1578 Martin Frobisher’s Third Voyage

Though he was unable to rescue the English crew he had left behind on the first trip, Admiral Frobisher thought his second voyage went smoothly. Elizabeth and her court were pleased with him. They named the place where the black rock was found and mined ‘Meta Incognita,’ which literally meant ‘After’ or ‘Beyond the Unknown’ [sometimes translated ‘Unknown Goal’]. The royal court resolved to build a colony there, with Frobisher serving as colony general and admiral. Preparations for dispatching ships commenced immediately. The Company of Cathay had no trouble finding investors.

However, the verdict was still out on the assessment of the ore. An article in the New England Historic and Genealogical Register(1) described the situation this way:

“The 200 tons of ore was put in safe keeping in the queen’s storehouse on Tower Hill. Extensive works were erected for assaying and refining, and the most able assayers were employed in them. For some time very extravagant reports were [spread] abroad concerning the richness of the ore, and the great percent [of gold] it yielded. … The truth appears to be that those concerned, on finding themselves in possession of a great quantity of dirt and stones of no value whatever, to avoid immediate and popular obloquy [disgrace and public abuse], kept up the [pretense] for a time that the rubbish was actually producing gold.”

Frobisher will not learn that the rocks were merely iron pyrite and, therefore, dross [worthless], until he returns from his third trip.

Mapmaker Gerard Mercator was equally convinced that Frobisher had found the great entrance to the Mar del Sur. He wrote to the Admiral and advised him to return to the straight, build a fort, and wait for the weather to calm. “You can finish sailing through the waterway the following spring.”

The new fleet consisted of fifteen ships that would carry one hundred and forty-three men. It was the largest Arctic expedition ever mounted. Several ships were to carry the makings of a fort plus everything necessary to supply a hundred men during a frigid winter. While waiting for warm weather to open the strait, the men were to mine for gold. Three ships would stay with the Mega Incognita colony for their use after the others returned to England with the gold ore.

The ships gathered at Harwich Harbour on England’s southeastern shore by the Stour River(3). All fifteen captains [Fenton, Yorke, Best, Carew, Filpot, and others from earlier voyages] were allowed to kiss Queen Elizabeth’s hand before they departed on the 30th of May, 1578. Admiral Frobisher did not know that one of his ships carried a Spanish spy named Bernardino de Mendoza, whose record helps tell the story today.

This trip was not blessed with the luck of the second. Horrible weather tormented their passage. During one gale that scattered the ships, the vessel carrying most of the fort was “crushed by mountains of ice and sunk immediately.” Luckily the passengers and crew were rescued. The mariners were so fearful of being annihilated by the icebergs, they tied mattresses, furniture, and boards from the remaining pieces of the fortress to the outsides of their boats to serve as fenders. The dispersed fleet spent a month wandering about the Hudson Strait. One ship deserted for England. The remaining fleet re-gathered in spite of fog, mist, and snow. They would have fled for home, had not Frobisher remained insistent they were on the right course.

Finally, on July 1, the expedition sighted Resolution Island. By the time they reached the Countess of Warwick’s Island, they had lost so much of the fort, they could no longer build it. They erected temporary tents and spent the summer digging in several mines for gold. Two of the mines were on Countess of Warwick Island, where Frobisher set up his headquarters, a shop for the assayers, and a smithy [blacksmith workshop]. By the end of August, the miners had quarried and loaded more than 1,100 tons of black ore. Frobisher wanted to capture more Inuit hostages, but they kept a safe distance.

Not knowing that the ore was worthless, Frobisher ordered his men to prepare for a fourth expedition. They buried the remainders of the pre-fabricated fort along with, “barrels of meal, peas, grist, and sundry other good things” to serve the next inhabitants. They sowed peas, corn, and other grain “to prove the fruitfulness of the soil against the year.” And they built a small cottage of lime and stone on the summit of Countess Warwick’s Island to test if, over the next year, “the snow would overwhelm it, the frosts break it up, or the people dismember” it.

On the inner walls of the stone cottage, they hung “pictures of English men and women, horseback riders, looking-glasses, whistles, and pipes.” They wanted to show the “brutish and uncivil” Inuit what English civilization looked like. They even left baked bread in the oven, hoping the homey atmosphere would encourage the Inuit to be more welcome to future English traders.

Once everything was complete, the English held a service of prayer, boarded their ships and left for home. But they soon ran into a horrible tempest. They lost one ship off the coast of Ireland and by the time the rest of the fleet reached their respective ports back home, forty men had died. Frobisher’s new cargo of ore was unloaded from the ships in London. Only then did he learn the devastating news that it was worthless. All his efforts had been for naught. Every adventurer lost his investment

Admiral Martin Frobisher had had enough. Commanding seamen to sail through ice-filled polar seas for three missions only to find he had failed, took its toll. His mariners had had enough of him, too. He had driven them so hard, they labeled him a slave driver and refused to work on any of his ships. Frobisher was only forty-two years old when he stepped out of the race to find the Northwest Passage.

He will live another sixteen years. For the next seven years [from 1578-1585] he left little evidence of himself except for some pirating. During that time, he learned that his rival Francis Drake completed an around-the-world trip. In 1585, Frobisher helped Queen Elizabeth in the Netherlands fighting the “cruel, oppressive” Spanish. In 1586, he served as Vice-Admiral of the Primrose, in the fleet commanded by Sir Francis Drake that Elizabeth sent to crush the Spanish Dominions of St. Jago, Cartagena, St. Domingo, and St. Augustine. They returned ten months later with 200 brass guns, 40 iron cannon together with other spoils worth £60,000. [The same fleet dropped by Walter Ralegh’s colony in Roanoke Island on its way home, at which time they donated the ships on which the first set of colonists sailed back to England – story coming up.]

In 1588, when the English clashed with the Spanish Armada, Martin Frobisher’s skills served to be very useful. He was one of three commanders who, “in the most undaunted manner” first attacked King Philip’s Invincible Armada. The battle lasted from May through August. Only 33 out of 134 Spanish ships [91 of them galleons] returned to their home ports. Upwards of 13,500 Spanish men “perished by famine or were swallowed up by shipwreck.”

Lord Howard, the commander of the English Navy, knighted Frobisher on board his own ship. Howard said Frobisher was a man “whom the world doth judge of the greatest experience that this realm hath.” At the same time, Howard knighted John Hawkins. Very few others were knighted for that event.

In 1590, Martin Frobisher sailed in a fruitless treasure hunt off the coast of Spain. In 1592, he was sent, as we will learn in Walter Ralegh’s story, to take over Ralegh’s fleet, when Elizabeth would not let Ralegh leave her side. The fleet captured the Madre de Dios, the biggest heist, ever.

Martin Frobisher never returned to Baffin Island. In 1594, he went with Sir John Norris to fight at Fort Crozon in Brittany, France. He was wounded with a small shot in the hip. He managed to bring the fleet back to Plymouth before he died from the effects of his wound. His body was emboweled – customary in those days – and sent to London for internment. Today there is a plaque, but no statues or other monuments.

Not knowing he had come within a short distance of discovering what would later become Hudson’s Bay, Frobisher left the search of the Northwest Passage to his associate Humphrey Gilbert. But, curiously, none of his contemporary successors will know the precise location of Meta Incognita, Countess of Warwick’s Island. The location was lost for three centuries until, in 1861, an Inuit showed an American journalist Charles Francis Hall the whereabouts and remains of the English mines on ‘White Men’s Island’ [Kodlunarn].

Epilogue from the Oral History of the Inuit

As soon as the English departed from Meta Incognita, the Inuit looted the cache of building materials and the stone house. Seven years later, explorer John Davis visited the area and found an Inuit driving a sled made of English oak. The oak was from the fort. The Inuit kept other ‘useless, but curious trinkets’ that the English left behind for four centuries. Their private collections still exist today. For generations, the blacksmith’s anvil was used in weightlifting contests.

Next article: Humphrey Gilbert’s First Trial


  1. “Memoirs of Sir Martin Frobisher, Knight, 1536-1594,” NEHGS Register Vol 3. No. 1. Pages 9-22, Jan. 1849.
  2. Harwich is at the mouth of the bay created by the confluence of the River Stour and the River Orwell.


  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.
  4. Holinshed, Raphael. Harrison, William. Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. A collaborative work with printer Reginald Wolfe, William Harrison, Raphael Holinshed, Richard Stanyhurst, Edmund Campion and John Hooker, published in two volumes, two editions: London, 1577 and 1587.