Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

Frobisher and the Northwest Passage

Hardly had it been learned that Columbus was mistaken in his belief, and that the shores he had discovered were not those of India and Cathay, when vigorous efforts began to find some easy route to the rich lands of the Orient. Balboa, in 1513, crossed the continent at its narrow neck, and gazed, with astounded eyes, upon the mighty ocean that lay beyond,—the world's greatest sea. Magellan, in 1520, sailed round the continent at its southern extremity, and turned his daring prows into that world of waters of seemingly illimitable width. But the route thus laid out was far too long for the feeble commerce of that early day, and various efforts were made to pass the line of the continent at some northern point. The great rivers of North America, the James, the Hudson, and others, were explored in the eager hope that they might prove to be liquid canals between the two great seas. But a more promising hope was that which hinted that America might be circumnavigated at the north as well as at the south, and the Pacific be reached by way of the icy channel of the northern seas.

This hope, born so long ago, has but died out in our own days. Much of the most thrilling literature of adventure of the nineteenth century comes from the persistent efforts to traverse these perilous Arctic ocean wastes. Let us go back to the oldest of the daring navigators of this frozen sea, the worthy knight Sir Martin Frobisher, and tell the story of his notable efforts to discover a Northwest Passage, "the only thing left undone," as he quaintly says, "whereby a notable mind might become famous and fortunate."

As an interesting preface to our story we may quote from that curious old tome, "Purchas his Pilgrimage," the following quaintly imaginative passage,—

"How shall I admire your valor and courage, yee Marine Worthies, beyond all names of worthinesse; that neither dread so long either presense nor absence of the Sunne, nor those foggie mists, tempestuous windes, cold blasts, snowes and haile in the aire; nor the unequal Seas, where the Tritons and Neptune's selfe would quake with chilling feare to behold such monstrous Icie Islands, mustering themselves in those watery plaines, where they hold a continuall civill warre, rushing one upon another, making windes and waves give back; nor the rigid, ragged face of the broken landes, sometimes towering themselves to a loftie height, to see if they can finde refuge from those snowes and colds that continually beat them, sometimes hiding themselves under some hollow hills or cliffes, sometimes sinking and shrinking into valleys, looking pale with snowes and falling in frozen and dead swounes: sometimes breaking their neckes into the sea, rather embracing the waters' than the aires' crueltie," and so on with the like labored fancies. "Great God," he concludes, "to whom all names of greatnesse are little, and lesse than nothing, let me in silence admire thy greatnesse, that in this little heart of man (not able to serve a Kite for a break-fast) hast placed such greatness of spirit as the world is too little to fill."

Thus in long-winded meed of praise writes Master Samuel Purchas. Of those bold mariners of whom he speaks our worthy knight, Sir Martin, is one of the first and far from the least.

An effort had been made to discover a northwest passage to the Pacific as early as 1527, and another nine years later; but these were feeble attempts, which ended in failure and disaster, and discovered nothing worthy of record. It was in 1576 that Frobisher, one of the most renowned navigators of his day, put into effect the project he had cherished from his youth upward, and for which he had sought aid during fifteen weary years, that of endeavoring to solve the ice-locked secret of the Arctic seas.

The fleet with which this daring adventure was undertaken was a strangely insignificant one, consisting of three vessels which were even less in size than those with which Columbus had ventured on his great voyage. Two of these were but of twenty tons burden each, and the third only of ten, while the aggregate crews numbered but thirty-five men. With this tiny squadron, less in size than a trio of fishing-smacks, the daring adventurer set out to traverse the northern seas and face the waves of the great Pacific, if fortune should open to him its gates.

On the 11th of July, 1576, the southern extremity of Greenland was sighted. It presented a more icy aspect than that which the Norsemen had seen nearly six centuries before. Sailing thence westward, the land of the continent came into view, and for the first time by modern Europeans was seen that strange race, now so well known under the name of Eskimo. The characteristics of this people, and the conditions of their life, are plainly described. The captain "went on shore, and was encountered with mightie Deere, which ranne at him, with danger of his life. Here he had sight of the Savages, which rowed to his Shippe in Boates of Seales Skinnes, with a Keele of wood within them. They eate raw Flesh and Fish, or rather devoured the same: they had long black hayre, broad faces, flat noses, tawnie of color, or like an Olive."

His first voyage went not beyond this point. He returned home, having lost five of his men, who were carried off by the natives. But he brought with him that which was sure to pave the way to future voyages. This was a piece of glittering stone, which the ignorant goldsmiths of London confidently declared to be ore of gold.

Frobisher's first voyage had been delayed by the great difficulty in obtaining aid. For his new project assistance was freely offered, Queen Elizabeth herself, moved by hope of treasure, coming to his help with a hundred and eighty-ton craft, the "Ayde," to which two smaller vessels were added. These being provisioned and manned, the bold navigator, with "a merrie wind" in his sails, set out again for the desolate north.

His first discovery here was of the strait now known by his name, up which he passed in a boat, with the mistaken notion in his mind that the land bounding the strait to the south was America, and that to the north was Asia. The natives proved friendly, but Frobisher soon succeeded in making them hostile. He seized some of them and attempted to drag them to his boat, "that he might conciliate them by presents." The Eskimos, however, did not approve of this forcible method of conciliation, and the unwise knight reached the boat alone, with an arrow in his leg.

But, to their great joy, the mariners found plenty of the shining yellow stones, and stowed abundance of them on their ships, deeming, like certain Virginian gold-seekers of a later date, that their fortunes were now surely made. They found also "a great dead fish, round like a porepis [porpoise], twelve feet long, having a Horne of two yardes, lacking two ynches, growing out of the Snout, wreathed and straight, like a Waxe-Taper, and might be thought to be a Sea-Unicorne. It was reserved as a Jewell by the Queens' commandment in her Wardrobe of Robes."

A northwest wind having cleared the strait of ice, the navigators sailed gayly forward, full of the belief that the Pacific would soon open to their eyes. It was not long before they were in battle with the Eskimos. They had found European articles in some native kyacks, which they supposed belonged to the men they had lost the year before. To rescue or revenge these unfortunates, Frobisher attacked the natives, who valiantly resisted, even plucking the arrows from their bodies to use as missiles, and, when mortally hurt, flinging themselves from the rocks into the sea. At length they gave ground, and fled to the loftier cliffs, leaving two of their women as trophies to the assailants. These two, one "being olde," says the record, "the other encombred with a yong childe, we took. The olde wretch, whom divers of our Saylors supposed to be eyther the Divell, or a witch, had her buskins plucked off, to see if she were cloven-footed; and for her ougly hewe and deformitie, we let her goe; the young woman and the childe we brought away."

This was not the last of their encounters with the Eskimos, who, incensed against them, made every effort to entrap them into their power. Their stratagems consisted in placing tempting pieces of meat at points near which they lay in ambush, and in pretending lameness to decoy the Englishmen into pursuit. These schemes failing, they made a furious assault upon the vessel with arrows and other missiles.

Before the strait could be fully traversed, ice had formed so thickly that further progress was stopped, and, leaving the hoped-for Cathay for future voyagers, the mariners turned their prows homeward, their vessels laden with two hundred tons of the glittering stone.

Strangely enough, an examination of this material failed to dispel the delusion. The scientists of that day declared that it was genuine gold-ore, and expressed their belief that the road to China lay through Frobisher Strait. Untold wealth, far surpassing that which the Spaniards had obtained in Mexico and Peru, seemed ready to shower into England's coffers. Frobisher was now given the proud honor of kissing the queen's hand, his neck was encircled with a chain of gold of more value than his entire two hundred tons of ore, and, with a fleet of fifteen ships, one of them of four hundred tons, he set sail again for the land of golden promise. Of the things that happened to him in this voyage, one of the most curious is thus related. "The Salamander (one of their Shippes), being under both her Courses and Bonets, happened to strike upon a great Whale, with her full Stemme, with suche a blow that the Shippe stood still, and neither stirred backward or forward. The whale thereat made a great and hideous noyse, and casting up his body and tayle, presently sank under water. Within two days they found a whale dead, which they supposed was this which the Salamander had stricken."

Other peril came to the fleet from icebergs, through the midst of which they were driven by a tempest, but they finally made their way into what is now known as Hudson Strait, up which, filled with hope that the continental limits would quickly be passed and the route to China open before them, they sailed some sixty miles. But to their disappointment they found that they were being turned southward, and, instead of crossing the continent, were descending into its heart.

Reluctantly Frobisher turned back, and, after many buffetings from the storms, managed to bring part of his fleet into Frobisher Bay. So much time had been lost that it was not safe to proceed. Winter might surprise them in those icy wilds. Therefore, shipping immense quantities of the "fools' gold" which had led them so sadly astray, they turned their prows once more homeward, reaching England's shores in early October.

Meanwhile the "ore" had been found to be absolutely worthless, the golden dreams which had roused England to exultation had faded away, and the new ship-loads they brought were esteemed to be hardly worth their weight as ballast. For this disappointment the unlucky Frobisher, who had been appointed High Admiral of all lands and waters which he might discover, could not be held to blame. It was not he that had pronounced the worthless pyrites gold, and he had but obeyed orders in bringing new cargoes of this useless rubbish to add to the weight of Albion's rock-bound shores. But he could not obtain aid for a new voyage to the icy north, England for the time had lost all interest in that unpromising region, and Frobisher was forced to employ in other directions his skill in seamanship.

With the after-career of this unsuccessful searcher for the Northwest Passage we have no concern. It will suffice to say that fortune attended his later ventures upon the seas, and that he died in 1594, from a wound which he received in a naval battle off the coast of France.

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