Friday, June 14, 2013

Enter Martin Frobisher


The exploratory voyage of Arthur Barlowe and Philip Amadas to North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1584 was not the first English expedition to the North American mainland.  Four voyages – three by Martin Frobisher, the first in 1576 -- preceded it.  England had entered the race to colonize North and South America late.  Spain had discovered great treasure in Mexico and South America.  Each year its heavily laden treasure fleets returned from Panama and the West Indies.  By the time Elizabeth became Queen of England in 1558, Spain was the most powerful nation of the world.  King Philip II wanted to expand Spain’s power.  Any colonial endeavor that Elizabeth sanctioned risked overwhelming reprisal.

English merchants and investors believed they could compete with Spain economically if they could use exclusively a shorter, quicker route to the East Indies and Asia than the route used around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.  Sailing around the tip of South America took too long and was extremely dangerous.  Spain controlled overland passage of trade goods across the Isthmus of Panama.  If the merchants could find a seafaring Englishman willing to locate a northern route to China by sailing west, well then, maybe …

Enter Martin Frobisher, mariner, adventurer, pirate, privateer.  Born around 1539 with connections to Yorkshire gentry and a well-to-do London merchant family, Frobisher could have advanced himself in Elizabethan society had he not been so ill-suited.  He was barely literate.  He was graceless, undiplomatic, and too high-spirited to have become even a successful businessman or a governmental functionary.  His career had to be made at sea, his adventurous, impulsive nature causing him early on to embrace piracy. 

Captured when he was 23, he was held hostage at the Portuguese fortress of Mina in West Africa.  Three years later the Spanish ambassador complained to Queen Elizabeth that Frobisher had plundered the rich cargo of the Andalusian ship Flying Spirit.  He escaped a lengthy jail sentence by offering his services to the Queen: first to hunt down and arrest fellow privateers and smugglers, and then to fight Irish rebels.  A year later he became a privateer.  He discussed with the Spanish ambassador a plan to assist the cause of Irish Catholics.  Probably because he had begun to be looked upon by influential merchants as a bold yet expendable leader who could be persuaded to lead a dangerous voyage of discovery, he was not punished.

He was approached by an acquaintance, Michael Lok, the director of the Muscovy Company, an English merchant consortium, to do just that, find a northwest passage to China.  Lok probably introduced Frobisher to the learned Dr. John Dee, a famous cosmographer admired by Queen Elizabeth.  Dee would contribute the scientific expertise.  Mariners such as Christopher Hall would be included to improve Frobisher’s navigational skills.  In 1576, financed by the consortium and given the Queen’s approval, Frobisher set sail June 7 in command of three small ships: his flagship the Gabriell (about 25 tons), the Michaell (about 25 tons), and a pinnace (10 tons).

The pinnace was lost in a storm.  Intimidated by the ice near Greenland, the Michaell sailed back to England, its crew declaring upon arrival that the Gabriell had been lost at sea and Frobisher drowned.  Undaunted, Frobisher sailed on, past Resolution Island, off the south-west coast of Greenland. On July 28, he sighted the coast of Labrador.  Several days later he reached Frobisher Bay, in the south-eastern section of Baffin Island.  Ice and wind had prevented him from sailing farther north.  Believing he was entering a strait, he would now travel westward, to reach, he hoped, an open sea. 

One of his officers, George Best, would write that Frobisher saw “a number of small things fleeting in the sea far off whych he supposed to be porpoises or seals or some kind of strange fish.  But coming nearer he discovered them to be men in small boates made of leather.”  The Inuit natives paddled their kayaks up to the Gabriell.  Frobisher believed they were Asian.  “The land on his right sailing westward he judged to be the continent of Asia.”

Using sign language, Frobisher and the Inuit attempted to communicate.  Frobisher came to believe that there was an Inuit on shore who was willing to pilot his ship.  Frobisher sent five men out in a boat to bring the Inuit to the Gabriell.  Disobeying Frobisher’s instruction, the men rowed out of sight around a point of land.  Minutes later, the boat reappeared, with two men – not five -- occupying it.  The ship’s crew yelled, shouted, made frantic gestures to persuade the two men to return.  The men chose to row back out of sight.

Frobisher remained with the ship at anchor all that day and next night.  Resorting to trickery to provide a way to retrieve his men, he lured an Inuit close to the ship by ringing a bell, suggesting to him that it was a gift.  Crew members seized the Inuit.  Frobisher’s attempt, thereafter, to communicate the idea of an exchange of captives failed, quite probably, he concluded, because his men were dead.

Inuit oral history tells that the men lived among the natives for several years before they attempted to leave, unsuccessfully, in a self-made boat.  Perhaps they had intended to escape temporarily, if not the cramped quarters, the strict discipline aboard the Gabriell.  Maybe they had wanted to trade individually for personal gain.  Perhaps they had wanted to avail themselves of the Inuit girls.  Fear of punishment may have kept them ashore too long. 

The weather worsening, Frobisher recognized he had to leave.  Snow had fallen on the ship’s deck.  He had only 13 fatigued and sick sailors now to operate the ship.  Several days previously Frobisher had sent a party of men ashore on a small island at the entrance to the Bay to collect items indigenous to the territory.  His purpose was to provide the Queen evidence of his voyage’s authenticity.  George Best wrote: “One of my men brought a piece of a black rock, which by the weight seemed to be some kind of metal or mineral.  This was a thing of no account in the judgement of the captain at the first sight. And yet for novelty it was kept, in respect of the place from whence it came.”

Also brought back to England was the Inuit captive, additional proof that Frobisher had reached a distant, strange land.  Finding himself a prisoner, the native “bit his tongue in twain within his mouth,” Best wrote.  “He did not die thereof, but lived until he came to Englande.”  He lived long enough, indeed, to shoot swans with arrows on Queen Elizabeth's lawn at Hampton Court, before dying of what Best called a “colde.”

Believed to be dead, Frobisher had arrived at London October 9 to a hero’s welcome.  A London assayer, Burchard Kranich, claimed that the black rock was high grade gold ore.  Frobisher's backers, led by Michael Lok, used the assessment to lobby immediately for a new voyage.