Thursday, August 1, 2013

Fool's Gold



Hoping that she had access to a source of gold equal to that of Spain in South America, Queen Elizabeth authorized a third voyage, financed by investors of the Company of Cathy, to Baffin Island.  Martin Frobisher would lead 15 ships, 300 Cornish miners, and 100 colonists to Frobisher Bay and the Countess of Warwick’s Island (Kodlunarn Island today) in Arctic North America. 

They would start a colony.  Prefabricated barracks and 18 months of provisions were to be transported. Large quantities of ore would be mined and stockpiled during the winter.  The colonists would trade commercially with the Inuit.  Their permanent presence and activity would support Elizabeth’s claim of territorial ownership.

The fleet left Plymouth May 31, 1578.  Sailing by way of the English Channel, it reached the south of Greenland, where Frobisher and a boatload of men landed briefly June 20.  Frobisher sighted the foreland of Frobisher Bay July 2. Stormy weather and dangerous ice-sea conditions forced the ships to maneuver about Hudson Strait (previously undiscovered) and the mouth of Frobisher Strait for nearly a month.  Ice sank the barque Dennis, carrying half of the colony’s lumber.  A ship returned to England.  The remaining ships rendezvoused eventually at the Countess of Warwick's Island.  Much of the expedition’s supplies had been lost or spoiled.  That included beer, considered an important food staple.  Frobisher and his officers decided not to found the colony. 

The expedition’s miners quarried and loaded more than 1,100 tons of rock from several hastily opened mines, two of them on the Countess of Warwick's Island, where Frobisher’s headquarters, assayer shops, and tool repair huts were located.

Groups of Inuit appeared distantly, wary of the English but curious about the mining activity. This time Frobisher was unable to seize and transport a human curiosity for his countrymen’s and Queen’s entertainment.

Officer George Best wrote about the voyagers’ preparations for leaving.

"We buryed the timber of our pretended forte, with manye barrels of meale, pease, griste, and sundrie other good things, which was of the prouision of those whych should inhabit, if occasion serued....Also here we sowed pease, corne, and other graine, to proue the fruitfulnesse of the soyle against the next yeare."

A small stone house was built at the summit of the Countess of Warwick’s Island as an experiment to see how English buildings survived Arctic winters and to encourage the Inuit to engage in future, peaceful trade.  Hung for the house’s walls were mirrors, bells, whistles, toy figures, and other items of human interest.  Bread was baked for the Inuit to taste.

All ships but the Emanuel -- wrecked on the west coast of Ireland – returned to England, the first week of October.  The precious ore was taken to a specially constructed smelting plant at Powder Mill Lane in Dartford, where assayers declared it to be fool’s gold – iron pyrite.  

Much of the previous assays of the ore had been conducted by two men: Baptista Agnello, a Venetian, and Burchard Kranich, a German mining expert.  Both men had cheated, perhaps to ensure future employment.  Kranich died before Frobisher’s return.  Agnello confessed that he had placed real gold into the smelting furnace to “coax nature.”  Kranich had added several gold coins.  Much of the Arctic ore would be used later to repair roads in the county of Kent. 

Many of the expedition’s investors went bankrupt.  A promoter was jailed.  His reputation ruined, Frobisher returned to piracy.  Subordinate to Francis Drake, he raided Spanish settlements in the Caribbean.  Eventually, he gave Queen Elizabeth 60,000 pounds worth of gold to attempt to win back her favor.

The Inuit valued the furnishings of the cottage, the remains of other buildings, and what the English had buried. A blacksmith's anvil was used for generations as the object of a weightlifting contest.  Metal objects, ceramics, stove tiles, roofing tiles, and wood were widely traded.  English oak meant to be used to house the planned colony had been buried in one of the mines on the Countess of Warwick's Island.  Seven years later, more than 200 kilometers further north along the Baffin Island coast, the English explorer John Davis found an Inuit sled built partially from sawed boards of English oak.  English materials continue to be discovered in Inuit archaeological sites.
For three centuries the Inuit preserved information about Frobisher's expeditions.  In 1861 the American journalist Charles Francis Hall traveled to the Arctic aboard a whaling ship to learn the fate of the Sir John Franklin Expedition, which had disappeared in the Central Arctic during the 1840s. Baffin Island Inuit told Hall about Kodlunarn (White Men's) Island, where local Inuit were still collecting fragments of red tile left by a party of white men long ago.  Hall connected these findings with the Frobisher voyages.  Taken to the island by Inuit guides, he found the two large mining trenches, the remains of the stone cottage at the summit of the island, and a scattering of other material.

Martin Frobisher’s voyages were a prelude to Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s disastrous attempt to found a colony in Maine and Sir Walter Raleigh’s ambitious attempts immediately thereafter in North Carolina.  Next month: Humphrey Gilbert’s hubris and demise.