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M. B. Synge

Martin Frobisher Searches for a North‑West Passage

S O far the expeditions of Willoughby, Chancellor, and Jenkinson had all failed to reach the Far East. The Spanish had a way thither by Magellan's Strait, the Portuguese by the Cape of Good Hope. England in the middle of the sixteenth century had no way. What about a North-West Passage leading round Labrador from the Atlantic to the Pacific? England was waking up to possibilities of future exploration. She was also ready and anxious to annoy Spain for having monopolised the riches and wealth of the New World. And so it was that Queen Elizabeth turned with interest to the suggestions of one of her subjects—Martin Frobisher—"a mariner of great experience and ability," when he enthusiastically consulted her on the navigation of the North-West Passage. For the last fifteen years he had been trying to collect ships and men for the enterprise. "It is the only thing in the world left undone whereby a notable mind might be made famous and fortunate," he affirmed.

But it was not till the year 1576 that he got a chance of fitting out two small ships—two very small ships—the Gabriel  of twenty tons, the Michael  of twenty-five tons, to explore the icy regions of the north. A wave of the Queen's hand gladdened his heart as he sailed past the palace of Greenwich, where the Court resided, and he was soon sailing northward harassed and battered by many storms. His little ten-ton pinnace was lost, and the same storm that overtook the little fleet to the north of Scotland so terrified the captain of the Michael  that he deserted and turned home with the news that Frobisher had perished with all hands.

Meanwhile Frobisher, resolute in his undertaking, was nearing the coast of Greenland—alone in the little Gabriel  with a mere handful of men all inexperienced in the art of navigating the Polar seas.

"And now there came both mist and snow,

And it grew wondrous cold "

as Frobisher sailed his storm-beaten ship across the wintry seas. But "I will sacrifice my life to God rather than return home without discovering a north-west passage to Cathay," he told his eighteen men with sublime courage. Passing Cape Farewell, he sailed north-west with the Greenland current, which brought him to the icebound shores near Hudson's Bay. He did not see the straits afterwards discovered by Hudson, but, finding an inlet farther north, he sailed some hundred miles, in the firm belief that this was the passage for which he was searching, that America lay on his left and Asia on his right. Magellan had discovered straits in the extreme south; Frobisher made sure that he had found corresponding straits to the extreme north, and Frobisher's Straits they were accordingly named, and as such they appeared on the maps of the day till they had to be renamed Lumley's Inlet. The snow and ice made further navigation impossible for this year, and full of their great news they returned home accompanied by an Eskimo. These natives had been taken for porpoises by our English explorers, but later they were reported to be "strange infidels whose like was never seen, read, or heard of before."

Martin Frobisher was received with enthusiasm and "highly commended of all men for his great and notable attempt, but specially famous for the great hope he brought of the passage to Cathay." Besides the Eskimo the explorers carried home a black stone, which, when thrown on the fire by one of the sailor's wives, glittered like gold. The gold refiners of London were hastily called in, and they reported that it contained a quantity of gold.


Greenlanders as seen by Martin Frobisher.

A new incentive was now given to Polar exploration. The Queen herself contributed a tall ship of some two hundred tons to the new expedition that was eagerly fitted out, and the High Admiral of all seas and waters, countries, lands, and isles, as Frobisher was now called, sailed away again for the icy north, more to search for gold than to discover the North-West Passage. He added nothing more to the knowledge of the world, and though he sailed through the strait afterwards known as Hudson's he never realised his discovery. His work was hampered by the quest for gold, for which England was eagerly clamouring, and he disappears from our history of discovery.

The triumphant return of Francis Drake in 1580 laden with treasure from the Spice Islands put into the shade all schemes for a north-west passage for the moment.

Nevertheless, this voyage of Martin Frobisher is important in the history of exploration. It was the first attempt of an Englishman to make search amid the ice of the Arctic regions—a search in which so many were yet to lay down their lives.