1576 Martin Frobisher’s First Expedition

On the 7th of June, 1576,(1) when the position of the sun was such that there were no nights in the northern part of the world, Admiral Frobisher and his fleet of three ships set sail at Ratcliffe on the Thames. The fleet consisted of two thirty-ton barks, the Gabriel and the Michael [probably owned by Michael Lok] and a seven-ton pinnace. England’s finest instrument makers had provided the most up-to-date navigation tools for determining longitude and latitude while at sea.

The River Thames was much easier to navigate than Bristol’s River Avon, though the difference between high and low tide could still be twenty-three feet. Dock’s lined the river, side by side. Joint stock companies had staked their claim on portions of the riverside to build private wharfs next to the royal quays.

Frobisher’s fleet bore to Deptford and anchored. A pinnace had burst her bowsprit and needed to be repaired. On the 8th of June, the ships weighed anchor and sailed down the Thames. As they neared Greenwich, they shot off their ordinance. They wanted to make the best show they could because the Queen and her court waited for them there. Once docked, Elizabeth sent a man aboard the Gabriel to declare that her Majesty had “a good liking of their doings and thanked them for it.” She also “willed their captain to come the next day to the court to take his leave of her.”

Two days later, the ships departed. Queen Elizabeth, her ladies, and her courtiers waved their hands farewell from the windows of the queen’s castle in Greenwich. Admiral Frobisher pointed his ships northwest to begin his search for the Northwest Passage, lands previously unknown to Christians, and gold. The entire crossing of the Atlantic will take six weeks.

As they sailed toward Greenland, which Frobisher called Friesland because of Nicolo Zeni’s map, they ran into “a great storm,” during which “they lost company of a small pinnace … supposed to be swallowed up of the sea.” They thanked God they lost only four men. Shortly after, the bark Michael, “mistrusting the matter,” quietly turned away for home. Her crew would falsely report that Frobisher had been cast away.

On the 11th of July, at 61 degrees north latitude, the Gabriel reached “Friesland” [Greenland] “bearing from us west northwest sixteen leagues and rising like pinnacles of steeples, and all covered with snow.” The captain and four men took a boat to shore, “but the land lying full of ice,” they could not land, and so returned to the ship.

Even though the sun was always out, the weather was as cold as the worst winter. The ships passed through severe blizzards, mountains of ice, dense cold fogs, and bays that were frozen over. Storms sprung the Gabriel’s main mast and blew another mast overboard. Frobisher continued “knowing that the sea at length must needs have an ending, and that some land should have a beginning that way.” They traveled through open sea for a week, traversing what would later be named the ‘Labrador Sea’ and ‘Baffin Strait.’

On July 28, Frobisher sighted a “barren and rocky land” [probably today’s Resolution Island, the most easterly point on Arctic Canada]. He thought the bay was a throughway and that he had found the entrance to the Mar del Sur. The Gabriel entered today’s ‘Frobisher’s Strait’ with contrary winds amidst threatening ice floes. She was traveling on some of the highest tides in the world.

George Best wrote, “And that land upon his right hand, as he sailed westward, he judged to be the continent of Asia, and there to be divided from the firm [mainland] of America, which lieth upon the left hand over against the same. This place he named after his name, Frobisher’s Strait, like as Magellan at the southwest end of the world, having discovered the passage to the South Sea where America is divided from the continent of that land that lieth under the South Pole and called Magellan’s Strait.”

About 250 kilometers [155.3 miles] west of Resolution Island, the strait narrowed into a maze of islands. Constricted channels swirled with the tidal currents. Frobisher realized that the waterway came to a dead end. [Today, the town of Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, home of the Inuit Indians, lies at the head of the bay.]

Captain Hall wrote,“After he had passed sixty leagues into the [strait], he went on shore [one of the small islands] and found signs where fire had been made. He saw mighty deer that seemed manlike [moose], which ran at him. He hardly escaped with his life in a narrow way, where he was fain to use defense and policy to save his life.”

Frobisher climbed to the top of a small hill on the island from where, Hall wrote: “[He] perceived a number of small things fleeting in the sea afar off, which he supposed to be porpoises, seals, or some kind of strange fish. But coming nearer, he discovered them to be men in small boats made of leather [kayaks(2)]. Before he could descend down from the hill, certain of those people had almost cut off his boat from him, having stolen secretly behind the rocks for that purpose, where he speedily hastened to his boat, bent himself to his halyard, and narrowly escaped the danger and saved his boat. Afterwards, he had sundry [assorted] conferences with them, and they came aboard his ship, and brought him salmon and raw flesh and fish, and greedily devoured them before our men’s faces.”

Meanwhile, Frobisher had instructed his shore party to bring him anything “they could first find, whether it were living or dead, stock or stone,” that could be construed as a “token of Christian possession” of the land.

George Best wrote: “…some of his company brought flowers, some green grass, and one brought a piece of black stone, much like to a sea coal in color, which by the weight seemed to be some kind of metal or mineral. This was a thing of no account, in the judgment of the captain at first sight. And yet, for novelty, it was kept in respect of the place from whence it came.”

That ‘black rock’ will, when it reaches England, cause a lot of trouble.

The English met up with the Inuits on Baffin Island. Thinking they were in China, Frobisher and his men called the natives ‘savage Cathays.’ The Gabriel’s Captain Christopher Hall compared the natives to Tartars [Tartary was today’s northeast Russia], “with long black hair, flat noses and tawny” skin. He wrote that both men and women wore skins of sea-calves [seals], “not differing in fashion,” and that the women “painted about the eyes and balls of the cheek with a blue color, like the ancient Britains.”

The English found the natives to be very primitive. They depended entirely on the animals they killed for survival. They made their tents, canoes, and clothes from skins sewed together with sinews. They fashioned darts for their spears, needles, and other tools out of animal bones. And they raised dogs similar to wolves that they yoked to a sled to travel and carry their belongings over the snow. When the dogs outlived their usefulness, the Inuit’s ate them.

Frobisher and his men spent a few days trading seal, bear skins, “and the like” for bells, looking-glasses, and “other toys.” The Inuits seemed so comfortable trading with the English that the English suspected the Indians had traded with Europeans before. The Inuits eagerly ate the Englishmen’s food and drank their wine before the two cultures held an acrobatics competition on the ship’s rigging.

Following this gathering, Frobisher and his crew boarded their ship and continued west, “hiring” one of the Inuit to pilot them through the islands. George Best wrote that “contrary to the Captain’s direction,” it took “great courtesy and many meetings” for the mariners of the Gabriel to trust the Inuit.

Eventually, on August 20, again against the Captain’s direction, five of the mariners accompanied the pilot in the Gabriel’s shoreboat to fetch the Inuit’s kayak from their village. Michael Lok testified later that the “foolish” Englishmen were last seen rowing behind a point of land. They ignored pleas from the captain, hailing them from the Gabriel to return. At first only three of the men went ashore while two remained in the boat. But after a short while, the remaining two went ashore “out of sight” of the mother ship.

Angry, for he was “destitute of boat, barke” and five good men, Frobisher anchored and spent a cold and snowy night “hoping to hear of them again.” The men did not return. Being without another small boat prevented the English from going ashore in search of them. Besides, Frobisher was afraid of losing more men. He had barely enough crew to sail his ship back to England. For the next two days, by the firing of guns and blowing of the trumpet, Frobisher and Hall tried “to recall” the missing crew members. They received no response. So, they devised a plan to take their own hostages. The first part of the plan was to lure the Inuit close enough to the Gabriel to grab one of them.

The “subtle traitors” were by then wary and knew the danger of veering too close to the English ship. However, Captain Hall knew how much the Inuit liked the English toys, especially the bells, so he rang “a pretty cow bell,” and made signs to the natives that he would give them the bell if they came closer. The Indians continued to stay back, so he threw the bell towards them, “which of purpose he threw short,” as if he could not reach them. “To make them more greedy,” he rang a louder bell until “one of the natives paddled near the ship in his kayak to receive the bell.” As the Inuit reached out to take the bell from the captain’s hand, the Gabriel’s crew “plucked” him from the sea, “barke” and all, for they were virtually stuck together.

The English sat back for the day, hoping the natives would respond to the hostage plan. Again, there was no response. The captain “could not hear or know anything of [his men] and thereby he judged they were taken and kept by force.”

Frobisher and Hall knew they could wait no longer. If they did not leave the Arctic soon, they would be trapped by the ice before reaching England. Only thirteen crew remained and many were sick, probably suffering from scurvy, as there was a shortage of food. Frobisher consoled himself knowing he carried the “sufficient witness” [the Inuit and his kayak] he needed as proof of his “tedious travels towards the unknown parts of the world.” It was just as Henry the Navigator had demanded from his captains. The ship departed, carrying the “strange infidel, whose like was never seen, read, nor heard of before, and whose language was neither known nor understood of any.”

The Gabriel arrived in Harwich the 2nd of October, 1576. She then proceeded to London, where the Inuit was presented to court. Elizabeth was delighted and commended Frobisher highly. But the Inuit man, who had survived the voyage in spite of biting his tongue in “twain within his mouth” during his capture, died shortly after arrival from “colde he had taken at sea.”

Inuit oral history claims a different tale. Their story, which their people passed through some twelve generations, stated that five English sailors were marooned on Baffin Island, and the Inuit cared for them. Possibly the English had been tired of cranky old Admiral Frobisher and wanted to escape. Maybe they saw some beautiful Inuit women and planned to return a few days later. We will get back to this version later.

When Admiral Frobisher presented the Inuit man to Queen Elizabeth and to other investors, he also laid out the flowers, grass, furs, and other trinkets his men had collected ‘as specimens of Canada.’ With the items was ‘the black stone of no account’ that Captain Hall had picked up because of ‘its singular dark color.’ Legend claims that the rock fell into the hands of one of the sailor’s wives, whereupon she tossed it in the fire. A few minutes later, a trickle of molten gold dribbled to the stone beneath. [Another account states that after she heated it, she poured vinegar on it and “it glistened with a bright marqueset [fabric] of gold.”]

The black rock was immediately sent to an assayer of metals in London who, in an act of monumental deception or ignorance, incorrectly declared it to be high grade gold ore. The false revelation will launch a gold rush upon the shores of Arctic Canada that lasted two summers, when a true assessment of the culprit was finally revealed. The mistake will also account for the first attempts by the English to plant a colony in the New World.

Continue to: 1577 Martin Frobisher’s Second Expedition

Notes

  1. Another account by ‘Stow’ stated they set out from Harwich on 18 June and arrived at a strait at 63 degrees [north latitude] on 9 August
  2. A light, watertight, skin-covered boat with a covered deck the natives used to paddle around the Arctic shores.

Sources

  1. The UK-based arm of the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s Meta Incognito Project, called the Archival Research Task Force [ARTF].
  2. A subsequent book titled Martin Frobisher, Elizabethan Privateer, by James McDermott. McDermott, James. Martin Frobisher, Elizabethan Privateer, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001.
  3. “Memoirs of Sir Martin Frobisher, Knight, 1536-1594,” NEHGS Register Vol 3. No. 1. Pages 9-22, Jan. 1849.