1577 Martin Frobisher’s Second Expedition

In early March of 1577, Lord Treasurer Burley, Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Leicester, the Comptroller Sir James Crofts, and Secretary Francis Walsingham met at Westminster to discuss the voyage of Master Furbisher. They “energetically recommended” another voyage because “there is a great likelihood that the continuance thereof will be beneficial to the whole realm.”

Investors quickly formed a new joint stock company known as the Company of Cathay, since they still thought Frobisher had discovered the route to Asia. Queen Elizabeth was a major holder with her £1000 investment. Preparations were made to dispatch three ships on a second expedition as soon as possible. The Queen’s tall ship, the Ayde of “nine score [180] tons, would serve as Admiral, joined by the “little barks” Gabriel and Michael of 30 tons each. Captain Edward Fenton was to command the Gabriel, Captain Gilbert Yorke the Michael, and Christopher Hall the Aide. By the 26th of May, “the ships were well furnished with victuals and other provisions necessary for one-half year.” They carried 140 mariners, soldiers, gentlemen and “gold-finders.” This time, “Frobisher was honored with the privilege of kissing the Queen’s hand” upon departure.

Dionyse Settle’s account in Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages and Discoveries begins: “The new fleet departed Blackwall on Whit Sunday, the 26th of May 1577. We landed on the 7th of June at the Orcades [Orkney] Islands [archipelago at the northern tip of Scotland], where we made provision of fresh water. Frobisher licensed the gentlemen and soldiers to go on shore for recreation.

“We departed again on the 8th of June and headed straight to the small island at the northeastern entrance of Frobisher’s Strait, where the black rock had been found. [They named the island Hall’s Land after Captain Hall. Today it is Loks Land named after Michael Lok.] During the next six weeks, during which time we had no night and spent the time with books and other pleasures, we passed great islands of ice, of half a mile, some more, some less in compass [width or circumference].

“On the 4th of July, we came to land and followed the coast. There was no smell of odoriferous and fragrant smells as in other countries in more temperate zones. Instead we tasted the most boisterous Boreal(1) blasts mixed with snow and hail during June and July. All along the coast lieth ice and high mountains of snow like a continual bulwark defending the country, letting those that would land there know they might incur great danger. For three days our General tried in the ship-boat to go ashore, but it was too dangerous. Four more days and we saw no signs of habitation.

“On July 16 we came to the making of land. Between two islands there is a large entrance or strait called Frobisher’s Strait after our General, the first finder thereof.”

George Best wrote that in the early morning, of Friday, the 10th of July, Frobisher took a company of forty of his gentlemen and soldiers to the small island in two pinnaces. Leaving the boats on shore “with sufficient guard,” they hiked two miles inland and up a high hill, on the top of which they built a cairn of heaped stones crowned by a cross. The trumpeter played solemnly, while the men said a few prayers, thanking God for the company’s safe arrival. They wished a long life for the Queen in whose name they took possession of the country, and “that by our Christian endeavor, those barbarous people trained up in paganism and infidelity might be reduced to the knowledge of true religion and to the hope of salvation in Christ our Redeemer.”

Then kneeling about the ancient and honored place, which they named ‘Mount Warwick’ after Ambrose Dudley, the Earl of Warwick, they staked England’s claim on the land. This done, and “not seeing anything else worth discovering except a barren land full of ragged mountains covered, in most parts, with snow,” they began their descent from the hill to their vessels.

Part way down the slope, they heard themselves hailed by some Inuit, who were on top of the hill. The natives waved a flag and tried to “waft them back again” with a “great noise.” Their cries sounded like “the mowing of bulls.” The natives implied they wanted a conference with the Englishmen. The General, being “better acquainted,” since he’d dealt with the Inuit on the previous voyage, answered them back with like cries. When the English sounded trumpets, the Inuit “seemed to rejoice, skipping, laughing and dancing for joy.”

The English and Inuit held their conference. Two Englishmen sat with two Inuits some space [distance] from the company, “neither party having their weapons about them.” The English gave the Inuits “pins, points and such trifles, that they had” while the Inuits offered two bow cases “and such things as they had.”

Best continued: “They earnestly desired our men to go up into their country, and our men offered them like kindness aboard our ships, but neither party, as it seems, admitted or trusted the other’s courtesy.”

Frobisher perpetuated the distrust between the English and the Inuit when he decided to capture a couple of natives to “serve as interpreters.” As he and his men grabbed their victims, the Inuit turned on the English to defend their tribesmen. They landed an arrow in Frobisher’s buttock before the English got away.

Best wrote: “…so being stayed [tied up], [one man] was taken alive and brought away, but the other escaped. Thus with their strange and new prey, our men returned to [the two pinnaces] and passed from the maine[land] to a small island of a mile compass [diameter], where they resolved to tarry all night, for even now a sudden storm was grown so great at sea that by no means could they recover their ships.”

By that time, Frobisher had scanned Hall’s Land, the island, and noted the locations of deposits of the shiny black rock.

Settle wrote: “The stones of this supposed continent with America be altogether sparkled, and glistened in the sun like gold. So likewise doth the sand in the bright water, yet they verify the old proverb: all is not gold that glistens.”

Settle described the men finding a ‘sea unicorn’ [narwhal]:

“On the west shore we found a dead fish floating that had in his nose a horn straight and torque [twisted] two yards long except for two inches broken off the tip, which we perceived was hollow. [Thinking the fish to be a unicorn, and that it had mystical powers] our sailors put spiders into the horn [to see if they would die] and presently they [did]. … By virtue [of the test] we supposed it to be the sea unicorn.” Someone drew this sketch.

A real narwhal horn on display in the Historical Museum, Cuimbra, Portugal.

A few days later, the party coasted the west shore in the Michael until they found a “fair harbour” with a tiny village consisting of two Inuit seal-skin tents. Thinking this might be where his five men from the previous trip were being held captive, Frobisher went ashore. The Inuit saw them coming and fled to the hills. The English searched the tents, left “trifles” such as “glasses, bells, knives, and such things,” and, assuming that was payment enough, took one of the Inuit’s dogs.

The Inuits returned and were not satisfied with the payment. Nor were they happy that the English had ransacked their tents. They attacked the English with “all their might until their lives and weapons failed them.” The wounded “leapt off the rocks into the sea, rather than they would fall into the hands of the English.”

The rest fled except two women who lagged behind: one, because she was old, and the other, who was young, because she had a child strapped to her back and could not run fast enough. At first the English thought the young woman was a man and shot at her, wounding the child in the arm. The English soon learned their mistake. The old woman was so strange looking that, “divers of our sailors supposed [her] to be either a devil or a witch.” They pulled off her buskins [boots] to see if she had cloven feet. Of course she did not, but they found her so “ugly and deformed” that they let her go. The young woman and her child, they kept. They tried to dress the child’s wounded arm with bandages and salves, but the young woman, not trusting their methods, tore off the bandage and “with her own tongue, not much unlike our dogs, healed up” the wound. The English named the place where the skirmish occurred ‘Bloody Point.’

The English were by then angry and confused. They returned to the Inuit village and “made a spoil” of their tents. While doing so, they discovered “an old shirt, a doublet, a girdle and also shoes of our men, whom we lost the year before.” From this, Frobisher believed his men had perished.

Dionyse Settle included in his narration a detailed description of the Inuit. They usually ate fish and fowl raw, since they had no wood to burn for cooking. On the rare occasions they did cook, they burned animal droppings for fuel and boiled the meat in its own blood. There was little water to drink. But they ate the frozen ice “as happily as if it were sugar candy.”

The Englishman found it odd that the Indians had no furniture; “not a table or a stool,” wrote Settle, “or any niceties like table clothes.” He was appalled at their manners, recording that when the Inuits did find grass to eat, “they grabbed it with their hands and shoved it into their mouths like brute beasts.”

The Inuit did without salt, oil, or washing, and used their tongues to clean their utensils and themselves after eating. “Upon their legs,” wrote Settle, “they wear hose [stockings] of leather, with the fur side inward, two or three pair at once, especially the women. In their hose they inserted their knives, needles, and other things needful to carry about.

“They dress their skins [hides] very soft and supple with the hair on. In cold weather or winter they wear the fur side inward; and in summer outward. Other apparel they have none.

“Their houses are tents made of seal skins, pitched up with the four quarters foursquare meeting at the top, and the skins sewed together with sinews, and laid thereupon. They are pitched [angled] so that the entrance into them is always south or against the sun.

“Their darts are made of two sorts: the one with many forks of bones in the fore-end and likewise in the midst. Their proportions are not much unlike our toasting irons but longer. These they cast out of an instrument of wood, very readily. The other sort is greater than the first aforesaid, with a long bone made sharp on both sides like a rapier, which I take to be their most hurtful weapon.

“They have two sorts of boats made of leather, set out on the inner side with quarters of wood, artificially tied together with thongs of the same. The other boat is but for one man to sit and row in with one oar [kayak].

“What knowledge they have of God, or what idol they adore, we have no perfect intelligence. I think them devourers of man for that there is no flesh or fish which they find dead but they will eat it, as they find it without any other dressing.”

Settle also described the terrain:

“The countries on both sides of the straits lie very high with rough stony mountains, and great quantity of snow thereon. There is very little plain ground and no grass, except a little which is much like unto moss that groweth on soft ground, such as we get turfs in. There is no wood at all. To be brief, there is nothing fit or profitable for the use of man, which that country yieldeth or bringeth forth. Howbeit [However] there is great quantity of deer [probably moose], whose skins are like unto asses, their heads or horns do far exceed, as well in length as also in breadth, any in our country. [The deer] feet likewise are as great as our oxen’s, which we measured to be seven or eight inches in breadth. There are also hares, wolves, fishing bears, and sea fowl of sundry sorts.”

Sailing to the north shore, the explorers anchored near a small island today known as Kodlunarn, which means White Men’s Land. They named it Countess of Warwick’s Island after Lady Ann, their patron Ambrose Dudley’s wife. After unpacking their metal plates, chisels, pick and hammers, [a tool with a pick at one end and a hammer at the other], plugs and wedges [used to split stone], they began to mine. Mining the hard stone was particularly difficult because their tools were not sufficient. The picks needed sharpening after every hour of use. The closest technique they had to mining with explosives, was to heat a rock surface with fire and then pour cold water onto it to make it shatter. That method was more affective with brittle rocks, however, not the more flexible black ore of Baffin Island.

While the miners worked, a group of Inuit approached Frobisher and communicated that his five men were still alive. Not knowing if he should believe them, Frobisher wrote the following letter and sent it with the natives:

“In the name of God, in whom we all believe, who I trust hath preserved your bodies and souls amongst these infidels, I commend me unto you. I will be glad to seek by all means you can devise for your deliverance, either with force, or with any commodities within my ships, which I will not spare for your sakes, or anything else I can do for you. I have aboard a man, woman, and child, which I am contented to deliver for you, but the man that I carried way from here last year is dead in England. Moreover, you may declare unto them, that if they deliver you not, I will not leave a man alive in their country. And thus, if one of you can come to speak with me, they shall have either the man, woman, or child in pawn [trade] for you. And thus unto God, whom I trust you do serve, in haste I leave you, and to him we will daily pray for you.
This Tuesday morning the 7th of August. Anno 1577.
Yours to the uttermost of my power,
Martin Frobisher
[Postscript] I have sent you by these bearers, pen, ink, and paper to write back unto me again if personally you cannot come to certify me of your estate [condition].”

He received no response. On the 22nd of August the English returned to the port on Countess of Warwick Island to pack for home. On the 24th, with 200 tons of shiny black rock in the holds of their vessels, they made a bonfire on a high mount, fired a volley of farewell in honor of Lady Anne, and set sail for England.

Martin Frobisher was transporting the native captives in his ship. He referred to them as Kalicho, Ignorth(2), and Nutaaq – the Inuit words for man, woman and child. At first he tried to quarter them in the same cabin. But that upset them greatly, since the man and woman were from different tribes, or at the least, not married. Settle wrote that they, “displayed more shame than Christians who came far short of them” in England. The crew separated them.

The ships separated in a storm and ended up arriving to England at two separate ports. The Ayde, carrying Frobisher, “fell with the Land’s End of England and so sailed to Milford Haven” on the 17th of September. From there she sailed up the Kingsroad of the Severn Inlet before turning into the River Avon for Bristol Harbour.

Only two English had perished during the expedition: one from “God’s visitation” [sickness] and the other fell overboard on the way home “with the surge of the sea.” With what he thought was gold ore in his holds, Martin Frobisher thought he had had a successful voyage.

He presented the Inuits to the Mayor of Bristol. They caused a well attended attraction. The Inuit man carried his kayak on his back to the River Avon and paddled around displaying his skills. He demonstrated how to hunt ducks with his bird-spear. England’s foremost limmer [water color artist], John White, painted his portrait, as well as of the woman and her child. [The illustrations are housed today in the British Museum. We will meet John White again later.]

Elizabeth’s scientists and anthropologists hoped to study the Inuit of Canada to gather data for future explorations. But before leaving Bristol, Kalicho, Ignorth and Nutaaq died, all three within a month. Kalicho got pneumonia. He had been suffering from broken ribs, damaged during his capture. Ignorth died the following week. Their burials are listed in St. Steven’s Church register as November 8th and 13th, 1577. Ingorth’s infant son, Nutaag, was sent to the care of a nurse in London. But he died before he could be presented to Queen Elizabeth. He is buried in St. Olave’s Church, London.

Book plate by an unknown artist based on John White’s water colors of the Inuit Indians.(3)

Next article: 1577 Francis Drake Sails Off to Explore the Pacific


  1. Boreal refers to Arctic smell. The word comes from the Latin word for the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas, which explains why it is capitalized.
  2. Nutaaq, in some sources, is spelled Arnaq.
  3. By Anonymous in Zentralbibliothek Zürich. {{PD-Old}} Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. URL source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/


  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.