig and crew, cared for nothing but the short route to those spices and silks of the orient. They thought, since Hudson's progress had been blocked the year before in the same search up the bay of Chesapeake and up the Hudson river, that the only remaining way must lie through these northern straits. So now thought Hudson, as the ice jams closed behind him and a clear way opened before him to the west on a great inland sea that rocked to an ocean tide.

Was that tide from the Pacific? How easily does a wish become father to the thought! Ice lay north, open water south and west; and so south-west steered Hudson, standing by the wheel, though Juet, the old mate, raged in open mutiny because not enough provisions remained to warrant further voyaging, much less the wintering of a crew of twenty in an ice-locked world. Henry Greene, a gutter-snipe picked off the streets of London, as the most of the sailors of that day were, went whispering from man to man of the crew that the master's commands to go on ought not to be obeyed. But we must not forget two things when we sit in judgment on Henry Hudson's crew. First, nearly all sailors of that period were unwilling men seized forcibly and put on board. Secondly, in those days nearly all seamen, masters as well as men, were apt to turn pirate at the sight of an alien sail. The ships of all foreign nations were considered lawful prey to the mariner with the stronger crew or fleeter sail.

The Routes Of Hudson And Munck
Map by Bartholomew

The waters that we know to-day as the Pacific were known to Hudson as the South Sea. And now the tide rolled south over shelving, sandy shores, past countless islands yellowing to the touch of September frosts, and silent as death but for the cries of gull, tern, bittern, the hooting piebald loon, match-legged phalaropes, and geese and ducks of every hue, collected for the autumnal flight south. It was a yellowish sea under a sky blue as turquoise; and it may be that Hudson recalled sailor yarns of China's seas, lying yellow under skies blue as a robin's egg. At any rate he continued to steer south in spite of the old mate's mutterings. Men in unwilling service at a few shillings a month do not court death for the sake of glory. The shore line of rocks and pine turned westward. So did Hudson, sounding the ship's line as he crept forward one sail up, the others rattling against the bare masts in the autumn wind—doleful music to the thoughts of the coward crew. The shore line at the south end of Hudson Bay, as the world now knows, is cut sharply by a ridge of swampy land that shoals to muddy flats in what is known as Hannah Bay.

Hudson's hopes must have been dimmed if not dashed as he saw the western shore turn north and bar his way. He must suddenly have understood the force of the fear that his provisions would not last him to England if this course did not open towards China. It was now October; and the furious equinoctial gales lashed the shallow sea to mountainous waves that swept clear over the decks of the Discovery, knocking the sailors from the capstan bars and setting all the lee scuppers spouting. In a rage Juet threw down his pole and declared that he would serve no longer. Hudson was compelled to arrest his old mate for mutiny and depose him with loss of wages. The trial brought out the fact that the crew had been plotting to break open the lockers and seize firearms. It must be remembered that most of Hudson's sailors were ragged, under-fed, under-clothed fellows, ill fitted for the rigorous climate of the north and unmoved by the glorious aims that, like a star of hope, led Hudson on. They saw no star of hope, and felt only hunger and cold and that dislike of the hardships of life which is the birthright of the weakling, as well as his Nemesis.

What with the north wind driving water back up the shallows, and with tamarac swamps on the landward side, Hudson deemed it unwise to anchor for the winter in the western corner of the Bay, and came back to the waters that, from the description of the hills, may now be identified as Rupert Bay, in the south-east corner. The furious autumn winds bobbled the little high-decked ship about on the water like a chip in a maelstrom, and finally, with a ripping crash that tore timbers asunder, sent her on the rocks, in the blackness of a November night. The starving crew dashed up the hatchway to decks glassed with ice and wrapped in the gloom of a snow-storm thick as wool. To any who have been on that shore in a storm it is quite unnecessary to explain why it was impossible to seek safety ashore by lowering a boat. Shallow seas always beat to wilder turbulence in storm than do the great deeps. Even so do shallow natures, and one can guess how the mutinous crew, stung into unwonted fury by cold and despair, railed at Hudson with the rage of panic-stricken hysteria. But in daylight and calm, presumably on the morning of November 11, drenched and cold, they reached shore safely, and knocked together, out of the tamarac and pines and rocks, some semblance of winter cabins.

Of game there was abundance then, as now—rabbit and deer and grouse enough to provision an army; and Hudson offered reward for all provisions brought in. But the leaven of rebellion had worked its mischief. The men would not hunt. Probably they did not know how. Certainly none of them had ever before felt such cold as this—cold that left the naked hand sticking to any metal that it touched, that filled the air with frost fog and mock suns, that set the wet ship's timbers crackling every night like musket shots, that left a lining of hoar-frost and snow on the under side of the berth-beds, that burst the great pines and fir trees ashore in loud nightly explosions, and set the air whipping in lights of unearthly splendor that passed them moving and rustling in curtains of blood and fire.[1] As anyone who has lived in the region knows, the cowardly incompetents should have been up and out hunting and wresting from nature the one means of protection against northern cold—fur clothing. That is the one demand the North makes of man—that he shall fight and strive for mastery; but these whimpering weaklings, convulsed with the poison of self-pity, sat inside shivering over the little pans and braziers of coal, cursing and cursing Hudson.

In the midst of the smoldering mutiny the ship's gunner died, and probably because the gutter boy, Greene, was the most poorly clad of all, Hudson gave the dead man's overcoat to the London lad. Instantly there was wild outcry from the other men. It was customary to auction a dead seaman's clothes from the mainmast. Why had the commander shown favour? In disgust Hudson turned the coat over to the new mate—thereby adding fresh fuel to the crew's wrath and making Greene a real source of danger. Greene was, to be sure, only a youth, but small snakes sometimes secrete deadly venom.

How the winter passed there is no record, except that it was 'void of hope'; and one may guess the tension of the sulky atmosphere. The old captain, with his young son, stood his ground against the mutineers, like a bear baited by snapping curs. If they had hunted half as diligently as they snarled and complained, there would have been ample provisions and absolute security; and this statement holds good of more complainants against life than Henry Hudson's mutinous crew. It holds good of nearly all mutineers against life.

Spring came, as it always comes in that snow-washed northern land, with a ramp of the ice loosening its grip from the turbulent waters, and a whirr of the birds winging north in long, high, wedge-shaped lines, and a crunching of the ice floes riding turbulently out to sea, and a piping of the odorous spring winds through the resinous balsam-scented woods. Hudson and the loyal members of the crew attempted to replenish provisions by fishing. Then a brilliant thought penetrated the wooden brains of the idle and incompetent crew—a thought that still works its poison in like brains of to-day—namely, if there were half as many people there would be twice as much provisions for each.

Ice out, anchor up, the gulls and wild geese winging northward again—all was ready for sail on June 18, 1611. With the tattered canvas and the seams tarred and the mends in the hull caulked, Hudson handed out all the bread that was left—a pound to each man.

He had failed to find the North-West Passage. He was going home a failure, balked, beaten, thrown back by the waves that had been beating the ice floes to the mournful call of the desolate wind all winter. There were tears in the eyes of the old captain as he handed out the last of the bread. Any one who has watched what snapping mongrels do when the big dog goes down, need not be told what happened now. There were whisperings that night as the ship slipped before the wind, whisperings and tale-bearings from berth to berth, threats uttered in shrill scared falsetto 'to end it or to mend it; better hang at home for mutiny than starve at sea.' Prickett, the agent for the merchant adventurers, pleaded for Hudson's life; the mutineers, led by Juet and Greene, roughly bade him look to his own. Prickett was ill in bed with scurvy, and the tremor of self-fear came into his plea. Then the mutineers swore on the Bible that what they planned was to sacrifice the lives of the few to save the many. When the destroyer profanes the Cross with unclean perjury, 'tis well to use the Cross for firewood and unsheath a sword. Peevish with sickness, Prickett punily acquiesced.

When Hudson stepped from the wheel-house or cabin next morning, they leaped upon him like a pack of wolves. No oaths on Scripture and Holy Cross this break of day! Oaths of another sort—oaths and blows and railings—all pretence of clean motives thrown off—malice with its teeth out snapping! Somewhere north of Rupert, probably off Charlton Island, Hudson, his son, and eight loyal members of the crew were thrown into one of the boats on the davits. The boat was lowered on its pulleys and touched sea. The Discovery then spread sail and sped through open water to the wind. The little boat with the marooned crew came climbing after. Somebody threw into it some implements and ammunition, and some one cut the painter. The abandoned boat slacked and fell back in the wave wash; and that is all we know of the end of Henry Hudson, who had discovered a northern sea, the size of a Mediterranean, that was to be a future arena of nations warring for an empire, and who had before discovered a river that was to be a path of world commerce.

The Last Hours Of Hudson
From the painting by Collier

What became of Hudson? A famous painting represents him, with his little son and the castaway crew, huddling among the engulfing icebergs. That may have been; but it is improbable that the dauntless old pathfinder would have succumbed so supinely. Three traditions, more or less reasonable, exist about his end. When Captain James came out twenty years later seeking the North-West Passage he found on a little island (Danby), south-east from Charlton Island, a number of sticks standing in the ground, with the chip marks of a steel blade. Did the old timbers mark some winter house of Hudson and his castaways? When Radisson came cruising among these islands fifty years later, he discovered an old house 'all marked and battered with bullets'; and the Indians told Radisson stories of 'canoes with sails' having come to the Bay. Had Indians, supplied with firearms overland from Quebec traders, assailed that house where nine white men, standing at bay between starvation and their enemies, took their last stand? The third tradition is of a later day. A few years ago a resident of Fort Frances, who had spent the summer at the foot of James Bay, and who understood the Indian language, wrote that the Indians had told him legends of white men who had come to the Bay long long ago, before ever 'the Big Company came,' and who had been cast away by their fellows, and who came ashore and lived among the Indians and took Indian wives and left red-haired descendants. It is probable that fur traders had told the Indians the story of Hudson; and this would explain the origin of this tradition. On the other hand, in a race utterly isolated from the outside world, among whom neither printing nor telegraph ever existed, traditions handed down from father to son acquire peculiar value; and in them we can often find a germ of truth. The legends are given for what they are worth.

There is no need to relate the fate of the mutineers. The fate of mutineers is the same the world over. They quarreled among themselves. They lost themselves among the ice floes. When they found their way back through the straits all provisions were exhausted. While they were prisoners in the ice floes, scurvy assailed the crew. Landing to gather sorrel grass as an antidote to scurvy, they were attacked by Eskimos. Only four men were left to man the ship home, and they were reduced to a diet of sea moss and offal before reaching Ireland. Greene perished miserably among the Indians, and his body was thrown into the sea. Old Juet died of starvation in sight of Ireland, raving impotent curses. But however dire Nemesis may be, or however deep may be repentance, neither undoes the wrong; and Hudson had gone to his unknown grave, sent thither by imbeciles, who would not work that they might eat, nor strive that they might win, but sat crouching, as their prototypes sit, ready to spring at the throat of Endeavour.

Thomas Button, afterwards knighted for his effort, came out the very next year at the expense of the merchant adventurers—Walstenholme, Smith, and Digges—to search for Hudson. He wintered (1612-13) at Port Nelson, which he explored and named after his mate, who died there of scurvy; but the sea gave up no secret of its dead. Prickett and Bylot, of Hudson's former crew, were there also with the old ship Discovery and a large frigate called Resolution, an appropriate name. Button's crew became infected with scurvy, and Port Nelson a camp for the dead. Then came Captain Gibbon in 1614; but the ice caught him at Labrador and turned him back. The merchant adventurers then fitted out Bylot, Hudson's second mate, and in 1615-16 he searched the desolate, lonely northern waters. He found no trace of Hudson, nor a passage to the South Sea; but he gave his mate's name—Baffin—to the lonely land that lines the northern side of the straits. Novelists are frequently accused of sensationalism and exaggeration, but if, as tradition seems to suggest, Hudson were still alive seven hundred miles south at the lower end of the Bay, straining vain eyes for a sail at sea, like Alexander Selkirk of a later day—with a Button and a Gibbon and a Bylot and a Baffin searching for him with echoing cannon roll and useless call in the north—then the life and death of the old pathfinder are more like a tale from Defoe than a story of real life.

The English merchant adventurers then gave up—possibly for the very good reason that they had emptied their purses. This brings us to the year 1617 with no North-West Passage discovered, and very little other reward for the toll of life and heroism during seven years.

Superficially, when we contemplate such failure, it looks like the broken arc of a circle; but when we find the whole circle we see that it is made up very largely of broken endeavor, and that Destiny has shaped the wheel to roll to undreamed ends. There was no practicable North-West Passage, as we know; but the search for such a passage gave to the world a new empire.

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.

Chronicles of Canada, The Adventurers Of England On Hudson Bay, A Chronicle of the Fur Trade in the North, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914


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