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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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The Fabled Northwest Passage

When John Cabot ventured into the North Atlantic in the Matthew in 1497, his goal had nothing to do with fish, even though his discovery of the waters of riches was unquestionably the most dramatic result of that voyage. Cabot (like Columbus before him) hoped to prove that a direct sea route existed between Europe and Asia. He did not know that a continental landmass entirely unknown to Europeans blocked his way. As Europeans became aware that a "New World" existed across the Atlantic, many found ways to profit by the discovery through the fishery or by the fur trade. Others, however, remained determined to find a sea route to Asia. This belief led to the search for the fabled Northwest Passage, a search that persisted for centuries.

Such a search was only possible because several factors came together in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. These factors included the development of sturdy new ships that were capable of long-distance oceanic voyages, and the willingness and ability of merchants to risk some of their capital against the new commercial opportunities that a sea route to Asia would provide. Also, there was a growing confidence among mariners that they would survive oceanic voyages, thanks in part to the development of new navigational instruments and the accumulation of oceanic experience. Each exploration added to that experience and knowledge. Thus, the earliest voyages of Cabot, Corte Real, and others established for Europeans the existence of North America, while those of the next generation, such as Giovanni da Verrazano and Jacques Cartier in the 1520s, 1530s and 1540s, made clear that a sea route through North America did not exist. This left explorers searching for a northern passage around North America  --  the only other possibility was a sea route around the southern tip of the New World, and this would remain Spain's jealously guarded secret for several decades after being discovered by Magellan in 1520.

Image: Title pages of some accounts of voyages that searched for the Northwest Passage

The most persistent efforts to discover a Northwest Passage were made by the English. The first significant expeditions were those of Martin Frobisher and John Davis in the 1570s and 1580s; then came renewed efforts in the 1610s and 1620s, including the ill-fated voyage of Henry Hudson as well as expeditions by Thomas Button, William Gibbons, Robert Bylot and William Baffin. These voyages succeeded only in proving that the Arctic was a forbidding and inhospitable place for Europeans, and that if a Northwest Passage did exist, it was unlikely to be a commercial success. By then, the Portuguese, Dutch, English and others had all come to the conclusion that the only practical route to Asia lay to the south, around Africa and across the Indian Ocean. Interest in a commercial Northwest Passage between Europe and Asia faded, although it resurfaced well into the 18th century. By the time the search to find the elusive Passage was revived with renewed vigour in the nineteenth century, the effort was driven more by scientific curiosity than by commercial ambition.

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