Thursday, July 4, 2013


Three ships -- the Ayde, the Gabriell, and the Michaell -- and a complement of 150 men, including miners, refiners, gentlemen, and soldiers set sail May 27, 1577, for Frobisher Bay to claim English possession of Arctic America and to mine and bring back what was believed to be rich deposits of gold. Queen Elizabeth had sold the 200-ton ship, the Ayde, to the Company of Cathay and contributed 1,000 pounds to the commercial venture. Appointed high admiral of all lands and waters that he might discover, Martin Frobisher had been instructed specially to "defer the further discovery of the passage [to Asia] until another time."

Sailing by the north of Scotland, the ships reached Hall’s Island at the mouth of Frobisher Bay on July 17. Immediately, a landing party climbed a high hill and erected a pillar of rocks to signify that the Arctic territory, named Meta Incognita (Of Limits Unknown), was now English land. Crew officer George Best would write: “our men made a Columne or Crosse of stones heaped vppe of a good heigth togither in good sorte, and solempnely sounded a Trumpet, and said certaine prayers, kneeling aboute the Ancient, and honoured the place by the name of Mount Warwicke.”

As the Englishmen descended the hill, Inuit men appeared beside the pillar. Waving the flag that the sailors had left, the Inuit called out, indicating their desire to trade. Two Englishmen and two Inuit conferred between the two parties, gifts were exchanged, the Inuit invited the Englishmen to visit their territory, and the Englishmen invited the Inuit to come aboard their ships. Each party decline the other’s offer, “neyther parte (as it seemes) admitted or trusted the others curtesie."

Late in the day, having climbed Mount Warwick and traded with the Inuit, Frobisher decided to capture an Inuit and use him as an interpreter. A skirmish resulted. Frobisher was wounded in the buttock by an arrow. His men seized one Inuit as others escaped and immediately took him aboard the Ayde.

Several days later, visiting an abandoned Inuit camp on the south shore of Frobisher Bay, the expedition’s leader and a contingent of soldiers found a few items of European clothing. Although this camp was more than 200 kilometers from where the five sailors had disappeared the previous summer, Frobisher assumed that the clothing had belonged to them. Following a hastily devised battle plan, they attacked a nearby settlement. Five or six Inuit were killed, three of them drowned after jumping off a cliff to avoid being captured. One Englishman was seriously wounded. An old woman and a young woman and her infant son were taken hostage. The infant had been wounded. The old woman was released after her shoes had been pulled off “to see if she were cloven footed.”

Frobisher, his soldiers, and the three hostages sailed to the north shore of Frobisher Bay, where the Company’s miners had found on a small island the black rock they believed contained gold ore. Mining operations on what they named Countess of Warwick’s Island commenced.

A party of Inuit made contact. One of them spoke to Frobisher, who, using his captive/interpreter, thought that he had been told that his five lost men were still alive and that the Inuit would take a letter to them. Frobisher wrote, in part, the following:

"I will be glad to seeke by all meanes you can deuise, for your deliuerance, eyther with force, or with any commodities within my Shippes, whiche I will not spare for your sakes, or any thing else I can doe for you. I haue aboord, of theyrs, a Man, a Woman, and a Childe, which I am contented to deliuer for you, but the man which I carried away from hence the last yeare, is dead in England. Moreouer, you may declare vnto them, that if they deliuer you not, I wyll not leaue a manne aliue in their Countrey. And thus, if one of you can come to speake with me, they shall haue eyther the Man, Woman, or Childe in pawne for you."

The letter brought no response. The Inuit made several unsuccessful attempts to capture Englishmen to make possible an exchange. They also provided food for the captured man, young woman, and infant child, all not being able to digest English food.

In late August, Frobisher’s three ships, carrying the three hostages and 200 tons of ore, set sail for England. His party arrived home to great acclaim.

A few scattered hints tell us about the lives of the three captives aboard ship and later in England. George Best wrote:

"These people are in nature verye subtil, and sharpe witted, readie to conceiue our meaning by signes, and to make answere, well to be vnderstoode againe....They will teache vs the names of eache thing in their language, which we desire to learne, and are apt to learne any thing of vs. They delight in Musicke aboue measure, and will kepe time and stroke to any tune which you shall sing, both with their voyce, heade, hande and feete, and wyll sing the same tune aptlye after you. … They are exceedingly friendly and kinde harted one to the other, & mourne greatly at the losse or harm of their fellowes, and expresse their griefe of minde, when they part one from an other, with a mournefull song. ... They wondred muche at all our things, and were afraide of our horses, and other beastes, out of measure. They beganne to growe more ciuill, familiar, pleasaunt, and docible amongst vs in a verye shorte time."

The captives were a great attraction where they landed at Bristol. Their portraits were painted several times but only one set of paintings has survived, watercolor portraits by the artist John White, who would later be the governor of the Virginia Colony. Lee Miller in Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony Roanoke wrote: “Sealskin parkas trimmed with fur; Calichoughe [the man] holding a bow; the kayak paddle. Egnock [the woman], with her little girl, Nutioc, tucked inside her coat, peering out from the hood. There is a certain sensitivity and realism in these paintings not found in others’ works.”

To the delight of spectators, the Inuit man demonstrated on the Avon River the use of his kayak and bird-spear to hunt ducks, killing two with darts. “He would hit a ducke a good distance of and not misse.”

The Inuit man died soon afterward from pneumonia aggravated by broken ribs, an injury sustained when he had been captured. He was buried November 8 in the St. Stephen’s Church in Bristol. The young woman was forced to watch his burial to prove to her that the English did not practice sacrifice or cannibalism, as the Inuit believed. The woman died the following week from a disease that caused boils to erupt all over her skin. The infant was sent to London in care of a nurse. He had been wounded in the arm by an arrow during his capture. The ship’s surgeon had applied salves, but his mother had pulled them away and had healed his arm by licking it. The child fell ill and died while being transported to London, before he could be presented to Queen Elizabeth.

Assayers gave widely differing estimates of the value of the ore. The science of assaying at that time was imperfect. Its practitioners could be deceived. The chemicals used in the assaying process might occasionally have been contaminated with small amounts of gold or silver, causing misleading results. The Company of Cathay chose to believe the most optimistic assays, and began to organize a third expedition to the Arctic that would involve starting a colony and extracting huge quantities of black rock.

The collection of Inuit as trophies and their subsequent, quick death seemed of small consequence.