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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Martin Frobisher (c. 1539 - 1594)

A poor student but with a keen interest in navigation, Martin Frobisher learned from his maternal uncle, Sir John York, with whom he was living, that Asia was a land of boundless riches. At the age of 14, in 1553, Frobisher went to Guinea for the first time. He was lucky  --  only one quarter of the expedition returned and he was among the survivors. The following year, during a voyage to the same country, an African chief took him hostage for some months. Until 1573, Frobisher was a privateer, but brought so much back to Queen Elizabeth's treasury that his imprisonments for piracy never lasted long. Wandering the ocean, Frobisher developed dreams of finding a passage to Asia through the northwest.

Portrait: Martin Frobisher

After 15 years of perseverance, Frobisher found investors to finance his project and attracted support from the Crown. On June 7, 1576, Frobisher left Ratcliff with 35 men on two ships. The Queen saw them off at Greenwich. Going through the Shetland Islands, they set sail west, towards Greenland. At the end of July, Frobisher's ship alone reached an unknown coast and entered a bay that the explorer assumed was a strait, and which he named "Frobisher." Toward the end of August, using sign language, Frobisher bartered red meat for trinkets with some Inuit. Five sailors visited the Inuit against orders and were never seen again. A short while later, Frobisher seized an Inuk and his kayak and brought them back to England. The Inuk and his craft were marvelled at by Londoners, just as the Spaniards and French had previously marvelled at Native peoples. Sadly, the Inuk died of a cold shortly thereafter. Of prime importance to Frobisher, however, an "expert" found gold in the piece of mineral that he had brought back, allowing him to find sponsors of a second expedition.

The ship owners of the first voyage regrouped under the name "Cathay Company" to sponsor Frobisher's second voyage. Queen Elizabeth granted him a considerable sum of money and a ship, the Ayde. This time, he was asked to mine for gold and to have only one ship explore. He left, on May 31, 1577, from Harwich with three ships and some 120 men, including 30 soldiers and 11 gentlemen. Frobisher looked for the five men who had disappeared the previous year and found their bloodied clothes. Before returning to England, he captured an Inuit man, woman and child to bring with him, and a battle ensued. The Inuit's bows and arrows got the better of the English harquebuses and bows and Frobisher was wounded. The captured Inuit would all die approximately one month after arriving in England, and the approximately 200 tons of mineral (marcasite) that Frobisher brought back would not be promising enough for the investors, who were becoming ambitious and required more.

Image: Title page of Hakluyt's account of Frobisher's voyages   Image: Page from Hakluyt's account of Frobisher's voyages

"The day following, being the 19 of Julie [1577], our Captaine returned to the shippe, with good newes of great riches, which shewed it selfe in the bowels of those barren mountaines, wherwith we were all satisfied. A sudden mutation. The one part of us being almost swallowed up the night before, with cruell Neptunes force, and the rest on shoare, taking thought for their greedie paunches, how to find the way to New found land: at one moment we were all wrapt with joy, forgetting both where we were, and what we had suffered. Behold the glorie of man, to night contemning riches, and rather looking for death then otherwise: and tomorrowe devising howe to satisfie his greedie appetite with golde."

(Hakluyt 1589, 624)

The following year, Frobisher directed a fleet of 15 vessels carrying some 400 men, with the mission of setting up a colony and bringing back to England 2 000 tons of rock. Leaving on May 31, 1578, some of the fleet drifted for weeks in Hudson Strait due to ice and bad winds. One of the vessels sunk with some of the construction wood on board but the crew managed to save itself on the ice. The crew of another ship abandoned the fleet and returned to England. Frobisher managed to land with the rest in a little arm of Frobisher "Strait". He called this inlet "Countess of Warwick Sound", and from it he searched for minerals. With only coal for heating, Frobisher had a house built of stone and lime with a wooden roof, hoping to assess during a future voyage how these construction materials reacted to northern cold. Frobisher was to have left 100 men and continued mining, but lack of food, the breakage of the casks with the beer rations, and the loss of the construction wood for a house made a colony impossible.

Photograph: Reconstruction of Frobisher's cottage in Arctic

Back in England the following autumn, Frobisher continued his career in the navy while the mineral that had been brought back was analyzed. The result: it contained no gold. The Cathay Company went bankrupt.

Frobisher finally managed to get to Asia in 1585. He was vice-admiral under Sir Francis Drake who, with 25 ships, inflicted heavy losses on the Spanish fleet and the Spanish colonies in the East Indies and returned with immense booty. In 1588, he was knighted for his services in important positions against the Spanish Armada. He continued to harass Spanish ships until 1594, when he took a bullet in his side during an assault. He died a few days later in Plymouth.

Frobisher's voyages to Baffin Island were the first European attempt to mine mineral wealth from the Canadian Arctic. However, because he did not return with any maps or detailed navigational descriptions, the English could not discern where he had been. Hakluyt and his contemporaries placed Frobisher's strait on the southern tip of Greenland.

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